Publishing about 20th century architecture and design
Inside Issue #16: Experiment
Sunflower Houses: a Hungarian experimental housing estate
In November 1931 a new street with 21 new houses was opened to the public in the Hungarian capital, Budapest. The street was called ‘Napraforgó utca’, Sunflower Street, which, according to a contemporary newspaper report, was symbolic - intended to represent the way the buildings were designed to accommodate light and sunshine: “The modern houses are waiting for the life-giving beams of the sun. Wherever it comes from, the houses are built to be able to receive it.” The opening ceremony and the ‘open house’ day aimed to promote a new way of building and were highly successful.
Pictures: Courtesy of the Forster Gyula National Centre for Cultural Heritage Management, Budapest
Part of the reason my attempts to clarify Bowie’s experimentalism become more convoluted the clearer I seek to make them is because the sense comes from magic thinking. The synchronicity, for instance, of David Bowie’s first acting role being in The Image as a young man who steps out of a painting to haunt the artist who created him. Later he and Iggy Pop both tried to outdo each other in re-creating Erich Heckel’s painting Roquairol for the covers of Heroes and The Idiot respectively. Iggy got closest.
The pronouncements of architects can often sound like the issuing of moral diktats: Adolf Loos’ observation of criminal intent in ornamentation or Mies van der Rohe seeing God in the details. These feel like the types of sentiments that should be punctuated with a fist banging on the table or delivered from a pulpit. Such declarations were particularly popular during the modernist era, entwining the ethical and aesthetic, by appealing to notions of truth and honesty: truth to materials, to social program and truth to functional intent. It was a form of experimentalism, where words helped to build buildings.
Picture: Sivill House, Bethnal Green by Bensmawfield
Visions of a future past
As a product of 1960s Finland the Futuro House was born of a society comfortable in the same euphoric times as the rest of the western world. A faith in technology and a strong economy that offered the hope of a higher standard of living and more leisure time typified the times.
Cheshire is not the sort of place you’d call ‘cosmic’. From first appearances, you’d assume that the Space Race passed it by without a moment’s notice. You’d be wrong. For 50 years, Jodrell Bank Observatory - the home of the largest steerable radio telescope in Europe - has kept Can this read - the North West of England at the heart of space exploration and Cold War intrigue.
Pictures: Anthony Holloway & Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, University of Manchester
Sounds from The other city
The anechoic chamber is a distinctly 20th century invention. The world’s oldest with the iconic ‘wedge-based’ interior design, the Murray Hill anechoic chamber, was built in 1940 in New Jersey, USA. As a laboratory for sonic experimentation they are revered by acoustic engineers and musicians alike. As a space, quite literally, ‘without echo’, the anechoic chamber is perhaps one of the most unique of modern architectural creations.
Along with the International Modern Project, Argentinean Modernism postulated the idea that art, architecture and design were not different categories but different scales of creative experimental fields of design that had multiple technical, expressive and utilitarian commitments.
In discussions on the great British modernist architects the name Walter Segal is rarely mentioned. He didn’t win any prestigious commissions. Nor did he design any iconic public buildings, focussing instead on housing. He is, however, the only architect to have two London streets named after him - names chosen by his clients, the residents. He invented a technique that empowered ordinary people to build their own homes – the Segal self-build method, which resulted in some unusual social housing in the 1980s.
In a leafy spot five miles south of Rochdale, not far from Manchester’s orbital motorway resides a strange otherworldly object - a prominent conical form, rising above the surrounding mature tree line, begging for some much needed attention.
Closer inspection will be rewarded because this building is a prototype, a test-bed at half scale for one of the most recognisable British buildings of the 20th century.
“I never experiment” said Picasso. ‘Experimental’ is one of those words that in writing about culture is deemed to be positive. It’s good to be experimental. It means you are not sticking in the mud of convention, but bravely venturing forth into uncharted territory. To be experimental is A Good Thing. So why did Picasso who, one might think, did nothing but experiment, say that?
“The skyscraper is utopian in the sense that its site will inevitably meet its own programmatic destiny beyond the control of thearchitect. The skyscraper is the instrument of “a new form of unknowable urbanism.”
Originally titled Tarzan Versus IBM, Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville is a characteristically subversive mix of sci-fi, pulp, film noir and surrealism. Reprising a role he had played in earlier B-movie policiers, Eddie Constantine features as grizzled special agent Lemmy Caution, who travels through space in his Ford Galaxy to the modernist world of Alphaville. Posing as a journalist from the Outlands, Caution’s mission is to neutralise the mind of scientist Dr. Von Braun (a role once intended for Roland Barthes), the inventor of the Alpha 60, a powerful, omniscient computer system that has outlawed emotion amongst its populace.