Commercial Architecture and Class Structure

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De La Warr Recreation Center, Bexhill on Sea, England, Mendelsohn and Chermayeff, © Alan Stanton.

The recent resurgence of modernism has seen renewed investigations into technologically advanced materials and abstract forms, echoing the iconic work of the 1920s and 1930s. Also fundamental to the modern movement during its heroic phase was a progressive social agenda. One might ask whether there is a similar ethical underpinning to the contemporary aesthetic. Certainly, there have been advancements in democracy and personal liberties in those societies that gave rise to the modern movement. Today, additional issues of social importance find accommodation and expression through the now-familiar modernist techniques: the open plan, transparency, form following function. Sustainability, for one, implies that greater attention be paid to traditionally back-of-house functions, including energy creation and waste removal. Yet, other pressing social issues, such as the accommodation of service sector workers, have a more ambiguous relationship to architectural design.

In the U.S., we still maintain the ideal of a classless society, and much of our built environment reflects a meshing or melding of class and cultures. With rising costs transforming the processes of our service-based economy, many forms of service have melted away. The former gasoline service station is now almost extinct, replaced with “self-serve” pumps and the attendant downsized to a cashier, sheltered inside a glazed hut, or doubling as the clerk in an adjoining mini-mart. Fast food restaurants, which, for many, have largely replaced the setting for more traditional rituals of dining out, eliminated table service as well as any visual separation between the dining area and the kitchen. McDonald’s turned this exposed service zone to their advantage, as advertising for their spic and span cleanliness and a demonstration of the consistency of their product—both key virtues of modernity touted by, and expressed in, the designs of early modernist architects.

Early modernists, in the 1920s and 1930s, pursued an agenda of social transformation. Publicly funded institutions—cultural and academic—have carried some modernist ideas forward. Recently, a raft of new museums has come on line, and there is a swelling body of academic and student life-related construction, as well. Many of these new buildings rely largely, if not solely, on private monies—either personal or corporate—to pay for construction and operations, which raises questions about whom these new institutions are ultimately intended to serve. Given the necessity for continued patronage, privately funded museums—and even school buildings with private contributors—employ these buildings to generate revenue, either by installing commercial enterprises within or by hosting fund-raising events, catered affairs that rely upon a traditional back-of-house/front-of-house relationship to serve their socially elite contributors. Does this need to cater to the ownership class stifle potential transformations of these building types, which most of the time serve the everyday visitor? Would a more egalitarian relationship between the users and the supporters yield a less hierarchical distribution of functions, and would such an arrangement encourage a more egalitarian building layout and hence be more economical to build and maintain and, by extension, engender desires for an equitable society?

Public institutions such as libraries also reflect a trend toward self-service. Open stacks have long been the standard in small community libraries, but, traditionally, large collections have been kept more guarded. When San Francisco built its “New Main” in 1995, however, the administration, directed by Ken Dowling, insisted upon open stacks. The resulting building, designed by James Freed, FAIA, with Pei Cobb Freed, is a vast, light-filled space with none of the cloistered feel of other large city libraries, such as New York’s central branch, where dark-paneled walls conceal the collection from patrons, who must wait at the counter for their books to be brought from hidden-from-view, back-of-house spaces.

Early modernist architects transformed other public institutions in response to social changes that reflected an ideal of leveling of social classes. Walter Gropius’s Total Theater project of 1927 enabled the changing formats with a mechanized stage that rotated positions from proscenium to arena—an action which could even take place mid-performance—turning the tables, so to speak, on the traditional audience-performer relationship. In the 1960s, when directors sought to connect the actors on stage with the audience, theater designers completely removed the proscenium, eliminating a formal and psychological separation not only from the fantasy of story-telling, but also from the usually lower-class performers. Theater in the round and “black-box” formats did away with the wings, where artifice and preparation were concealed from the patrons’ view. Today, the black box theater is a staple program element of many performing arts buildings.

Van Nelle Factory, Rotterdam, Mart Stam, © F. Eveleens

These alternatives to traditional back-of-house/front of-house arrangements reflect the progressive agenda of the modern movement, which at once overturned social and aesthetic conventions. When early modernists focused on factory design, they uplifted workers’ social status by attending to quality of life issues with a level of care previously reserved for designs for the owning class. Their attention to the needs of the industrial underclass threw light on the political process that often determined environmental conditions. The Dutch architect Mart Stam’s Van Nelle Factory, of 1929, in Rotterdam, employed vast expanses of glazing, illuminating interior spaces in a way that Le Corbusier observed provided “a happy result” for the workers. This architectural treatment wasn’t reserved for the occupied spaces; even the conveyors that sent products from the factory to the riverside warehouses were glazed, making much of the process in this extensive complex transparent to even the casual observer.

Russian Worker’s Club, Moscow, Konstantin Melnikov, © A. V. Shchusev State Research Museum of Architecture, Moscow.

Revealing institutional functions extended to designs for institutes for political power. Hannes Meyer and Hans Wittwer’s unsuccessful, but significant, entry for the League of Nations Headquarters on Lake Geneva, in 1927, was a rational functionalist composition clad largely in glass. Exposing the occupants to the outside world expressed a deliberate social intent: transparent workspaces would enable public oversight to guard against ethical compromises. Meyer and Wittern’s immaculately rational layout promised an equally cleansed ethical culture. Meyer made their case in his submission statement, arguing that the transparent facades meant “no back corridors for backstairs diplomacy, but open, glazed rooms for public negotiation of honest men.” As Kenneth Frampton observes in Modern Architecture: A Critical History, traditional (presumably smoke-filled) meeting rooms were to be superseded with “hygienic workrooms for busy representatives of their people.”

The thinking behind designs for buildings for leisure underwent similar reconstruction. Russian workers clubs revealed the intent of actions within, most notably, perhaps, in Konstantin Melnikov’s 1928 Russian Workers’ Club, with its projecting seating enclosures. Mendelsohn and Chermayeff’s De La Warr Recreation Center, of 1935, at Bexhill on Sea in England, again exposed the users’ activities to public gaze. This example, with its strip windows and lean expression, typifies the industrial aesthetic that architects almost universally adopted for all classes of building. This “International Style” brought the vocabulary of service spaces from back-of-house to the front of the house and characterized the served spaces of new institutions devoted to cultural events for the non-elite—constituting a stripped-down interior design, suited to the unpretentious, proletariat patron.

De La Warr Recreation Center, Bexhill on Sea, England, Mendelshon and Chermayeff, © Marta Gutowska.

At the 1976 Centre Pompidou, in Paris, Piano and Rogers placed services outside the building to clear the interiors for maximum flexibility and maximum public-ness. Colored ducts and piping drew attention to the designers’ efforts on the public’s behalf. Even structural supports were pressed into public utility. The architects’ competition drawings depicted the building structure, normally a sacred element of architectural expression, given over to publicly directed functions; their exoskeleton framework was proposed as an armature for advertising and other forms of signage. The architecture of the institution was in effect handed over to popular culture, upending the notion of cultural elitism and, instead, happily giving in to the public’s desire for spectacle and commercial entities’ need to reach their consumers.

Centre Pompidou, Piano and Rogers, © Leland.

Richard Rogers continued with this inside-out architecture, begun with the Centre Pompidou, exposing the interstices of some of the world’s most private and button-down institutions, including Lloyds of London, for whom he designed their instantly famous headquarters building, completed in 1986. Lately, Rogers’s commitment to sustainability has lent this design strategy a didactic purpose, reminding us of the energies expended to support large, inhabited spaces. Rogers is a strong-willed designer who, by insisting upon making transparent the supporting functions within buildings, advocates for continual public awareness of the effects buildings have on our environment.

More recently, Rem Koolhaas and OMA turned typical planning inside out at the Seattle Main Library with a design that unites virtually all the spaces from lecture hall to rare book room to offices in one continuous spiraling glass-clad volume (there is still a back of house zone, but one can look into a portion of it from an overlook in the main lobby). From the apex of the swirling circulation path of stairs, ramps and escalators, there’s a viewing platform from which one can look to the main level seven floors below as well as into staff spaces where storage shelving and coffee pantries are un-ashamedly on view.

Seattle Main Library, OMA, © Rex Sorgatz.


The exposing of support functions and those who are employed to serve in them may, in turn, remind us of our interconnectedness, our dependence upon, the materials, forces, and workers that contribute to the public welfare. Even in traditional settings, such as resort hotels, where the perpetuation of an upstairs-downstairs arrangement is essential to our expectations of service, there are signs that the separateness is really only superficial. The Ritz Carlton, for instance, conscious perhaps of Americans’ self image as a classless society, has adopted an official service motto that strikes a surprisingly egalitarian note, describing their guest/host relationship as “ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.

That one of the most traditional hotels, characterized by historically styled architecture and clubby interiors that would make a fin de siècle banker feel at home, would suggest social equity between the servant staff and the served suggests an interesting opportunity for commentary on the relationship between appearance and ideas. While it can be argued that the US is slipping toward oligarchy, the majority of the citizenry, judging by recent populist demonstrations from both sides of the political spectrum, isn’t comfortable with this trend and yearns for greater parity. One aesthetic expression of this idea is exhibited in popular dress. Jeans, for instance, are almost universal; essentially laborers’ work pants, denim trousers are the attire of choice for all but the fanciest social settings or upper management offices. In contemporary society one might ask whether architecture could similarly dress the part; that is, exhibiting more transparency and plain authenticity.

Similar to fast food establishments mentioned earlier, many high-end restaurants exemplify an architectural parallel to the casual dress culture, where designs feature “display cooking” and cooks work in the open alongside the diners. Seating at kitchen-side counters in these places means guests can chat with the sous chefs. Referred to disparagingly in earlier times as “the help,” these service providers, contrary to their gilded age predecessors who would almost never have occasion to socialize with paying guests, have attended pricey culinary schools, comparable in status to the elite colleges that graduated many of their patrons. Like the black box theater that dispensed with the proscenium, the kitchen-to-dining room separation in these venues is nearly erased. One might ask what other comparable settings could be architecturally re-considered to lessen the divide between servants and served in a society where the respective parties are more or less on a par?

More profound socio-economic differences exist between hospitality guests or institutional patrons and employees who perform more menial tasks. Can we extend the overlap between back-of-house and front-of-house to include these workers as well? Those who collect the restaurant patrons’ empty plates or scrub them clean are also potentially on their way up to a more promising social status, and settings that enable more face-to-face relations might offer incentive to the server and possibly illicit respect from the served. And what other settings might be suitable for such treatment: government agencies? Educational facilities? Laboratories? Perhaps, through more conscientiously casual design—employing strategies that include physical transparency and spatial overlap—we might continue to realize the promise of early modernism, and in so doing see our way to an increasingly democratic future.

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