Monday, May 23, 2011

White Walls, Tighty-Whities (Part 4)

Charlie's Angels (2000); Bauhaus
The architecture theorist Mark Wigley argues that architects designing white buildings today, like Richard Meier, are reacting to an illusion of whiteness that never existed in the white housing estate built above Stuttgart in 1927. White exteriors and flat roofs the only two conditions for the architects participating in the showcase. The lineup included Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, all of whom would go on to be leading lights of the modernist movement. Wigley fails to explain what photography might have meant to the original architects before they were leading light. He is however very clear about what whiteness meant to them: "the central role of whiteness in the extended history of of the concept of cleanness. Modern architecture joins the doctors white coat, the white tiles of the bathroom, the white walls of the hospital, and so on." Wigley believes that just as the buildings were not as white as they look in photographs, the whitewash was less about actual cleanness and more a mater of "a certain look of cleanness. Or more precisely, a cleansing of the look, a hygiene of vision itself."

Rem Koolhaas observed that "Architecture is a dangerous mixture of power and impotence." Looking back on Modernist architecture it is easy to see where the danger lies: recognizing the difference power and impotence. Applying even just the look of hygiene to the outside surface of buildings not only gives "the impression of clean space" (impotence) it adds, what Wigley calls, "a surveillance device scanning the very spaces that it has defined" (power). But Wigley argues the  look of cleanness is just a sensor for fashion (impotence). The  look of cleanness is also an immediate test of whether or not a space is actually clean or not (power). By making it a program for the exterior of buildings Le Corbusier was anticipating the broken windows theory by half a century. Tellingly, he called whitewash "a police task of real stature" (power).
Louis XIV, Hyacinthe Rigaud, Paris (1701); M.Gaton Doumergue, President of the French Republic visiting a hospital in Lille (1933) 

The most convincing relationship Wigley teases out in his book between whiteness and Modernist architecture is the more convoluted one between white petticoats and undershirts and the look of hygiene:
The white surfaces that traditionally mark cleanliness do just that, they mark rather than effect it. The whiteness of supposedly hygienic spaces originated with the garments and cosmetic powders that were periodically changed in order to take sweat of the body out of sight but not remove it. Putting on a new shirt was equivalent to taking a bath... Cleanliness was the visual effect that marked one's membership of a social class rather than the state of one's body. The look of hygiene was a kind of label that classifies the person who wears it.
The rhetoric of hygiene, from the mouths of reformers from Haussmann forward, have been treated with great suspicion by academic theorist from Walter Benjamin to Michelle Foucault. But in fact modern hygiene is not just a label, it is a strange creature all its own, driven by over crowding and built on abundance, it is wholly separate from all precedence.
Haussmann's Paris; Brazilian Favela

Because Wigley's book about white walls use Le Corbusier's 1925 book, L'art décoratif d'aujourd'hui, as "a springboard" it shares telegraphs a particular metaphor of hygiene - the crisp white shirt - and a necessarily primitive understanding of modernisation. In Corbusier's and other early Modernists' minds overcrowding was an unalloyed negative - an ill that had to be undone. They are not to blame. When they were formulating their ideas the technologies for living in cities were far less robust than they are today. What is obvious now looking back on the trends of history is that modernization, at its most essential, is urbanization. If there is a single measure of how evenly the future is distributed, it is urbanization. When Corbusier was writing about 14% of the worlds population lived in cities. Today it is 50% and by 2050 it will be 75%.

A lot of more recent moderns make the link between density and productivity, and therefor prosperity, but the urban reformer Jane Jacobs was one of the first to make that link. By the 1960s, when Jacobs published her first book, Death and Life of Great American Cities, the textile industries had transformed that aspect of city life to such a degree Jacob felt obliged to point out that the poor were still with us, but that they were no longer easily identifiable by their worn dirty clothing and cheap handmade dresses. Inexpensive, prêt-à-porter wardrobes had transformed the drab uniform of poverty and made it difficult to distinguish from the haute couture of wealthy city dwellers. What Jacobs was seeing, and that had been invisible to Corbusier, was the feedback loop between abundance and density.
Dr. Alexis Carrell experimenting with the hygienic qualities of Black, and Terrence Koh with the symbolic qualities of white. 

When Corbusier was writing disposable paper collars were still being used to extend the hygienic look of men's white shirts. Because a clean white shirt was such an expensive item both to purchase and maintaining at that time and extending its symbolic function with a paper prostheses was still in regular practice, one could still separate the look of hygiene from the reality. The image comparison that Le Corbusier used (and that Wigley reproduces) of king Luis XIV and French President Doumergue, highlights a radical break in the symbolic order. These are visible differences of kind.

Corbusier intended for us to see that hygiene as a mater of revolutionary moral progress. But like the whiteness of the Parthenon, that symbolic order does not progress predictably along as a linear incline. Friedrich Kitler observes that the introduction of photography exerted enormous competitive pressure on portrait painters painters (who were forced to find new ways to support themselves), but it also worked backwards, altering the symbolic order the portrait painters had maintained:
Portrait photography caused members of the aristocracy to present themselves no longer in full dress with uniforms and decorations, as they had for portrait painters, but rather they wanted to appear on their photographs wearing the simple black suits of normal citizens. 
At the time Le Corbusier was formulating his ideas about white "the great unwashed masses" made up over 80% of the worlds population. Even of those who occupied the futuristic spaces of modern cites (there were 12 cities in the world with populations over 1 million at the turn of the nineteenth century), only a small minority of wealthy early adopters were experimenting with modern hygiene. 
Brando looking fine in an undershirt, and Carry Fisher looking prim despite being informed by George Lucas that "there is no underwear in space."

Contemporary moderns, of all social classes, have access to cheap mechanically produced clothing, yet hardly anyone chooses to wear frills of lace and complex arrangements of capes, gowns and over coats. "In the twentieth century" Wigley writes, "the standardized outfit to be worn by mechanized culture has been identified. Modern architecture is ready to be worn." I would go further - the off-the-rack ensembles most of us choose to wear would never have been predicted by Corbusier and other early twentieth century moderns. They imagined modern abundance very differently than it has turned out. In their minds white buildings would house men in tailored suits with starched white collars and women in sleek modern gowns. In fact, with all the choices available today,  the great majority of both men and women, young and old, choose to wear little more than a pair work pants and an undershirt.

Few of us spend much money on white pants, white suits, over coats, much less white designer dresses. White cloths are to hard to keep clean and fresh, too easily spoiled, and makes you look fat. Like architects, afraid of peeling paint and rust stains, most of us avoid white exteriors but relish white interiors. White t-shirts, underwear, and socks are staples exactly like white interior walls: they can be enjoyed while fresh and then discarded once stained - cheaper and easier then a fresh coat of paint.
New York City White Wings with Police escort (1910); Weissenhofsiedlung (1927)

The look of cleanness is no more an empty quality of hygiene as the appearance of justice is an empty quality of the judicial system. Spaces that look filthy probably are, in the same way courts rooms that appear corrupt, probably are. If not the ultimate test, it is a crucial initial warning. Although he is describing it as an antifashion monitor for fashion, Wigley, taken literally, is correct when he writes that "The white wall is at once a camera and a monitor, a sensitive surface, a sensor." It extended the modern ideas of actual cleanness (in contrast to the European tradition of covering corruption with perfume) beyond the body and attempted to make it a program for whole cities - a pressing concern at the time. Wigley writes that white walls mark social distinction, and in the case of interior spaces he may be right, but the exterior of buildings are as different from the interior as an over coat is from underpants.
Filthy Astronaut Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17; Vandalized Windows, Pruitt-Igoe

The exterior whiteness of Weissenhofsiedlung was formulated in reaction to photography, but not idealizing pictures of other Modernist architecture, the modernists were reacting against dreary images of slums. The after-the-fact illusionism of perfect whites may, as Mark Wigley argues, telegraph forward via black and white photography to contemporary whiteness jockeys like Meier and Apple's head industrial designer Jonathan Ive, but those original white building were designed as an antidote for a very modern disillusionment. 

By 1927 whole cities were illuminated with electric light, but slums, like those Riis photographed in New York were now everywhere to be seen, and growing fast. The Modern architects on the hill side overlooking Stuttgarde may have been impotent to prevent the demographic tsunami to come, but because of their initial concern with hygienic exteriors, and their willingness to abandon whiteness as an exterior surface, they were positioned perfectly to capitalize on it during  the Post War boom; a boom that would transform their avant-garde fringe into one of the most powerful architectural movements in history. (Continue reading Part 5)
Steve Martin, anticomedian; Sears Tower antifashion

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