Modern Architecture and Complaints about the Weather, or, ‘Dear Monsieur Le Corbusier, It is still raining in our garage….’

Nicole Sully

Abstract


Historians of Modern Architecture have cultivated the image of the architect as a temperamental genius, unconcerned by issues of politeness or pragmatics—a reading reinforced in cultural representations of Modern Architects, such as Howard Roark, the protagonist in Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel The Fountainhead (a character widely believed to be based on the architect Frank Lloyd Wright). The perception of the Modern Architect as an artistic hero or genius has also influenced the reception of their work. Despite their indisputable place within the architectural canon, many important works of Modern Architecture were contested on pragmatic grounds, such as cost, brief and particularly concerning issues of suitability and effectiveness in relation to climate and weather. A number of famed cases resulted in legal action between clients and architects, and in many more examples historians have critically framed these accounts to highlight alternate issues and agendas.

“Complaints about the weather,” in relation to architecture, inevitably raise issues regarding a work’s “success,” particularly in view of the tensions between artistry and functionality inherent in the discipline of architecture. While in more recent decades these ideas have been framed around ideas of sustainability—particularly in relation to contemporary buildings—more traditionally they have been engaged through discussions of an architect’s ethical responsibility to deliver a habitable building that meets the client’s needs. This paper suggests these complaints often raise a broader range of issues and are used to highlight tensions inherent in the discipline. In the history of Modern Architecture, these complaints are often framed through gender studies, ethics and, more recently, artistic asceticism. Accounts of complaints and disputes are often invoked in the social construction (or deconstruction) of artistic genius – whether in a positive or negative light. Through its discussion of a number of famed examples, this paper will discuss the framing of climate in relation to the figure of the Modern Architect and the reception of the architectural “masterpiece.”

Dear Monsieur Le Corbusier …

In June 1930 Mme Savoye, the patron of the famed Villa Savoye on the outskirts of Paris, wrote to her architect, Le Corbusier, stating: “it is still raining in our garage” (Sbriglio 144)—a persistent theme in their correspondence. This letter followed another sent in March after discovering leaks in the garage and several bedrooms following a visit during inclement weather. While sent prior to the building’s completion, she also noted that rainfall on the bathroom skylight “makes a terrible noise […] which prevents us from sleeping in bad weather” (Sbriglio 142).

Claiming to have warned Le Corbusier about the concern, the contractor refused to accept responsibility, prompting some rather fiery correspondence between the two. This problem, compounded by issues with the heating system, resulted in the house feeling, as Sbriglio notes, “cold and damp” and subject to “substantial heat loss due to the large glazing”—a cause for particular concern given the health problems of the clients’ only child, Roger Savoye, that saw him spend time in a French Sanatorium (Sbriglio 145). While the cause of Roger’s illness is not clear, at least one writer (albeit with a noticeable lack of footnotes or supporting evidence) has linked this directly to the villa (de Botton 65).

Mme Savoye’s complaints about dampness, humidity, condensation and leaking in her home persisted in subsequent years, prompting Benton to summarise in 1987, “every autumn […] there were cries of distress from the Savoye family with the first rains” (Villas 204).  These also extended to discussion of the heating system, which while proving insufficient was also causing flooding (Benton, "Villa" 93). In 1935 Savoye again wrote to Le Corbusier, wearily stating:

It is raining in the hall, it’s raining on the ramp and the wall of the garage is absolutely soaked [….] it’s still raining in my bathroom, which floods in bad weather, as the water comes in through the skylight. The gardener’s walls are also wet through. (Sbriglio 146-7)

Savoye’s understandable vexation with waterproofing problems in her home continued to escalate. With a mixture of gratitude and frustration, a letter sent two years later stated: “After innumerable demands you have finally accepted that this house which you built in 1929 in uninhabitable…. Please render it inhabitable immediately. I sincerely hope that I will not have to take recourse to legal action” (Sbriglio 147).

Paradoxically, Le Corbusier was interested in the potential of architecture and urban planning to facilitate health and well-being, as well as the effects that climate may play in this. Early twentieth century medical thought advocated heliotherary (therapeutic exposure to sunlight) for a diverse range of medical conditions, ranging from rickets to tuberculosis. Similarly the health benefits of climate, such as the dryness of mountain air, had been recognised for much longer, and had led to burgeoning industries associated with health, travel and climate. The dangers of damp environments had also long been medically recognised. Le Corbusier’s awareness of the health benefits of sunshine led to the inclusion of a solarium in the villa that afforded both framed and unframed views of the surrounding countryside, such as those that were advocated in the seventeenth century as an antidote to melancholy (Burton 65-66).

Both Benton and Sbriglio present Mme Savoye’s complaints as part of their comprehensive histories of an important and influential work of Modern Architecture. Each reproduce excerpts from archival letters that are not widely translated or accessible, and Benton’s 1984 essay is the source other authors generally cite in discussing these matters. In contrast, for example, Murphy’s 2002 account of the villa’s conversion from “house” to “historical monument” cites the same letters (via Benton) as part of a broader argument that highlights the “undomestic” or “unhomely” nature of the work by cataloguing such accounts of the client’s experience of discomfort while residing in the space – thus revisiting a number of common criticisms of Modern Architecture.

Le Corbusier’s reputation for designing buildings that responded poorly to climate is often referenced in popular accounts of his work. For example, a 1935 article published in Time states:

Though the great expanses of glass that he favors may occasionally turn his rooms into hothouses, his flat roofs may leak and his plans may be wasteful of space, it was Architect Le Corbusier who in 1923 put the entire philosophy of modern architecture into a single sentence: “A house is a machine to live in.”

Reference to these issues are usually made rather minimally in academic accounts of his work, and few would agree with this article’s assertion that Le Corbusier’s influence as a phrasemaker would rival the impact of his architecture. In contrast, such issues, in relation to other architects, are often invoked more rhetorically as part of a variety of historical agendas, particularly in constructing feminist histories of architecture. While Corbusier and his work have often been the source of intellectual contention from feminist scholars—for example in regard to authorial disputes and fractious relationships with the likes of Eileen Gray or Charlotte Perriand – discussion of the functional failures in the Villa Savoye are rarely addressed from this perspective.  Rather, feminist scholars have focussed their attention on a number of other projects, most notably the case of the Farnsworth House, another canonical work of Modernism.

Dear Herr Mies van der Rohe …

Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, completed in 1951 in Plano Illinois, was commissioned as a country weekend residence by an unmarried female doctor, a brief credited with freeing the architect from many of the usual pragmatic requirements of a permanent city residence. In response Mies designed a rectilinear steel and glass pavilion, which hovered (to avoid the flood levels) above the landscape, sheltered by maple trees, in close proximity to the Fox River. The refined architectural detail, elegant formal properties, and poetic relationship with the surrounding landscape – whether in its autumnal splendour or covered in a thick blanket of snow – captivated architects seeing it become, like the Villa Savoye, one of the most revered architectural works of the twentieth century.

Prior to construction a model was exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and, upon completion the building became a pilgrimage site for architects and admirers. The exhibition of the design later fuelled debate about whether Dr Farnsworth constituted a patron or a client (Friedman 134); a distinction generating very different expectations for the responsibilities of the architect, particularly regarding the production of a habitable home that met the client’s brief versus producing a design of architectural merit.

The house was intended as a frame for viewing and contemplating nature, thus seeing nature and climate aligned with the transcendental qualities of the design. Following a visit during construction, Farnsworth described the building’s relationship to the elements, writing: “the two horizontal planes of the unfinished building, floating over the meadows, were unearthly beautiful under a sun which glowed like a wild rose” (5). Similarly, in 1951, Arthur Drexler described the building as “a quantity of air caught between a floor and a roof” (Vandenberg 6). Seven years later the architect himself asserted that nature “gained a more profound significance” when viewed from within the house (Friedman 139).

While the transparency of the house was “forgiven” by its isolated location and the lack of visibility from neighbouring properties, the issues a glass and steel box might pose for the thermal comfort of its occupant are not difficult to imagine. Following the house’s completion, Farnsworth fitted windows with insect screens and blinds (although Mies intended for curtains to be installed) that clumsily undermined the refined and minimalistic architectural details.

Controversy surrounding the house was, in part, the result of its bold new architectural language. However, it was also due to the architect-client relationship, which turned acrimonious in a very public manner. A dispute between Mies and Farnsworth regarding unpaid fees was fought both in the courtroom and the media, becoming a forum for broader debate as various journals (for example, House Beautiful), publicly took sides.

The professional female client versus the male architect and the framing of their dispute by historians and the media has seen this project become a seminal case-study in feminist architectural histories, such as Friedman’s Women and the Making of the Modern House of 1998. Beyond the conflict and speculation about the individuals involved, at the core of these discussions were the inadequacies of the project in relation to comfort and climate. For example, Farnsworth describes in her journal finding the house awash with several inches of water, leading to a court session being convened on the rooftop in order to properly ascertain the defects (14).

Written retrospectively, after their relationship soured, Farnsworth’s journal delights in recounting any errors or misjudgements made by Mies during construction. For example, she described testing the fireplace to find “the house was sealed so hermetically that the attempt of a flame to go up the chimney caused an interior negative pressure” (2). Further, her growing disenchantment was reflected in bleak descriptions aligning the building with the weather. Describing her first night camping in her home, she wrote: “the expanses of the glass walls and the sills were covered with ice. The silent meadows outside white with old and hardened snow reflected the bleak [light] bulb within, as if the glass house itself were an unshaded bulb of uncalculated watts lighting the winter plains” (9).

In an April 1953 article in House Beautiful, Elizabeth Gordon publicly sided with Farnsworth as part of a broader campaign against the International Style. She condemned the home, and its ‘type’ as “unlivable”, writing: “You burn up in the summer and freeze in the winter, because nothing must interfere with the ‘pure’ form of their rectangles” (250). Gordon included the lack of “overhanging roofs to shade you from the sun” among a catalogue of “human qualities” she believed architects sacrificed for the expression of composition—a list that also included possessions, children, pets and adequate kitchen facilities (250). In 1998 excerpts from this article were reproduced by Friedman, in her seminal work of feminist architectural history, and were central in her discussion of the way that debates surrounding this house were framed through notions of gender.

Responding to this conflict, and its media coverage, in 1960 Peter Blake wrote:

All great houses by great architects tend to be somewhat impractical; many of Corbu’s and Wright’s house clients find that they are living in too expensive and too inefficient buildings. Yet many of these clients would never exchange their houses for the most workable piece of mediocrity. (88)

Far from complaining about the weather, the writings of its second owner, Peter Palumbo, poetically meditate the building’s relationship to the seasons and the elements. In his foreword to a 2003 monograph, he wrote:

life inside the house is very much a balance with nature, and an extension of nature. A change in the season or an alteration of the landscape creates a marked change in the mood inside the house. With an electric storm of Wagnerian proportions illuminating the night sky and shaking the foundations of the house to their very core, it is possible to remain quite dry! When, with the melting snows of spring, the Fox River becomes a roaring torrent that bursts its banks, the house assumes a character of a house-boat, the water level sometimes rising perilously close to the front door. On such occasions, the approach to the house is by canoe, which is tied to the steps of the upper terrace. (Vandenberg 5)

Palumbo purchased the house from Farnsworth and commissioned Mies’s grandson to restore it to its original condition, removing the blinds and insect screens, and installing an air-conditioning system. The critical positioning of Palumbo has been quite different from that of Farnsworth. His restoration and writings on the project have in some ways seen him positioned as the “real” architectural patron. Furthermore, his willingness to tolerate some discomfort in his inhabitation has seen him in some ways prefigure the type of resident that will be next be discussed in reference to recent owners of Wright properties.

Dear Mr Wright …

Accounts of weatherproofing problems in buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright have become the basis of mythology in the architectural discipline. For example, in 1936 Herbert Johnson and J. Vernon Steinle visited Wright’s Richard Lloyd Jones house in Oklahoma. As Jonathan Lipman wrote, “Steinle’s most prominent recollection of the house was that there were scores of tubs and canning jars in the house catching water leaking through the roof” (45). While Lipman notes the irony that both the house and office Wright designed for Johnson would suffer the same problem, it is the anecdotal accounts of the former that have perhaps attracted the most interest. An oft-recounted story tells of Johnson telephoning Wright, during a dinner party, with regard to water dripping from the ceiling into his guest-of-honour’s soup; the complaint was reportedly rebuffed unsympathetically by Wright who suggested the lady should move her chair (Farr 272).

Wright himself addressed his reputation for designing buildings that leaked in his Autobiography. In reference to La Miniatura in Pasadena, of 1923, he contextualised difficulties with the local climate, which he suggested was prone to causing leaks, writing:  “The sun bakes the roof for eleven months, two weeks and five days, shrinking it to a shrivel. Then giving the roof no warning whatever to get back to normal if it could, the clouds burst. Unsuspecting roof surfaces are deluged by a three inch downpour.” He continued, stating:

I knew all this. And I know there are more leaking roofs in Southern California than in all the rest of the world put together. I knew that the citizens come to look upon water thus in a singularly ungrateful mood. I knew that water is all that enables them to have their being there, but let any of it through on them from above, unexpectedly, in their houses and they go mad. It is a kind of phobia. I knew all this and I have taken seriously precautions in the details of this little house to avoid such scenes as a result of negligible roofs. This is the truth. (250)

Wright was quick to attribute blame—directed squarely at the builder. Never one for quiet diplomacy, he complained that the “builder had lied to [him] about the flashing under and within the coping walls” (250) and he was ignorant of the incident because the client had not informed him of the leak. He suggested the client’s silence was undoubtedly due to her “not wishing to hurt [his] feelings”. Although given earlier statements it might be speculated that she did not wish to be accused of pandering to a phobia of leaks. Wright was dismissive of the client’s inconvenience, suggesting she would be able to continue as normal until the next rains the following year and claiming he “fixed the house” once he “found out about it” (250). Implicit in this justification was the idea that it was not unreasonable to expect the client to bear a few days of “discomfort” each year in tolerance of the local climate. In true Wright style, discussions of these problems in his autobiography were self-constructive concessions.

While Wright refused to take responsibility for climate-related issues in La Minatura, he was more forthcoming in appreciating the triumphs of his Imperial Hotel in Japan—one of the only buildings in the vicinity to survive the 1923 earthquake. In a chapter of his autobiography titled “Building against Doomsday (Why the Great Earthquake did not destroy the Imperial Hotel),” Wright reproduced a telegram sent by Okura Impeho stating: “Hotel stands undamaged as monument of your genius hundreds of homeless provided perfectly maintained service. Congratulations” (222).

Far from unconcerned by nature or climate, Wright’s works celebrated and often went to great effort to accommodate the poetic qualities of these. In reference to his own home, Taliesin, Wright wrote:

I wanted a home where icicles by invitation might beautify the eaves. So there were no gutters. And when the snow piled deep on the roofs […] icicles came to hang staccato from the eaves. Prismatic crystal pendants sometimes six feet long, glittered between the landscape and the eyes inside. Taliesin in winter was a frosted palace roofed and walled with snow, hung with iridescent fringes. (173)

This description was, in part, included as a demonstration of his “superior” understanding and appreciation of nature and its poetic possibilities; an understanding not always mirrored by his clients. Discussing the Lloyd Lewis House in Libertyville, Illinois of 1939, Wright described his endeavours to keep the house comfortable (and avoid flooding) in Spring, Autumn and Summer months which, he conceded, left the house more vulnerable to winter conditions. Utilising an underfloor heating system, which he argued created a more healthful natural climate rather than an “artificial condition,” he conceded this may feel inadequate upon first entering the space (495). Following the client’s complaints that this system and the fireplace were insufficient, particularly in comparison with the temperature levels he was accustomed to in his workplace (at The Daily News), Wright playfully wrote:

I thought of various ways of keeping the writer warm, I thought of wiring him to an electric pad inside his vest, allowing lots of lead wire so he could get around. But he waved the idea aside with contempt. […] Then I suggested we appeal to Secretary Knox to turn down the heat at the daily news […] so he could become acclimated. (497)

Due to the client’s disinclination to bear this discomfort or use any such alternate schemes, Wright reluctantly refit the house with double-glazing (at the clients expense).

In such cases, discussion of leaks or thermal discomfort were not always negative, but were cited rhetorically implying that perfunctory building techniques were not yet advanced enough to meet the architect’s expectations, or that their creative abilities were suppressed by conservative or difficult clients. Thus discussions of building failures have often been invoked in the social construction of the “architect-genius.” Interestingly accounts of the permeability of Wright’s buildings are more often included in biographical rather that architectural writings.

In recent years, these accounts of weatherproofing problems have transformed from accusing letters or statements implying failure to a “badge of honour” among occupants who endure discomfort for the sake of art. This changing perspective is usually more pronounced in second generation owners, like Peter Palumbo (who has also owned Corbusier and Wright designed homes), who are either more aware of the potential problems in owning such a house or are more tolerant given an understanding of the historical worth of these projects.

This is nowhere more evident than in a profile published in the real estate section of the New York Times. Rather than concealing these issues to preserve the resale value of the property, weatherproofing problems are presented as an endearing quirk. The new owners of Wright’s Prefab No. 1 of 1959, on Staten Island declared they initially did not have enough pots to place under the fifty separate leaks in their home, but in December 2005 proudly boasted they were ‘down to only one leak’ (Bernstein, "Living"). Similarly, in 2003 the resident of a Long Island Wright-designed property, optimistically claimed that while his children often complained their bedrooms were uncomfortably cold, this encouraged the family to spend more time in the warmer communal spaces (Bernstein, "In a House"). This client, more than simply optimistic, (perhaps unwittingly) implies an awareness of the importance of “the hearth” in Wright’s architecture.

In such cases complaints about the weather are re-framed. The leaking roof is no longer representative of gender or power relationships between the client and the uncompromising artistic genius. Rather, it actually empowers the inhabitant who rises above their circumstances for the sake of art, invoking a kind of artistic asceticism.

While “enlightened” clients of famed architects may be willing to suffer the effects of climate in the interiors of their homes, their neighbours are less tolerant as suggested in a more recent example. Complaints about the alteration of the micro-climate surrounding Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles prompted the sandblasting of part of the exterior cladding to reduce glare. In 2004, USA Today reported that reflections from the stainless steel cladding were responsible for raising the temperature in neighbouring buildings by more than 9° Celsius, forcing neighbours to close their blinds and operate their air-conditioners. There were also fears that the glare might inadvertently cause traffic problems. Further, one report found that average ground temperatures adjacent to the building peaked at approximately 58° Celsius (Schiler and Valmont). Unlike the Modernist examples, this more recent project has not yet been framed in aid of a critical agenda, and has seemingly been reported simply for being “newsworthy.”

Benign Conversation

Discussion of the suitability of Modern Architecture in relation to climate has proven a perennial topic of conversation, invoked in the course of recurring debates and criticisms. The fascination with accounts of climate-related problems—particularly in discussing the work of the great Modernist Architects like Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright—is in part due to a certain Schadenfreude in debunking the esteem and authority of a canonical figure. This is particularly the case with one, such as Wright, who was characterised by significant self-confidence and an acerbic wit often applied at the expense of others. Yet these accounts have been invoked as much in the construction of the figure of the architect as a creative genius as they have been in the deconstruction of this figure—as well as the historical construction of the client and the historians involved.

In view of the growing awareness of the threats and realities of climate change, complaints about the weather are destined to adopt a new significance and be invoked in support of a different range of agendas.  While it may be somewhat anachronistic to interpret the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe in terms of current discussions about sustainability in architecture, these topics are often broached when restoring, renovating or adapting the designs of such architects for new or contemporary usage. In contrast, the climatic problems caused by Gehry’s concert hall are destined to be framed according to a different set of values—such as the relationship of his work to the time, or perhaps in relation to contemporary technology. While discussion of the weather is, in the conversational arts, credited as benign topic, this is rarely the case in architectural history.

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Keywords


History and Theory of Architecture; Modern Architecture; Le Corbusier; Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; Frank Lloyd Wright; Womens Studies; Climate Responsive Design - History; Architecture - Psychological Aspects



Copyright (c) 2009 Nicole Sully

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