PRINT May 1965


Architecture and the New Vernacular

An idea, now treated by those in the know as highly old-fashioned, is that a distinction should always be made between architecture and buildings. As Gilbert Scott, the great 19th-century English Gothic Revivalist put it, “Architecture consists of the decoration of construction.” While such an assertion would only bring smiles from our current schools of architecture or from our professional architectural journals, this is a distinction which is still almost universally made on a popular level. To most people, that which is thought of as architectural in a typical project house, are shutters, entablatures, diamond-paned windows and the like, all of which have nothing to do with the basic structure. And in a very real sense, people are correct in sensing that such details are a frosting, added to make a rather dull product more appetizing.

While the architectural professional would not make such a distinction, he really does something, in a sense, which is quite similar. When he speaks about architecture he is not referring to the general world of buildings at all; rather, he is conceiving of an extremely minute realm, made up of only one or two percent of those buildings erected at any moment in history. In other words, he is carrying Gilbert Scott’s differentiation down into the present day. The bases of selection may be different. but the pragmatic effect is basically the same.

In a sense it is fortunate that we are burdened with a tradition which is so highly selective, for it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to be fully aware of what is going on in the world of building around us. If we wish to see what is being produced of architectural significance in San Francisco or Los Angeles, we have only to look in on half a dozen architectural offices. The remainder of the architects and the contractor-builders are not, in fact, involved with architecture at all, that is, with architecture in a traditional sense, although what they are doing may in the long run have more to do with our visual environment than those involved with our traditional world of architecture.

Our present architectural scene is characterized by three related, but distinct, points of view. The dominant trend is still that of the International Style. In many ways it is unfortunate that the International Style has not remained the style of our period. It did become the style after World War II, but it did not remain in sole possession of the stage for very long. If it could have remained pre-eminent it might have established itself as a tasteful, traditional mode within which the average architect and contractor-builder could have. produced buildings of a reasonable consistency of design. But the mid-20th century is hardly a period which remains committed to any single point of view for very long, with the result that while the stylistic elements of the International Style have slowly dribbled down to the bottom, they have never been fully absorbed.

Though the International Style is no longer paramount, one should not shrug it off, for there are architects both here and abroad who are using its vocabulary to create what undoubtedly will be thought of as major works of the century. The subject matter of the International Style––if one really dares speak of architecture as having a subject matter––is the machine. The use of machine materials, the repetition of parts which we associate with mass production, and the general quality of precision and control which the best of these buildings conveys is not the result of using the machine; rather, it is a romantic expression of the machine as a symbol. In a sense, one could argue .that the intellectual spirit which underlies Hard Edge painting and sculpture from the ’1920s to the present is identical with that which underlies the International Style.

The atmosphere of impermanence which so characterizes the steel and glass boxes of the International Style is an ingredient which the contemporary architect, with his increasingly self-conscious concern with history, has found most difficult to accept. So, as one should have expected, there has been a revolt in recent years, a return to the ideal that a building should be permanent, i.e., should be immortal. Starting with Le Corbusier’s post-World War II work through the present buildings of Louis Kahn, it has become increasingly fashionable for the architect to design structures first and foremost as monumental pieces of sculpture. The language of this latest vogue is decidedly limited. The material: reinforced concrete; the form: angled geometric shapes; surfaces and details: to be left in their natural state with a purposeful emphasis on a feeling of crudeness.

In America, the God-figure of architecture as sculpture is Louis I. Kahn. The pre-eminence of this figure on the contemporary scene beautifully demonstrates the etherealness of architecture and above all of architectural history. Kahn’s buildings––if one can appraise them without reference to the man––are simply dull and uninteresting; but as a visual symbol of Kahn’s thinking they are of tremendous consequence. Thus, we have in the person of Kahn a perfect inversion; the buildings and even the drawings are meaningless without the imposing presence and the accompanying verbalization of the man. The buildings then are a comment on the man, not the converse. Once this is realized, it is apparent why so much of the modish sculptural brutalism of contemporary architecture is in fact quite meaningless in terms of actual buildings.

Almost as an answer to the Kahnian lack of concern for real structure is the development of a third mode which is intensely involved with architecture as building. The source of inspiration for this mode is the folk vernacular of the 20th century, the non-architect designed structure. The architectural language used is that of run-of-the-mill, everyday materials and the conventional way in which these materials are put together, and finally the haphazard forms which generally result from such an approach.

One of the most forceful exponents of this new vernacularism is the Berkeley architect, Charles Moore (Moore, Lyndon, Turnbull and Whitaker). The initial impression of his buildings is one of casualness, verging at times on ugliness. This immediate impression is deceptive, and it is meant to be so. The apparent casualness of his buildings is entirely due to the source of his architectural language. But once one seriously experiences these buildings it is obvious that he has simply exploited the vernacular language of the non-architect designed building in order to make a highly refined and sophisticated statement.

An excellent example of this is his recently completed Talbert house, in the hills overlooking Berkeley. The basic form of this house is that of a volumetric box set on its narrow end. From this basic box extrude, like partially pulled out drawers, a variety of bays and balconies. These protrusions seem to be haphazardly arranged as if reflecting interior needs, such as an added bath, or a bigger kitchen, which were an afterthought of the architect or the owner. This unplanned atmosphere also seems to be present in the details of the building; awkward brackets which hold up the projecting bays and balconies; exposed gas and fireplace flues; a disorganized array of builders’ windows ranging from small-paned, steel factory units to aluminum double-hung windows and sliding glass doors and windows. All of this apparent architectural nonchalance is, of course, pure deception.

The interior of the building reveals these same qualities. It is interesting to note that the enclosed space cannot be understood at all in the conventional manner of a series of individual floors. In fact the interior is composed of a series of platforms, which, like the stairs, wind themselves around the peripheral walls of the box, with the result that the character of this space is vertical rather than horizontal. Nor can one actually say that the vertical space of the Talbert house is singular and unified, i.e., an open plan in the normal sense of the term. The vertical axis causes an interlock of the interior areas. The circulation pattern within the house directs one around the boundaries of the building so that one fully experiences the vertical interlocking of the individual spaces and the occasional extension of these spaces into the outside world. Just as the interior circulation is rigorously controlled, so too, is the placement of exterior windows and doors. The wood decks and sometimes the side walls of the balconies extend the platform out into space, while each of the bays acts as a visual extension· of the space which it defines. The platforms which make up the interior of the building are made definite and are related to one another through the media of natural light. Light is allowed to enter into the building only at those points which will firmly establish the independent existence of each specific platform; the transition zone between each of the platforms tends to be windowless, dark and neutral. This manipulation of light and the spaces which it articulates has been realized in the Talbert house not by highly sophisticated craftsmanship, materials and structure but through a complete acceptance of the normal day by day technique and materials used by any builder.

If one wished to play with analogies, it could be argued that Moore’s borrowing of the builder’s mode is akin to the use of the found object in contemporary sculpture. In both instances the everyday object––which exists on one level––is employed as a language to make a statement on another level.

––David Gebhard

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