'Fire and Air' in: The Architects' Journal by Patrick Lynch
Architecture is an activity that involves mixing things that don’t naturally mix together. This does not suggest that there is anything unnatural about our species’ desire and need for architecture, nor that it is not natural for opposites to attract each other. But architects are contrarians constantly attempting to yoke together parts of the brain that want to deny each other sovereignty. Similarly, our desire for views and light for example, usually confront the need for protection and for preservation of energy, and architecture is the quest to resolve and to reconcile these antinomies, to place these antagonistic aspects into balanced disequilibrium. Too much defence and our work is leaden, unleavened and dumb; too much earth makes a house a tomb. Too much lightness and openness denies us any access to imagining how we might actually dwell somewhere. These opposites are succinctly analysed by Fernandéz-Galiano in Fire and Memory (MIT 2005) as the chief characteristics that differentiate Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier’s architecture. The former always situated family life around a fireplace, thus invoking a cosmic symbol as the centre of dwelling; a mythical setting, centred and grounded in a cave-like atmosphere. Wright invokes rhythmic daily life and timeless archetypes and you can sense that he is straining to place ordinary domestic life into wild settings, or to recover some of the power of wilderness in suburban settings. Fernandéz-Galiano suggests that Jung might be the unconscious inspiration for Wright’s “pyrophilia”. Certainly, Jung, like his contemporary Heidegger, sought to describe dwelling in symbolic terms, evoking poetic myths that challenged the hegemony of a-historical modernity and the future-cult of technology.
Le Corbusier, like Wright, was also a curious admixture of shaman and seer, poetic philosopher, persuasive polemicist and professional self-mythologizer. At various times Corb tried to apply lessons from Buggatti or
Orville Wright or Cunard liners to the design of buildings, with suitably various results. His Villa Savoye re-oriented the central aspect of dwelling from stasis to movement, from fire dance to cloud walk, from kitchen sink drama to cinematic flight; as if Deadalus’ labyrinth had mutated into his son’s aeronautics. Such levitation had an Icarus like fate, and the centrally heated flat-roofed, partly steel framed, rendered, block work house was beset with leaks, and at one point was a neglected ruin and used as a barn. Corb used to pretend that it had been demolished, and only World War II saved him from a costly claim for damages, accusations of professional negligence and disgrace. Similarly, Wright’s response to Corb’s fame and his own fading reputation, the suitably named Falling Water, has also been beset by the sort of structural problem that one might expect from building a cantilevered cave out over a waterfall. Both houses throw you out into the world and celebrate the delicious perversity of our desire to dwell in a state of tension within the natural world, a gymnastic poise that appears effortless but is in fact a strenuously unnatural and contrived pose. We are usually expected to choose sides, and yet both architects offer vital examples of the contrary nature of architecture. Astute observers won’t be surprised to learn that I have burnt into to my architectural memory another image of modern dwelling. This famous photograph of the Gullischen sisters lounging beside Aalto’s corner fireplace at the Villa Mariea shows the glass wall of the living room slid fully open, with the ‘background’ forest forming a ‘fourth wall’ to the festive calm of the garden. The swimming pool and clouds complete this elemental admixture, held together and apart by architecture.