Week before last they moved my office – while I was off doing tours of the Farnsworth House (1946-51, Mies van der Rohe) and the Ford House in Aurora (1947-50, Bruce Goff). The tours considered the vast artistic difference between two mid-century icons built at the exact same time, both with free plans and framed in steel, but one an orthogonal exercise in classical purism of steel, glass, travertine and primavera wood, the other an exuberant disk, a romantic fantasy of coal, glass cullets, rope and cypress that, according to its longtime owner, can actually prevent depression.
In concert with two days of visiting steel houses with glass walls, my new office has two walls of windows and I have been moving at home too so I unpack a box at work and carry it home on the train for re-use. Our winter of discontent has been also a winter of boxes, which makes one realize how little is actually needed for the everyday, since I have many things that have been sitting in boxes in the basement of the new house (new being 1897) since November and for the most part they are not missed.
At the same time, one has to wonder at the audacity of Mies, who initially refused to include closets or dress-height wardrobes in Dr. Edith Farnsworth’s house, the excuse being it was a vacation home but the real reason being architectural purity and glass transparency – the wardrobe that was added diminishes the view of and out of the architecture.
The Greek Temple recast as a white steel and glass box and done with utmost precision. The Ford house is modern Rococo, an exuberant, swirling titter. Both houses grew out of the Fountainhead era, the age of heroic, god-like architecture and both require their inhabitants to adapt – rather than the other way around. Frank Lloyd Wright did that a lot – trimmed and windowed the walls so you couldn’t hang pictures on them and disturb the pictorial perfection of his vision. Le Corbusier allowed paintings on the walls, as he was a painter as well (and a painterly architect).
Wright hated attics and basements because they attracted clutter – but as I move out of and into my boxes I wonder whether clutter isn’t our natural condition and whether art is not, like religion, an unattainable model of perfection and I wonder how people can really live in those perfect spare interiors you see in the Sunday magazines. My own architectural dreams do not have form at their center – I can’t see them in two dimensions, much less three as Wright could – but they are all about function. I dream of pens and scissors and phone numbers at hand and handy recycling and composting and easy access to files and bags and boxes and wood screws and shelf brackets all at the ready. I recall that Le Corbusier tried that idea out with his form-types and the problem was that forms do not stay typical for long. Even evolution ratted out his conceit, as he resized the Modulor to the new average human reality.
The falsehood in this whole approach to design is that the goal transmutes into an object. A wardrobe, a desk, a filing cabinet, a programmable closet. But the functions that elude my everyday are not the kind of problem that is solved by an object. I wonder at the conceit of environmental determinism as I leave one house where daily tasks have been minimized into a series of fluid, nearly intuitive motions for a new house where that fluidity will remain challenged and it is clear that the solution lies not in any object but in me, the Modulor, who must be modulated to his environment. The Farnsworth and Ford houses are but more dramatic examples of how every house adapts us to it. And it isn’t even so much the architect demanding behavior of the client, because the real reason you can’t design your way out of life is that life NEVER. REMAINS. STATIC. Those fluid motions of the morning were not the same three years ago. Last June the architect Jack Hartray commented that the great mischief of Modernist architecture was the conceit that you could plan for all needs. He was talking about the Time-Life building, designed to corporate models long deceased but it could as easily refer to the IBM building, being converted into something else as we speak, or our Swiss friend’s Modulor, who wouldn’t sit still or even stay the same size over time.