THE ARCHITECTURE OF ALIENATION
The architecture of alienation is an architecture that refuses to recognize the instinctive roots of man in his relation to the earth, to the sky, to the elements of his material existence. It seeks to deny the unconscious mind, the intuition, and the supernatural awareness. In the name of “science” it has foisted upon us a narrow, mechanistic vision of human life, without purpose and without God. Our architecture reflects that vision.
The most influential “scientific” architect of the 20th century and the apostle of alienation was undoubtedly Le Corbusier. La Ville Radieuse was written early in his long career, and he recognized that the home was the basic “unit” of urban life. But to Le Corbusier the home was a “machine for living” and the enormous apartment towers with which he proposed to replace the West Bank of Paris were based on a limited group of typical floor plans that could be substituted for one another like the parts of a machine. These in turn were based on a “minimum living unit”--which he called, appropriately, the “cell.”
The arrogance and ignorance expressed in this statement are appalling, and the implications for the dignity of human life are fearful. The statement is, nevertheless, typical of the men of 20th century science. As a representative of that science Corbusier was a hero to the architects of my generation and his ideas were accepted without question by his followers. Huge, public-housing, elevator apartment houses in imitation of Le Corbusier were built all over the world and acclaimed by the media and the architectural press.
The same buildings have been thoroughly hated by those forced by circumstances to live within their walls. In covert rebellion, their inhabitants have often allowed them to slide into a disgusting squalor that was worse than that of the slums they were intended to replace. In some of these buildings social disorganization became so great, crime and violence so endemic, that the only solution, finally, was total demolition.
The enormous structures proposed by Le Corbusier were to be sealed from the outside air. He wrote at length about the advantages of sunlight and “pure, fresh air,” but the sunlight was to be filtered through glass and the air recirculated mechanically. Corbusier’s proposal was nevertheless enthusiastically accepted by the “scientific” architects of the 20th century and has become the normal way in which a building is designed and constructed. But there was no logical or “scientific” reason why buildings should be so constructed. I am convinced that the real reason for sealing the buildings was an unconscious desire to break the link between man and the natural environment, the sunlight and the air.
Architecture was once regarded as shelter that opened to the world beyond the window or door. It was the opening, the window and door, that was detailed and emphasized. When we look at contemporary buildings we see hard, sheer, walls without openings and only a minimum of flat detailing. Through the use of large sheets of glass these building “envelopes,” as they are called, provide those who are powerful enough to seize a location near a perimeter wall with a “view,” or panoramic picture of the world outside. If located on the upper floors of a building such a view may be spectacular, and provide an enormous satisfaction to the egos of the few who have the power to direct the allocation of space in the structure. Most of the others are condemned to spend their lives at a desk juggling papers under fluorescent lights and an air diffuser.
Anyone who has designed the floor plans of one of these buildings will be aware of the battles that are waged by mid-level employees to secure an office with a window. While prestige and status are certainly involved the struggle is more over access to the space and light of the world beyond the polished glass skin of the “curtain” wall. The desperation of those who dwell in these spaces for much of their waking life is a measure of their dissatisfaction with the typical environment of a corporate office building. Some corporate leaders are aware of this dissatisfaction, and in recent years have tried to relocate their staff to suburban buildings, surrounded by lawns and trees. In these huge, new buildings, however, the struggle for a window, for light and air, still goes on, and is intensified because of the more desirable environment outside the wall. And even here, in suburbia, where noise and pollution are not a problem, the windows do not open, but only present a picture, as it were, of the grass and trees.
With single-minded intensity, the architects of the 20th century have pursued this vision of the sealed environment to its ultimate conclusion, which was not an office at all, but the Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe.
The Farnsworth House is essentially a unit of one of the large corporate glass and steel structures designed by Mies van der Rohe, in this case set down in meadow near a river. The clear, pure geometry of this translucent, rectangular prism, floating over the meadow and linked only to the ground by eight steel, wide-flanged sections used as columns is beautiful, but the beauty is that of a highly polished and finished sculptural artifact rather than a dwelling. The entire exterior wall is glass. While the interior is visually open to the natural landscape, it is relatively inaccessible, for there are only two small, low, operable windows, and one unobtrusive double door. The visual openness is belied by the impermeability of the glass barrier and the functional distinction between the interior and exterior space is clear-cut.