Photographs, silver-screens, and smartphones have shaped the way we look at the world from our homes as well as our homes themselves. Photography brought “les portes-fenêtres,” tall, framing windows. Cinematic views inspired long horizontal windows and so on. I asked one of the world’s leading experts on architectural history, Beatriz Colomina, how architecture plays with boredom and entertainment, control and vulnerability.
How do media such as cinema, photography and the Internet, impact architecture?
For me, when doing my dissertation, the interesting thing was the difference between Loos, this defensive architecture towards the exterior, and Le Corbusier, who a few years later, is fully into the 20th century and embracing every aspect of it.
Le Corbusier imagined the inhabitant as being in a movie. The actor enters the house, sees this space around, and he keeps moving. You, as the inhabitant, are affecting this montage of images. That’s unthinkable before film, this kind of perception where he is reacting against architects like Perret. Auguste Perret—also French, early 20th century—who, on the other hand, was still defending the perspectival view of the world. He criticizes Le Corbusier’s architecture, and he even says something terrible: he says it’s not architecture at all, precisely because of the horizontal windows that Le Corbusier had inserted. Instead, Perret says that architecture should provide you with a perspectival view of the world, which is what the “portes-fenêtres,” [French window] provide you, rightly. The portes-fenêtres—according to him—is a man—a man, not a woman—standing and holding the door. He sees the foreground, the middle ground, and the background, that’s his universe. But that’s precisely a perspectival view of the world and Le Corbusier is already seeing the world in cinematic ways.
Even if Perret was a very modern and extremely interesting architect, working with concrete and new materials, he was still holding on to a Renaissance view of the world. But Le Corbusier is more this inhabitant that moves and sees more in the way of a film is seen. That I think will be a good example of how new media have changed the way in which we also understand space and architecture.
“Perret precisely has a perspectival view of the world and Le Corbusier is already seeing the world in cinematic ways.”
What about connected devices?
Now everything has become about data. Our houses are also producing data [See our story on 21st Century Show Home, Editor’s Note]. I don’t know whether you have heard about all these toilets for example that analyze your urine and tell you that maybe you’re becoming hypovolemic and you’re going into diabetes—but they not only tell you, they also tell your doctor. It’s a form of surveillance. The fridge tells the grocer that you need milk, and the grocer may already be sending you what you need. These houses produce all this data themselves. Everything is becoming about data. Architecture is taking a role in this world too.
And it affects our moods too. I remember visiting Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. The back door is the front door, and everything evolves around a center. It’s not really free, it’s very constrained. It seems to be open and free, but it’s actually very tight and coercive.
Yes, but something has happened. First of all, you arrive at the house, not by walking but by car. All these questions Loos raised: how you arrive, the door, etc., are completely gone here. We arrive by car. In a way, you change one interior—the car’s interior and the panoramic views of the city through the car—for another. Practically, you don’t step out. As I had mentioned before, he sees you moving around the house and the views are developing in almost a photographic sense. Yes, of course, it may be also constrained, but the distinction between what is inside and what is outside, between what is public and what is private, and as you say, what is front and what is back… All of this is gone. He embraces that. He writes about how in this house there is no front, no back, no side to the house. And then he says something really beautiful; he says, “you are disoriented.” You’ll think that’s a negative thing. But no, for him it’s a positive thing. That’s the fascinating thing. Disorientation is a positive thing. He fools you around; you don’t know where you are and then he says, “You are not bored anymore.”
“Boredom is a very 19th-century thing. Entertainment is a very 20th-century thing.”
So boredom also enters into consideration. In talking about mood and architecture, when you think about the 19th-century house—it’s all about the “ennui”—the boredom of this house is full of stuff that you feel the boredom of the inhabitant too... And of course, boredom is a very 19th-century thing. Entertainment is a very 20th-century thing, in that sense. The house itself, according to Le Corbusier, has to produce the entertainment. You go up, and there are terraces, you can exercise, you can take in the sun, and that’s also part of this healthy, hedonistic mood that he is trying to create with his architecture.
What about bunker architecture?
I’m fascinated by bunker architecture. I was very impressed by Virilio. Working on American architecture in the post-war years, I was also fascinated by the way the Americans deal with bunkers. It is the way they deal with everything else: whereas in Europe, they have these bunkers provided by the state, by the city, here everybody’s on their own. What the government did was to provide you with a pamphlet and instructions on how to build your own bunker. In each of these houses in America you were supposed to dig and make your own thing, and if you didn’t do it—well too bad, you couldn’t survive.
Deciding to build your bunker is trying to control your fate.
There was a real-estate developer in the South of the United States in Texas who had been a military consultant for weapons and knew everything—according to him—about mass destruction. He said there was no point in having a bunker because you will never make it in time. So the thing was to live in a bunker. So he devised these underground houses. He has a whole book on underground houses and gardens. The whole thing—the house and the garden—are in a bunker underground so you are already living inside. He says, “what about windows? Well windows I realize may be necessary for psychological reasons, but I look around and demonstrate that most people have windows that give on whatever they get.” He’s all about these big panoramic windows in which you could actually see beautiful views of the landscape or the Golden Gate—but you could also change it according to your mood. You could even trick the time of the day. You could dial the time of the day or the night depending on the mood. So you could have a starry night or a rising sun, or you could be in San Francisco, or you could be in the Caribbean. Or you could be wherever you wanted to visit. Complete displacement of time and space and engaged all the sounds with smells that feed through the air conduction tubes, and sounds of the rain tapping lightly on a window, or a big storm if you’re in the mood for that. So you’re basically in control of all the exterior conditions. Not only temperature but also what you see through your window. It’s a very elaborate thing.
“No need to have a bunker, you’ll never make it in time. Better live in it.”
At first, I thought, “This guy is crazy…” This was all after the missile crisis with Cuba when particularly the South of the United States was totally terrified that they were going to be bombed. So a lot of people built those houses and then he published this book encouraging people also and giving the specs of how to do it. In France, you have the beautiful bunkers on the sea, and here you have this other crazy stuff. In fact the cover of my book, “Domesticity at War,” you think it’s a traditional house but in fact, you are underground. This family there with a fireplace and a television is not in any traditional house, it is in fact totally underground.
Let’s talk about the Philip Johnson’s Glass House. There’s his glass house and next to it there’s a brick house, which is the guesthouse.
But he’s slept there many times.
Why is one transparent and the other opaque?
He calls the brick house the “Guest House,” but I think what makes it possible to live in a glass house is to have a brick house nearby. He sleeps, most of the time, in the brick house. His bedroom is there. He also has a bed in the middle of the glass house but I don’t know how many times he’s slept there. These two houses are like counterpoints. One is totally exposed by being in a pavilion in a garden, I’ve been there during the day and it’s really great to be in this space, but at night, you don’t want to sleep there. I think this is what actually he did. One is the counterpoint of the other.
In Paris on top of buildings sometimes you have 360 windows. They say it makes you go crazy.
Oh really, that’s interesting. Why would it make you crazy?
Maybe because you’re not 100% in control and you start thinking that people are watching you behind your back?
That’s interesting. Edith Farnsworth wasn’t very happy with the house [The Farnsworth House was designed and constructed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. This steel and glass house was commissioned by Dr. Edith Farnsworth, a prominent Chicago nephrologist, as a place where she could engage in her hobbies—playing the violin, translating poetry, and enjoying nature. Editor’s Note]. She started making crazy complaints about it as if she never knew it was going to be that way. The house itself may have disturbed her in some way. Others deliberately love to live that way. Johnson really did. He was asked in an interview at the beginning of this house in 1950, the house is from 1949, “Don’t you feel like you’re living in a fish bowl where everybody is looking at you?” and he said, “well in the 15 years that I have lived in this house, nobody has come up to glue their faces against the glass. I think it’s because they are afraid that I am looking at them.” I love that because it kind of demonstrates that glass actually works both ways. They may be looking at you but they are afraid that you are looking at them. He turns it around, and reassures, actually, that nobody will dare to come close precisely because they think you are looking at them.