Tuesday, November 13, 2018

"COMFORT" IS NOT IN THE MODERNIST LEXICON

When all the senses are at ease. . .
(Image courtesy bookbub.com)
In all the works I’ve read by Modernist architects—and mind you, they had plenty to say—I don’t think I’ve ever seen the word “comfort” mentioned even once. Most Modernist writing attempted to distill architecture down to some kind of academic essence, with the human part of the equation boiled away completely. Whether ordinary people could understand such Modernist architecture, let alone feel comfortable in it, didn’t seem to matter a wit.  

But exactly how do we define "comfort"? Can we? Or do architects ignore it precisely because it’s too subjective? Clearly, comfort is founded on a few basic needs which must be satisfied before all others: We must be warm, dry, secure from danger, and adequately fed to feel any higher degree of comfort. But there’s more to it than that.


A contemporary Modernist interior:
Aesthetically stunning, but cozy, it isn't.
(Image courtesy of Web Urbanist)
For me, comfort is that state of being in which all the senses are at ease, not just one or two of them. If you ask people where they feel most comfortable, many will tell you, “In bed”—no, not making love, just physically in bed, perhaps reading on a rainy night, with a good lamp and a hot cup of tea on the nightstand. This squares fairly well with my personal definition of the senses being satisfied: In bed, we’re warm, dry, secure, and presumably well-fed; but our senses are also at ease. We have a well-lit book to read, the sound of rain drumming overhead, a soft blanket against our skin, and even the aroma and taste of tea to soothe the palate.

Of course, psychologists would have a field day here drawing analogies to the womb. But the fact remains that the sentient among us are not in the womb—we’re out here being battered in an often-harsh world, and as humans we quite naturally long to make our lives as comfortable as possible.      


The Barcelona chair, designed by Mies van der Rohe
and beloved by architect Philip Johson, who had them
prominently displayed in his famed "Glass Box" house.
So why do twentieth century architects have such a dismal record designing buildings that are comfortable for people? Many a medieval cottage feels more snug than the typical Modernist glass box.  In fact, “vernacular architecture”—a condescending term we architects use for anything not designed by us—often does a better job of providing comfort than our own esteemed efforts. Has architecture regressed?  Or have architects just gotten so wrapped up in theory that they’ve lost sight of what really matters to the human being? 

The Modernists, who were obsessed with the look of things to the exclusion of most everything else, never seemed to give comfort any thought whatever.  A few moments in any textbook-Modernist building makes this abundantly clear, not to mention sitting in a Modernist-designed chair. But the problem didn’t die with Modernism.  Even today, the architectural works most adored by critics are often just tolerated good-naturedly by the people who have to occupy them.  


Philip Johnson: Ow, my butt.
Architecture doesn’t—and shouldn’t—have to be this way.  Theoretical palaver won’t make your home a better place to live, not by itself, anyway. You have a right to comfort, whatever your personal definition of it, and a good architect should support that aim, not hinder it. 

By the way, I take back what I said about “comfort” not being mentioned in Modernist writing:  The late Philip Johnson once defended Barcelona chairs, those slippery Modernist slabs of leather, by asserting: “I think comfort is a function of whether a chair is good-looking or not.”

Somehow I doubt that his butt would've agreed.

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