Marcel Breuer’s “Where do We Stand?” (1934)

Translated from the Dutch by Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton, et al.

From Architecture and Design, 1890-1939: An International Anthology

of Original Articles.  (Whitney Library of Design.  New York, NY: 1975).

• • •

In the past I have been opposed to much of this theorising about the New Architecture, believing that our job was to build, and that our buildings sufficed, since they speak plainly enough for themselves. I was, moreover, not a little startled when I realised how often there was a considerable discrepancy between the theories and the personalities who advanced them. The danger of all theorising is that, by carrying one’s arguments too far, one is apt to leave the world of reality behind. Some of the principles of the Modern Movement have been widely adopted, but they have been compromised by being used separately without any co-ordinating relation to the aims of that Movement as a whole. A closer examination of the ideology of the New Architecture has therefore become a pressing necessity.

The protagonists of the Modern Movement have been occupied with the classification and development of their individual designs. This meant that further propaganda was left to chance, industrial advertisements, and the technical press. As a result much has been distorted, much overlooked.

Modern terminology is fond of snappy slogans: and each of these slogans serves only some isolated detail. A correlation of these heterogeneous parts to their unifying whole is still lacking. Whereas the pioneers of the Modern Movement have now succeeded in establishing a very broad intellectual basis, which is in harmony with their own work, the younger generation still confines itself to rigid formalisation. Architecture is an alarmingly many-sided complex, and as soon as one leaves the technical sphere, all conceptions tend to become vague and overlapping.

What, then, are the basic impulses and methods of the New Architecture, leading to that overall and balanced [179] improvement in the first place, and absence of preconception of any kind, especially the traditional preconception.

Secondly, an ability to place oneself in immediate objective contact with a given task, problem, or form in a clear, transparent way.

Thirdly, to create aesthetic satisfaction by contrast and use of elemental forms.

(1) Let those who prefer respectful transition from the principles of one school or style to those of another, adopt them if they will.

What we believe is what we have perceived, experienced, thought, proved, and calculated for ourselves.

At this point, I should like to consider traditionalism for a moment. And by tradition I do not mean the unconscious dependence on the immediate past. That the type of men who are described as modern architects have the sincerest admiration and love for genuine national art, for old peasant houses and for the masterpieces of the great epochs in art, is a point which needs to be stressed. What interests us most when travelling, for instance, is to find places where the daily activity of the population has remained unchanged. Nothing is such a relief as to discover a creative craftsmanship that has been developed and handed down for generations from father to son, and that is free of the pretentious pomp and empty vanity of the architecture of the last century. Here is something from which we can learn, though not with a view to imitation. For us the attempt to build in a national tradition or an old-world style would be inadequate and insincere. The modern world has no tradition for its eight-hour day, its electric light, its central heating, its water supply, its liners, or for any of its technical methods. One can roundly damn the whole of our age; one can commiserate with, or dissociate oneself from, or hope to transform the men and women who have lost their mental equilibrium in the vortex of modern life — but I do not believe that to decorate their homes with traditional gables and dormers helps them in the least. On the contrary, this only widens the gulf between appearance and reality and removes them still further from that ideal equilibrium which is, or should be, the ultimate object of all thought and action.

It may, perhaps, seem paradoxical to establish a parallel between certain aspects of vernacular architecture, or national art, and the Modern Movement. All the same, it is interesting to see that these two diametrically opposed tendencies have two characteristics in common: the impersonal character of their forms; and a tendency to develop along typical, rational lines that are unaffected by passing fashions. It is probably these traits that make genuine peasant art so sympathetic to us — though the sympathy it arouses is a purely platonic one. If we ask ourselves what is the source of the solid, unselfconscious beauty, the convincing quality and reasonableness of peasant work, we find that the explanation lies in its unconsciously, and therefore genuinely, traditional nature. A given region has only a few traditional crafts and uses a few definite colours.

Roughly speaking, the same things, or variants of the same things, have always been made there. And even these variations follow a regular and recurrent rhythm. It is their uninterrupted transmission through local and family associations which conditions their development and ultimately standardises them as type-forms.

In one direction at least our modern efforts offer a parallel: we seek what is typical, the norm; not the accidental but the definite ad hoc form. These norms are designed to meet the needs, not of a former age, but of our own age. Therefore we realise them naturally, not only with craftsmen’s tools, but with modern industrial machinery.

If one examines industrial standardisation, one cannot fail to perceive that it is representative of an ‘art’, of traditional development which is the result of exploring the same problem over and over again. What has changed is our method: instead of family traditions and force of habit we employ scientific principles and logical analysis.

I want to avoid misunderstanding. I do not for a moment mean that peasant art and the Modern Movement have any connection in fact with one another. All I wanted to do was to bring out the similarity between [180] certain tendencies which have led, or can lead, to relative perfection in each. In any case, we can all admit that there are numbers of old peasant farmsteads that we find far more stimulating than many so-called ‘modern’ houses.

To sum up: it is quite untrue to say that the Modern Movement is contemptuous of traditional or national art. It is simply that the sympathy we feel for each does not take the form of making us want to use either as a medium for the utterly different purposes of the present day.

I should like to divorce the ‘unbiased’ aspect of the New Architecture from association with terms like ‘new’, ‘original’, ‘individual’, ‘imaginative’, and ‘revolutionary’. We are all susceptible to the persuasion of that word ‘new.’ Society pays its meed of respect to anything new by granting it a patent. International patent law is based on two principles: ‘technical improvement’ and ‘newness’. Thus novelty becomes a powerful commercial weapon. But what is the Modern Movement’s real attitude to this business of ‘newness’? Are we for what is new, unexpected, and a change at any price, in the same way that we are for an unbiased view at any price? I think we can answer this question with an emphatic negative. We are not out to create something new, but something suitable, right, and as relatively perfect as may be.

The new in the Modern Movement must be considered simply a means to an end, not an end in itself, as in women’s fashions. What we aim at and believe to be possible is that the solutions embodied in the forms of the New Architecture should endure for ten, twenty or a hundred years as circumstances may demand — a thing unthinkable in the world of fashion as long as modes are modes. It follows that, though we have no fear of what is new, novelty is not our aim. We seek what is definite and real, whether old or new.

We have tired of everything in architecture which is a matter of fashion; we find all intentionally new forms wearisome, and all those based on personal predilections or tendencies equally pointless. To this can be added the simple consideration that we cannot hope to our buildings or furniture as often as we change, for example, our ties.

If by ‘original’, ‘individual’, or ‘imaginative’ artistic caprice, a happy thought or an isolated flash of genius is meant, then I must answer that the New Architecture does not aim at being original, individual, or imaginative. Here, too, there has been a transformation in the meaning of terms. According to our ideas, modern architecture is ‘original’ when it provides a complete solution of the difficulty concerned. By ‘individual’ we understand the degree of intensity or application with which the most various or directly interconnected problems are disposed of. ‘Imagination’ is no longer expressed in remote intellectual adventures, but in the tenacity with which formal order is imposed upon the world of realities.

The ability to face a problem objectively brings us to the so-called ‘revolutionary’ side of the Modern Movement. I have considerable hesitation in using the word at all, since it has recently been annexed by various political parties, and in some countries it is actually inculcated into school children as an elementary civic virtue. In fact, revolution is now almost becoming a permanent institution. I believe that what was originally revolutionary in the Movement was simply the unheard of principle of putting its own objective views into practice. Our revolutionary attitude was neither self-complacency nor propagandist bravura but the inward and — as far as possible — outward echo of the independence of our work. Although to be revolutionary has received the sanction of respectability, this causes us considerable qualms: the word inevitably has a political flavour.

Politics, of course, play an immensely important part in architecture, as in life, but it is a mistake to identify that part with any one of its different functions. To come down from the general to the particular:

The technical and economic potentiality of architecture is independent of the political views of its exponents. It follows that the aesthetic potentiality of architecture is also independent of their political views; and likewise the intensity with which particular [181] architects may apply themselves to the solution of particular functional problems.

Politics and architecture overlap, first, in the nature the problems presented to the latter; and, secondly, the means that are available for their solutions. But this connection is by no means a definite one. For instance, how does it help us to know that Stalin and me promoters of the Palace of the Soviets competition are communists? Their arguments are very much the as those of any primitive-minded capitalistic, or democratic, or Fascist, or merely conservative motor-car manufacturer with a hankering for the cruder forms of embolism. In spite of life and thought, no one can deny that each of these spheres has a highly important on-political side to it, and that that side determines its nature. The architect, as such, is content to confine himself to analysing and solving the various questions of architecture and town-planning which arise from their several psychophysical, coordinating, and technical-economic aspects. And I believe that work of this kind leads to material advances which have nothing to do with politics.

(2) The second dominant impulse of the Modern Movement is a striving after clarity, or, if you prefer it, directness. No romantic tendencies are implied in either of these terms. They do not mean that we wear our hearts on our sleeves, or on our long horizontal windows.

This particular exemplification of ‘clarity’ has caused a great deal of harm — in the same way that the desire to show construction openly has often led to the violation of structural principles or to their naively childish over-emphasis. Clarity interpreted in this spirit has been responsible for a decidedly uncomfortable world full of screwheads and intellectual exhibitionism. With a little naive good-will, the famous principle of inside-out ‘exteriorisation’ can be relied upon to conjure up a perfect wilderness.

The principle of clarity, as we understand it, expresses itself in the technical and economic fields of architecture, through emphasis on structural laws and practical functions; and in the aesthetic field by simplicity and a renunciation of all irrational forms.

The New Architecture might be compared to a crystalline structure in the process of formation. Its forms correspond to human laws and functions, which differ from those of nature or organic bodies. In its more immediate conception this New Architecture of ours is the ‘container’ of men’s domiciles, the orbit of their lives. Are our buildings identifiable with descriptions such as ‘cold’, ‘hard’, ’empty-looking’, ‘ultra-logical’, ‘unimaginative and mechanistic in every detail’? Is it our aim to trump the mechanisation of offices and factories with the mechanisation of home life? Whoever thinks so has either seen only the worst examples of modern architecture, or has had no opportunity to live in or make a closer inspection of the best. There may also be some confusion in his ideas. Does he perhaps mean pompous when he says ‘human’? a brown sauce of wallpaper when he invokes cosiness? empty pretence when he demands ‘peacefulness’? Anyhow, he attributes intentions to us which we have never had.

The origin of the Modern Movement was not technological, for technology had been developed long before it was thought of. What the New Architecture did was to civilise technology. Its real genesis was a growing consciousness of the spirit of our age. However, it proved far harder to formulate the intellectual basis and the aesthetic of the New Architecture intelligibly than to establish its logic in practical use. One has experienced all too often that something like a functional kitchen equipment has made hypercritical people far more accessible to our ideas; and that as a result they have not infrequently become reconciled to our aesthetic. The ease of this method of approach led certain modern architects to outbid each other in broadcasting technical progress, and to rely on theoretical deductions supported by columns of figures. A deliberately statistical attitude to architecture ensued, which degenerated into a competition as to who could go furthest in denying it any sort of aesthetic moment. The engineer was proclaimed the true designer, and everything was declared beautiful that was technically efficient.

I think we can take it that this tendency has nearly [182] seen its day. Engineering structures are by no means necessarily beautiful because they are engineering structures, though they may often be beautiful either because their builders had a marked talent for form, or as a result of that scientific tradition which in time evolves satisfactory industrial form for everything — the norm, the standard. Also, there is, of course, a great deal to be said for the practical objectivity of engineering methods facing technical problems. The engineer has been responsible for several things which, in contrast to many architectural designs of the last century, were at least useful.

To call things by their proper names, let us not bamboozle ourselves into believing that the achievements of engineering are ipso facto beautiful.

To sum up: to us clarity means the definite expression of the purpose of a building and a sincere expression of its structure. One can regard this sincerity as a sort of moral duty, but I feel that for the designer it is above all a trial of strength that sets the seal of success on his achievement; and the sense of achievement is a very basic instinct. Nor do I see any puritanism in our cult of simplicity, but rather a zest for obtaining greater effect with less expenditure; the satisfaction of fashioning something out of nothing with intelligence and arrangement of one’s main resources. By this I mean winning colour, plasticity, and animation from a flat white wall.

Where does rationalism end and art begin in the New Architecture? Where is the dividing line between them, and how is it fixed? I could not trace that border if I tried. Architecture seems worthy of notice only in proportion as it produces an effect on our senses, and our senses are strangers to rationalising processes. It is the same whether this effect, which we can, if you like, call ‘beauty’, has been created by an engineer or an artist: whether it is the result of what is called speculative research, or what is called intuition. I care nothing for any differentiation between these methods, but I care a great deal whether I feel at ease in the finished building.

We have no use for beauty in the form of a foreign body, of ornament, or of titivating undesigned structural elements; not even as an arbitrary magnification of certain dimensions, a purely transient vogue. We have no use for architecture that is labelled symbolist, cubist, neoplastic, or ‘constructivist’. We know that the essential and determining elements of a building can be wholly rational without this rationalism in any way affecting the question of whether it is beautiful or ugly. Everyone who has planned, designed, and constructed, knows:

(a) That in spite of the logical volition, the decisive impulse towards coordination very often occurs through uncontrollable reflexes.

(b) That even in the most objective exploration of a given problem by the logical method of procedure, in nearly every case a final — one might almost say illogical — choice between different combinations has to be made.

(c) That the commanding and convincing impressiveness of really inspired construction is the outcome of an inflexible tenacity which is almost passionate, and that that passion transcends mere logic.

(3) I now come to the third dominant impulse of the Modern Movement: the relation of unbroken elements to one another — contrast. What is aimed at is unschematic design. Whoever supposes that our preference for flat roofs inclines us to adopt flat tops for our coffee-pots; that the cubic forms of our buildings will be echoed in our lighting fixtures; or that our guiding principle of establishing unity and a certain harmonious relation between all these things can be labelled as a ‘style’, has entirely misunderstood our objectives. There is no hard and fast formula for doing this or that in the New Architecture. Wherever you find identical forms in different places, you can be sure it was due to the adoption of a similar solution for a similar problem. But when a cupboard begins to look like a house, a house like the pattern of a carpet, and the pattern of a carpet like a bedside lamp, you can be certain that it is not modern work in the sense that ‘modern’ is used in this talk. We strive to achieve a definite design for all different elements, and we arrange them side by side without dressing them artificially for the purpose. The elements [183] receive different forms as a natural consequence of their different structure. Their complete individuality is intended to establish a kind of balance which seems to me a far more vital one than the purely superficial ‘harmony’ which can be realised by adopting either a formal or a structural common denominator. We reject the traditional conception of ‘style’, first, because it gainsays sincere and appropriate design; and secondly, because the link between quite justifiable differences in appearance produces the sort of contrast we consider characteristic of modern life. Contrasts like building and nature a mans working life and his home life, voids and solids, shining metal and soft materials, living organisms like plants against the stark plain surfaces of a wall; also in the polarities of the discipline of standardisation to the freedom of experiment. Such contrasts have become a necessity of life. They are guarantees of the reality of the direction we have chosen to adopt. The power to preserve these extremes without modification (that is to say, the extent of their contrast) is the real gauge of our strength.


~ by Ross Wolfe on June 28, 2011.

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