Mellon Senior Fellows 2007

Beatriz Colomina, Francis Strauven, and Jeffrey Schnapp
Research, January 2007 to December 2007
Beatriz Colomina
Princeton University, United States

The House of the Future, designed by Peter and Alison Smithson in 1956, is a house that blurs the line between reason and emotion. It is a house of reason designed almost a half a century ago by the British architects and calculated to take advantage of the latest technology, but to deal precisely with the most basic of emotions: fear. House of the Future is a playful, seductive house that is set up as a voyeuristic spectacle, disguising the fact that the new idealised domesticity is, in the end, a form of defense against deep-seated anxiety. The House is a kind of utopian vision, but as defense.

How are we to understand today the Smithson House of the Future and discuss a 1956 project that tried to imagine the house of 1981–a house exactly halfway between then and now? How can we look back at a forward-looking house? For years it was considered, or rather ignored, as an anomaly in the career of the Smithsons that didn’t really fit in with, or look like, anything else. Although it was much discussed at the time, the House faded completely from memory until the last few years, when it has again some currency. After almost half a century, the house now seems impossible to ignore, perhaps because its sinuous curves resonate with biomorphism and a growing sense that new mouldable materials are a driving force in architecture, or perhaps because of the contemporary fascination with the 1950s—and with British pop in particular. Or perhaps there is something about the house itself that, as it were, forces itself back upon us.

Jeffrey T. Schnapp
Stanford University, United States

Who is the modern architect? The twentieth century provides two contradictory but convergent responses to this question, responses that coexist and commingle during architecture’s century-long march toward professionalization and the achievement of an unprecedented degree of social visibility.

The first answer, articulated in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943), in the voice of her rationalist architect-hero Howard Roark, is an individualistic descendant of the divine arkitekton with his cosmic compass and thaumaturgic touch. This modernist demiurge is possessed with the secular counterpart to spirit: a transcendent thought, a vision, a plan, a logos for the earthly city that, in seeking its realization, necessarily collides with and overcomes a real world of obstacles-bureaucracies, philistine clients, small-minded interests. The architect is the poet and philosopher who writes in aluminum and steel, the genius who transforms the built landscape into a self-portrait.

The second answer to the question “Who is the modern architect?” is articulated by Massimo Bontempelli in his writings on architecture from the 1930s: the modern architect is he who manages to achieve what Bontempelli deems the highest ideal of art: anonymity, the absolute detachment of work from author and fusion with the world. Success means that the work of architecture manages to achieve such a high degree of “necessity”—whether the word is understood in a social, historical, organic, formal, or aesthetic sense matters little —that it merges with the earth’s crust and quickly becomes the natural identity of a place that is itself both the summing up of a historical epoch and the portrait of a collectivity at a given historical moment.

The two replies may appear contradictory, but both converge in their core conviction that, properly understood, architecture is neither decoration nor ornamentation but a form of poiesis the etymological sense of “making.”

Francis Strauven
Universiteit Gent, Belgium

The role played by Aldo van Eyck in the development of architectural thinking after the Second World War has been acknowledged by several authors, but, remarkably, they all situate him in a different way. Charles Jencks saw him as an important representative of the “idealistic” tradition that he viewed as the mainstream of the Modern Movement. By contrast, Kenneth Frampton stressed the radical critique he exerted on the modern movement, and paid special attention to the unorthodox position he occupied in relation to his contemporaries within Team 10. Oriol Bohigas saw the geometric layout of Van Eyck’s plans as a return to the compositional techniques of the Enlightenment while Adolf Max Vogt attributed the specific quality of his work principally to his interest in “primitive” cultures. And ignoring Van Eyck’s strident stands on Postmodernism, Heinrich Klotz included Van Eyck’s work among the “preconditions” (Voraussetzungen) of this trend.

Paradoxically, most of these views can be considered to be partially true. In fact, Van Eyck’s thinking fundamentally proceeded in terms of reconciling opposites. Throughout his career, he applied himself to the exploration and the relationships between polarities, such as past and present, classic and modern, archaic and avant-garde, constancy and change, simplicity and complexity, the organic and the geometric. The divergent appreciations of the authors appear to stem from their concentration on only half of these polarities, whereas Van Eyck considered them to be complementary. He saw that maintaining the dialectics of these opposing factions was a necessary condition for the development of a genuinely contemporary architecture.

The CCA Mellon Foundation Senior Fellowship Program was established in 2001 to encourage advanced research in architectural history and thought. With the generous support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the CCA has welcomed distinguished scholars for residencies of one to eight months, culminating in a public lecture.

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