Democratizing Stock

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Stock

August 31, 2017

DIMITRI BRAND, M.Arch I, ‘18

 

Stock material is provided in predetermined profiles, from the basic: 2’’ by 6”, 1” by 1”, 4′ by 8′, to the more complex: angle, wide flange, threshold. The material is sold by predetermined lengths: 8’, 12′, 20′, with predetermined compositions: Pine, ASTM 36, OSB/3, and in predetermined finishes: #1 grade, hot rolled, cast.

 

On Instagram, accounts pay homage to stock’s many complex forms, using the stock images of stock materials as ready-made forms of internet art (Duchamp would be proud). These manufactured products take on preeminent roles in our architecture, perhaps because we have to spend endless hours specifying them from catalogs. While the reasons for their seemingly idiosyncratic dimensions are little known, their existence is canon. As architects, our currency is knowledge, yet we know less about our materials then we would probably like and certainly less than we should. As a result, the materials’ existence is fetishized, revered and heavily romanticized in its mechanically-produced end-consumer state.

 

Designers are often contented exposing the beauty of the mundane to the world through carefully-crafted details. The design-build world is replete with architects leveraging existing supply chains for (supposedly) cheap solutions. The work’s draw is its carefully curated sense of honesty, humility, and frugality that promises the democratization of high design. The low material cost (potentially) makes “good” design available to the masses, appealing to a certain social agenda that many architects share. This method of creating design while prioritizing material and process has a lengthy, sprawling lineage, traceable through many different forms. Of particular note is its history in the context of 19th-20th c. central Europe.

 

During its time (the early 19th c.), the Biedermeier chair was used as a symbol in paintings within candidly unimpressive spaces to signal that the space depicted was unpretentious, inhabited by good persons unconcerned with frippery. The Biedermeier style of furniture was a stripped down version of Neoclassicism and Romanticism, characterized by the use of local timber (as opposed to mahogany) and the use of these materials in a “truthful” fashion.

 

With a focus on ease of craft, the reduction of labor through simplicity of form, and the use of local materials, the Biedermeier style was intended to offset the economic pressures brought about by the Napoleonic wars. More importantly, the Biedermeier style responded to a growing middle class, symbolizing a level of frugality and accessibility that intentionally and directly contrasted with the aristocratic world that existed above and before it. Biedermeier furniture’s (relative) accessibility came to symbolize a new class consciousness: this class aimed for the comfortable while criticising the ostentatious. Though seemingly infused with politics, the furniture became the comfort of choice for the staunchly apolitical everyman.

 

Biedermeier was a cultural moment, and as such lacks a dominant document such as a manifesto, defying a rigid definition of its aims. Still, the moment can be defined through the multiplicity of creative works developed within it. The poems of Wilhelm Müller (b. Dessau, Germany, 1794) represent the spirit of Biedermeier well. In his poem, “Whither?” Müller writes “…Let them sing, my friend, let them murmur,/ And wander merrily near;/ The wheels of a mill are going/ In every brooklet clear.” The subject and tone of Müller’s poems is contrasted by the works of the romanticists working contemporaneously in many of the same locations.[1] In “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” William Wordsworth (b. Cockersmouth, England, 1770) writes, also referencing murmuring water, “With a soft inland murmur./ Once again Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,/ That on a wild secluded scene impress…” The “steep and lofty cliff” from Wordsworth is large, natural, and untameable, while the “brooklet clear” from Müller is small, of a size easily controlled by the human, and punctuated by the wheels of the human-made mill. In poetry, as in design and painting, the Biedermeier style shed the grandeur of the Romantic in favor of the mundane.

 

Though seen by many as an inheritor of the Biedermeier tradition, the Bauhaus had clear objectives, and presented architecture as the apex of creative practice. While the Bauhaus does not lack for examples of architecture, it is—like Biedermeier—succinctly symbolized by its chairs, particularly Marcel Breuer’s iconic bent metal chairs. Designed in 1928, Breuer’s final year at the Bauhaus, the caned Cesca chair is (for our purposes) an adequate stand-in for much of the design and philosophy that came out of the golden age of the Bauhaus.

 

Breuer’s chair has many formal and spiritual similarities to the Biedermeier chair. While the Biedermeier style encouraged the use of local materials, however, Breuer was committed to the use of stock materials. The Biedermeier focus on ease for the craftsman is mirrored in Breuer’s simplification of the fabrication process: each bend in the steel tubing is the same radius. Consequently, the chair does not switch machines and dies are not changed during fabrication, resulting in a springy, comfortable, affordable product that could be produced in a small shop with machinery readily available to local craftsmen.

 

In his 1923 lecture “On Form and Function at the Bauhaus,” Breuer called for chairs to be “good” and stated that all “good chairs” will match “good tables.” In a later lecture, Breuer named the third of three “tendencies” of modernism “to create with truthful elements: (or indifference to create with forms of illusion…),” later admitting “there is a moral element to [this] work.”[2] Breuer suggested that the expression of material and utility, which leads to the “good” chair, is superior to other forms that do not embody these characteristics. This moral code of form-making is evident in the Cesca chair: Breuer’s focus on material and fabrication is obvious, and we can surmise that Breuer considered the chair an example of “goodness.”

 

When Gropius exited the Bauhaus in 1928 (joined by Breuer and others), he appointed Swiss architect Hannes Meyer as his successor. Meyer elected to focus on the collaborative aspect of the Bauhaus, reorienting the school (with the support of many students) away from the reunification of the “artistic” disciplines and instead towards a series of collectivist promises made in the Bauhaus manifesto:

 

“Collaboration of all masters and students-architects, painters, sculptors-on these designs with the object of gradually achieving a harmony of all the component elements and parts that make up architecture.

 

Focusing on democratization of method over democratization of means, Meyer introduced the humanities to the Bauhaus and curtailed the influence of the arts, which he saw as creating an overly narrow worldview. He criticized the previous pedagogy of the Bauhaus for its focus on form, calling it “style” (a critique also echoed from the right in an attempt to delegitimize the institution), and instead emphasized what he termed “life supporting design.”[3] This would assure that the Bauhaus made good on its promise to design for the people. For Meyer, the focus on form and material, even with the intent to democratize accessibility, ultimately led to a system of exclusion. A self-avowed Marxist, Meyer believed in the inclusivity of the multiple disciplines. His process was one built on inclusion—inclusion as a means rather than an end—making it (in his estimation) less corruptible and more pure than the previous one built on the capitalist system. Not unsurprisingly, Meyer’s tenure at the Bauhaus was short (1928-1930). Anticommunist pressure forced him out, and he was swiftly replaced with Mies Van der Rohe, a pragmatist willing to depoliticize a school that was increasingly acting as a lightning rod for anti-left sentiment.

 

Gropius was given the ability to write the history of the school for the wider world in his 1938-1939 Bauhaus exhibition at MOMA. He titled the show “Bauhaus 1919-1928,” effectively shunning Meyer from the Bauhaus canon.[4] This affront is especially obvious in the exhibition’s press release, which states: “the principal theme of the exhibition is the Bauhaus as an idea. That idea seems as valid today as it was in the days when the Bauhaus flourished.” Gropius may have been shielding the Bauhaus from anticommunist pressure in the anti-red United States, but the decision to omit Meyer was a very specific one, and excludes his important contributions to “the Bauhaus as an idea.”[5]

 

Meyer’s contributions to the school are only briefly mentioned in the 187-page exhibition catalog, but even then, no reference is made to his divergent pedagogy or its effects on the school. Instead, the catalog states that under his tenure “the pedagogic procedure followed in the architectural courses, as in all others, was the inductive method…,” suggesting that Meyer maintained the trajectory of the school, which is patently false.

 

The omission of Meyer from the Bauhaus’ history (even now he is often called the “forgotten director”) points to a continued and seemingly illogical inability for the democratization of means to coexist with the democratization of methods. The former is criticized for being a style that transforms over time, like the Biedermeier and the Bauhaus, into a placidly apolitical form. The latter is branded as inefficient, muddled, overly radical, impractical and is, in the case of the Bauhaus, excluded from the neat historical package that comes to define a movement. This history may bring to light questions that need to be applied to our contemporary trend back towards a design-build pedagogy that prioritizes material and process—a style of working that many of us, including the author, find much comfort in.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

 

[1] There is of course overlap between these two movements. Including artists that worked between them and on the lines that separated them.

[2] “On Form and Function at the Bauhaus.” The Smithsonian Institute. Accessed August 22, 2017. http://breuer.syr.edu/xtf/view?docId=mets/33321.mets.xml;query=On%20Form%20and%20Function%20at%20the%20Bauhaus;brand=breuer. See the Syracuse Breuer for a vast wealth of primary source information on Breuer and his work.

[3] Co-op Principle: Hannes Meyer and the Concept of Collective Design. Santa Monica: Ram Publications, 2016.

[4] “Bauhaus: 1919–1928 | MoMA.” The Museum of Modern Art. Accessed August 22, 2017. https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/2735. For an archived overview of the show. Note the press release’s mention of the Bauhaus’ through 1933, including its closing, yet no mention of Meyer.

[5] For more information on the Bauhaus’ overlapping and conflicting histories see Bauhaus Conflicts 1919-2009: Controversies and Counterparts. The lineage we are discussing here extends into the Soviet Union, East Germany, Mexico, and the United States.