Walling of Awareness

article by bradley rose

Submitted by ludd on February 3, 2010

[color=#cc00cc]THE WALLING OF AWARENESS[/color]

Three years ago I spent a few days in a mountain wilderness with two friends. We wanted to "do a sweat" and so we set to work at building a sweat hut. After choosing a flat site along a stream, we began to collect boughs for supports, wood for a fire, rocks for heating, and so on. We used the renewable resources at hand and a sheet of plastic we brought from home. We bent and tied boughs to form a dome-shaped ribcage over which we stretched a plastic skin.

At each stage of construction, we had to make choices. What should we do first? How many ribs did we need? What kind of rocks were best to use? Who would get wood for the fire? We sensed or came to agreement on all issues and we had several rejuvenating sweats during our stay in the mountains.

The days were mild, broken by afternoon showers. Inside our sweat hut, seated around a small pit of red hot, steaming rocks, sitting close on grass which we had sprinkled with sage, we talked and chanted and hushed to hear the thunder. We had combined our architectural prowesses into something that was mutually satisfying. Moreover, our sweat hut didn't impose upon others since it was only a provisional reorganization of time and space. It was acceptably "rough around the corners," richly sensual, and celebratory — like us.

As that experience settled into my memory, I began to examine how the space surrounding me was shaped and defined, who made such decisions, and with what intentions.


I define architecture as behavior (i.e., thinking, acting, building, choosing, burning, etc.) by which space and time are structured for future use. This definition is deliberately broad in that it recognizes that all people, not just a professional elite, are capable of structuring space. If we remove a door within our home, if we use space on the office desk to grow herbs or display photos of loved ones, if we make a garbage can of the street, or if we simply leave a space and time untouched — we are making architectural choices.

How such choices are made is a political as well as architectural matter. The architect, professional or not, limits possibilities, channels tendencies, concentrates resources to facilitate certain kinds of activities (and not others). Architecture, to a large extent determines how people will interact with each other and their environment. The predominant role of professionals in architecture — as in most other spheres of life — is a recent development. Until the Industrial Revolution, only royalty and organized religion needed or could afford the services of professional architects. Most people met their architectural needs by drawing on communally held science and tradition.

When I returned to San Francisco from my mountain experience, the professional, modern architecture in my day to day life seemed even more miserable and inadequate than it did before. I labored in offices permanently sealed against fresh air and sunlight, rain, animal life and all the other "snares and snakepits" of nature. I ventured into streets made cold and windy by highrise aerodynamics. I was hoisted up to work in 'elevators' as one of the human units which measured an elevator's capacity. Phone booths for single people, restaurants with parking lots and family accommodations, "men's rooms" and "ladies' rooms," public parking garages, hallways — even doors (glass, locked, automatic, front and back)— all presupposed and attempted to facilitate and perpetuate certain planned human relationships.

San Francisco's corporate architecture institutionalizes the most unimaginative uses of form, color, texture, taste, smell and other sensory qualities. It is designed to be unappreciable to human taste, hearing, smell and touch. It shows a bias toward what can be mass-produced, for high-tech precision and engineering, for mirrory smooth surface, for metal, concrete and glass, and for uncompromising uniformity or regularity. Environments based on sensory deprivation result.

With my wilderness trip still fresh in my memory, I asked myself: what is the value system behind modern design and what are its underlying messages? I began to pay more attention to the effect of architecture on my own life. From the architecture itself emerged a pattern of messages and values shaped by the consciousness of industrialized people.

In San Francisco, new buildings are meant to be as permanent as possible. They are erected without regard either for people who live and work in the vicinity or for future generations. Through these buildings, developers attempt to colonize the future. Although this has characterized monumental architecture in all ages, only in modern times has the secular corporate world utilized the symbolism of monumental architecture. Right up to modern times, civilizations symbolically established their own permanence in stone. By its sheer size and timelessness, such architecture seemed to convey the impression that the status quo would last through eternity. Corporate modern architecture seeks to do the same.

Modern building materials are largely made of non-renewable resources in limited supply from the far parts of the world — steel, aluminum, copper and petroleum. Oil and gas are used to perfect other raw materials into building — quality glass, steel and concrete. Oil and gas are also used to hoist, weld, press, fit, bore and otherwise erect San Francisco's buildings. I used to eat my bag lunches on the windy and cold terraces of 3 Embarcadero Center, watching resources from all over the world concentrated into 4 Embarcadero Center across the street.


Through the 19th century the machines created to mine, traverse, smelt, and manufacture affected the way reality was perceived. People could not ignore the sudden and overwhelming presence of machinery. With railroads, canals, bridges and the telegraph, people broke through spatial and temporal barriers. New materials — such as steel and rubber — and new technical aids to production — such as control of electric and steam power — seemed to make many traditions obsolete. Many philosophers who were born to that world were inspired by the power of contemporary machinery. Machine operation metaphorized their experience and convinced them that 'civilized man' could master nature. He had learned to release and harness the power stored in oil, gas and coal; with nitroglycerin (1847) and dynamite (1866) he blasted his way through mountains. Amid so much progress, industrial men showed an unprecedented self-confidence. They no longer felt bound to hold sacred what Nature through her "wiles" had created. Men leveled forests, bred meatier cattle and sturdier corn, and 'reclaimed' wilderness and wasteland. To them the 20th century represented a new era, not only man-centered and man-bound, but man-controlled.

"The era of the great mechanized individuals has begun and all the rest is palaeontology." —Urnberto Boccioni, 1912

Radical artists and architects, such as the Futurist Boccioni, were among those who dreamed of a world restructured by industry. Architecture became more and more a subject for conversation, discussion, debate, diatribe . . . and manifesto. The supporters of industrialism confronted the old traditions. Fantastic and unprecedented architectures and radical theorems were published during the early 20th century. Adolf Loos, an Austrian architect, equated ornament with crime. Bruno Taut, an Expressionist, pictured dazzling, jeweled cities in watercolor. Antonio Sant'Elia, a Futurist architect whose work rarely got beyond the drawing board, apotheosized grand dams, monumental train stations, colossal power factories and megalithic apartment blocks. On the surface, these fantasies seem various and fundamentally personal, but they all shared a vision of a wholly new world, built and controlled by industrial Man.

New schools of modern design were established in Austria, Germany, Italy, Holland and Russia. Many of the "architects" in these schools had little to show of their work other than manifestos, sketches, and slogans, but over these they attacked and counter-attacked each other and formed alliances. These architects equated the value of their visions with their appropriateness to an industrially restructured world.

As Theo van Doesburg, a radical modernist from the Dutch de Stijl school, asserted with millenarian bravado in 1922:

"All that we used to designate as magic, spirit, love, etc. will now be efficiently accomplished. The idea of the miraculous, that primitive man made so free with, will now be realized simply through electric current, mechanical control of light and water, the technological conquest of space and time."


"The individual is losing significance; his destiny is no longer what interests us." —Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1932

The radical architects, like so many other people of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were possessed with the promise of social-isms. In many of these social-ist schemes, the heinous extreme between the plight of the poor and the luxury of the wealthy was attributed to individual excess. Many of the social-ist architects of the early 20th century — and in Europe nearly all the formative modern architects referred to themselves as socialists — assumed the task of designing an urban, worker-oriented world which reflected and reinforced their anti-individualist attitude.

Around 1920, for example, the Swiss-born architect and painter Le Corbusier designed "A Contemporary City for 3 Million Inhabitants." The inhabitants were to be housed in rows of identical highrises conveniently connected to their places of work. He did not have any particular 3 million individuals in mind; he designed his city for a co-conscious, worker-identified society. The influential German architect Muthesius in 1911 also echoed the principles of popular social-isms:

"In modern social and economic organization there is a sharp tendency to conformity under dominant view points, a strict uniformity of individual elements, a depreciation of the inessential in favor of immediate essentials. And these social and economic tendencies have a spiritual affinity with the formal tendencies of our aesthetic movement."

Guided by such "formal tendencies" the fantastic sketches of the early 20th century looked more alike and less fantastic by the mid 1920s. Elements of design which could be labeled individual or eccentric were ridiculed by the cliques of architects and designers who had banded together under the flag of industrialism.

The history of the "State Bauhaus" school in Weimar shows how modernist architecture was shaped by conformist pressures. After the devastation of WWI, Germans hoped to rebuild Germany through industrial production. To meet the need for industrial designers, Walter Gropius's Bauhaus opened in 1919. A unique feature of the early Bauhaus was its liberating preliminary course, conceived and elaborated by Johannes Itten. In this course, apprentices were encouraged "to start from zero" and to express their "inner voice." But in 1923 Gropius scrapped the preliminary course and yielded to industrialist-socialist dogma. In order to finance the Bauhaus he needed to appease government and private enterprise, and leaders in both groups pushed for social-ist industrialization.

Gropius's Bauhaus had been criticized by Le Corbusier and van Doesburg who were seen by many as the leading Art formulators of the day. In 1922-23, Theo van Doesburg himself settled in Weimar near the Bauhaus. He took credit for turning the Bauhaus curriculum away from handicrafts and individualism. "At Weimar I have overturned everything . . . " he wrote. "I have talked to the pupils every evening and I have infused the poison of the new spirit everywhere . . . . I have mountains of strength and I know that our notions will be victorious over everyone and everything." At the same time, Le Corbusier was working (that is, writing) out of France. Le Corbusier had formulated the "scientific laws" of industrial expression:

"Nothing justifies us in supposing there should be any incompatibility between science and art. The one and the other have the common aim of reducing the universe to equations .... The work of art must not be accidental, exceptional, impressionistic ... but on the contrary, generalized, static, expressive of the invariant."

To him, the dominance of simple rectangularity characterized the industrial style:

"If we go indoors to work... the office is square, the desk is square and cubic, and everything on it is at right angles [the paper, the envelopes, the correspondence baskets with their geometrical weave, the files, the folders, the registers, etc.] ... the hours of our day are spent amid a geometrical spectacle, our eyes are subject to a constant commerce with forms that are almost all geometry."

Gropius planned a Bauhaus exhibition in response to criticism and industrial pressure. The theme of the exhibition was "Art and Technology — A New Unity," in which the influences of van Doesburg and Le Corbusier were obvious. At the same time, Gropius suggested that artists should wear conventional clothing — that is, business dress. The Bauhaus opened a department of worker architecture and Bauhaus students produced volumes of genre drawings which imitated the many other impersonal drawings then circulating around Europe.

Before the Bauhaus closed in 1933 the new industrial style had become well established in Europe. It was characterized by a rational, impersonal, systematic approach to architecture in which standardized "worker needs" were met with mass-production technology. Efficient hierarchical social organization was its basic goal. Emotional expression and ornament — which purportedly interfered with efficiency — gave way to simple geometries in black and white. This modern style was also characterized by what seemed (to any Westerner) to be its international base; after all, it had developed simultaneously and under similar conditions throughout industrial Europe. And so, in 1932, when H.R. Hitchcock and Philip Johnson arranged the first exhibition of this style in the U.S. at the New York Museum of Modern Art — they called it the 'International Style', a label which persists to this day. Through the International Style Exhibition, Americans saw that the principles by which their cars and factories were designed would also shape their homes, shops and schools.

In the late '30s many of Europe's modern architects (Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer) emigrated to the U.S. where they further influenced the development of modern architecture. Gropius, for example, was asked to teach at Harvard in 1937 and the following year, he became chairman of its architecture department. By then it was obvious that the new style was no mere fad. American capital financed its development in the U.S. By the end of WWII, modern architectural style emerged pre-eminent.

The socialist principles which shaped the development of modern architecture — the suppression of individual expression, domination over Nature, time-efficiency, and massproduction — served American capitalism as well as it had served the socialists in Europe. Mies van der Rohe, for example, welcomed a commission to design a 'communist' monument, but when he became director of the Bauhaus he expelled communist students because it was expedient under the Nazis to do so; he designed a Reichsbank for Hitler (whose personal tastes thwarted the advance of Bauhaus-type architecture in Nazi Germany) and then designed school buildings, apartment towers, and corporate highrises for American business. Gropius asserted the international quality of modern architecture in the '20s, designed Nazi exhibition structures in the '30s, and tried to persuade Goebbels that modern architecture was not anti-Nazi (but failed — again because of Hitler's personal stance). Whether under the state socialists or the capitalists, the social reorganization necessitated by industrial production was facilitated by modernist, social-ist architecture.


Not surprisingly, a body of professional criticism has developed in response to modern architecture, but very little of it penetrates to the deeper flaws. Most critics examine modern architecture as one would examine an exhibit of paintings in a museum: they write about the "articulation of light" and the "thingness of the brick" and they ignore the hostile reality of the modern design in which human beings live, work, buy and die.

Some critics have rejected the visual austerity of "Manhattanization" — the concentration of megalithic office slabs in urban financial centers. Responding to such criticism, some architects began in the 1970s to design highrises with 'old-fashioned' decorations; condos with 'Victorian' ornament; and buildings with unusual shapes. This trend has been promoted as a new, visually stimulating style, called Post-Modernism. But the Post-Modernist call to bygone traditions is superficial. The fancy wooden scrollwork of new 'Victorians' no longer reflects the pride and talent of craftsmen. It is the soulless imitation of the craftsman's art, turned on factory lathes. In fact, the spirit of Post-Modernism is that of modernism itself. It incorporates the same biases as modernism — biases toward the same building materials and methods ... toward asensuality ... colonization of space and time ... 'monetization' of nature ... coercive preplanning of human activities and relationships ... and professionalization. Modernism also prevails over architectural "preservation." When civic groups demand the preservation of an older and noteworthy building in cities such as San Francisco, nothing more than the facade gets preserved. Behind the facade, both literally and figuratively, modernism holds its ground.

A meaningful criticism of architecture therefore must rise from something more substantial than "what it looks like." modern architecture, for instance, has had many notable technical failures. Peter Blake, in Form Follows Fiasco, cites a number of the technical shortcomings of modern buildings — such as Boston's John Hancock Tower which dropped 10,000 of its windows into the streets below. Gross technical failures are inherent to modern architecture. When building materials are mass-produced, so also are their flaws. The same is true of construction methods.

A radical analysis of modern architecture examines the inherent messages and values from which modern architecture is formulated and which it perpetuates. modern architecture reveals itself as a censoring expression, as a message of social control. Every modern building says: "You are not qualified to build for yourself. Your individual feelings have no significance in the structuring of common space. Your needs have been decided for you. The scope of your existence is circumscribed by professional pre-planning. You are accommodated as shopper flow, floor usage, occupant, worker, etc. Your sensitivity and sensuality have no bearing on architectural concerns. "Whether we live in a condo, use a men's room, or adapt to the office, we experience modern architecture as a subliminal lesson in industrialism.

The "modern" architecture of the near future is likely to look extremely different than what we're used to. As supplies of cheap oil run dry, professional technoarchitects are looking to new building materials and methods. Transnational corporations are financing research into bio-engineering — the manipulation of genetic material in order to "manufacture" new, "living" materials, fuels, and processors. The modern architects have a passion for "dead" building materials — concrete, glass, steel, and they control them with intimidating effect. But with the technology of bioengineering, the future architects can shape living as well as dead matter. Under such circumstances, the final distinction between life and manipulable matter may well be obliterated. Bio-engineered architecture may look substantially different than that of today, but social control will likely remain its predominant function.


The modern architects designed clean and inexpensive dwellings for a mass-produced world. In so doing, they provided a more healthful alternative to tenement living. They developed an architectural ethos and aesthetic in which the common worker received particular care and attention. But the spirit of modern architecture has run its course. We recognize that modern architecture does not promote individual, subjective worth; that its monumental aspects intimidate more than they inspire; that social control — and not free and willful cooperation — is its underlying motive; and that it is ecologically unsound. These characterizations expose values by which we can examine the appropriateness of various architectural schemes to a free society. An architecture of the richness and scale of human being need not be limited to small structures. The range of human sensitivity includes an appreciation of grandeur, of monumental symbolism, of awesomeness. Today's corporate architecture is, ironically, as close as modern architecture comes to such expression.
I once saw a graffito on the rear wall of a San Francisco supermarket which read: THE WALLS HAVE EARS. It was a redefinition of that wall — of the idea of the wall — as common space for social uses — in this case, an exchange of information. Walls are not just walls: they are functions. They retain hills, obstruct passage, contain space, suggest the containment of space, invite the curious, support color, etc. We can begin to think in these terms — not of what architecture is, but what it does; to see architecture as behavior and as consciousness made manifest.

—by Bradley Rose