Rem Koolhaas sits on one of the furniture pieces in the new Knoll collection, "Tools for Life," designed by his firm, OMA.
Knoll Rem Koolhaas sits on one of the furniture pieces in the new Knoll collection, "Tools for Life," designed by his firm, OMA.

Mies van der Rohe in his Barcelona chair
Knoll Mies van der Rohe in his Barcelona chair

A talk the architect Hani Rashid gave at the opening for the 14th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale a few weeks ago has had me thinking about what might be a fitting blog topic for the beginning of summer: bodies clothed and unclothed, muscular and trim.

Rashid’s speech riffed on Biennale curator Rem Koolhaas’s obsession with fitness: He swims every morning, no matter where he is, and looks to be in better shape than most of his employees or students. Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, also has a history of sprinkling images of naked bodies in photographs and drawings throughout his work. Like many contemporary professionals, he is serious about being healthy, and has a metrosexual attitude towards the human physique. But Rashid, whose avid bicycling seems to be part of his own ongoing battle against the bulge, pointed out that there is also a moralizing tendency in architecture that wants buildings to be slim, lithe, and athletic—an emphasis on firmness over commodity and delight. He ended his talk with a comparison between Mies van der Rohe, the emperor of minimal modernism, slouched in the luxurious chair he designed, smoking a cigar, which Rashid compared with Koolhaas perched absurdly on his bizarre furniture design for Knoll (very closely based, it seems to me, on a series of mid 1960s sculptures by the Dutch artist Carel Visser) and looking very uncomfortable, but fit indeed.

A sculpture by Carel Visser
Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterloo A sculpture by Carel Visser

There is, in other words, a lean and mean streak to Modernism, though you could say the same about Classicism and a number of other styles. It is an architecture in which there is no gain without pain, which means hard edges, keeping your personal effects hidden, and living in a disciplinary cell. It turns out that it is difficult to maintain for very long, which is perhaps why it also looks so tortured.

When I look at the luxury in which Mies indulged, on the other hand, I am reminded of wave after wave of North African tribesmen who invaded Spain, wiped away decadent rulers, and then sank into the sensuality of Andalusia, producing the beauty of places such as the Alhambra, only to be conquered by the next wave of moralizing minimalists. Mies stated the ideal of almost nothing, then covered the reduced form with marble, onyx, leather, and raw silk. Subsequent generations have worked to clothe the lithe and lean bodies of glass and steel with ever more supple and luxurious cloaks, only to have their students rebel and wipe them away before they develop their own tastes for Venetian plaster and Prada.

Purity, like a six-pack, takes work to maintain in our consumer-oriented society. It is much easier to either slide into sensuality, like Koolhaas-ians, like Bjarke Ingels does, or slither into a post-human blob-ism that imagines a new kind of body. Perhaps more difficult is to get all kinky, flip and reverse it, or play with whether something is naked or clothed, as architects ranging from Kazuyo Sejima to MVRDV to Diller Scofidio + Renfro have done.

The one thing you cannot do these days is to hide the body. Gone are the days when you could festoon your functional corpus with columns or soften skins with decoration. When modernist architects try variants on that idea using current technology, the result looks more like aging Brooklyn hipsters (a contradiction in terms). We don’t do suits these days, and neither do we do façadism.

The only true alternative would seem to bulk up and flaunt it. Perhaps that is why we are seeing a resurgence of interest in New Brutalism and other forms of modernist monumentalism. The articulated concrete bodies, with their sinews of ramps and their tendons of steel flanges, seem pretty hot to some of us these days, even as they are falling into middle-age flab. It takes a lot to rescue such tired muscle buildings and get them back into shape—and we are still tearing them down more often than not. They are, indeed, not exactly natural, but then again, these days, what is?

What the brutalist beasts are not is commodious, they are not delightful to many people, and their firmness is in doubt. They are, in other words, not fit to be architecture in the classic, constructed, and moral sense of that word. Might that be why some of us find them so sexy?

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.