Just what is it that makes today’s homes so familiar, so appealing?
“Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” is a collage made by Richard Hamilton for the exhibition “This is Tomorrow” held at London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956. The collage was used as a poster for the exhibition, gaining extensive exposure. It went on to become one of the quintessential pop culture images of post-war England. The collage consists of cuttings from American magazines proclaiming an American way of life to complement the Marshall Plan and the reconstruction of a Europe in ruins – a promise of the life that was to come. The visible signs of the architecture of the house depicted in the image are scarce. We can see that it is an ordinary house, equipped with the trappings of modern life which seem to give it a different character than we might expect to find in a working-class home. The inhabitants, of course, are extraordinary: a bodybuilder and an erotic magazine model. However, the magazines from which the photographs were taken are typical of their genre. There are two references of its exterior: through the window we see an image of a cinema showing the film “The Jazz Singer”, and on the ceiling is a photograph of Earth taken from an issue of “Life Magazine”. The planes which make up the walls are cut in such a way that we cannot tell whether the ceiling actually exists, or the house is open to the sky. The image puts us in a position as if we were entering the room in which the scene is actually taking place. It is an image loaded with references and a cynical optimism. The title is from an article in one of the magazines from which the images were taken. It is as if the excitement it infers could be exhausted in the rushed consumption which it demands. The optimism is therefore fleeting but effective in the moment in which we encounter it.
If we were to seek a contemporary image to serve as a parallel to this one, we might settle on one of the interior images of the House in Colares. The architecture described as minimalist has expanded to such an extent that wherever we are, it is more or less inevitable that something similar will appear before us. It is a new International Style, and it is close to the original one. Every day, we are bombarded by advertising of all kinds, invariably set in a minimalist interior. The outside will always be a pure volume which alternates open faces, closed ones and screen-like planes in which the surface and its value, more or less material in nature, dominates and characterises the space. When we focus on the interior, the absence of objects and the presence of the materials which make up the walls, floor and ceiling occupy all that we see. The uninterrupted fluid space expands to such a scale that we could imagine it as a white “Continuous Monument”, like Superstudio imagined it in the late 1960s. By gluing together, one after the other, the images of minimalist interiors, we can reconstruct their proposal, coming surprisingly close to it, and at the same time, to the spaces in which our everyday lives unfold. What is almost paradoxical here is that in the plastic arts, minimalism used to mean the exclusion of the spectator, expulsion of the interpretation and categorization that are so typical of criticism, theory and history. Pure contemplation and co-existence – this was the condition required of the spectator. In architecture, it has become seduction, identification with an ascetic way of life which is often the opposite of what is done outside of that environment. A void as a representation of nothing has become a void as a condensation of everything. Black, the colour favoured by Ad Reinhardt – perhaps the most influential minimalist painter – was the result of the accumulation of all materials with colour, the combination of all colours. White, the colour of minimalism in architecture, is the absence of material colour, but also the combination of all colours conveyed by light. White is an excess of light. If black is the colour of pictorial minimalism, white is the colour of minimalism in architecture. Both represent an excess of accumulation. The white interior is the excess of references which Hamilton’s image transports to this long, minimalist, continuous interior space flooded by light from the screen walls. The excited optimism of Hamilton is now replaced by serene contemplation, an absence or dormancy which seduces us by leaving outside of us everything that is complex or difficult.
Another important piece in the “This is Tomorrow” exhibition is the contribution by Alison and Peter Smithson, Edoardo Paolozzi and Nigel Henderson. “Patio and Pavilion” conveyed the disruption of a contrast. A structure made of lowly materials and everyday objects evoked post-war England, precarious and difficult. The installation was as classical as architecture, and a caricature of the patio houses which were gaining widespread popularity, embodying an increasingly international American way of life. In the House in Colares, we find this kind of patio house once again, this time in conjunction with a ramp that leads us to an inner courtyard which takes on a central role in the architectural composition. The house rises delicately from the ground, detaching itself from it and becoming separate, as the artificial object which architecture must inevitably be. Its interior, like the building itself, is detached from the world in which it exists. From the inside, we see it in screen-like planes, opaque and material, or through the glass which offers us the opportunity to see what is in it and beyond it. Transparency, translucency, opacity and reflection. In the continuous and fluid space of a house which we can experience as comfortable and beautiful, because everything that exists in it has become familiar and mundane. Outside of the world, outside of everything, we stop to think, just what is it that makes today’s homes so familiar, so appealing?
Location Sintra, Portugal
Architecture Frederico Valsassina
Authors Frederico Valsassina
Collaborators Rita Conceição Silva, Marta Valsassina
Interior design Consultancy Marta Valsassina
Foundations and Structures Grese – Estudos, Projectos e Gestão de Obras Lda
Hydraulic Installations Ductos – Internacional Projectos, Lda
Electrical Installations and Telecommunications OHM-E – Gabinete de Engenharia Electrotécnica Lda
Mechanical Instalations Get – Gestão e Energia Térmica Lda