The Antipodes of Our Age

Hans Scharoun. Theatre. 1922-23. The Expressionist Theatre.

Walter Gropius. Total Theatre. 1927. The Rationalist Theatre.

“Architecture wrote the history of the epochs and gave them their name. Architecture depends on its time.  It is the crystallization of its inner structure, the slow unfolding of its form.” Mies Van Der Rohe

In the modern era, the emerging technology of steel glass and concrete, construction forged a new freedom.  Without the constraints of stone or masonry construction architects found themselves able to explore many new avenues not cumbered by traditions.  This came at a time when ideologies were also changing.  The new construction and the new ideology coincided to express a break with the past. This was the dawning of a new epoch.

So what new constraints emerged in the Modern epoch?  The violent birth of the modern era in Europe amid the rubble of the Great War was a blooming of creativity at a time when the economy was dry and people were broke (and broken for that matter).  The concept of rationality, of “Sachlichkeit” was the counter to the freedom proposed earlier by Expressionism.  Rationality justified architecture and cleansed it of unneeded bourgeois excess.  The new client and the new focus were on the middle class, not just the wealthy.  Even the bold wealthy of the time embraced Modernism for it’s apparent lack of pretense.

Erich Mendelsohn. Optical Products Factory. 1917.

Walter Gropius. Fagus Factory 1911.

Freedoms and constraints gave the Modern epoch a shape.  Arguably a new epoch is emerging.  To a degree we have new constraints and new freedoms.  The new freedom is in the technology of the computer, which allows us to create almost anything in our imagination.  Computers can be used to create components of construction more precise than ever.  At some point in the near future I can imagine computers basically printing out components of a building for construction like a puzzle.   We are not there yet; the computer is in the end just a tool helpful for the realization of ideas.  These same ideas could potentially have been created without the computer (Look at what Nervi did without a computer!).  One of the obsessions of our time is the organic manipulation of form (Mimesis of organic shapes, beautiful curves, or chaotic juxtapositions).  Now did this emerge because of the computer or independent of it? In the modern era Hugo Haring and Hans Scharoun were dealing with similar leanings as a counter to the mechanical rationalism of their time.  So the current wave of architectural form-making is not without precedent, but is helpfully realized by a technology that allows more precise expression of complicated form.  Before computers the drafter only had the compass and the French curve to realize complex shapes. These of course met with a certain degree of imprecision that the architect would have to accept.

So, computers are the new technology, but we are still using basically the same materials and methods for construction.  Steel, concrete, and glass are still the dominant materials used today.  Computers have not created new materiality; it has only enabled a potentially different approach to these materials.  Does this make for a new epoch?

The constraints of our time are as important to the shaping of our possible new epoch as available technology is . Sustainability and a consciousness towards more responsible design is quite clearly the counter to the freedom of our computer technology.  We can no longer build glass skyscrapers with no sunshades.  In the modern age the mitigation of the greenhouse effect in glass buildings was the increased use of air conditioning.  We are now aware that this is a gross waste of resources. We are also economically limited by this freedom. Energy costs are much more expensive so it is only beneficial that a responsible skin that responds to environment and energy efficiency should emerge. This energy efficient consciousness is expressed serendipitously in the materiality of sustainability.  Reused, recycled or responsibly sustainable materials are encouraged.  In the modern epoch materials were only constrained by cost and availability. Now they are limited by our conscience and acknowledgment that our resources are no longer infinite.

The constraint of sustainability is perhaps more decisive than the freedom of the computer in determining the shape of our possibly emerging new epoch in architecture. Time will tell if the computer take an increasingly dominant role in the concrete realization of buildings.  Inevitably, I believe it will.  Sustainability has already done this.

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