Tuesday, January 13, 2009


So, this post isn't about green building, but Modernism. I wrote this in response to Walter Gropius' The New Architecture and the Bauhaus and the La Sarraz Declaration.


Under the heading Standardization, and in the same vein as Rousseau’s Social Contract, where the political theorist suggests that society is formed on the idea that self-preservation comes easier when people cooperate, Walter Gropius asserts, “the elementary impulse of all national economy proceeds from the desire to meet the needs of the community at less cost and effort by the improvement of its productive organization” (30). Citing this as the basis for the rise of mechanization and industrialization, he continues to suggest that these new technologies can free the individual from physical toil and allow one to pursue higher order activities. Using reproducible standards is a method by which to increase manufacturing efficiency and, correspondingly, the amount of time for citizens to pursue higher order activities. Gropius thus sees it as a prerequisite for the development of civilization, rather than an impediment.

In the idealistic context in which he writes, this assertion is fairly easy to digest. Starting with his opinion that homogeneous town character is “the distinguishing mark of a superior urban culture” (38), one will likely accept that a built environment (read: buildings and cities) created from a catalog of high quality, low cost, mass-produced pieces, would lead to less time spent fussing over which ones to use, and more time combining them in a way that is both aesthetically pleasing and functional. From this point of view, by utilizing industrial technology to provide the basic building blocks, designers would be free to focus on the act of expression, which is akin to arranging musical notes into a symphony. It is this step of concentrating on the design, the assemblage, the expression, that Gropius sees as a higher order activity that is part of an evolving society.

With buildings and cities covered, one might be left wondering where is the creative process that goes into products themselves. Gropius would likely respond by saying that the higher order creative activity comes before mass production, in the design of the product prototypes. This reversal of the process for constructing buildings and cities from standard elements remains true to his position that standardization reduces the amount of time that a designer must toil away with material production. However, several pressing issues remain: What is a designer to do after all products have been standardized? Are standards updated regularly and, if so, were they ever really standards? By insisting that a designer removes himself from the product, as Gropius does, the ritual of creation that Walter Benjamin defines as making works of art disintegrates, and what is left is merely a simulacrum of the prototype. I am left wondering if this is what designers intend to create.

Unfortunately, it seems like part of this utopia of standardization has come true while the other has followed a different trajectory. Rather than creating a splendid assembly of expressive houses, built from high quality, mass-produced elements, we have managed to distort this dream and have covered much of our former farmland with homes based on standardized plans and built from, and later filled with, artless mass-produced material. And while the efficiency of mechanized production has increased the amount of time that can be devoted to higher order activities, we, as Americans, have not exactly chosen to do so. I mention this not to disparage the concept of standardization but to point out that – as Gropius later mentions in his discussion of the Bauhaus – a change in the material production system does not necessarily lead to the desired social outcome.

However, on the social front, Gropius makes a strong argument for the power of standardization with regard to standards of living. He sees the standardization of buildings as a way to increase quality at a lower cost, thereby raising living standards for people in lower socioeconomic categories. This idea can be extended both to products (in the sense that anything consumed or used is a product, whether natural or man-made) such as access to clean drinking water or the increasing reliance on personal automobiles, and to cities, where a standard of safety and cleanliness should be extended to all citizens. In these examples, it is abundantly clear that standardization is a prerequisite to the development and progress of civilization.

The fact that Gropius acknowledges that some may see standardization as an impediment reveals that not everyone agrees with his point of view. His dismissal of the position that standardization may crush individuality as a myth is troubling. It seems evident that the current state of suburban housing, in which many standards have been reduced to their price, has suffered immensely from standardization run amok. It follows that a major flaw with his position is that he neglects the fact that the designer is not the ultimate authority when it comes to decisions about products, buildings or the future layout of cities. His salvation comes in the form of the Bauhaus, where design education leads to a standard language that can inform the enlightened masses of the potential outcomes of good design.

The signatories of the La Sarraz Declaration would have likely been very strong supporters of Gropius’s position, as clearly evidenced by their statement that “architecture can spring only from the present time” (109). Given that their document was signed at a time defined by mass production, and that standardization is supported by mechanical production, the link between the signatories and Gropius is inescapable. Furthermore, the La Sarraz document defines economic efficiency as requiring minimal working effort and explicitly states that standardization and rationalization are the most efficient methods of production. In their section on Town Planning, the signatories call for “a collective and methodical land policy” (111) which could also be described as a policy based on agreed upon standards of use. Finally, the documents are linked in promotion of standardization through the goal of education: The La Sarraz Declaration calls for a domestic science that essentially standardizes everything from sunlight to hygiene to household economics, in a true rationalization of everyday life.

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