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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Picture Perfect

Light, air and architecture

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Just more than a month from now the Milwaukee Art Museum’s exhibit “Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945” will come to a close. In a review of the show, which brings together an enormous collection of works by Central European photographers active in the interwar period, I pointed out that one of its few failings was the lamentable omission of any references to modern architecture flourishing in that period.

Architectural historian Paul Overy is careful not to make a similar omission. In his new book, Light, Air and Openness: Modern Architecture Between the Wars (Thames & Hudson), he states the complicity of photography in upholding the idea of immaculate perfection to which architects of this period adhered. Despite the fact that they’re not overtly architectural, the works on display in MAM’s “Foto” exhibit enhanced my reading of the book.

The main thrust of Light, Air and Openness isn’t the relationship between photography and architecture, but nonetheless makes rather salutary comparisons between the two. Overy’s main thesis is to examine the unifying principles that pervaded architecture of the time—the dissolution of boundaries, the stark and unadorned facades, the open-plan interiors and the inclusion of generous roof gardens and terraces—as the expression of an almost unhealthy obsession with hygiene.

Blurred Boundaries

The quasi-religious reverence for hygiene displayed by architects at the time warrants some comparison with the rage for green design that characterizes the field of architecture today—a new fad for a new epoch. However, Overy convincingly argues that the adulation of light air and openness went beyond upholding spatial hygiene; it became a paradigm for physical, social, moral, even sexual hygiene.

Parallels are drawn between the emancipatory potential of uncluttered architecture (not least of all for the put-upon housewife depicted in Hans Richter’s film Die neue Wohnung, which Overy refers to in his book) and the emancipation of women in Western society following World War I. The author makes the connection between open-plan dwelling and open attitudes toward sex; nudity of the faade and nude bodies of the bourgeoisie basking in the recuperative sun; desexualization of spaces like bedrooms and desexualization of women.

We see ample evidence to support his point in the “Foto” exhibit. The virtually indistinguishable images of Klaus and Erika Mann taken by Lotte Jacobi, or the boyish aspect of August Sander’s photo of Peter Abelin’s wife, clad in shirt, tie and billowing Oriental-style pants with a cigarette perched irreverently between her bared teeth, reinforce this idea of blurred gender boundaries.

Overy makes a similar connection between the clean lines of built forms and furniture and physical ideals prevalent at the time. We see the adulation of athleti- cism in Martin Munkacsi’s photograph of Leni Riefenstahl glazed in a healthy sheen of sweat. Karel Paspa’s photo of Milca Mayerova bending her body into the form of an “S” evokes the curves of modern tubular steel furniture. Magazines like the Czech Zijeme, graced with minimal covers such as Ladislav Sutnar’s photomontage of lithe gymnasts vaulting into the air or trousered women lounging casually on sofas, became visual manifestos championing the ease and grace of modern living.

Culture of Contrast

This idea of physical perfection bears clear fascist connotations, just as the stark whiteness of modern architecture carries colonialist overtones. Examined in another light, a house stripped of ornament and an interior purged of bourgeoisie trappings typifies the socialist ideal. Herein lie the contradictions of modern architecture to which Overy draws the reader’s attention.

He even lends eerie undertones to modern architects’ obsession with ritual washing, drawing parallels between Adolf Loos’ symbolism of “the good bath” and the horrors of the concentration camps. “The gas chambers at Auschwitz were disguised as showers,” Overy reminds his readers.

In fact Loos’ design for a house for the famous African-American performer Josephine Baker is used to illustrate contradictory attitudes toward sexuality and modernism. The building was never built, but seems to be a fantasy project for the architect who, like many of his peers, was deeply beguiled by Baker. The design is a study in sexual exhibitionism and voyeurism that wantonly straddles both the primitive and modern. It betrays a fetishization of the female apparent in Atelier Manasse’s My Little Bird, which shows a miniature nude woman perched in a bird cage, or in Hans Bellmer’s photographs of a jointed prepubescent model he fabricated.

However, the keenest point the author makes is one that’s often overlooked in the study of modern architecture: the fact that many modernist masterpieces weren’t built to last but, unlike the architecture of the past, spoke of an ephemeral existence that clung lightly to the Earth until a new epoch saw fit to sweep it away. He argues that photography went even beyond immortalizing and flattening the imperfections of these buildings: The crisp and clean images of Albert Renger-Patzsch espoused a taste for a photogenic architecture unsullied by the imperfect stamp of humanity.