I have dissonant feelings about modernism—and with modernist architecture in particular. I love looking at pictures of modernist structures. I love the idea of them. But to be near or in one—or to endure the writings of someone like Le Corbusier—is to encounter the very height of hubris. Brutal forms impose themselves on the land; impose themselves on human bodies and communities. This is an architecture of elitism and domination. It was, and is, an industrial architecture.
But, it is also principled. What may look like hubris is often just misguided idealism. When the modernists had their grand ideas and wrote their manifestos and built their cities they had yet to see where the road of industrialism leads. They were too optimistic—and perhaps too in love with progress—to realize that by making these spaces, they may also have been destroying places. By their lights, they were serving a higher good: humanity, even if that came at some human cost somewhere along the line.
Of all of the modern buildings I’ve visited, one has always stuck with me and I’ve never known why. It’s called the Villa Müller and it was designed by a fellow called Adolf Loos for a client in Prague—the owner of a construction company. I have been in this house only once and only for about an hour. This was sixteen years ago, yet I still think about it all the time.
We must see with other eyes and measure with other measures.
This past weekend, I had the privilege of participating in the first workshop offered by Umbau School’s new Studio Shenandoah in Staunton, Virginia. Umbau, which means something like transformation zone, is a school of studios—or places of focused study. The school, in both the person, work, and influence of its founder and guru William Tate, has been a transformation zone for me personally since I left home for university almost twenty years ago.
Within each of the studios—Vienna Studio, Studio Kraków, and now Studio Shenandoah—Tate is unfolding a pedagogy of daring you to do it. He is a consummate charmer, an audacious entry-gainer, and a conversation starter par excellence. His primary objective is to make space. He recruits and arms design marines. And so it comes as no surprise that, building on a celebrated career as a professor of architectural design, Tate’s primary conduit for making is architecture. He employs it as a master chef would a mother sauce, which is to say it is somehow the point of origin, departure, return, and residue. And at this new studio, he is all about healing architecture.
In the Vienna Studio, where I studied sixteen years ago, umbau students are immersed as sponges in what Tate would probably say is the greatest city in all the world: Vienna, Austria. In every alley and plaza and side street, they encounter masters. Florists, violin makers, and jewelers. It is the study of society. In Kraków, Poland, the paradigm shifts. The Poles are masters of the poster. But not posters for forty-percent-off-sales or fresh cinema; not posters for consumers. Posters for propaganda. And in this way, Studio Kraków trains you in the critical skill of subversion, but also in solidarity.
This is new, but will bring back memories.
And so I found myself driving away from the sun up Afton Mountain early on Saturday—having completed my chores in near darkness—to descend into the magnificent valley below.
Likewise, Studio Shenandoah is quite lovely. The space itself is ethereal and its denizens are thoughtful and jovial and have good taste in music. We studied four houses by Adolf Loos and in particular a thing he did without naming it that later came to be called raumplan. Heinrich Kulka, one of his protégés wrote, “Adolf Loos introduced to the world a new and essentially higher conception of space: free-thinking in space.”
And so it turns out this is what has stuck with me about Villa Müller in Prague over these many years. This “room plan” theory. The way you ascend and descend from space to space. It all came back to me. And the feeling wasn’t a repellant, cold modernism at all; it was deeply vernacular. Simultaneously Danish and Pueblo and Japanese and Shaker. A Teutonic synthesis of a thousand small, local cultures. Loos was very much an architect for particular people in a particular place.
So far at least, Studio Shenandoah is a studio of self. It is like deep tissue massage for imagination. The overall vibe is highly monastic. Hidden away within this airy place, you begin to inhabit Tate’s point of view. And for me, steeped as I am in questions of accessibility and sustainability, raumplan was a reason to ask if these ideas could work with no stairs. And then with no desecration. And lastly, with no leaving.
Could the design brief of edges, flows, and cycles be met for people unable to navigate steps? Could sunlight be used for warmth and electricity, for growing food and firewood? Could rainwater be used for cooling, drinking, bathing and gardening? Could food waste and “humanure” return to the system? And most interesting (to me, at least), could a truly modern dwelling be designed for the entirety of a human life—from cradle to grave?
Rather than planning communities to maximize comfort and utility during discrete phases, might we rediscover the idea of communities that hold their inhabitants across all seasons? Rather than the design titans of the last century, I drove home thinking about the freedmen who built the house in which I live—blurring the lines between farmer and architect; builder and inhabitant; receiver and bequeather.
Order is inherent in all living systems.
Umbau School has bold aspirations. Things far beyond what any of us can accomplish on our own. Adjacent opportunities emerge with each stair climbed, with each corner turned. In many ways, Tate has unveiled his own raumplan here at Studio Shenandoah—free-thinking in space.
Those original heroes of modernism believed that war was over and that rapid advances in science, engineering, and central planning would ensure a utopian future. They might have been wrong about the means and the timeline, but they had the right ends in mind. One hundred years later, Umbau School is inviting those of us building the next century to rekindle this vision.