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POSTWAR ARCHITECTURE: SPECIALISTS’ VIEWS

T, THE NEW YORK TIMES Style Magazine is published with the NYT Sunday edition and recently ran “The 25 Most Significant Works of Postwar Architecture.” Kurt Soller and Michael Snyder set up a Zoom call with architects Toshiko Mori, Annabelle Selldorf and Vincent Van Duysen; the designer Tom Dixon; the artist and set designer Es Devlin; the critic and T contributor Nikil Saval; and Tom Delavan, T’s design/interiors director.

Kurt Soller notes the importance of  “social concerns of architecture—the need to provide housing, for instance, or create useful civic and academic structures; the idea that beautiful cities and communities shouldn’t only be built for and by the rich; the urgency of sustainability, environmentalism and more careful materiality.”

Here are tidbits from this August 2, 2021, article, focusing on my favorite examples. To paraphrase: I don’t know much about architecture, but I think I know what I like. And I’m open to educated opinions. 

Farnsworth House, Mies van der Rohe, 1945. Soller and Snyder write, “By the time Edith Farnsworth commissioned Mies van der Rohe to design her suburban Chicago home in 1945, the German American architect had spent two decades working toward a philosophy that he called beinahe nichts (“almost nothing”), reducing his designs for institutional buildings to their absolute essence. With the Farnsworth House, he brought that aesthetic into the domestic sphere.”

The Farnsworth House, Piano, Illinois, by Mies van der Rohe, 1945. Photograph by George Lambros. This and the following images from The New York Times, August 2, 2021.

 Edith Farnsworth eventually begged to differ with the architect. In 1953, she described the experience of living there as being “like a prowling animal, always on the alert.”

The rectilinearity and proportions of the Farnsworth House remind me of Philip Glass’s music: minimal, yet complexly satisfying. But listening to nothing but Philip Glass might get on one’s nerves eventually too.

Les Arcs Resort, Charlotte Perriand, 1974. “As an off-piste Alpine skier,” the article notes, “the French architect and furniture designer Charlotte Perriand approached the construction of her ambitious Les Arcs resort as an opportunity to introduce the masses to what she described as the ‘possibility of self-transcendence’ offered by mountain landscapes.”

The Cascade building at Arc 1600, Savoie, France, 1967..

Indeed, “Perriand would come to criticize the project’s imposition of urban density onto the natural landscape, but its combination of advanced modular techniques with rural materials far from the city—a new typology that neither superimposed the layout of a city on the mountains nor resorted to rural kitsch—still resonates today.”

I like the way Les Arcs fits into the landscape, rather than plunking an Alpine cowbell into it. 

Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Carlo Scarpa, 1959. In 1949, architect Carlo Scarpa transformed a deteriorated ground floor and gardens of a century-old palazzo in Venice. Observed architect Mori, “Scarpa designed it precisely for rising sea levels, which is a significant attitude for an architect. He actually made this historical palazzo adaptable to climate change [some 60 years ago], and that’s incredible.”

The Area Carlo Scarpa in the renovated Foundazione Querini Stampalia Venice, Italy, 1959.

I admire how Scarpa blended modern themes in renovating an 1869 museum and library set in a centuries-old palazzo.

Centre Pompidou, Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, 1977. Designs aren’t always completely realized: Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers envisioned an art center to be both radical and functional: The building was to have mobile interior floors (useful for changing exhibitions), giant screens that would broadcast messages into the surrounding plaza, and an infinitely adjustable exterior.

Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1977. 

“And,” T notes, “though the young designers’ most ambitious plans for the building never materialized—the floors don’t move; the exterior is static—its impact as a museum is undeniable, as is its gleeful, winking embrace of playfulness as an architectural value in itself.”

I agree. I’ve visited the Pompidou and enjoyed traveling its exoskeleton from floor to floor.

Gando Primary School, Francis Kéré, 2001. Architect Francis Kéré’s birthplace was a Burkina Faso village without clean drinking water, electricity, or schooling. In an earlier NYT article, November 16, 2016, Stephen Heyman wrote, “His father, the village chief, decided that his son should be the first in the family to learn how to read and write, so he sent him at age 7 to live with an uncle in a distant city….”

 Kéré said later, “In my heart, I felt even then that I wanted to build things better one day, so that kids like me would be free to learn.”

Gando Primary School, Gando, Burkina Faso, 2001

The T article observes that architect Francis Kéré “has made his small hometown into a laboratory for buildings as elegant in their forms as they are in their clear eyed solutions to matters of light, ventilation and social engagement.” The clay-and-cement bricks are cast on-site. The ceiling’s perforated brickwork draws hot air up, obviating the need for resource-gobbling air conditioning. 

“Kéré’s work,” Soller and Snyder write, “represents an important step toward a new paradigm, declaring—albeit subtly—that tradition can provide a sturdy foundation for a better future.”

What thoughtful analyses of modern architecture. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021 

8 comments on “POSTWAR ARCHITECTURE: SPECIALISTS’ VIEWS

  1. Jack Albrecht
    August 5, 2021

    Really enjoyed this post. I love postwar Architecture. I find it so often “clean” looking and that is pleasing to my eye for whatever reason.

    Cool idea (pun intended) with the design in Bukina Faso. We are working with the Viennese building authorities to similarly use natural convection with as little mechanical assistance as possible to provide cooling in our flat (so far without A/C).

    I’ve seen pictures of Fondazione Querini Stampalia before but had forgotten how impressive the re-design is. I have added it to my bucket list. Venice is one of the European cities I’ve visited longest and most often. I even proposed to my wife there, so it is a very special place. Such a dump and so unbelievably romantic at the same time (my wife’s description that I agree with).

    • Mike B
      August 7, 2021

      For “mid century modern” you can’t really do much better than Eichler homes. They were mass produced, but well designed overall. See: https://www.realtor.com/advice/buy/what-are-eichler-homes/ and https://www.eichlernetwork.com/ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Eichler

      Overall, they’re very nice houses, a little on the small side for the price (even at the time) but very livable. Eichlers did have some issues – one being that they are kind of firetraps. They used wood paneling on many if not most interior walls, instead of gypsum-based wallboard, so a fire could (and did, in a several cases that made the news) spread very rapidly around a house. Exteriors were usually wood siding, which was pretty standard then but these days … absolutely not, in California! And the radiant heating systems were fabulous in a place like San Francisco, but hard to regulate, and if (as many did) they sprang a leak, well, there was going to be some jackhammering inside the house to get at the pipes inside the concrete slab floors. Still, as the first link notes, they are easily updated, a lot of people have done that, and even with more modern accoutrements they’re still very classy.

      • Jack Albrecht
        August 8, 2021

        Cool links. Thanks!

      • Jack Albrecht
        August 8, 2021

        PS: Also thanks for your info (not just the links). I’m not a fan of wood-frame houses for a number of reasons, #1 being longevity and #2 being insulation. It would seem to me pretty straightforward to build the same house using better materials and with proper orientation get close to a passive house with an open feel.

  2. Mike B
    August 6, 2021

    Great post! Put that Farnsworth house in SoCal, in black steel, on top of a desert mountain, and you’ve got Richard Neutra.

    • simanaitissays
      August 6, 2021

      Thanks for your kind words. These are only a few of the fine NYT article.

  3. Mike B
    August 8, 2021

    For Jack Albrecht (I couldn’t reply to your reply): mid-century modern has to be put in perspective. The slim, spare appearance and large expanses of glass look great and can (with caveats) be nice to live in, but there are things that anybody looking at one should consider:

    1) insulation: in the 1950s-70s, mass produced housing for practical purposes didn’t have any. The flat-roof designs like most Eichlers have no attic, so adding insulation means removing the roofing (tar & gravel) entirely, then adding foam on the outside and rebuilding the roof with a modern membrane system. Not.Cheap. Then, of course, the structure is quite lightweight in many of them, using 2×4 studs rather than the 2×6 or 2×8 that’s now common, so there’s not much space in the walls to add insulation. Though a multi-story Eichler is an exception, because it needed heavier structure to support the concrete floors (with those radiant heating pipes in them).
    2) glass: all that glass is wonderful, but in the 1950s-70s it was all single-pane, non-tempered plate glass. You can see where this is going…
    3) while you have that roof clean, you’d better address the electrical and communications. Houses built in the 1950s-70s in general are in need of major electrical upgrades to handle modern loads (a 100A service was big in those days). Communications consisted of a phone in the hall or kitchen, perhaps with an extension someplace. And in a flat-roof house with slab floors and no attic like most Eichlers, all that stuff is on the roof. Look at an aerial photo of a house from that period with a flat roof, that hasn’t been updated, and you can see the humps where the conduit runs around. So while you’ve got the roof off for adding insulation, try to do something about the electrical too.
    4) HVAC: a/c was rare in houses built in the 1950s-70s. It was just too expensive. You might find some that were retrofitted with swamp coolers in the hotter locations. Some might also have had a/c retrofitted, and the ductwork would have been largely outside on that flat roof – insulation optional in many if not most cases. If you’re doing a real gut-it restoration and update on an Eichler, you probably will want to do something about the HVAC too. Oh, and those radiant floors? After 50+ years, hopefully, they’ve been replaced with electric radiant panels under new floor coverings. The original idea was great, but even early on there were problems when buildings settled and the like, which could be very expensive to fix. After 50+ years, can you even get the little boilers and controls any more?

    Some good points about Eichlers, though: those concrete floors provide a lot of thermal mass that’s missing in most other builders’ products, then and since, unless custom-designed for it. The heavy structure needed for those floors in multi-story models provides much more space for adding wall insulation than in other houses of the period. And they are very nice-looking and nice-living designs; there’s a reason why they remain popular (and expensive).

    I’d like to see This Old House do a series on rebuilding an Eichler, with an owner (like some they’ve had lately) who isn’t hurting for money.

    • Jack Albrecht
      August 9, 2021

      That was very interesting. Thanks again. My idea in my previous reply to your comment would be to build an Eichler home from scratch but use modern materials, particularly for wall material/insulation, and modern (and old but regained) knowledge on heat transfer, convection, etc., to create a passive home (or near passive) while retaining the open look of an Eichler.

      Those flat roofs can have solar panels on them. Nowadays the entire exterior wall facing the sun can be solar panels. Where natural convection can’t be used, a geothermal heat exchanger is far less expensive than traditional A/C.

      Did you know the first “air-conditioned” high rise was designed by Gaudi 100+ years ago and is in downtown Barcelona? Very hot in the summer there, but by building a central air shaft, the flats pulled the hot air from the flats out to expel from the roof. Pre WWII (“Altbau”) buildings here in Vienna all have “Lichthöfe” (“light courtyards”) which have the same effect, to ventilate the flats naturally.

      Nowadays adding just mechanical fans at the top to pull air from ground level can increase that convection to drop ambient temps by 3-4° C.

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