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The Staging of Healthy Living: a Review of Beatriz Colomina’s X-Ray Architecture


Interior of Paimio Sanitorium, by Alvar Aalto. 1929.

The human body has long stood as a protagonist in architectural texts. As projecting oneself onto any subject of interest is among the most common methods of analysis, the pitting of bodily proportions against columns and the analogizing of the fireplace as the “heart” of the home have come to define the centuries-old practice of architectural theory.

If fear is our greatest educator, then modern architecture was trained on the greatest fears of its time.

Yet in her newest book, X-Ray Architecture, the theorist Beatriz Colomina succeeds in bypassing these clichéd analogies while developing a persuasive and wholly original take on the origins of modern architecture. Recently released by Lars Müller Publishers, X-Ray Architecture elaborates on the author’s argument that modern architecture was both a tool and metaphor for the treatment of human illnesses just like any other – a theory Colomina has been mulling over since she first arrived in New York as a scholar in 1980. If fear is our greatest educator, then modern architecture was trained on the greatest fears of its time; tuberculosis, pneumonia, PTSD and the obligation to exercise shaped architecture more intrinsically than factories and steamships ever could.

Lovell Health House, by Richard Neutra. 1929.

Colomina found that what united many figures of the modern movement was a demonization of an earlier, “unhealthy” architecture, and what separated them was their varied proposals for architecture to perform as a medical instrument.

Health was undeniably the preoccupation of several key figures of modern architecture. It was imagined, for instance, as a gym for Le Corbusier, a womb for Frederick Kiesler, therapy for Richard Neutra, and a “shock absorber” for the Eameses (“The shock in the postwar years was the shock of nuclear annihilation… Shock is presumably absorbed through the consumption of design. “Good design” offers a “good life,” a galaxy of happy, self-contained objects for people who do not feel safely contained and cannot be sure of life itself”). In short, Colomina found that what united many figures of the modern movement was a demonization of an earlier, “unhealthy” architecture, and what separated them was their varied proposals for architecture to perform as a medical instrument.

Paimio Sanitorium, by Alvar Aalto. 1929.

Yet, upon closer inspection, many of their proposals were more superficial than medicinal. The prevalence of tuberculosis during the turn of the 20th century placed previously untold pressure on modern architecture, and particularly the sanitorium building type, to improve the health conditions of its patients. Alvar Aalto is heralded throughout as the architect for whom the disease shaped an early career, as he modernized the sanitorium building type at Paimio in 1927 – and with it, modernized architecture itself. However, as Colomina points out, any patients whose conditions did not improve were “removed from view” and placed in the basement of the building, away from the curative properties of sun-and-air. “Modern architecture represented cure but couldn’t face failure,” Colomina writes. What was on view in photographs of Paimio, therefore, was the staging of health and its relationship to modern architecture.

The “visual hygiene” of modern architecture was not the symbol of an eradication of history, as it had been described by other theorists, but rather simply that of germs and paranoia.

The influence hospital design had on modern architecture, nevertheless, is among the most convincing and intriguing arguments made in the book; given the length of time most tuberculosis patients stayed in these buildings, they “had to be thought of as a new kind of home,” Colomina writes, “and, in reverse, the generic house needed to be a sanitorium.” The “visual hygiene” of modern architecture was not the symbol of an eradication of history, as it had been described by other theorists, but rather simply that of germs and paranoia: “The whiteness of modern architecture is unambiguously that of the hospital.”

Maison de Verre, by Pierre Chareau. 1932.

But it was not only the ailing body that influenced modern architecture, Colomina argues, but also the very medical instruments employed to diagnose them. Most significant among them in her argument is the X-ray machine, which was not only used to discover tuberculosis in the lungs, but quickly became a novelty that nearly rivaled the movie industry. The real and conceptual transparency made possible by the X-ray image influenced that of modern architecture, which could only feign lucidity at best through its glass façades: “Modern architecture exposes itself, but not by revealing everything. Rather, it stages the act of exposure, calling the eye in.”

Book cover

The X-ray, Colomina reminds us, “stages exposure, but finally what is exposed is unclear” (thus the brilliance of the book’s design: the cover of the mylar jacket is a negative of the image directly beneath it, thus exemplifying the revealing/obscuring effect of X-ray vision described throughout). Colomina compares this effect to the one achieved with precision by architects including Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson and SANAA, all of whom intended to appropriate glass as a means of choreographing “a more tactile experience of vision” while appearing to do the very opposite. An X-ray, after all, is a mediated image of a scene, not the scene’s exposure itself.

Intervention at the Pavilion, by SANAA. 2006.

X-Ray Architecture goes well beyond assuring its reader that architecture is affected by – and, in turn, affects – medical discourse and the fragility of the human body. Modern architecture’s impulse to stage itself as a healthy, hygienic and transparent medical instrument indicates that contemporary medical advances and diagnoses will similarly influence contemporary architecture. Colomina concludes by speculating that architecture might soon respond to the commonly diagnosed disorders of today – including depression, ADHD and burnout syndrome – by dissolving architecture altogether. 

Given that the quality of indoor air, for instance, has been proven to be far worse than that of the troposphere, Colomina argues that ”escaping architecture becomes the only architectural strategy… We are becoming physically allergic to buildings.” But her book outlines the case, on the contrary. that we should more likely expect a staging of escape rather than the real thing. Just as any pervasive system grows more so by absorbing its opposite, so too might the field prescribe architecture as a cure against itself.

Article source: https://archinect.com/features/article/150131284/the-staging-of-healthy-living-a-review-of-beatriz-colomina-s-x-ray-architecture

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