The Healthy World of Primitive Building Methods
Digital video . 2 minutes 10 seconds . black & white . stereo . 1999

This video features an interior space from 860 Lake Shore Drive, 1951, by Mies van der Rohe being penetrated by black vertical ‘sticks’ the height of the floor to the ceiling - an installation represented as a stop-animation video sequence. The video opens to the pristine empty room with the narrative forming the virtual installation of several sticks until most of the space has been articulated through an imposed system of perspective. Bruegal’s painting Return of the Hunters uses a similar device in the prominent black trees that advance into the picture plane, the trees and the sticks both serve to make a two-dimensional image optically jump to three-dimensions. The English landscape architect Capability Brown insisted on the presence of cows in his landscape designs, in so doing the viewer always had a standard reference with which to judge the scale of the design. The process of measuring the room using the stick as a finite rule serves to compare two commodities against one another - a European designed Modernist building in North America measured and defined in terms of a stick, a primary building material.

The title of this work is taken from a speech by Mies van der Rohe given in 1938, when “in his inaugural address to the students of Armour Institute*, he urged them back into ‘the healthy world of primitive building methods, where there was meaning in every stroke of an axe, expression in every bite of a chisel’.” (1) As the son of a mason it is reasonable to suggest that by ‘primitive’ van der Rohe had materials (and associated building methods) like machined stone, timber, steel or marble in mind. This quote is employed to prompt possible interpretations of van der Rohe’s concept of ‘primitive building methods’ – read in this instance as primary rather than ‘primative’, the intention is to question the lack of African architectural influences on Western architects during the first half of the twentieth century when compared to the huge influence African art had on European artists. Why was Western architectural design during this period wholly unaffected by and disinterested in African architecture? There were few, if any, studies in Africa between 1900 and 1950 that focused specifically on architectural practices. The only references from this period are photographic documentation of settlements and passing mentions in anthropological studies. The remarkable political and economic centres of Fes, Aksum, Sana’a and Ife, amongst others, remained ‘undiscovered’ till the 1970s. (2)

After 1945, Modernist architecture advanced towards its conclusion with the support of the post-War American economic boom - the International Style, in particular, became a symbol of affluence and peace. Within this context the Bauhaus émigrés developed the Style along vastly different lines to Le Corbusier, the only one of the major pre-war architects left in Europe by 1939. Whereas van der Rohe was faced with a consumer boom that required an architectural image of success, Le Corbusier was compelled to meet the primary needs of a society devastated by war. A context which allowed his socialist ideas to be applied. While van der Rohe was wooing corporate America, Le Corbusier was experimenting with forms other than the geometric purity of his prewar style. 1951 saw the completion of van der Rohe’s Lakeshore Drive Apartments, an early example of the lack of distinction between building types of the International Style - glass blocks for living or working in, functionalist structures that give no visual clues as to their function. An absurdity much like designing a geometrically perfect, rectangular car and then writing ‘this is a hatchback’ on its sides. Yet this is a basic tenet of the Style (the usage branding of buildings) – either literally on the exterior like the Pan Am building by Gropius or more subtly in the title, like van der Rohe’s Seagram Building. Completed three years after the Lake Shore Drive Apartments, the Seagram Building is a ‘seminal’ example of the eminently exportable form of the International Style that post-War corporate America fell in love with:

"The extreme simplicity and elegance of his (van der Rohe’s) works had a glamour, lacking in the works of Le Corbusier… which developed easily into the austere impersonal imagery we associate with his (van der Rohe’s) style… copied and interpreted all over the Western world, a measure of his success as the architect of capitalism." (3)

A gushing statement that is only partially accurate, for although Miesian forms were copied ‘all over the Western world’, they where obviously exported elsewhere. The International Style descended after 1960 into the lamentable travesty that was Functionalism in its later form - a standardized design sold as cost-effective and exported (under the direction of property developers and not architects) to every major city in the world during the 1960s and early 70s, ostensibly despite local context or function. As one van der Rohe biographer states “structure alone is retained, and the structure is assigned a value independent of such particulars as site, function and to some extent climate and materials.” (4) The employment of exotic architectural modes within the context of the so-called ‘periphery’ represents a strategic non-engagement with the vernacular. A Miesian glass box in Lusaka or Sao Paulo, for instance, is an architectural status symbol for the agency and power of the West. A local company that employs this design communicates status by association and their desire to emulate the West - to be modern and aloof despite their context. This act is much like wearing a three-piece suit on a Lusaka street in January. In the southern hemisphere the contextually inappropriate Miesian design functions much like a greenhouse in summer and a freezer come winter – only habitable through substantial climate control at considerable cost.

The same year van der Rohe began the design of the Seagram Building, Le Corbusier completed Notre-Dame-du-Haut - “his use of curves shows a complete change from his earlier geometric style and suggests a primitive, mystical inspiration.” (5) Criticised by some for its expressive irrationality, Notre-Dame-du-Haut was praised by others for its invention: “Functionalism and Miesian structure are available as universal disciplines for anyone who cares to use them. Le Corbusier’s later work, on the other hand, is not imitable…” (6)

The year after van der Rohe completed the Seagram Building, Le Corbusier began designing the Legislative Assembly in Chandigarh, India. The design for the Courts of Justice evidence Le Corbusier’s concern with the locally specific problems of site and climate. The angular concrete façade keeps the interior cool and shields against strong sun, while the substantial curved roof extending out over the façade protects the building from seasonal heavy rain. Yet Le Corbusier’s designs in India were dismissed by some as “…being massive concrete, are not seriously challenged in their influence by Miesian forms of steel, in countries where building techniques have so far remained primitive.” (7)

 

Notes:

*Mies van der Rohe was Director of Architecture at Armour Institute in Chicago (later renamed Illinois Institute of Technology) from 1938 to 1958.

(1)
Cantacuzino,S. ; “Great Modern Architecture”; Studio Vista; London; 1966; p. 46

(2)
See Anderson, D.M. and Rathbone, R. (Eds); ‘Africa’s Urban Past’; Oxford; 2000

(3)
Hollingsworth, M.; “Architecture of the 20th Century”; Bison; London; 1988; p. 99

(4)
Drexler, A.; “Mies van der Rohe”; George Brasiller Inc.; New York; 1960

(5)
Hollingsworth, M.; “Architecture of the 20th Century”; Bison; London; 1988; p. 111

(6)
Cantacuzino, S. ; “Great Modern Architecture”; Studio Vista; London; 1966; p. 7

(7)
Ibid.

    Above: video stills
Original photo: © H. Blessing
 
 
 
 
Return of the Hunters
Pieter Bruegal : 1565
© Kunsthistorisches Museum
 
 
Sana’a tenement houses
Yemen : 1987
© zefa/h winter
   
 
Playtime
Jacques Tati : 1967
© Pathé Cinema
   
 
Interior of a Cuabo House
Mozambique : 1910
© Heinemann