Envisaging L'Aquila
edited by Alessandro Coppola

Guest Artist – Staffan Schmidt

Modernity Retired: Chicago five

Staffan Schmidt is an artistic researcher with a PhD in fine art. He lives in Malmo, Sweden and works at Malmo university. Here, we present his work in progress called Modernity retired (2009-), for which Staffan has been interviewing a series of elderly architects in different locations around the world on the topic of modern modern life forms. Staffan has also been involved, with Mike Bode, in the project Spatial Expectation http://www.valand.gu.se/spatial_expectations/se/index.html (2001-2006), whose aim was to examine visually and theoretically the built environment and its implications as a social space. As an artist, Staffan has recently participated in the exhibition Land Use Poetics (2009): http://www.adk.lu.se/en/index.php?id=131.

Staffan’s acknowledgements for Modernity retired: The interviews in the US were made possible thanks to gracious support from the Faculty of Fine, Applied and Performing Arts, University of Gothenburg, the Swedish Arts Grants Committee, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and The Mies van der Rohe Society.

Gertrud Kerbis, Chicago

She says that she never did this, never interviewed her father about his journey from Germany to Illinois, where he was looking to become what he once was, a farmer. The family was poor, they could not afford a car and she learned to drive before her father.

The November day is dark and the windows and skylight of her Chicago hose, rebuilt already many decades ago, seem even smaller than they really are. We sit in a one room living area: private home and public reception area at the same time. Mies’ Barcelona pavilion chairs are charmingly worn.

STAFFAN – But then you were a woman, you were a young woman. Also that you came from a family with limited resources.


STAFFAN – So you had both of these?

GERTRUD – Unfortunately I had a double whammy, right? When I look back on my life, the more challenges you have it can make you a little tougher and you can survive. Now looking back I have no regrets having it a little harder than some of my male associates.

STAFFAN – Would you say that was a something significant of modern times? That you as a woman with that background had this possibility? Of developing your own interests and so on and so forth? Would that be a typical sign for modern time, that you as a woman… like a modern trade?

GERTRUD – Oh, like a modern trade?

STAFFAN – Yeah, you had that possibility?

GERTRUD – Exactly. I didn’t think about it at that time. At that time I was always saying that… in fact when I would do competitions and I would say my name was Gert… G-E-R-T. I didn’t want to be a woman. I had to be a… Gert is a man’s name in Germany, in some place, I don’t know. Anyway I thought it was more male sounding than Gertrud so anyway so that’s why I had to… I was always trying to pretend to be… that this was… I had to be acting like a male. And so I would swear and do all kinds of things to be tougher than probably I really was… I would be even more equal than of man in the drafting room and everywhere. So you just had… you sort of overcompensated. So it was kind of reversed. And then later on I did a very important talk to young people at University of Washington at St. Louis and I called it… Architecture: Male, Female and Neuter … anyways… I was very much aware of myself as a woman in this man’s field.

She was long ago married to a Bauhaus émigré, much her senior. We find him in a coffee-table size book. But before, and more importantly, spending a night as a good with maths arts student in a Frank Lloyd Wright building made her desire to become a modern architect. As a woman and without funds, she was a hard worker all along. When she got a house in Florida to escape Chicago winters it was reassuring to find out it had belonged to Betty Friedan.

The assumption that women know about food – that a female architect first and foremost a woman, and then a professional – followed her early career, receiving the assignment to design a huge canteen for the US Air Force, and the rotunda style restaurant area at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. She says her son can testify to her poor cooking: the kitchen is not more than a caboose. Later she decided to form her own office, successfully working with other women professionals. She is solidly independent.

Ken Isaacs, Granger, IN

He is fascinated with models, a bricoleur and an inventor with a distinct interest in simplicity. We have arrived to a newly built house in a walled in community. There has been snow showers throughout the morning, not much traffic in this area. People buying a cup of coffee using the shop WLAN to look for jobs.

The DIY Microhouse could be remade, and the Knowledge Box, just as easy as lifting the lid from the Meccano carton, but the optimistic, lighthearted-modern atmosphere could not be reconstructed easily: leaving utter devastation behind and entering cruising surplus economy and the singular chance to do experimental things backed by a Great Society, to make the world entire fair, just and American modern. But what kind of modern is that?

I later became a contributing editor to Popular Science. And they published a lot of my stuff. But those magazines were about building. And there is something about making… all people over emphasize their various obsessions but… building something changes the individual who does it. Or making something. That’s what’s really good about it. Perhaps better than actual product. And it’s very important to experience that change. I think that’s real excitement.

The gridded structure, the modular steel pipe frame and wall sheet or just about any material that would secure support for a basic and good enough living. He says that his interest in vernacular building grew, but what about the modern vernacular? Applying the grid to in-dust-ri-alism, but also in-divi-du-alism: building the world as an efficient encapsuling of values you cannot speak of, but also finding the limits to what life demands, and kicking excess out of the box. Finding out the limits to what a house can provide – just before you fold it together and move some other place. To tell excess from necessity, your time had to long for something else. Perhaps making space for less, perhaps Walden.

I found in building. I build a lot of my things and I found that in building that the physical act… I remember one time being in a windstorm and the overhead sheet of aluminum which was 10 x 20 feet was blowing off this microhouse and it was raining and it was 2 am. And I went out and this reveals the degree of romanticism in a way I think people thought I was a tiresome technocrat. But I’m so romantic that I was Captain Ahab on a whaling ship in the wind and the rain, corralling this piece of fluttering aluminum. So romance has its place, even in Modernism. And Modernism may be the greatest romance of all. To even think that it could be improved…

Peter Roesch, Chicago

A modern style office building was less expensive than a traditional one, but the difference between one that was raised only thinking about the costs and a cheap looking one is almost impossible to discern. Names and pedigree made a difference. Still, modern architecture became the home turf of developers. You understand from what he says that if there had not been people around that were willing to listen to what Mies meant, the cost efficiency ratio difference between aluminium/bronce tinted glass curtain wall and stone/glass wall would have been the only differential mark left.

Buildings as works of art – i.e. claiming your rights through a distinction that refers to aesthetics as meaning without purpose. If we focus on the surface a building it inevitably becomes so many mirrors for society. Carefully listening to understand what quality means; and silence was Mies’ pedagogical vehicle at the IIT: “That was the lecture. The silent lecture.”

When I opened my office 10 years later I built 30 buildings in ten years. Not saying the quantity… but that was more than I was actually physically able to handle. I had to drive from one job to another… two buildings a year. You needed to be there when they did things. I could not have done that with my previous education. It was Mies who made… who gave me some of the strength… well it was a strange way I was 100% sure what I wanted. It was… and some of my buildings looked like his. Like this booklet I gave you, that was his building. And he asked me and this is maybe one partial answer to your question… when I did my theses I asked him what should I do. And he said ‘You have an idea?’ and I said ‘Not really.’ And we’ve got a year, a little more than a year to do a theses and he said, ‘If you don’t mind to work on one of my ideas… I think you can learn more than if you’re searching for an idea.’ Because an idea may not come in the framework of a semester.’ It may come at the end of your life or tomorrow morning… you never know. So I said ‘Well, if this is proper I would love to do that…’

What can be learned from that which is perfectly modern? That everything less than the IBM building on 330 North Wabash suck? Up on North Lakeview Avenue the facade remained Mies’ work, as well as the obligatory Barcelona pavilion furniture on ground floor. But the interior was the work of the developer: surprisingly small apartments, low ceiling, kitchenette. No pets allowed. There is a vague sense of playfulness, but he sits back, alining his comments while pointing to a source.

But it was never easy to begin with, and even when things worked out and houses were erected, a strange mixture of serendipity and unlimited-supply commercialism hovered over modern buildings as a social project. Seen as rationality there was only one door to pass trough; the remaining work was about an impartial dealing with irrecusable needs. Engineering. No names needed. Just you carry on in the footsteps of the masters. Seen as the aesthetics of hiding a tall building in its details… we just have to think of something else.

Natalie de Blois, Chicago

All we can do is tell a story. There are others before us, surely, and what we do may not fit the description, as for instance a female chief designer. She was told to change her job because a man fell madly in love with her, and she did not want anything of it. She says she was not angry at the time; it was just normal that a woman could not be presented as the responsible architect in an early business meeting. It would make the investors worry about not being top priority. They were working as a team anyhow, hardly any rest. Struggle and time changed the story.

She is bouncing around throughout the interview; after just a few minutes she gets up from the couch looking for Corbusier’s book Towards a New Architecture. Modernity, starting from the Modulor, was a top down project, a claim for equality and a worthy life for every western male. She was a part of the modern, working on it, opening the façade to the street for the department stores and elevating the remaining pleasures up on top, but the recognition has come in retrospect. But what about unjust stories that survive, that become the endlessly repeated truth? In a volume that honors her boss at the time, her name was only mentioned at the back, among the assistants.

NATALIE – Like at the Terrace Plaza I never went – never went and saw the site, never met the client. But it’s interesting. They asked me down to Cincinnati today… and they know, they know that I was the designer on it. Somehow the credit is given to me – pieces, like – and people interview me and I’ll tell you, I did the design for that building, I did the drawings for that building, you know.

STAFFAN – Was that tough on you, in that…

NATALIE – What, tough? No, it wasn’t tough.

STAFFAN – You accept that, that you…

NATALIE – I accept it. I accept it. There’s no doubt about it. I was discriminated and I was… you know. I was told I couldn’t go to meetings. I was – I couldn’t go to lunch with them. I was told couldn’t go to the clubs with them. That was just it. Actually… somebody like Bunschaft who, when he came back I started working for him directly and worked for him on all kinds of big buildings. I worked for him on Lever House. I worked for him on… I was project designer for many buildings. Many, many, many of his best buildings. And he was very, you know – he didn’t seem to discriminate. He was in no way – treated me differently that he did anybody else. But… and actually he was very good with clients, too. When he introduced me to the clients he would say ‘This is my best designer and… she’s going to work on the project.’ you know? So that was fine. He wrote a book, Gordon Bunschaft. He didn’t say a damn thing about me. I mean I didn’t exist.

The people are long gone, the leading characters, the inventories, and the art that embellished the floors, but most of the buildings are still standing and the images of the houses remain. Why do they look differently now? “It’s been recorded that I worked on it but there are those who still try to make believe someone else designed it” – she is still around to change the answer to the question “who is a subject?” From the mid 1970s the story began to change: women was no longer grouped with the minorities.

Alfonso Cararra, Chicago

He lives in the house of his parents, a far cry from modern on a quiet townhouse street. So, what are we talking about? He says that his student peer group considered the Wrigley building, “the wedding cake”, worthy of being demolished, and more so in the rest of the town. Was there not space enough for modernity? Did not modernity achieve a crushing win? It depends on who you are asking, and when. And to what modern longing you subscribe. Claiming rationality, modernity was moving without a script. When the link between aesthetics and progressiveness was broken, closer to today, the concept started turning towards brick wall images of a safe past. Easy stuff, excellent readymade ideas. A past untorn.

If you go to any of the suburbs, the houses that you see now out there are just as bad as the houses I used to see and we dislike them. We didn’t really conquer with modern architecture the houses out there.

STAFFAN – But did you sort of… you also had to deal with problems or problem solving when it came to social housing for instance?

ALFONSO – Well we never… I never got that far. I think later on these things came up. And I think you said something before about ecological things. We never even thought of that in those days. What we were against is … and we were against the shapes. The typical house, and you can still see them. The suburban house. We just couldn’t stand it. It was so terrible. And about the only thing that they had that was modern is that they had this great big glass window. It was covered with a drape. And the usual lamp.

Being held back by a system, a society that was viewed from a once back street, and looking to understand its underpinnings, buildings came into focus. An other stability. If the basic module of life could be turned over, things would have a different starting point. Houses hanging their ancestry on to the facade were loathed, but could there not be traditional buildings “better than most”? What’s the point tearing down old functional ones, just to look into the facades of new houses with the selling point to put on the same face as the old ones? The house skin made out of brick came back, but what was worse, the returning illusion of a stable society, arguing its inevitability based on appearance.

Comments are closed.