The Design Observer Group

Posted 12.05.11

David Heymann

A Mound in the Wood

Peter Zumthor, Saint Benedict Chapel; Herzog, Prada Aoyama
Peter Zumthor, Saint Benedict Chapel, Sumvtig, Switzerland, 1989. Herzog and de Meuron, Prada Aoyama, Tokyo, 2003. [Photos by David Heymann]

Here, bluntly put, is one conclusion to draw from the earlier essay in this series on buildings and landscape: for many architects working today, site mapping strategies serve as a smoke screen — perhaps well-intentioned, perhaps not — used to sell highly sculptural constructions as landscape sensitive to a gullible public, that, were it not for this blinding landscape component, would likely and correctly be suspicious of our intent. And I mean sculptural here in the most obvious, perhaps least interesting and old-fashioned way: as strange aggressive objects that demand attention by being physically complex.

As I suggested in an earlier series of essays, the after-Modern era in architecture has been marked by an extraordinary variety of methods used to mitigate the presence of buildings in landscape — this remains a central agenda of current design — of which mapping is but one. Some of these strategies have names (e.g., typology, parametric modeling) while others are identified by their results. As startling as the rise of buildings as picturesque landscape mappings drawn out over their sites might be — with examples ranging from Predock's Austin City Hall to Hadid's Vitra Fire Station to Libeskind's Jewish Museum — there has been an equally startling rise of buildings as powerful, singular vessel-like objects, seemingly brought to their sites. You can sense that strange quality of distinct wholeness and rounded discreteness in buildings such as the Zogt Benedikt Chapel, by Peter Zumthor, and the Prada Aoyama, by Herzog and de Meuron. Such vessels share with mappings a number of things. Despite the obvious formal differences, they are also understood (and argued for) by their architects as appropriate landscape preservers; they too emphasize the primacy of individual interpretation; and they also — at least at first — seem to traffic in dramatic if conventional sculptural presence.

All this talk of sculptural qualities brings up a reasonable question. Are buildings actually like sculptures in the perception of landscape? I ask this cautiously. It's a useful question, but also sophomoric, the answer a matter of opinion. And, indeed, most architects I've asked are of the opinion that buildings and sculptures have a lot in common, while most artists I’ve asked are of the opinion that sculpture and buildings — more largely architecture and art — have little in common. So which is it, from the point of view of landscape perception? In making landscape, are buildings like sculptures?

The last essay — Landscape Is Our Sex — ended with Adolf Loos's observation — "the architect ... has no culture” [1], from an old (1910) but still powerful essay, simply and tellingly entitled Architecture, on (mostly) this very subject. Architecture is an odd essay. Much of its middle section consists of Loos scathing his more commercially successful contemporaries. Given the evolution of language usage, it's sometimes hard to know when Loos is being insecure, or critical, or just pulling your leg. But the beginning and end of the essay remain fresh and tough. Here Loos offers sharp insights into how buildings make landscape, which still ring true today, uncomfortably so. The discomfort comes in part because Loos often challenges the reader directly by resorting to moralistically high-handed trash talk, or to gnomic obscurity, like: “only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the monument and the tomb.” Still, if the reader is an architect, the discomfort really arises from something deeper. Loos unflinchingly makes an observation that most architects wish would not be made: that we unfailingly design buildings knowing they will stand out rather than blend in, even for places we wish to preserve for their inherent consistency as landscapes. Worse still (as Loos implies by pointing to architects’ obsession with publication), we congratulate ourselves for so doing.

Hallstatt, Austria. [Photo by Douglas Sprott]

Loos famously begins the essay by asking you to imagine walking along the shore of an alpine lake, across the surface of which is reflected a rural village. The day is spectral: "the sky is blue, the water is green, and everything is at peace." The mountains and the trees, the houses, farms and chapels "look as if they had never been built by human hands." There is no disharmony between the natural and the manmade, to which Loos will shortly include the railway on the shore (made by an engineer), and the deep grooves in the surface of the lake (made by a passing ship). The landscape being described is complex. It includes everything from mountains to pasturage, from churches to infrastructure, from unmoving construction to evanescent man-made effect; and many different actors are physically altering it, from farmers to engineers to boatmen. But it isn't difficult to imagine this landscape as a singularity. Loos then describes something we can also imagine:
What is that discord, that like an unnecessary scream shatters the quiet? Right at the center of the farmers' houses, which were not built by them, but by God, stands a villa. Is it the product of a good or bad architect? I do not know. All I know is that beauty, peace, and quiet have been dispelled.
Loos is here describing an experience you will have likely already had: suddenly seeing, against its context, a construction so jarringly dissonant in presence that it can only be the work of an architect. You know exactly what he means: no illustration is required. Not all buildings are designed by architects, but those designed by many architects (good or bad — to Loos it doesn't matter: they all do it) insist on primacy of attention, and so disrupt landscape. It's like the obnoxiousness of an overloud drunk ruining the atmosphere of a nice restaurant.

Loos then explicitly qualifies this tendency with a question: "why is it that every architect, whether good or bad, desecrates the lake?" Loos may well be fooling us with this harsh verb (which I've italicized). We secretly hope so. Still, if you're an architect, or an architecture student, you actually know the answer to his question. We — here I am speaking for many architects — assume buildings are important shapers of meaningfulness. We're taught to explore the limits of buildings — actually of all things constructed (here consider the cultural joke of architects' notoriously overwrought eyeglasses) — to carry as much meaning as possible, and to express this meaning in form legibly, so that it can be read, thought about and understood. In so doing, we seek for our constructions to attain what is often called critical form.

We certainly don't call that desecration. On the contrary, we wish people would look at buildings with the same deep attention we bring to layering their complex forms with meaningfulness. We assume our deep attention to the richest possible design is an act on behalf of culture. We consider ourselves blessed if we are found by clients who believe the same. And we secretly dream that a day should come when the non-seers will see — or once again see, since we fuzzily believe people saw architecture in the past — and will share our cultured-ness. So Loos must here be pulling our collective leg, and will now step out on behalf of Architecture.

Hallstatt, Austria. [Photo by Flickr user peperoni]

And, sure enough, just as we've had the time to get up our protective righteousness, Loos asks the question again. This time he answers it:
…why does the architect, the good one as well as the bad one, desecrate the lake? The architect, like almost every urban dweller, has no culture. He lacks the certainty of the farmer, who possesses culture.
Wait a minute — the FARMER? Isn't culture supposed to be on the side of the architect? I mean, aren't WE the culture industry? But Loos has no patience for architects. They are here his target. Or were. He has in fact already fired the lethal shot, protecting the overall unity of a landscape against the interloping presence of an individual building. Loos is now preparing to field-dress the corpse. He begins this work by noting that the farmer, the engineer and the boat captain create in ways that are different from the architect. Though Loos clearly oversimplifies, he does so to drive home a particular argument. So, Loos claims, the farmer, in building a house for himself and his family, simply knows how to build correctly, as has always been done: "just as any animal succeeds that allows itself to be guided by its instincts." So do the mason, the joiner, the other craftsmen who come to work with him. There is no importation: "if clay is in the vicinity, it provides a brickyard which delivers bricks; if not, then those stones that form the lake’s shore will suffice."

Nor is there any real invention in Loos's idealized rural world. The carpenter "... builds the roof. What kind of a roof? A beautiful one or an ugly one? He does not know. It is a roof!" Though Loos does not say it directly, he thus implies that the boat captain also does not take beauty into account in deciding the route across the lake; nor does the engineer in asking: what is the best path for the train? All, Loos suggests, are simply working directly from a storehouse of embedded landscape-specific knowledge — without the burden of a concern for beauty — and it is the character of this directness that binds the landscape. It is not beautiful by cultured intention, but by enlightened default. Again Loos asks about beauty: "is the house beautiful? Yes, just as beautiful as the rose or the thistle or the horse or the cow." As beautiful as the rose or the thistle or the horse or the cow. [2]

To this point there are several crucial components to Loos's argument. Human constructions are not inherently foreign to landscape, even, as in Loos's alpine village, a landscape with components of incomparable natural beauty. [3] Second, the relationship of any construction to its landscape is not only visual, but also constitutional. When you look at a building, you are seeing more in it than its appearance: you also impute its occurrence as a construction, a material act. The third component of Loos's argument is subtly linked to the second: as part of this constitutional understanding, you also know that various agents — farmer, engineer, mason, carpenter, and also architect — make parts of landscape (Loos is about to complicate matters by adding artist to this list). Finally, fourth, just as the farmer does not think of beauty any more than you or I would question the beauty of the rose, thistle, cow or horse, so should beauty not have to be thought about — though Loos is about to make a critical exception — in order be experienced in constructions in their landscapes.

This argument may initially appear dishearteningly conservative and limiting. But Loos was actually making a radical and powerful claim. Buildings, in order to correctly make the landscape to which they are normal, fall into a class of perception. This class has one crucial qualification: in landscape, buildings are constructions that we do not interpret. This is the essential birthright — the secret power, if you will — that landscape grants buildings. Later in his essay — after that long middle section in which he theorizes on why architects do not recognize this fact, summarized here in a long end note [4] — Loos restates this thought directly — and he summarizes its meaning in his own italics — with an unusually severe and poetic example:
When we come across a mound in the wood, six feet long and three feet wide, raised in a pyramidal form by means of a spade, we become serious and something in us says: somebody lies buried here. This is architecture.
Here, coincidentally, are three essential components of landscape: a site (a wood), a construction (a mute mound, raised in a pyramidal form by means of a spade), and a desire (to engender the emotion of seriousness with regard to the buried). The task of architecture, Loos states, is to so make landscape: "to make those sentiments more precise." 

Walker Evans, A Child's Grave
A Child's Grave, Hale County, Alabama, 1936. [Photo by Walker Evans for the Farm Security Administration]

What a brutal definition of architecture! Here it is, restated. Buildings are experienced in landscape by inhabitation, rather than conscious interpretation. We do not think of buildings; instead they frame our experience before interpretation (what that means to architectural design is that all the things you, architect, think should be interpreted from your complex form probably never will be). A building’s role in landscape is to continue enacting landscape by these means, though it should serve to make that enactment more precise. Underlying this, we understand that buildings are material constructions made by specific agents, some of whom are architects. Here the circle of Loos's definition comes around: architects make buildings that are experienced in landscape by inhabitation, rather than conscious interpretation. We do not think of buildings; instead they frame our experience before interpretation, etc., etc.

Despite its seeming limitation, Loos's definition so far — there is more to it — doesn't necessarily limit form in terms of formal complexity. In his Alpine landscape we find constructions as varied as a farmstead, a railroad track, a chapel, a steeple, the wake of a boat, a village, a mound of dirt. His is primarily a perceptual definition: in landscape, human emotion is framed by material constructions; although made by different agents, these constructions are of a certain, complex type. They are not thought about critically, either in construction (see farmer) or in perception (see coming upon mound in wood). They are not thought about in construction or in perception because they are part of landscape.

The corpse of the architect now cold, Loos turns Architecture towards his fundamental topic. Loos argues that, because any building’s primary purpose in landscape is to uphold landscape, all buildings have an inherently public component. But, Loos notes, most architects do not respect this essential truism of landscape. Here, written just over a century ago, he registers a remarkably familiar complaint: "today most houses only please two people: the client and the architect." This is a complaint rarely made by an architect, unless trying to bring design back to a mythical cautionary fold. But Loos isn't making this complaint to turn architecture back. He is making it to serve as a bridge to his real topic: the purpose and advantage of the distinction in landscape between art and architecture. Here are the two critical paragraphs that immediately follow the complaint (the italics are Loos's):
The house has to please everyone, contrary to the work of art, which does not. The work of art is a private matter for the artist. The house is not. The work of art is brought into the world without a direct need for it. The house satisfies a requirement. The work of art is responsible to none; the house is responsible to everyone. The work of art wants to draw people out of their state of comfort. The house has to serve comfort. The work of art is revolutionary; the house is conservative. The work of art shows people new directions and thinks of the future. The house thinks of the present. Man loves everything that satisfies his comfort. He hates everything that wants to draw him out of his acquired position and that disturbs him. Thus he loves the house and hates art.

Does it follow that the house has nothing to do with art and is architecture not to be included among the arts? That is so. Only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument. Everything else that fulfills a function is to be excluded from the domain of art.
This is one of the remarkable, breathtaking statements in the history of architecture, more radical today than when it was written. If you set aside for a moment thinking of buildings or artworks as entities, but rather as classes of perception in landscape, then Loos is making an important distinction. As we inhabit landscape, any construction that demands our interpretative faculty — "that draw[s] people out of their state of comfort" — Loos calls art. His argument is: we accept as inherent to landscape that we will be drawn out of our state of comfort by an artwork. The discomfort art engenders — the hate — is not foreign to landscape. People generally accept — and I love this idea — that they will hate an artwork as part of their normal understanding of landscape. Here, of course, Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, which — the only artwork so hated it was moved — is the exception that proves the rule. But a building drawing us out of our level of comfort — like that villa at the start of Loos's essay — destroys landscape. Loos only allows for two loopholes to this fundamental law of landscape perception, two buildings that are allowed to make people think, to “draw people out of their state of comfort": the monument and the tomb. The staggering success of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial goes a long way towards proving this point.

Richard Serra, Tilted ArcRichard Serra, Tilted Arc, 1981. [Photo (c) Richard Serra/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; courtesy Leo Castelli Gallery, New York]

Loos is here describing landscape as a finely tuned set of complex, understood relationships between constructions and perception. Since perception is the key, any building that makes you think at the level of critical interpretation — that draws you out of your comfort, that makes you hate — you by default perceive in landscape as a monument or a tomb, regardless of its nominal program. That's fine when the program is monument or tomb; but the formal conflation of the nominal program "villa" destroys that alpine landscape because it is necessarily perceived as a monument or a tomb — not as "house." The frisson between the perception in landscape and the nominal program — and it doesn't have to be villa: it could be "nature center," "restaurant," "gas station," etc. — necessarily causes interpretation to commence. It is this interpretation that, according to Loos, destroys the perception of consistency in a landscape. You can see why the impulse of architects to over-develop every form, to lard each with more — even in the name of landscape — would thus cause landscapes to become disrupted.

All of Loos's logics are circular, and here is the contentious — at least for most architects — reverse direction of his argument. Loos claims that, within the realm of landscape, we interpret artworks. But a building that we interpret is, in landscape, not an artwork. It is always perceived in landscape as a monument or a tomb — a form of building — not as, for example, a sculpture. Architecture is not sculpture, according to Loos, because of landscape. Beyond the monument and the tomb, an architect cannot actually even approximate the making of art in landscape. Why not? Because constructions in landscape are understood constitutionally — our conception of landscape includes its agents — and architects, like farmers and engineers, do not make that part of landscape that we consider artworks. That part is made by artists. 

Loos alludes to one curious consequence of this way of thinking when describing the railroad track. Engineers also make landscape, and, interestingly enough, the components for which they are understood to be responsible arguably have the greatest formal variety, even outright oddness, with the least landscape disruption. My guess for why this could be is that, regardless of formal complexity, we intuit necessity in the constitution of engineered objects in landscape. So, for example, in this Bernd and Hilla Becher photograph, the house is more problematic to — more volatile within — landscape than the water tower, despite the latter's far greater formal complexity. Imagine if the house were painted pink. (Such phenomena are of course not lost on architects, who some years ago — coincident with the rise of concern for context — realized that this odd perceptual blind spot allowed for the presence in landscape of some startlingly strange objects. The Pompidou Center is perhaps the best-known example; the Mario Botta tower house in Riva San Vitale is similar. This construction is remarkably different from the other houses in its Alpine village — more so even than Loos's disruptive villa — but my sense is that you simply accept it in landscape. It must be something for the public water supply. The same is true of the Märkli’s lovely and subtle La Congiunta, also in the Alps. I think they store road salt there.)

Left: Greencastle Pennsylvania USA [Photo by Bernd Becher and Hilla Becher, from Water Towers, MIT Press, 1988]. Top right: Mario Botta, Casa Unfamiliare, Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, 1971. [Photo by Alo Zanetta]. Bottom right: Peter Märkli, La Congiunta, Giornico, Switzerland, 1992. [Photo by David Heymann]

In Loos's argument, the distinct difference between the actions of the titled professions — architect, engineer, artist — is actually part of landscape. Evidence, unfortunately, bears this out. Can you think of an architect or engineer who has ever made any truly great sculpture? Don't start with those "sculptures" by Calatrava. Please. They are unbearably bad, entirely predictable and empty. Only architects take them seriously. And great architecture — or worse, great engineering — by artists? In landscape it is not to be. As the artist Robert Irwin has said: "if I design my own house, it doesn’t get published in an architecture magazine!" [5] In the entire history of Western culture there are only two standout exceptions to this truism: Bernini, who just makes it over the line, and Michelangelo. But he's the exception to every rule.

This, then, is the corollary to Loos's definition. In landscape, art is what people who call themselves artists do; and architecture is what people who call themselves architects do. Artists make that part of landscape that we interpret; and architects are agents in making that part of landscape we do not interpret, except in the design of monuments and the tombs. It would be possible to add to this definition that engineering is what people who call themselves engineers do; and they too are agents in making landscape, though their's are products we neither interpret nor really ever question.

This definition — even though it arises to protect landscape — drives almost every architect I know utterly crazy. It certainly does that to my students, all wanting to be responsible to landscape, but actually chomping at the bit to design something interesting, and busy practicing their rhetoric to square the two. By limiting formal presence — the very thing many architects strive to expand — architecture so defined seems to strangle the potential of buildings to carry meaning, reducing the scope of the architects' domain and design freedom. But it doesn't actually limit as much as it would first appear. On the one hand, Loos argues that the subject of architecture is not form in isolation, but the action of form in landscape upon the precision of experience. There's a bottomless realm, as we can see in the Blur Building, or in the work of Zumthor. And it opens up the whole issue of the fundamental role of construction in a landscape, a message not lost on architects who take the essential gist of Loos's argument seriously, like Moneo, or Zumthor, or Herzog and de Meuron.

Peter Zumthor, Thermal Baths, Vals
Left: Peter Zumthor, Thermal Baths, Vals, Switzerland, 1996. [Photo by David Heymann] Right: Adolf Loos, Chicago Tribune Tower Competition entry, 1922.

Perhaps most crucially, Loos's definition leaves open the whole question of monuments, the realm where architects can make the interpretable and still uphold landscape. It turns out many of the buildings we have been looking at are monuments: cultural monuments of one sort or another. The Vitra Fire Station is certainly a monument, programmatically: the entire furniture factory had previously burned down (that's why Vitra was building so many new buildings), and in that way the new fire station was centrally monumental to the conception of the new campus. This is not likely what Loos had in mind with the term — he was probably speaking of purely honorific objects — but he seemed to already know that the modern era was changing the status of monument, as is clear from his earnest entry for the Chicago Tribune tower competition. But his point — that architects choose to develop every program into a monument in landscape — still stands. 

There is one last observation I'll make about Loos's crucial essay, and it has to do with my deep and abiding admiration for why Loos was making the argument at all. In the long-winded and problematic middle portion of the essay, Loos tried to pin down why architects make constructions that seek the status in landscape of artworks. He argued that, for architects, the necessary evil of urban dwelling destroys constructional knowledge by severing a crucial connection to landscape. Loos did not make this argument well — he just stated his conclusions — but even these have some validity. Loos's point was that landed-ness has inherent value as a basis for knowledge in landscape. But architecture, for Loos, arises as an urban profession. The architect, uprooted from land by the necessity of an urban-centric profession, faces, in designing, a void once filled with landscape knowledge. Unfortunately, the architect has to ask: what is beautiful? Loos argues the architect sees the answer to this question in art, and seeks to imitate its potentials, and claim for architecture art's status in landscape.

But — and this is just really interesting — Loos argues that so doing is antithetical to culture, reducing both the (powerful hidden) potential of architecture and draining the power of art. By way of a current example, one often hears architects referencing Richard Serra sculpture in describing their designs. But — to be absolutely clear — that isn't doing the Richard Serra sculpture any favor. In fact, it only serves to devalue the Serra. Mommy, that sculpture looks just like our nature center! Ditto the works by Judd, Heizer, Smithson, De Maria, Whiteread, et al., that architects congratulate themselves for approximating without admitting. [6] Loos was typically brutal about the (still relevant) consequence: "humanity no longer knows what art is."

Karijini National Park Visitor Centre
Woodhead International, Karijini National Park Visitor Centre, Pilbara, Australia, 2001.

Loos was — by means of his simplified Alpine landscape — trying to protect the status of great works of art against the predatory emptiness of architectural design imperialism. He argued that, to do so, there was value to distinguishing between art and architecture, and this distinction begins in landscape, which architecture destroys when seeking the status of sculpture. This remains a great and powerful argument. To a degree, the strength of the argument comes precisely from its inability to serve as a sales pitch. Loos described what he sensed to be true as an (ethical) observer of landscape, not what he wanted to be true as an architect.

That said, there are two particular weaknesses to Loos's argument in Architecture that I want to bring forward. I don’t think they undermine the essential gist or strength of Loos's point, but I bring them up because they are actually of interest intellectually, a good starting point for a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between landscape and buildings. Here is the first weakness. Architects: can they really make landscape by the same means as farmers or engineers, even if they must achieve (by Loos) the same ends? Because Loos is unclear on this matter in the essay, let me make the point by another route. Here is the great curator and essayist John Szarkowski — as clear in his thinking about photography as Loos was about buildings — efficiently staking out a general rule of cultural production:
When Lee Friedlander made the photograph reproduced here he was playing a kind of game. The game is of undetermined social utility and on the surface seems almost frivolous. The rules of the game are so tentative that they are automatically (though subtly) amended each time the game is successfully played. The chief arbiter of the game is Tradition, which records in a haphazard fashion the results of all previous games, to make sure that no play that won before will be allowed to win again. [7]
The arts sustain an internal and evolving dialogue. This essential fact has differentiated the arts from the crafts at least since the Renaissance. It also distinguishes architecture from farming or engineering (though that alone does not place architecture back with the arts). The farmer may make the same roof again and again, but the architect may not repeat with the same success the strategies that, for example, made the original Prada Aoyama succeed in landscape. That is part of architecture, and, because it is so, by Loos's circular logic, it is also part of landscape. Loos recognizes this indirectly in another memorable turn of phrase in Architecture, in which he clarifies that architectural design is not a matter of repeated strategies: "we are not, as yet, so cultureless that we teach a young boy poetry by means of calligraphy."

Kunsthaus, Graz
Peter Cook and Colin Fournier, Kunsthaus Graz, Austria, 2003. [Photo by Flickr user HeyItsWilliam]

So now we are one step closer: buildings made by architects must continuously evolve, but never break the surface of conscious interpretation, unless they are monuments or tombs. But we aren’t there yet. Even if the architect could make landscape as does Loos's farmer, merely by the application of landed knowledge in the form of known strategies, to what would they reasonably apply this ability? Program continues to evolve — how could Loos's farmer make an AIDS hospice? — and landscape continues to evolve, as do its agents and purposes. How many farmers in the Alps make their own homes today? And do we really trust the engineer to make beautiful landscape at the scale of massive infrastructure, as opposed to a little train track? And artists: made aware of Loos's limit, wouldn't they innately want to upset it? (The answer is yes, they already have, and landscape allowed it). And that farm village: frankly, it's full of retirees, or those on vacation. It’s their (changed) landscape now. What is their purpose, and should it not also have some form of direct expression? And what if their purpose includes replicant appearance, terminators? Or more interesting still, what if their purpose — like in that quaint mountain town Graz — includes intentionally constructing a scream — in this case, the Kunsthaus — that dispels the “beauty, peace, and quiet”? Which landscape — whose landscape — gets frozen?