The sustainable icon

Herman Miller - Mirra chair (Copyright Herman Miller)
Herman Miller - Mirra (Copyright Herman Miller)

This week I have been reading ‘Vers une architecture’ by Le Corbusier. As my French is not that great, I am reading the English translation. I find it a fascinating book, as the content is somewhat different than I expected. Le Corbusier states that buildings with a simpler, geometrical form are better appreciated by the public, than buildings with a more complex form. It is a fact, Le Corbusier continues, that has somehow been forgotten.

The main argument by Le Corbusier is well known: the Industrial Revolution is to affect architecture too. Houses for instance should be standardized and mass produced to reduce costs. The ocean liner, the car, the airplane, the bridge, the factory; they show the future of architecture. The architect however is not to be an engineer. Architectural space triggers emotions, Le Corbusier writes. The composition of space therefore requires a specialist knowledge different from engineering. Le Corbusier favors one effect of the new architecture: the clean, functional spaces of the factory fruits contemplation.

Le Corbusier wrote his manifest in the early twenties of the twentieth century. Now, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, architecture critics have called the end of the icon and have announced the arrival of a new modesty in architecture. This modesty, such is the expectation, is coupled with a new concern for the social issues of our world. It is a sentiment that is shared from the United States to the Netherlands. (I am not sure the Arabs and Asians feel this way too).

The irony of this is obviously that the icon has made architecture more popular than ever before. The services of the architect are in high demand. Ambitious clients still ask for ‘a new Bilbao’, more than ten years after the completion of the museum. The architect, as a hip figure, features in commercials on television. In the Netherlands politicians call architects an example of the creative economy and regard architecture as a valuable export product. Are we about to throw that all away?

There is no definite answer to that question. I do think though that a comparison with the early Modernism is instructive. The expected new modesty is not so new after all. However, the argument that is currently being used is different than the argument by Le Corbusier. The analogy with the ocean liner, the car, the airplane, the bridge, the factory that Le Corbusier puts forward doesn’t apply to the current situation. To stretch it a bit further: there is no field at the moment that shows a new modesty in design.

The parallel between de birth of Modernism and the current situation, that the architecture critics seem to see, is the following. Modernism was a response to the decadent, highly expensive, ornamental architecture of the nineteenth century. The ‘age of the icon’, as it has been called, is similarly regarded as a period of decadent, highly expensive, ornamental architecture. Time for a new modesty! Or not?

The global economical downturn automatically results in more modest architecture. At least temporarily. But is it going to last? The core of the argument of Le Corbusier is the reference to the industrialization. “A house is a machine for living in”. The reaction to ornament follows from that. Not the other way around.

Anno 2009 industrialization is off the table. The motto is differentiation, not standardization.
Just like the beginning of the twentieth century a new ideology has arrived. A revolution is at hand. It is a second industrial revolution, that not only applies to architecture, but to society at large. It is not about modesty in form. It is about how we use our building materials. The new ideology is sustainability.

The history of the icon is related to the emergence of complex form in architecture. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Seattle Public Library, the Swiss Re tower in London, the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, the Bird’s nest in Beijing; all represent innovations in architectural form.

Sustainability doesn’t end the trend towards ever more complex form in architecture. The car industry proves that focusing on sustainability doesn’t obstruct the creation of ever more complex bodyworks. The chairs that can be taken apart in 7 minutes by Herman Miller don’t feature a new simplicity in form. On contrary.
The emergence of the sustainable icon is upon us.


Herman Miller - Mirra chair (Copyright Herman Miller)
Herman Miller - Mirra (Copyright Herman Miller)

Related at Eikongraphia: Lease your facade, E2 Design

Related book: Towards a new architecture

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