Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
The house of broken dreams
By Elizabeth Farrelly
Modern architecture’s obsession with glass runs counter to the human need for a less-transparent refuge.
“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearance; the mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” – Oscar Wilde
THERE ARE PARTS of Amsterdam where the houses are so glassy that a casual walk in the street becomes an exercise in voyeurism. The rationale is that innocence has nothing to hide, which is fine, if a little simplistic. Follow the string, though, and you come to those mid-20th century sci-fi fantasies where naked humans commune inside transparent bubbles, permanently warm and well-fed, their every physical need met by one or other technological device. In a positivist world that interprets “need” materially, it is the ultimate shelter – the shelter that isn’t. It’s also an appealing idea – call it the California dreaming – and not just for the bare flesh. Transparency appeals because of what you might call its presumption of innocence; its presumption that we can all achieve the kind of childlike or saint-like innocence that is its own protection.
Then again, we’ve all felt the oppression of the fishbowl, where every movement and every flaw is ruthlessly exposed. We’ve all known the view so invasive you feel your eyelids have been surgically removed. Total transparency may be a modernist ideal but it’s also an established form of torture, from Bentham’s 19th-century panopticon on. Humans crave interiority, not necessarily for mischief or even privacy, but for its own sake, the sake of in-ness. Perhaps it’s a womb thing. After all, children especially love squeezing themselves into the cupboards and under-stair spaces, the nooks and crannies of the underworld dreaming. That the very word house comes from the Indo-Germanic keudh, to hide, suggests there’s something in it.
The obvious resolution to this yin-yangism is balance; we need both openness and enclosure. We need choice. But just how this balance should be struck depends on the psychology of that most basic human artefact, the house. On the self-house relationship and on what, beyond mere shelter, a house is actually for.
Modernism reduced architecture to form and function. Ever reductivist, it tailored form to function like cloth to a shop-dummy. And what a minimalist definition of function it was. What an anorexic diagram of a dummy: shelter, food, warmth, security. Scarcely surprising that such a skeletal take on humanity produced equally skeletal architecture.
And it’s still with us; the glass house as the architectural grail. Glass houses stud the history of modern architecture and most ended in tears, like Mies van der Rohe’s famously elegant but uninhabitable house for Dr Edith Farnsworth in Illinois. Most of the rest, like Philip Johnson’s in New Canaan, Connecticut, and Bill Lucas’s “tree house” in Castlecrag, Sydney, are the architects’ own. Even then trouble can arise. Architects have families. Lives, even. Anne-Marie Godsell, wife of Melbourne architect Sean, had spent some years of living in their award-winning steel-and-glass house when she sweetly recalled on national television: “The first night we stayed here I became incredibly aware of the fact that there are no blinds in the front bedroom, and that I’d have to change, get into the cupboard and change, which I did. And after a short space of time I got very used to changing in the cupboard.”
Not everyone is quite so architect-tolerant. But if modernism had been a little more sophisticated, such tolerance would be unnecessary, since a more fertile approach is to regard architecture as the art of cladding not the relatively simple human body but the complicated and messy human spirit. There are many such claddings, from the body itself, which is easily seen as architecture for the soul, and the face, with its myriad decorations and elaborations, to clothes, houses and cities.
We, as Enlightenment children, tend to approach all such claddings quite matter-of-factly. Track-suited or power-dressed (but dressed, either way, for utility), we objectify our claddings to a degree that is rare in human history. This is what allows us to treat them all as commodity, as currency. Even our own houses we see framed by estate agent patter, as though three beds, two bathrooms, rear-lane parking, stunning outlook could be an adequate description of a successful human dwelling.
Strangely, though, when it comes to other cultures we have no difficulty grasping the magic and symbolism of “house”. The African hut, whose oven-centred roundness makes a warm, fecund, womb-room; the Aboriginal shelter, whose fork-and-ridge-pole structure represents the interdependence of male and female; the Japanese house conceived as a parasol, throwing down a shadow within which life can flourish – these are familiar and unproblematic. The great spread-roofed houses of the English Arts and Crafts era, by architects such as Richard Norman Shaw and Charles Voysey, are also easy to conceive as great mother hens whose wings provide infinite protection. You might even argue that a debased and diluted version of such romantic imaginings sells many a modern-day McMansion.
But when a house is currency, you don’t identify with it in quite the way that, for example, the great Renaissance families did. Many of the world’s most famous houses, such as Palladio’s Villa Rotonda near Vicenza, were conceived not just as generic representations of the psyche but, more specifically, as idealised self-portraits. Such a portrait is intended not simply as a false front for the world’s eyes but as a goal, an inspirational self into and through which the lesser, “real” self can grow. This was a recurrent Renaissance theme drawn from Aristotle (but also curiously close to modern behaviourist theory); the belief that copying the appearance and manners of a virtue one admires will gradually instil the virtue itself. In other words, that self-betterment can work outside-in, perhaps even better than inside-out. It is also the fundamental principle of masking. Should we, then, see the house as a mask, a public self that somehow marks our place in the world?
The mask, in ancient times, was the persona, the origin of our word “person”. This puts masquerade at the very heart of things. As feminist Camille Paglia notes, “Western personality thus originates in the idea of the mask. Society is the place of masks, a ritual theatre.”
There’s delight here, a seductive whiff of 18th-century Venice. But there’s an implication, too, of fraudulence. Masking is something we habitually see as a blind. So the mask metaphor implies a view of personality as disguise, a facade of opaque respectability designed to dupe the world while protecting the inner or “true” self from it. Modern psychology is permeated by this personality-as-mask metaphor, from Freud and Jung to Adler, Laing and Fromm. Wrote Jung: “Fundamentally the persona is nothing real: it is a compromise between individual and society as to what a man should appear to be.” Personality is a front, a pretty lie to be donned or discarded at will, nothing more.
But there’s another, less cut-and-dried view of masking. Traditional and tribal masking practice, from shamanism to the Commedia dell’arte to Japanese Noh theatre, offers a subtler phenomenology. There the mask is not a deceit but real, muscular, transformative magic. For the lower Yukon shaman masked as the great grizzly, or Zulu witchdoctor as a voodoo spirit, masking is not a question of resemblance but of “becoming”. The wearer acquires the power – whether for healing, exorcism or witchcraft – of whatever animal or spirit the mask represents. So the mask, often picturing the feared agents of death, brings potential to overcome those agents and transcend death itself; to become, however briefly, immortal.
Once again, etymology gives clues. The Latin persona, or mask, derives, in turn, from per sonare, to sound through. Initially, the persona was only the resonant clay mouthpiece with which the masks of classical tragedy were fitted. Tragedy, for the ancients, was a catharsis, an exercise in self-transcendence. So the mask was named for its capacity not to conceal an actor’s identity but rather as a trumpet through which the resonant voice might create a new identity for the wearer and a new, transcendent inner-outer connection. Just as a small window in a solid stone wall dramatises the connection precisely by establishing separateness, the mask as mouthpiece was designed to let the player fuse with his adopted character and with his audience.
The mask, then, is both barrier and connector, both persona and personifier. In obliterating the old personality it creates a new one, transforming and connecting in the essential creative act. As Arthur Koestler noted, “the shaman who danced the part of the rain god was the rain god, and yet remained the shaman at the same time”. The mask is the ur-artwork, designed less to hide the self than to merge with it, paradoxically dividing in order to connect. “Art,” Koestler says, “is an attempt to connect with the world. It springs from the urge to share … and thus overcome the isolation of the self.” To achieve such transcendence the mask must be no simple barrier but a perforated screen, a mesh (Old English for mask), connecting even as it divides. This is art’s essential paradox; lying to tell the truth.
But if the house is a mask, concealing in order to reveal some better self, what are we to make of modernism’s all-out push to dematerialise the mask, to make it wholly transparent?
Modern architecture was consciously rational, geometric and masculine; in Nietzschean terms, consciously Apollonian. It was also, like modern psychology, committed to the idea of “truth” as inner and appearance as falsehood. Its pursuit of truth therefore committed it to excavating the entire apparatus of history in pursuit of the irreducible core. So transparency became architecture’s device of choice.
They were all at it. In 1914 Paul Scheerbart wrote a book entitled Glasarchitektur, describing the Backsteinbazillus that he believed inhabited the stone of old Europe. “If we wish to raise our culture to a higher plane,” he argued, “[we must] remove the sense of enclosure from the spaces where we live … not through a couple of windows but … through whole walls of coloured glass.”
Walter Gropius, in the first Bauhaus Proclamation of 1919, described architecture as “rising to heaven … the crystal symbol of the new faith in the future”. In 1923, the Swiss architect Le Corbusier defined architecture as “the masterly, correct and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light” and in 1927 Bruno Taut argued that “glass brings us the New Age; brick-culture does us nothing but harm”.
Even crusty old Frank Lloyd Wright argued in 1931 that “in true modern architecture, the sense of surface and mass disappears in light”. But it wasn’t until 1929 that Hungarian theorist Laszlo Maholy-Nagy finally dragooned the term “transparency” to describe the transcendent and dreamlike visions that were starting to colonise architectural discourse.
From that moment, transparency permeated modern architecture and glass was its obvious medium. At a practical level, in line with the health-and-hygiene push of the time, glass welcomed light, air and spaciousness. Constructionally, it enabled separation of cladding and structure – of bones, if you will, from skin – facilitating the prized “honesty of expression”. Spatially, glass allowed the flow and interpenetration essential to the cubist illusion of multiple viewpoints. Socially, the open plan became a metaphor for democratic and egalitarian ideals. Visually, it brought an exciting kineticism. Intellectually, it promised all the Enlightenment goods – rationality, clarity, objective evidentiary practice. And spiritually, it dangled nothing less than truth and beauty.
The dream itself was nothing new. Transparency is one of the oldest future-dreamings we have. Revelations describes the ideal city as light-filled, “pure gold, as it were transparent glass”. Glass is automatically the medium of the future. We think of the past as shadowy and mysterious, although we’ve been there, while the future, however unknown, we picture as light-filled and diaphanous, so for us, as much as the prophets, the house of the future is always glassy, spacey and open. Glass symbolises this mute anticipation of radiance to come.
That was the dream. Modernism’s catastrophe lay in making it come true. Modernism’s dream was not just of a better life but of a better species, one capable of living behind a transparent mask. But humans are not that species. Part angel but also part devil, we still rely on the magic of the per sonare, still need an architecture that is both light and dark, both in and out, both prospect and refuge.
PHOTO: See through it … Philip Johnson’s Glass House, New Canaan, Connecticut, 1949. Photographed in the late 1990s. Richard Schulman/Corbis