Mårten Claesson
Mårten Claesson,
Architect SIR
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  Light Construction
This is what the future
could look like

Knowledge and feeling for technology, aesthetics, economy, psychology and philosophy – that’s architecture. Few other professions tries to span so many areas. Are you to be an engineer, philosopher or artist? Tough. But occationally a sign forward reveals. I found a book that should be able to cheer up not just architects.

Something exciting is happening in the world of architecture, and as usual it is no subversive revolution but a sliding change.

And what makes me say that? Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York just held an exhibition with a serious attempt to capture the spirit of the age, curated by Terence Riley. The ambiguos title of both the exhibition and the catalogue/book was "Light Construction". And an exhibition at this art museum does matter. Let me show why through a couple examples of previous architecture exhibitions at MoMA:

"The International Style" exhibition in 1932 came to predict post WWII modernism – the very movement that has had the largest impact on our built reality in the 20th century. And probably in the whole history of mankind. Architects like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson et. al. are responsible for the scyscraper skylines of the world’s big cities with their "glass and steel" architecture. The whole European rebuilding after WWII was in the spirit of International Style. As is today’s booming South East Asian cities. Grand scale architecture and the architect as a kind of social engineer.

The "Deconstructivist Architecture" exhibition in 1988 with Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman et. al. The term deconstructivism was stolen from the French philosopher Jaques Derrida and his critique of our false perception of firm and strong language structures – but is still easily discernible as a building style. You can with some truth say that deconstructivism is the logical follower, a sharpened and sprawling variation, to the more commonly known postmodernism. Wolf Prix in the deconstructivist duo "Coop Himmelblau" once said he wanted to create architecture that "caught the moment when a 30 ton whale jumps up from the ocean and hangs in the air". Poetic in a typical Rock’n’Roll kind of way. In their founding philosophies, though, deconstructivism and postmodernism are both highly intellectually sophisticated. Here the architect has taken on the role as the philosopher critical to society.

MoMa’s exhibitions does not cover all directions of modern architecture. But the major ones are there. And the ability to pin down the spirit of the age can not be depreciated.

On the surface "Light Construction" seems to be about layers as opposed to volume in architectural composition. Layer after layer of veils, preferably in semi transparent glass, but also other materials like perforated sheet steel and even ice. Visual tension is created by hints instead of exposed naked construction. In fashion this has been used for a long time. Thin clothing is sexier than no clothing.

It’s a lot about light and glass. Where architects previously treated glass as non material, an invisible weather barrier, it is now treated as something with a body of its own. Clear glass often reflects more than it actually lets through. A frosted window lets through lots of light but is impossible to see through.

Most interesting is not the focusing on material or light, though, but MoMA’s search for a new style. Shown with works from architects which at first seems to be essentially different. Surprisingly some of the names are even the same as in the exhibition of ‘88. What is striking is the common platform that is found within this heterogenous group of architects and which is called the "new sensibility".

The intellectual aspects of architecture seems to have diminished in importance. Seventy years after the breakthrough of modernism feeling has at last been acknowledged by intellect. You should not expect a new romanticism, though. Many houses in Light Construction still reminds of modernism. But the dogmatic rationalism is gone. So, somewhat contradictionary, this is an intellectual turning point after all and that is what’s true revolutionary with this book.

A comparison between Mies van der Rohe’s "Farnsworth House" and Herzog & de Meuron’s "Goetz Collection" shows what’s new:

The former: a modernistic icon from ’46. A glass box thrown out in nature. A completely transparent home. Modern. Future optimistic. Beautiful.

The latter: a private art gallery from ‘92. At first sight very similar to Farnsworth House. But completely closed with its frosted glass. Here all future optimism etc. is kept out for meditation, art and inner experience. In a way the building signals surrender to an overpowering surrounding world. Still it is also very beautiful.

It seems to me that today’s new and interesting architects have a more honest approach than their predecessors. Light and material is a lot closer to the profession than socio-political manifestoes or criticism of language.

If "Light Construction" really is the label for the new architecture is questionable. But this is not the important issue. The focus has shifted. Our time has at last been manifested; been justified and given meaning. The modernist myth of the artist/architect as engineer is gone. Later time’s pseudo philosophical architecture is over. Art is reborn. I predict a new awakened idealism and creative boom in architecture.

Terence Riley
Light Construction
The Museum of Modern Art,
New York/Harry N. Abrams, inc. 1995

Mårten Claesson, Architect SIR
Home page:
claesson-koivisto-rune

This article was published (in Swedish) in
Svenska Dagbladet City, 15 March 1996