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Restoring region to architecture

Marc Lefkowitz  |  11/30/07 @ 5:12pm

What I took from last Saturday's screening and discussion of the film, "Bauhaus in America" is a new set of questions, beginning with, what is architecture's role in creating a sustainable world? The event reminded me of what local architect Ted Sande said at the Cleveland Goes Modern exhibit (which, incidentally, closes this Saturday), when he asked, "What is the architecture for our age?"

It's a most important question, because, as author Tom Wolfe says in the film, "Ideas become fashion, but the results, in the case of architecture, are so permanent."

The film does a nice job of exploring the development of the Bauhaus movement, from groundbreaking furniture design and art to buildings that sought a new paradigm through clean lines and forms and modern materials. It also doesn't shy away from the pitfalls of the Bauhaus, especially as it moved to America and fought for its soul as Gropius and Breuer built houses that brought together natural materials and Modern design. On the other hand, they and Mies van der Rohe designed commercial buildings that reflected our corporate ideals of anonymity and linear management style. (To read a review in the Cleveland Jewish News, go here).

The Bauhaus created a vocabulary of architecture with the steel post and beam and pre-cast concrete just as the Greeks did with columns and marble. Their use of American technology and ideas of simplified form influenced a generation, which critics argue, veered too far from interacting with people and the natural environment.

Buildings from the 1970s and '80s were a watered-down version of the Bauhaus design that put technological solutions ahead of the needs of the building occupants. Placing technology ahead of social or environmental realities, as was Mies' big concern, lead to a culture that favors design over regional issues.

Today, the issue of concern is, what is an appropriate regional solution to design so that we may meet the needs of a shrinking city like Cleveland, in a warming world of scarce natural resources?

"The loss of regionalism in architecture is from technology that lets you build a glass box in Alaska or Saudi Arabia-you don't have to work with nature," architect Peter van Dijk said during a panel discussion after the film. "Because of the energy crisis, people are going back to vernacular architecture and considering place, materials and environment."

Modern design and green urbanism are not antithetical, said Steven Fong, director of the School of Architecture & Environmental Design at Kent State. Many "second-tier" Modern architects in Europe are exploring designs that offer a "rich street life," by thinking of the built environment at scale with human needs such as pedestrian flow, and by using local materials.

Vernacular architecture tends to evolve over time to reflect the environmental, cultural and historical context in which it exists, according to Wikipedia. An architect whose work that exemplifies the modern take on vernacular architecture would be Samuel Mockbee, whose pioneering work with Rural Studio is well-regarded and widely discussed amongst practicing architects and academics alike.

The entry includes Christopher Alexander and Paolo Soleri, and I would add architect Mick Pearce who collaborated with engineers at Arup Associates to build a mid-rise building in Harare, Zimbabwe that has no air-conditioning, yet stays cool thanks to a termite-inspired ventilation system (see this link).

The "Greening the Modern Preservation Movement" series has illuminated, for me, the relationship between biomimics like Pearce and the goals of vernacular and green architects. We can help by thinking of what natural habitats in Northeast Ohio serve as ideal models to house us. Perhaps it's a new design from the earth-sheltered homes that were first introduced to our area in the 1970s? Only by looking at our locally available, sustainable natural resources and our changing climate, can we hope to answer, what is the architecture for this age-and region?

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