Not Boring: Design and People.

I'm curious what an architecture student thinks of Gaudi. I've been looking into the art nouveau movement because of the ironwork, I have a couple of ideas kicking around. But I was more interested in the Brussels stuff. And, of course, Guimard.

Interesting question. There are many ways to take the question--most people pose it aesthetically. For me, though, design and the nuances of a movement are always far deeper than the 'hard products' that come as a result... Design is a manifestation of ideas, based on courses of thought. Examination of a piece of design can be extremely revealing of how a particular designer felt about humanity, social conditions, economics, politics, religion... 

In my education of Art History, I studied in-depth the 'Gesamtkustwerk' ('total work of art') movements of the late 1800's/early 1900's. There were manifestations of this style in most European countries, all called different things and based on similar, but slightly different ideas. 

1. In the Commonwealth countries there was the Arts and Crafts movement, the main contributors and proponents of which were Charles Rennie Mackintosh + the Glasgow Four, William Morris, and Charles Robert Ashbee. 
2. In France and Belgium there was of course the Art Nouveau movement, best exemplified by Victor Horta, Hectar Guimard, and in painting, Alphonse Mucha. 
3. In Germany they often refer to the Jugendstil, but there was a later and lesser known style: Deutsche Werkbund (keyname, Henry Behrens) (which I will detail as an example...) 
4. Hungary-Austria had the 'Vienna Secessionists' which involved Josef Hoffmann, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Otto Wagner, and Gustav Klimpt; heavily involved was also Beethoven. 
5. Finally in Spain there was the 'Modernista' movement driven almost exclusively by Antoni Gaudi, but you can't forget the Palau de la Music Catalana, by architect Lluis Domenech i Montaner. 

In essence, there were three issues facing architects at this time: 

1. how to accommodate traditional architecture; 
2. how to implement new materials and techniques; 
3. and how to express different personal and national sensibilities (to put it another way, how to make Scotland look like Scotland, and Spain like Spain). 

You could also say there were three 'drivers' of modern architecture: 

1. Philosophy -Hegel. He looked on history as being like a train with a beginning and an end. History was purpose driven and nothing is random. 19th century philosophers thought history had a purpose and an end. Eventually you will reach a self-actualizing point in history -your destination. Significance? There was a feeling that architecture should evolve in a series of moments appropriate to it's age. The Greek age had a high point, the western Gothic age had a high point, etc. During the 19th century they were waiting for this next great moment. That's why the modern architecture movement is loaded with conviction -they felt they had ridden this train and were going to get to a point where a perfect form would evolve. Architecture was just waiting around for someone to tell it what to do. 
2. Technology -New materials (cast iron, glass, concrete) with which to build. 
3. Strong social need -overcrowded cities. Disease. Infant mortality. This was crushing to society. Architects took it upon themselves to solve the problem of social housing, and felt that architecture should improve the standard of living for everyone. 

These things together make a combination of elements that will add to the wish to create a totally modern, new, technologically appropriate and socially relevant style. 

The struggle was, no one knew what to do. They were caught between tradition and innovation. Engineers were doing the most innovative stuff -they were scientifically based and unfettered by the past. Their thought was: if we need a new structure, we're going to find out what is the best way to express that structure based on what we know, rather than what was done in the past. Architects however, were typically trained in the 'Beaux-Artes' style, painstakingly copying plans and elevations from the classical past, or combining elements in an eclectic way in their search for a new style (Viollet le Duc). 

Around 1890 there is enough of a yearning for something new that the architects are already on the cusp of modern architecture. But how to express national sensibilities? How to make Scotland look like Scotland, and Spain look like Spain? Each country seemed simultaneously to agree that 'craftsmanship'--and in particular the traditional detailing of joints, hardware, and other points of interaction between the human body and architecture--was a way to use new materials in a traditional, nationalistic way. And funnily enough, a style that was supposed to embody the talents of a nation ended up as an international style with magazines published throughout Europe, and exhibitions showing the work of new architects and designers. 

Art Nouveau is considered as the 'split' between traditional architecture and modern architecture. It integrates new structure of new materials and emphasizes their lightness and airiness, and brings in the craftsman who turns mundane materials into interesting materials. The movement is famous for bringing in glass, mosaics, ceramics, steel, and wood, so that you get a building that is not only interesting on the outside, but involved on the inside in terms of design. It is a very design oriented style -and expensive, and a lot of hard work. This explains why it doesn't last all that long. Art Nouveau tries to connect man in nature, not man with nature--particularly by taking the plant as a motif and the idea of growth, and moving that into the use of the materials and the compositions of materials. 

Art Nouveau was an extremely short lived movement, only 20 years, and completely wiped out after WWI. Because of it's requirement for skilled craftsman on nearly all aspects of design and implementation, it was an expensive and lengthy process which soon came to be only fit for the elite classes who could afford it. While the projects did indeed use new technology of steel, glass, and concrete, it did not use those technologies in an efficient way, with some projects taking years to complete. Art Nouveau also failed to provide a solution for the last and most important 'driver' of modern architecture: the problem of overcrowded cities and rampant disease within dense urban areas. 

One of the other movements related to Art Nouveau, however... became extremely successful, and went on to inspire Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus--credited with being the world's first 'industrial design' school and hugely influential in ergonomics and design of products. 

The Deutsche Werkbund was an outgrowth of the Arts and Crafts/Art Nouveau belief in integration of all forms of art and architecture. But whereas Morris and Horta had rejected the machine out of hand, the Werkbund accepted it as a given condition-this is the essential difference. 

The name translated means 'Craft Union.' 

The movement was founded 1907 as an organization of designers and firms devoted to improving standards of industry. Their scope: to revitalize the applied arts "from the sofa cushion to urban planning." 

At first this was a logical extension of English principles of reform in the decorative arts -- except that from the outset the Deutsche Werkbund accepted machine production as a condition of design. They rejected the backwards-looking handicraft romanticism of most English and continental cultural critics, and refused to indulge in the cultural pessimism increasingly fashionable in intellectual circles. 

One of the reasons it was founded was because these designers felt that widespread industrialization posed a threat to German national culture. The founders hoped to bridge the gulf between art and industry and to improve standards -- to convince artists that they could and should work with industry, in other words; and to convince industry that it could and should improve its concepts of quality and good design. 

Nietzsche called for "a remodeling of the world in order to make it bearable to live in." He outlined the contrast between art and reality -- the artist's role, as an uniquely gifted being, was to create an alternative to the delusions and mendacity of everyday life. N: "there is only one world, and this is false, cruel, contradictory, seductive, without meaning. A world thus constituted is the real world. We have a need of lies in order to conquer this reality, this truth." 

More directly: "We possess art lest we perish of the truth." 

Viewed metaphysically, art becomes a means to overcome and improve reality, a vehicle for the Nietzsche-ian will to power. 

What was the relevance of this to Germany? During this period of Prussian reorganization, the combination of Nietzsche-ian aesthetics and burgeoning economic military and industrial influence focuses particular attention on the power of art and the aesthetic qualities of power as expressions of the particularly Prussian values of organization and order. 

The Werkbund attempted to reconcile nationalism with the desire to be modern. But even before 1914, the longing for a "German style" came into conflict with the perception that a style adapted to the needs of contemporary man would know no national barriers. Here, then, the Werkbund never found a solution acceptable to all its members. 

It did, however, pass on its mission to the likes of Waltar Gropius, who as mentioned helped found the Bauhaus in Dessau--a tradition that continues to ask and pose solutions to the largest question in the design world to this day--how to reconcile humanity with standardization. 

Antoni Gaudi was perhaps the master of soliciting meaningful interaction between design and humanity; he was a lover of nature and people. His works show the intent and single-minded purpose he put into designing EVERY facet of the environment to accommodate the human body. His structures were inspired by natural patterns such as honeycombs, flower petal patterns, fractals in nature, leaves and sheafs of wheat; The Sagrada Familia is nature exemplified in stone. The catenary curve, hyperbolic paraboloid, and parabola were some of the most influential mathematical shapes, which Gaudi pursued for his entire career. Guadi was a great designer, a great architect, not because he made aesthetically beautiful things, but because his approach to design was sensitive to the most important user; his methods were systematic and inspiring. Every designer could learn something from the way Gaudi designed, and the fact that so many of his designs were implemented over such a short period of time shows that he had the ability to combine theory and practice--something everyone struggles with in architecture. 

There is something to be said for the fact that Parc Guell is one of the most visited urban parks in Europe, or that hordes of people come to bathe in the sunlight of the roof of La Pedrera. It has nothing to do with 'hype' that surrounds so many other (disappointing) artistic experiences. Gaudi brought man and architecture extremely close together, he made one aware of the other. That is a feat very few architects can achieve... and one to be admired and emulated.