The hen on her egg


Author:PABST, W B
In:For Us
Pages:28-31 ill

It is not yet forty years ago that we - young men as you are today - went for inspiration and guidance to Mies v. d. Rohe and other exponents of the new architecture. Yet today, after such a short time, their achievements have already become, in the hands of the demagogues, stale cliches, as at the time of our fathers the Greek columns and Baroque windows.

Now in turn, you hand me your manifesto and ask me to relate to you some of my personal experiences which may assist you in your search for fundamental architectural values.

I remember vividly one evening in Mies v. d. Rohe's studio in Berlin when a then famous Russian painter showed him his last painting, which was plain grey canvas with a small wire cross on the right hand top corner. In this painting he was honest to his convictions. Any qualitative attributes taken from the phenomenal world as such are degrading to the spirit, which can only be correctly described as "the pure nothing" (Master Eckehard). From this point of view life is either an illusion (Hindu Philosophy, The Greek Illiads) or more militant sin (Prophets of the Old Testament).

The conflict between the "universal spirit" and our soul has been going on for thousands of years, but is becoming more intense as time progresses. In my opinion it is because we have lost our animal instinct which led the early cave dwellers to paint for thousands of years their beautiful paintings, and which was the basis for all cultures lasting for millenniums and later in Europe for centuries.

Why do I deviate from the actual theme of my letter? Because imagination is all very well, but we are children of the 20th Century and intellectual human beings. As such we require logical answers for our queries or else we cannot work, and may even be led to wrong conclusions. The Russian painter is, I think, a classical example. I myself went through a period during which I defined all fantasy as evil, and later went into politics because I thought the improvement of the material well-being of the human race was of primary importance. Vice versa, if one is metaphysically aware of the true meaning of the phenomenal world, this prevents one from accepting false values, and gives new importance and responsibility to artistic activities. It was such awareness and the dangers from without, which led Nietzsche to exclaim: "I implore you my brothers, remain faithful to this earth!" It is, of course, true that one cannot force imagination; one cannot do anything about it if the moment of inspiration never comes: but unless one keeps oneself prepared and worthy for it, it will surely never come at all. In my experience intellectual clarity can be of great help in this respect.

Talking about architecture, there seems to me, right through history to be two different lines of approach based on the characters of the groups as such, and particularly in later times of the individual artist. Both lines in turn cross one another. Firstly there are periods when buildings are predominantly sculptural (Egypt, Greece) or display decorative treatment of the surrounding surfaces (Renaissance); in contrast there are periods when the creation of space is most important, and the treatment of the shell takes second place (Byzantine architecture, European architecture up to Baroque with the exclusion of the Renaissance).

There is in addition, the second line, i.e. the static outlook (East Asia, Greece, Romanesque in Europe) against the dynamic attitude predominantly evident in the Gothic and Baroque.

I myself was fortunate to have been able to work in my decisive years under two great architects in Berlin: Hans Poelzig and Mies v. d. Rohe.

Poelzig was not a radical in his approach to detail, but had an unerring instinctive feeling for dynamic space and an unbelievable fantasy. (Grosses Schauspielhaus, Capitol Cinema). In this sense he was the lonely heir of the Baroque tradition. Mies' approach to space was more static, typified by his more two-dimensional designs (House Tugendhat, German Pavilion in Barcelona). But his interplay of rooms together with a very sure selection of basic materials were very beautiful and had a great influence on us. There was also of course, his discoveries of the possibilities of glass which eventually made him world famous. Other relevant personalities working in this period were Le Corbusier with his clean intellectual uncompromising outlook, and in direct opposition, Gaudi of Barcelona. The latter was, unfortunately, already dead when I saw his work. His inexhaustible inventive power for colourful detail work is overwhelming. Yet the design of his major work (Sagrada Familia) remains rather well within the Gothic concept of a cathedral. Coming back to Poelzig and the Baroque; from early youth I have been fascinated by movement and countermovement in any form: skating, dancing and later, space in architecture. So I looked at Poelzig's work, at the Baroque churches, particularly Vierzehnheiligen by Balthasar Neumann - all very beautiful but not fully satisfying. The latter consists in plan on the ground floor of three ellipses which penetrate each other, with balconies on the first floor in opposite directions. It is described in books as being the typical example of curves and counter-curves - but it is not there, and neither in Poelzig's rooms, at least not in its final possibilities. After quite a number of years, the answer suddenly struck me; by designing the plan symmetrically around a central axis, the contrast was neutralised. The counter-curve of one is at the same time a continuation of the other.

The conclusion was obvious; half circular plan with a curved balcony in the opposite direction, with the ceiling similarly treated in a-symmetric contrast to the walls. The interior of the Cinema in Greenside is designed on this principle. The next problem was to achieve similar results by means of volume and vacuums. The Esselen Hospital is one of these attempts. Thereafter followed three buildings, based on a new principle - to design the floors alternatively in contrast to each other so that the first, third and fifth, etc., are identical counter-curves to the second and fourth, etc. (Chinese Club, Patidar Prop, Academy House). Except for some occasional designs, there followed a period of inventive inactivity. In the meantime, Mies v. d. Rohe had in the U.S.A. at least the opportunity to have his earlier dreams converted into reality. Even then I felt that this was not the end. The mere "mirror" effect, stressed by some critics, seems to me to be just the opposite of what architecture means. I was still thinking and wondering, when about three years ago, I knew the answer. I hope to be able to apply it shortly in a new building. In the meantime, you will have to forgive me if I do not say more at this stage. It will be obvious that from my early remarks I am not sure that the human race is the crown of creation. Therefore, the catering for material needs itself does not make a building a piece of art. Naturally, it is important for a building to be as functional and as perfectly practical as possible. But I am of the opinion that where functionalism ends, architecture begins. It seems to me that even sub-consciously the same applies to your group. Otherwise you would not have chosen some of my works for your exhibition. I am the first to admit that purely functionally there will be better hospitals in Johannesburg than mine; so there must be something else which appeals to you after all these years, and that is what counts. Apropos age: Poelzig, when warning us about following a fashion-trend too readily, said: it does not matter today whether or not the Saint Chapelle was modern anno 1200. The main thing is that it is good. After all, it is the depth of feeling which the works stirs up in the onlooker which is the only criterion of its quality. The more intense the inspiration, the more will the artist disappear behind the work for the creation of which he is, in fact, only the tool. Not everybody can be a genius, and not every building lends itself to great architecture. As long as it is designed without any false pretenses and frills, it is probably the most one can expect.

The times of the great cathedrals, palaces of kings and bishops are gone. If an artist is lucky he might find a Mycene of his own. Most architects today are forced to become business men as well, which makes it more difficult for those who still dream. That problem they have to fight out for themselves (I only wonder why the Universities do not teach students how to run an office economically). But as far as imagination is concerned, I can give you only this practical advice from my experience; as I have said before, you cannot force inspiration, sit down and say: now I want to have an idea. (I remember Mies v. d. Rohe in the latter days saying to us, "one must one day make something new again." But time and patience are a condition sine qua non. If you feel dissatisfied; if you sense that something more is possible and wants to be born, don't give in if it takes time, do not lose the enthusiasm of your youth. Think about it, sit on the problem like a hen on her egg. If you are lucky, it will be alive. But unless you do so, nothing will be hatched at all. It may take a long time - in my own case nearly a lifetime - but it is worth it. As a matter of fact, it is the only artistic activity which makes sense. Le Corbusier in his "Vers une Architecture" described how a little church in Rome, Santa Maria in Cosmedin, impressed him more than any of the big and famous buildings. "It touches my heart," he said. It is gratifying to know that sometimes I have achieved the same and I thank you for telling me.