The mask of architecture
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The Mask of Architecture
Privacy and Publicity: Architecture and Mass Media. Beatriz Colomina. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1994.

This is the main argument of this book: that modern architecture only becomes modern with its engagement with the media” writes Beatriz Colomina. But how is “modern” defined, and what is meant by “engagement”? On the one hand, to bracket modernity temporally and to consider the architecture within that bracket as “modern” is specious: the clearly delineated births and deaths of eras and their attendant cultural products are more often than not a pragmatic construct of the critic or historian’s own. An era tends to inexorably intertwine with the events of the previous and to linger into ripe old agedness after the rest of world, apparently, has moved on. The dialectics of time are hard to eradicate, even in the hands of the most adept writer; and Colomina, being perspicacious as well as adept, strategically avoids this route. On the other, to cast modernity as contingent with the advent of technology at the turn of the century, and to conclude that architecture which reflects such technologies as “modern” would be a mere tautological exercise; besides, the Marxian equation of an economic base expressed through a cultural superstructure has long been complicated by Freudian psychoanalysis, the dynamics of which Colomina is also well aware.

Freud does indeed seem to hold primacy here, in particular his thesis from Beyond the Pleasure Principle: that our two primary defense systems against an over-abundance of stimuli are that of shielding (rejection) and mimesis (assimilation). Colomina opens with the observation that both Loos and Le Corbusier hide in different ways—Loos by destroying all the documents which may direct future scholarship and Le Corbusier by retaining every bit of his work. Hide: from what? Colomina writes of the modern city: “what is strange . . . [is] the continuous movement, the sense that nothing ever stops, that there are no limits.” As a result, “perception is now tied to transience . . . the mode of perception is what becomes fleeting.” To counter this (and for Colomina architecture is generally on the defense), Loos constructs his houses as masks, the [End Page 107] exteriors of which are rigorously conforming such as to preserve the integrity of the interior. Ornament becomes a crime—an unwanted intermingling of inside and outside, the exterior expression of the interior, the encroachment of the social into the realm of the personal. As with the destruction of his personal documents, Loos resists any transgression of the public into the private—in the lives of his clients as well as in his own.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, much more readily espouses modernity. From his re-working of photographs (which eliminates the site and recasts architecture as an object), to his experiments with publication design in L’Esprit Noveau (which transfers the site from three-dimensional reality to the two dimensional page of a journal); from his pairings of industrial machines and architecture (which subverts conventional high/low distinctions), to his collisions of images and text (which takes from modern advertising the notion that the association of ideas can be produced through the juxtaposition of images and of images with writing); and from his promotion of the horizontal ribbon window (which is the architectural correlative of the space of the movie camera), to his breakup of the landscape into discrete frames (which reproduces the effect of picture-postcards), Le Corbusier not only assimilates the new perceptual phenomena of modernity, but transforms architecture into the devices—particularly the camera and camera obscura—which incite these phenomena. To quote Colomina: “For Le Corbusier the new urban conditions are a consequence of the media, which institute a relationship between artifact and nature that makes the ‘defensiveness’ of a Loosian window, of a Loosian system, unnecessary.”

It would be simple if not simplistic if Colomina stopped here. But the relationship of Loos and Le Corbusier to media and modernity is in fact not as diametrical as this. Le Corbusier, after all, also hides: as with his numerous files of personal documents, his architecture, although ostensibly allying itself with mass media, does so with hesitation, even reluctance. If Loos...