We don’t really know how the history of centuries affects the way we currently live. “The fear of germs that took place in early 20th century Europe made us live as if we were all ill,” says Beatriz Colomina, architectural historian, and Professor at Princeton University. Punctuated with naps under the sun, fresh air, and pool baths, this obsession of health was born in California as a new lifestyle. This hedonistic way-of-life became ingrained in certain LA homes. I’ve asked Beatriz about the influence of hedonism and health on architecture and how architects use nature to enrich our state of mind.
Los Angeles and Europe, for example, are two different experiences of space. Here in Los Angeles, it is more open, and in Europe, we have big, closed doors.
I think that here in Los Angeles, they are more paranoid than in most places in Europe. But it’s also a climate thing. From the early 20th-century, many European architects came to work in Los Angeles—for example, Schindler or Neutra. All of them were very inspired by Mediterranean architecture—so a better climate. Sometimes when you see it in Germany, it doesn’t work out that way, but this idea is still the same, of exercising in the roof, of being in the sun, even if you can only be in the sun very few days in some of those places. So the idea of modernity is the idea of this openness inside and outside. It’s very inspired by Mediterranean culture. When these guys arrived, Schindler and Neutra, in California, they found their place made for them. This is actually a place where all these ideas about sleeping outdoors which are also ideas about health.
“Here in Los Angeles, they are more paranoid than in most places in Europe.”
In fact, I’m interested in the relationship between modern architecture and the kind of paranoia and fear of illnesses like tuberculosis, which of course was a dominant disease in the 19th-century. At a certain point, it really threatened the survival of Western civilizations. One in three people had it. It was insane how many people were sick. Doctors and architects started collaborating for sanitary efforts in the development of this open architecture in which everything has to be white and clean and not upholstered, simple lines without ornaments, without drapery where dust can accumulate because they thought—they didn’t know yet—that it was all in the dust. In fact, they were kind of right because after the bacillus was discovered (in 1880 by Robert Koch), it became clear that this was an infectious disease because for a long time they thought it was hereditary, all kinds of crazy ideas. But the bacillus of tuberculosis survives for a very long time in dust. So you spit here, and the spit dries and becomes dust—and it’s still contagious for the longest time. But if you expose it to the sun, in a few minutes, it’s dead. They were intuiting this, but they were absolutely right. The idea of having sun, ventilation, open air, and sleeping in the air, and whiteness, and no dust—they were onto something.
The idea for sleeping outdoors comes from the sanatoriums in Europe, like Davos, and Paimio and all these places in Switzerland where people would go to take the cure. They were dying of tuberculosis and they were sleeping in these terraces that are so cold. Here in California—and in Europe too—they turned, what used to be just for the sick people, into a prescription for everybody. So everybody should be sleeping outdoors, everybody should be spending a lot of time outside, everybody should paint their houses white, open their windows, ventilate, etc. So we all start living as if we were all ill. Modern architecture is kind of prescription to counter this very real threat. That is also a mood thing. This whole idea of exercise, health, wellbeing, is on the one hand hedonism—there is a certain hedonism of the architecture of the 20th century.
Rem Koolhaas actually talked about that in the '80s at the height of postmodernism, when modern architecture was accused of being too austere, too protestant and repressed and so on, and he said, “No, architecture is actually a hedonistic movement.” I think he’s absolutely correct. It’s all about the hedonism of the inhabitant, swimming in the pool, taking in the sun, enjoying the outside; enjoy life—something that was not on the agenda of the architects of previous generations.
In terms of material, was there a lot of pool-like material, like tiles or else, that could be washed easily?
Yes exactly, because they were obsessed with germs, of course. Germ phobia is another fascinating thing about the 20th century. The materials had to be easily cleaned, not only so the dust doesn’t accumulate, but also even the little that accumulates one could clean it easily with a damp cloth. The germs are another kind of threat. Architecture in this particular moment, during the 20th century, was very much about protecting you from disease, whereas in other moments in history it was protecting you from predators, wild animals or from threats from the streets.
“Architecture is actually a hedonistic movement.”—Rem Koolhaas.
Do you have an example of houses or buildings that bring the light in a very special way to impact your mood or your wellbeing?
It goes back to when we were talking about the windows, and the big debate at the beginning of the '20s between traditional punch-out windows—les portes-fenêtres even—it’s a big opening, but it’s an opening in the wall. The majority of it is in the wall, and then there’s the window. What Le Corbusier and others are trying to do is to dissolve the wall into a window. So a lot more light comes in which, as I said, has a lot to do with this interest in health and the idea that light is good for you. But also mood wise, I’m sure you have experienced but it’s a very different mood to live in a dark house than to live in a house flooded with light. I myself cannot stand living in a dark house, but when you look at the architecture of the 19th century, the interiors are a lot darker. The few openings they have are covered with curtains, etc. When you go to see the Farnsworth House of Mies van der Rohe, or the Philip Johnson house in Connecticut, or the Lovell House of Richard Neutra—it’s all glass. The wall itself is almost dissolved into glass and the light comes flooding in the interior.
By dissolving the walls into glass a house becomes transparent.
Yes, that’s interesting. Speaking of Philip Johnson’s Glass House, Frank Lloyd Wright is said to have visited it. At a certain point, he says to Philip Johnson at the door of the Glass House, “What is this? Do I take my hat off now? Am I inside? Or am I out?” The Farnsworth House and the Glass House are both pavilions in the landscape. About that Farnsworth House, Mies said that “Nature is more interesting seen from this house.” Seeing it framed from the inside of the house, nature is more nature than nature, that’s what he says, which is really interesting. All the colors are enhanced, the way it’s framed etc.
What about water and sound?
Right. Of course, the water element is super important. The sound of the water. The Glass House has a pool, in fact. Pools are an important part of the composition of a lot of these modern houses, particularly here in California. To have the pool—a big body of water—it’s less like in the 19th century a vertical pool with a fountain with elements and more like a basin—a horizontal pool. Think about, for example, the Barcelona pavilion [designed by Mies van der Rohe Editor’s Note] and the significance of these two very shallow pools of water, one with the Calder statue and the other by the entrance. The horizontality of the water I suppose is more important than the vertical idea of the fountain, as in a castle or in a palace in a traditional architecture.
I can think also of the Baker House where James Turrell designed a swimming pool. He worked on this idea of having the water laser flat.
Laser flat. It’s interesting because artists, of course, are working very much with these questions of water and sound.
When Richard Meier was building the Getty, he was given a beautiful house on the hillside with a beautiful pool. The pool is such that you can go from inside the house and somehow go under and emerge outside. It’s a modernist house. Then he goes to New York for a few days. When he comes back he finds a homeless guy in the middle of the living room with his bathrobe, sitting in his favorite chair and smoking his cigars. He managed to find a way through the pool and into the house that has now been occupied. I like this idea of the water as an intruder into the house.