Solar houses and the new modernism

Interior: University of Michigan Solar Decathlon house

An article in this month’s Urbanite Magazine (an interesting special issue on the suburbs) reminded me of the Solar Decathlon, a competition among universities to build a solar-powered house to be judged on a variety of criteria. I toured CMU’s house while it was under construction a couple years back. I think it’s a great contest and I really like most of the designs that resulted. Check out the photo gallery.

I’m glad to see that modernism is alive and well in almost all of these designs, and by extension I assume it is alive and well in today’s architecture and design students. As I read about the history of design and architecture, it strikes me as one of the great tragedies, if not the greatest tragedy, of these fields that modernism, a movement borne of radical social ideals, was corrupted and misinterpreted as just another “style”. The “look” of modernism — clean lines, unadorned surfaces, industrial materials, modular patterns — was divorced from its motivation, and has gone in and out of fashion along with other styles. But to the pioneers, modernism was more than a new aesthetic style. In his book “No Place Like Utopia,”1 Peter Blake writes of himself and his fellow modern architects in the 30′s and 40′s:

We also believed that the new architecture reflected certain social and political attitudes very different from those that had formed architecture in the past. All of us realized that architecture, certainly prior to the industrial revolution, had been an elitest pursuit—a game to be played by kings, princes, popes, and others primarily interested in using buildings and other monuments to promote their own images and those of the forces they represented. The new architecture, in our view, was dedicated to the service of a very different kind of society—an egalitarian democracy largely centered in enormous urban areas, requiring living, working, healing, teaching, and other facilities of a scale and nature totally unfamiliar to mankind prior to the twentieth century.

Rather than satisfying an aesthetic, the forms of modernism, Blake writes, “seemed to grow, quite naturally, out of the kind of mass production technology without which the needs of our century and of the next simply could not be met.” Modern designs, i.e. clean surfaces and industrial materials, are cheaper and available in quantities capable of meeting the needs of a large and growing population. Other aspects of modern architecture are similarly rational. Mies van der Rohe’s principle of “universality”, that in the quickly-changing modern world we cannot predict how buildings will be used so they should be flexible and adaptable to many uses, is a strictly practical consideration but it leads to the characteristic modular and repetitive look in many modern buildings, as well as to open floor plans and spare interiors.

Similarly practical considerations directed the form of modern furniture. When Herman Miller went from producing trend-conscious period-style furniture to pioneering American modern furniture, it was on Gilbert Rohde’s suggestion to try a range of extremely simple, quality designs, “with all the value going into materials and construction rather than surface decoration.”2

These are really radical and threatening ideas: furnishings that defy stylistic trends, buildings that don’t grow obsolete with changing uses, modular units that can be arranged and combined to meet the user’s changing needs rather than wholey cast off and replaced. Many felt that this was a fundamental threat to the capitalist way of life, that the economy depends on the constant replacement of objects and buildings. Blake describes just such a reaction when he explained Mies’ principle of universality to the conservative business manager of Architectural Forum, who predicted such a strategy would cause a collapse of the construction industry.

In any case, a lot of this motivation was lost in the way most people understood modernism. Ironically enough, the modernist style supplied corporations with monolithic office towers and became an affectation of the rich and urbane more than it housed and improved the lives of the working class, who largely moved to the suburbs, perhaps even to a development with an historical revival theme.

In the Solar Decathlon, only two of the 18 designs seem to take an overtly neo-traditional approach, the others are quite modern. And this is clearly out of a combination of stylistic choice and utility. There is no reason to furnish a solar house with Eames lounge chairs, other than as a modernist reference. But many of the advanced and novel materials used in the solar houses simply don’t come in guilded or patterned varieties. The open floor plans and mixed-use spaces are a response to the limited square-footage of a green dwelling. The nontraditional outer structures and facades of the houses respond to the technical demands of solar collection and energy efficiency the way early modernists responded to the demands and opportunities of machine-age production.

Likewise, the proponents of green design pose no less radical a threat to capitalism than early modernists. We promote products of quality that last a long time, that can be repaired rather than replaced, that can be recycled, and even reused. We promote products that perform a function with a minimum of material excess and we entreat consumers to think of products in terms of their essentional services and to purchase these services rather than the goods that provide them.

But won’t that destroy the culture of ownership our economy is built on? The designers at the New York Institute of Technology probably thought they were being clever when they created furniture with multiple functions for their solar house. But their couch with storage cabinets that can heat or cool its occupants is liable to put honest working Americans out of a job. Without the constant churning of semi-disposable consumer products, our economy will grind to a halt!

People will make these arguments. Just as people will misunderstand green design as a style, a trend. They will buy the “Happy Tree” brand of sweater, perhaps made of organic cotton, and believe they are “green”. The rich will put solar panels atop their 6500 square-foot country estates and wear green design as an affectation. And ironically, large corporations will apply green design to their monolithic office buildings, those pillars of capitalism, while the bulk of the population runs off in the other direction, building larger homes and consuming more energy.

There is a strong parallel between modernism and green design, as well as a synergy of the philosphies. I might go as far as to say green design is the new modernism. Thus I think it is important for us, the practitioners and proponents of green design, to understand the history of modernism, what arguments were made in favor of and against it, where it went wrong, and where it took hold, so that we can learn these lessons and make a bigger impact this time around.

  1. Published 1993. []
  2. Charlotte Fiell and Peter Fiell. Design of the 20th Century. 1999. []
  1. #1 written by Swacko January 10th, 2006 at 22:46

    Man! Those are some sweet solar houses in the photo gallery.

    RE Q
  2. #2 written by Swacko January 11th, 2006 at 19:27

    These are some other things online that relate to your post:

    Some guy’s group-blog rant about green design being the real postmodernism, not bad:
    This is somehow related to Bruce Sterling (the sci fi author)’s “Viridian Design Movement” (Sci fi and green together…woo hoo. I house is a machine for living in, baby)

    Kevin Pratt article published in ArtForum 2004 “green design speaks to a yearning for the kind of totalizing aesthetic and ideological program the modernists embraced,” discusses relationship between modern design and modern art:

    This website seems to be about green mod housing, although I couldn’t really find much on the relationship btwn mod and green there:

    RE Q
  3. #3 written by amythearchivist January 14th, 2006 at 18:13

    modernism seems like a good idea – and i think art deco had the same sort of idea, with well-designed, attractive, affordable, mass-prodcued goods for the masses, though they were more decorative and some of the stuff was probably designed with an eye towards obsolescence.
    i generally dislike the arty sort of modernism that appears in mags today – it is stripped down to the point of being bare art, and i really don’t think most of us want to live that way. i fail to see what’s wrong with carpets to keep your feet warm and hanging pictures of your family on the wall and having great-grandmother’s china cabinet in the dining room if that’s what makes a place feel homey.
    have you heard about the C2C competition they had down here in Roanoke? some of the ideas are pretty nifty, and the town’s actually building a few of the winning designs.

    RE Q

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