Friday, May 20, 2011

White Walls, Elgin Marbles (Part 2)

Full Metal Jacket (1987); Parthenon (438 BCE)
(Part 1)

The eighteenth century archaeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann was aware that the Parthenon had been painted flamboyant gaudy colors but chose to ignore the ugly truth: "The whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is as well," he wrote. "Color contributes to beauty, but it is not beauty. Color should have a minor part in the consideration of beauty, because it is not [color] but structure that constitutes its essence." That is creepy Speerian stuff, and for sure, the rhetoric of white is larded with stuff like that. In his book, White Walls, Designer Dresses, Mark Wigley writes that "The white wall is taken for granted. At most a generations of commentators have referred to it in passing as 'neutral,' 'pure,' 'silent,' 'plain,' 'blank,' 'ground,' 'essential,' 'stark,' and so on."

The Parthenon and its would-be-Arian idealizers are not at the deepest structures of white, but the Greeks and perfection are an important side show. Challenging the moon's perfection it of one of the things Galileo Galilei got in trouble with the Inquisition.
Camillo Rusconi, Father Clavius presenting Pope Gregory XIII with the new calendar (1723); Clavius Base (1968)

In his most recent book, Galilieo's Dream, the science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson explains that the Aristotelian view of the universe that the Catholic Church endorsed as orthodox TRUTH at cusp of the modern age held that all heavenly bodies were perfect smooth geometric bodies - something Galileo and any one else with a telescope could clearly see was false:
Speaking one night on the uneven surface of the moon, for instance, revealed so clearly by his telescope, he reminded everyone that this was a big problem for poor Peripatetics, as the Aristotelian orthodoxy was that everything in the heavens was perfectly geometrical, and the moon therefore a prefect sphere. Even Father Clavius, he said, had ventured, and in print, that although the visible surface of the moon was uneven, this could be illusory, and all its mountains and plains could be incased in a clear perfect crystal shell that constituted its perfect sphericality.
Coney Island (1905); Wiessenhofsiedlung (1927)

In Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas traces the modernism of prewar Manhattanism back to the pleasure parks of Coney Island. Luna Park, the island's first self contained spectacle has 1,326 towers and minarets (by 1907) painted white and lit with 1,300,00 light bulbs. It was meant to represent a territory of the moon transported to the surface of the earth (a sort of proto-Clavius Base). Like the Aristotelian moon, this electrified space is a far more legitimate precursor to the current Apple-centric fetish for white than the Parthenon. Mark Wigley points to a very different theme park that is slightly more recent and far more obvious an origin:
The negotiations started toward the end of the nineteenth century and took around forty years to reach a kind of accord between all the trajectories that constituted the the emerging avant-garde. It was not until 1927 that the protagonists were able to collaborate on a unified image image of of modern architecture on the side of a hill overlooking Stuttgarde. In the infamous Wiessenhofsiedlung, which received over half a million visitors and unprecedented coverage in in the professional and popular press, sixteen of the most accomplished architects presented a unified front by contributing a small estate of exhibition houses. The only restriction was that they use flat roofs and white exterior walls.
Jacques-Louis David, Madame Récamier (1800); Parthenon sculptures, East Pediment, Three Goddesses (432 BC)

But according to Wigley the white of machine age modern architecture was never truly a neoclassical essence It wasn't a "skin," it was dressing, or more pointedly, a dress:
Supposedly, modern architecture strips off the old clothing of the nineteenth century to show off its new body, a fit body made available by the new culture of mechanization. the modern building is naked and the white wall accentuates that nakedness by highlighting its machine-like smoothness. The white paint is is meant to be the skin of the body rather than the dissimulating layer of clothing... What has to be concealed is the fact that the white is a layer. After all, the stripping off of old cloths, advertised by the original promoters of modern architecture and by its contemporary dealers, is not simply a stripping of all clothing. Although everyone seems to be everywhere concerned with with the beauty and purity of the naked body of industrial structures,  modern architecture is not naked. From the beginning it is painted white.
Frank Gehry, IAC HQ (2009); Kate and William (2011)

Predictably, given the title of Wigley's book, his thesis is that modern architecture is all about dresses, covertly of course, because dresses (unlike skin) are "securely ghettoized in the supposedly inferior, as 'feminine' domains of 'ornament,' 'accessories,' 'interior decoration,' 'Art Nouveau,' 'architect's partner,' 'homosexual,' 'woman,' and so on," One could add cell phone to that list without raising to many eyebrows. Wigley concludes that, "The white surface is the antifashion look, both in the sense of the "look" of the tabula rasa, with every excess cleared away, and in the sense of an active look, a surveillance device scanning the very spaces that it has defined for the intrusion of fashion. The white wall is at once a camera and a monitor, a sensitive surface, a sensor."

Antifashion hints at answering Joanne's question.When Jonathan Ive name checks Dieter Rams and by association the Bauhaus, he is giving his designs a strong antifashion pedigree. But the post war success of Modernism cannot be explained by antifashion. Antifashion is too passive, too high-minded and effete a justification for  Modernism's massive and aggressive success following the war. Fashion is a far more powerful mover that can explain all kinds of trends, but not this one, especially because it would not explain why whitewash was not the dominant look of Post War architecture, raw materiality, most often black, was.
PreWar Towers and German Aggregate rockets

Unlike that first bloom of Modernist architecture on the hillside above Stuttgarde, in the Post War years white exteriors were the exception, not the norm. Wigley explains that in 1927 "The identity of [modern] architecture had finally been located in its white surfaces, surfaces that assumed an unparalleled force, so much so that they continued to define modern architecture long after architects started to remove the layer of paint in favor of the look of exposed concrete or metal." 

The reason for that shift, from whitewashed Modernism to the more brutalist  truth of raw materials, is relatively straight forward. White aged quickly and badly: "It is only when white goes away that it is talked about." The post-white discussion was all about how crappy those first white building looked after only a very short time. "The visible aging of the white wall calls into question that architecture's ability to transcend the turnover of fashionable styles" Wigley writes. "Superficial flaws become deep threats."
White aging badly: Tom Wolfe; Tom Sachs Unité (2001)

Antifashion is something you can imagine an embattled avant-garde fretting about and aesthetes cooing over, but in the Post War years Modernist architecture became a hurtling behemoth backed by no nonsense industrialists and determined reformers. Modernist developments transformed cities like New York and Paris, not with incremental additions to the landscape, but with massive state funded slum clearing projects, expressways and acres of superblock high-rises. And where there were no cities, in places like Brasilia, they were constructed all at once on a single plan. 

After two decades of economic depression and world war, cities were at worn places at best, blown out wastelands at worst. Millions of displaced people and a baby boom created a pressing need to build housing, and to do so quickly and cheaply as possible. Modernist architecture was exciting because it not only fulfilled that need by coopting industrial building processes for residential and commercial needs. If there was a fantasy sold it had nothing to do with antifashion,  it was the promise that Modernism could deliver on an urgent desire for the truly NEW. (Continue reading Part 3.)
Depression era shanty; The aftermath of WWII fire bombing

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