Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Crystal Palace Syndrome

Human innovations are rarely perfect. In the case of modern architecture, the first fumbles derived from dealing irresponsibly with the new materials popularized by London’s Crystal Palace, the showplace for the first industrial world’s fair (1851): glass, iron and concrete.

Glass dazzles, and as early as 1910 Walter Gropius designed his Fagus shoe last factory with an all glass exterior: it looked good, but wasted energy and diminished control over factory lighting. Ditto, his Dessau Bauhaus HQ(1926). Professors and students alike complained: too cold in the winter, too hot in the summer. But it looked great in the photos sent over the world.

Mies van der Rohe was especially given to excess glass. The weekend retreat he built for his Chicago girlfriend Dr. Farnsworth in Plano, Illinois wasted so much energy she took him to court! Too much glass was a bad habit he inherited from his own Crystal Palace, the Barcelona Pavilion(1928). Temperature-wise, Illinois was no Spain! The 1950 structure proved uninhabitable: in 2005,faute de mieux, it became a Visitor’s Center honoring the architectural genius of Mies. Huh?

The Modernoid flat concrete roof maneuver those newly traveling architects picked up from North Africa. It looked good, neat and tidy. But roofs leaked, absent African sunshine. Alas they glibly dumped the gable, the greatest architectural breakthrough since humans inhabited caves. Another weakness of concrete was its vulnerability to rot! The older the concrete building, the uglier it looked.
As Edwin Heathcote, architecture critic for the “Financial Times (11/17/12) put it recently: “Concrete has been the dream material of modernity for more than a century. It can be moulded and formed .It can be polished, sculpted and bush-hammered; it can smooth and shiny, or gritty and graffitied. But it can all too easily be mouldy and deformed, cracked and stained: a nightmare for those who have to live in the degraded, cornercutting towers and underpasses of a degenerated modernist utopia.” Hence my neologism “MODERNOID”, i.e. foul or failed modernism.

But the same genius that gave us great modern architecture has also found ways to save even “bad” cement. The Dutch scientist Henk Jonkers of the Delft University of Technology discovered that many of cement’s weaknesses can be solved by implanting bacteria at the construction stage “These micro-organisms would be dormant inside the material until water penetrated deeply enough to indicate there was a problem—at which point they would activate and begin to repair cracks in the material in the way that bone heals itself when fractured.” 
That proves to me that the Humanities (Art) and Science (techno-innovations)are compatible, indeed properly cooperative. Heathcote cites other breakthroughs that a society with infrastructure problems (a.k.a. America)that these traditional intellectual enemies should kiss and make up. 

Indeed, ignorant as I have been, as a secluded humanist, about both business and science, the cultural section of the weekend “Financial Times” is the most valuable intellectual stimulation I have found since emigrating to Europe. FT is almost as mentally useful as the weekly “Economist”which gets better and better, as “Newsweek” declines to digital in 2013 and “Time” prints more and more pictures than prose. (And that’s no “Life”!)

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