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The Design Consumer: Re: The importance of broken surfaces ...
Jeff MacKenzie

Prominent architects such as Marcel Breur and Walter Gropius emigrated from Europe prior to WWII, toting a philosophy known as ‘Bahaus,’ which tried to blend craftsmanship and mass production. They favored sleek, panelized building components with unbroken, flat surfaces held aloft by exposed mullions and girders with sharply machined corners, with the occasional round columns thrown in for variety. Materials were mostly metal, glass and concrete, homogenized into easily manufactured panels, which became the darlings of the building industry.

The movement quickly spread across America and later, most of the world. Big, shiny boxy buildings became the norm, much to the dismay of architects who favored Gothic, Etruscan, Victorian and Greek Revival ornamentation. And those proponents of the Art Deco style, which featured sweeping curved surfaces with parallel lines of metal broken by occasional vertical elements proclaiming ‘theater,’ ‘diner’ or ‘bus station,’ often in neon, were equally dismayed. 

As were those scions of the elegant prairie style, which included luminaries such as Wright, Neutra and Goff, who approached design organically, with buildings of locally produced materials of brick, wood and stone and unequal masses that together formed a coherent whole. Their designs varied with site conditions and used textured contrasts and plantings to break up monotonous surfaces.

Bahaus later spawned Brutalism, with behemoth masses of concrete that were not float finished but retained the imprint of form boards on their surfaces.

The philosophy influenced product design, with household items like trash cans no longer featuring floral imprints and fluted metal sides, their forms instead reduced to mere cylinders. Glasses were simple conical shapes and plates were white disks lacking any ornament and so shallow as to be almost flat.

Furniture morphed into leather straps strung between chrome supports, and plastic shells held up by metal legs splayed to balance the weight of seated occupants.

Houses were cinder block and concrete cubes with windows poking through walls at intervals and featuring no trim whatsoever.

All this in the name of efficiency-a look that bespoke an ageless, clean quality. Huge buildings sported glass facades which, varying only by color and panel shape, nevertheless created an epidemic of sameness around the world.  

Indeed, a blindfolded person suddenly placed in the CBD(Central business district) of any given city would be hard put, sight restored, to tell which city they were in.

Unfortunately, this concept never considered the effects of aging, which over time tends to crack and warp and rust unbroken surfaces.

As a design student, I was compelled to parrot the views of many of my professors and fellow students, most of whom bought into the Bahaus bovine fecal matter with dismaying gusto.

In a design school, one takes exception to their professor’s sentiment at their peril, as any student will tell you. Academic freedom does not comfortably exist there.

A demurring student must compete with meager knowledge against a professor’s lifetime study regime of position papers, theses, and published works supporting their world view. And said student must also risk their GPA and future employment opportunities in such endeavors. Still, I admired those who did.

I was not one of them.

With almost 50 years of professional experience behind me, I can think of msny ‘shouldas.’

*Shoulda asked, “why is everything looking the same a desirable goal?”

*Shoulda asked, “why do such designs not age with dignity, with rusting, cracking sagging and fading facades often needing almost total replacement?”

*Shoulda asked, “if ornament was so abhorrent, why did older buildings employ it? Was it possibly to conceal and accommodate the depredations of aging that beset all buildings over decades?”

*Shoulda asked, “why are sharp, machined edges so desirable when almost unknown in nature?”

*Shoulda asked, “does not the human eye disdain unbroken surfaces? Otherwise, why do we hang paintings on bare walls?”

*Shoulda asked, ”Why place residential cubes in a monotonous line, without variation in size, ornament and complexity?”

*Shoulda asked, ”Is not the function of window trim, curtains and crown molding, wainscotting, exterior shutters,  carved pilasters, filigreed trim and latticework, bay windows and cupolas and planter boxes to offset the monotony of unbroken surfaces a healthy, evolved approach to design and indeed, to life?”

An exquisite little neighborhood at Platt and Clark Streets in Covington is a prime example of the power of broken surfaces. Homes vary in size and setbacks, porches and window trim and roof styles, all integrated into a pleasing whole beneath shade trees and sidewalks-a panoply of broken surfaces.

The typical three-story public school, built circa 30’s and 40’s, with high ceilings and wainscotting and huge operable windows and timeless terrazzo floors is a far superior environment to today’s single-level sprawl, with inoperable slat windows lighting only a corner of claustrophobic rooms that are traps for both fire and the unfortunate victims of the occasional shooter. The older buildings usually have interesting brick flourishes on their walls, and monumental entry stairs are standard.

Or consider the timeless form of a fluted water glass or the curved elegance of a ‘45 Chevy pickup.

I have dinner plates of glass stamped in a floral pattern with upturned rims to contain runoff of gravy. Available cheap and far superior in form, function and appearance to the flat disks of the Bauhaus era.

Broken surfaces again. It’s time we reconsider their 

The DESIGN CONSUMER examines issues of design-be they objects (buildings, appliances, landscapes, toys, furniture) or systems ( traffic flow, schools,  banking and credit, public health)-all are designed and all are products the citizen consumer uses. In a given product, the DC will ask: What was it designed to do? Does it work? Is it pretty-that is-is it an elegant solution or your basic economy model? An architect by profession, the DC appreciates good design wherever he finds it.