PennDesign Theory 1.1 - Standards

In ancient Roman mythology, Janus was the god of beginnings and transitions, thence also of gates, doors, doorways, endings, and time.  According to scholars, he is “usually a two-faced god since he looks to the future and the past".  In recognizing the development of contemporary architecture and design it is important to recognize three dialectic Janus faces of the architectural profession: first, the past and the future, second, objectivity and subjectivity, and third, transparency and obfuscation of structure and form.  By analyzing these 'faces' one may come to see a subtle yet profound connection between seemingly irreconcilable poles of thought.

The undercurrent of theory readings from this past week deal with matters of standards. How can architects maintain civil discourse and consistency of design without a generally accepted language of how buildings are made and how they can be understood by professionals and lay-people alike? Standards are defined as "something considered by an authority or by general consent as a basis of comparison; an approved model."

Wittgenstein's Haus Kundmanngasse

In the first reading, Richard Sennett's analysis of two Austrian houses reveals a string of architectural deviations- one, a cold and lofty symmetrical objectivism, intended to represent "the foundation of all possible buildings" (Sennett pp 254) and the other of a more playful and grounded 'new objectivism' - a house with a "structures that showed plainly their purposes and their construction in their forms" (Sennett 255). These two projects, Ludwig Wittgenstein's house on the Kundmanngasse and the Villa Moller by Adolf Loos, constitute the two extremes of craft routines and standards applied in early modern architecture.  Both houses emphasize an extreme dedication to perfectionism - in Wittgenstein's house an unforgiving consistency of 1:1 heights, widths, and materials that creates a sterile, standard model for what Wittgenstein believed to be the foundation for all possible buildings. Wittgenstein famously demanded perfection of construction dimensions, and faced with an unlimited budget for construction once asked that an entire ceiling slab be destroyed and reconstructed three centimeters lower to to provide what he deemed a proper and acceptible universal ceiling height.  Loos's Villa Moller on the other hand is far more subjective. Forgoing Wittgenstein's 1:1 geometrical rigidity, Loos cuts windows in a varying way, taking advantage of the way light plays upon exterior walls and creates desirous exterior views. A perfectionist in his own right, Loos relied upon on-site sketches and a limited budget construction budget to create a house that is not only beautiful in its use of standards and proportions (dissimilar to those of Wittgenstein's Kundmanngasse house), but more importantly incredibly liveable for its occupants.

Adolf Loos's Villa Moller

Following Sennett's perspective on standards and attention to detail, Richard Neutra details a history of craftsmanship- reflecting on the trials of early manufacturing in which standards of design had not been developed.  Consumers could not trust early modern manufacturing standards (many of which had not been tested to provide accurate and comparitive information.  The only value of a product lay in its performance, and "Fraudulent publicity[became] so interlocked with the business that first sprouted from machine production that the machine itself was branded by some writers as a curse" (Neutra, 54).  However, with the advent of mass production and a growing need for goods with which traditional hand-crafted supply could not keep pace, standardization was eventually accepted for its inherent functional concept. Machine-made parts and products, Neutra asserts, are simply the “essential prerequisite of continuous improvement toward machine-made perfection” (Neutra, 54).  But the standardization and mass-production of industrial parts and pieces is only valid in the architectural sphere so long as the parts and pieces are accurately represented in the end form of the house.  A steel frame house would not have been initially accepted if its outward complexion was not hidden by articles of handicraft and ornament -- Neutra maintains that in the “half-industrial, half-handicrafts methods of today’s petty building business... there is still reflected a good deal of that initial insecurity which earlier characterized, in general, incipient industrialization, with all its deficiencies.” It is this fear of mechanical and industrial failure that propagates much superficial decoration-- if industrial standards are taken seriously, contemporary handicraft can advance fully into the modern age, and, in closing, Neutra professes “only with standards as anchor [can] the typhoon of insecurity be weathered [as] industrialism breaks loose over the world” (63).

Jean Prouve's early work in prefabricated house components

Jean Prouve rounds out the trio of thinkers by exposing his beliefs on prefabrication; maintaining that factory-produced buildings lose an aesthetic appeal due to their conceptual distance from the site in which they will eventually be assembled, Prouve argues that prefab buildings are part of a standardized “ugliness” which “rules our surroundings” (Prouve, 99).  Rather, he argues that prefabrication can be beautiful, if given a hand-crafted attention to dimensions, ergonomic details, and material assemblage.  Anything less, Prouve states, leaves a wasteland of impersonal, factory-produced, cold, and sterile industrialized landscapes. “Can one really believe that people and children brought up in [such] surroundings could grow and develop more beautiful bodies and minds?” (99) Prouve asks, and given the intrinsic value of industrialized parts (Neutra), but the sterility that could result if too much is standardized and proportioned at a scale foreign to the human ergonomic (see Sennett’s Wittgenstein House) it is self-evident that buildings can maintain good proportion (a la Loos), be mass-produced (Neutra) but also lead toward a more beautiful and liveable architectural future.

Works Cited
Neutra, Richard. Survival Through Design. pp 53-71
Prouve, Jean. Prefabrication: Structures and Elements. Framework of Life pp. 98-104
Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. Craftsmanship. pp 252-257

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