By Evan Lehner
Beatriz Colomina, Professor of Architecture and Founding Director of the Media and Modernity program at Princeton University, was the guest lecturer on Monday 29 October as part of the School of Architecture’s Fall 2018 Lecture Series. Colomina, an architectural historian from Spain, analyzes the work of titans of modern architecture, including Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and the Eames, among many others. Her work analyzes how architecture can influence the health of an individual. Through her own various works, including several books, Colomina attempts to establish the idea that great architects highly valued the idea that design can in itself be medicine.
Colomina began her lecture with the strong assertion that the era of modern architecture rose out of a lack of audacity in modern life. “Adolf Loos,” she contends, “argues for elimination of ornament, not simply for anesthetics, but because we no longer have nerves to eat and decorate as in previous generations. The priority of man had evolved to give man a new set of nerves.” The shift in what mankind needed and desired led to a reversal of opinion on ornament during this time; many of the architects of the early 1900s loathed it. Loos is considered by many as the catalyst for the rise of modern architecture, and Colomina explored why this happened. “Loos was very physically fragile,” she recounts. His handicaps led his designs to reflect his “nerve,” and thus he rejected styles of architecture and ornament that exacerbated his ill state. He believed that his idea of simpler, cleaner design could influence a good life.
Other events of the first half of the 20th century greatly contributed to the rise of the modern era. The two world wars decimated land and families, and diseases such as Spanish flu and tuberculosis ravaged even those furthest from the fronts. The world was in great need of healing. Modern architecture acted as the anesthesia to senseless acts of violence and eradication. The smooth surfaces of the architecture of this era offer respite from the trauma. Alvar Aalto’s Tuberculosis Sanatorium was clean and white, an embodiment of its role in cleansing patients from the dirt and grit of the outside world. Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye similarly was painted white, its piloti suspended the living quarters from the moist, germ-ridden earth below. Throughout the world, modern architecture was rising in response to the problems of the age.
Everything must come to an end, and this held true for the era of the modernists as well. Colomina explains that antibiotics largely did away with the fear of disease, and the anguish of such disastrous conflicts faded. She stresses, however, that this does not mean architecture no longer has potential to serve the same public service. “The environment has become completely man-made, we have in a sense become allergic to ourselves,” Colomina argues. People today are faced with challenges such as obesity, depression, and mental disorders that are exacerbated by contemporary lifestyles, yet these issues are much harder to target and alleviate. Whatever the debilitation of the age may be, architecture can be flexible enough to combat it. However, it will ultimately be up to the architect to foster such innovation in the built environment.
Evan Lehner is a third-year Bachelor of Architecture student in the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture.