Technology and architecture have been deeply intertwined since the Industrial Revolution—mechanized production, coupled with innovations in structural technology, radically transformed the space of production. Delving into more recent history, Frank Lloyd Wright reinvented the modern office landscape with his Johnson Wax Headquarters while Eero Saarinen, in his project for Bell Laboratories, exploited the aesthetics and flexibility that resulted from postwar modernism to suit the needs of scientific research at the dawn of computation. In response to emergent technologies, both designs generated spaces to serve the new machines while creating efficient workplaces for managers and employees.
Though architects’ embrace of new technologies as inspiration and mode of production is not novel, the MAK Center for Art and Architecture’s exhibition The New Creativity: Man and Machines, curated by Sylvia Lavin with the UCLA Curatorial Project, demonstrates that there is still undiscovered territory to be considered.
The curators divide the artifacts of the show into four distinct categories: Home, Office, Studio, and Shop. In doing so, they present a discretely compartmentalized view of how technology drove the creation of avant-garde themes within architectural culture during the 20th and early 21st centuries. Situated in what was once Rudolph Schindler’s own space of professional production and bohemian domesticity on Kings Road, the exhibition draws conclusive links between the creative process and often mundane technologies that produce innovations in design. In addition to using Schindler’s home and studio as an armature for the show, the curators included a Plan Hold drafting machine as an example of a catalytic design tool. Introduced into Schindler’s office by Esther McCoy, it purportedly put a “kink” in his Austrian rationalism, as evidenced in the drawings depicting the hinged plan of the Kallis House.
In the Shop section, offerings from contemporary practitioners Greg Lynn, Craig Hodgetts, Erin Besler, and others illustrate a future-present where the computational machine is no longer a mere mode of production, but merges directly into the architecture.
The exhibition’s thesis, that the melding of technology and creativity has a seismic impact on design intelligence, resonates in Lynn’s RV (Room Vehicle) House Prototype. The scale model studies the impact organic form and mechanized technology has on the traditional idea of domestic inhabitancy. Lynn’s pod-like vessel shifts orientation as the needs of the homeowner change throughout the day, allowing the floor to become wall and the ceiling to transform into furniture. When juxtaposed against other works in the exhibition, such as the authorless process inherent in the Peter Vikar’s Synthia the Drawing Machine, or the Low Fidelity models developed by Erin Besler and her hot wire cutter, the spatial impact of Lynn’s rotating house and Hodgetts’ Mobile Theater are the only elements from Shop that suggest that technology truly elevates the human condition.
The Office mines design history for mundane examples to prove a humanistic point. Renowned for their consummate dedication to promoting modernism’s stripped-down aesthetic, Herman Miller promoted workplace furniture—cubicles, storage cabinets, chairs, and executive desks—through quirky sales videos that celebrate the activities of secretary and manager alike. Developed by Robert Probst in 1964, the Action Office presents a flexible order to a 1970s corporate landscape quickly being overrun with word processing machines and appliance-sized computers. Action Office transformed office managers into architects. When one considers the impact Herman Miller’s product had on the space by simply deploying well-designed furniture and cubicle systems, one wonders if the technologically-driven form-making favored by some of the contemporary designers in the Shop section of the show produce the type of cultural-spatial impact as the “office in a box” that came out of Zeeland, Michigan, almost a half century ago. The issue here is that, despite providing seductive form, technical proficiency doesn’t always deliver pleasurable space, no matter how many compound curves or tweaked angles in the design.
The value of The New Creativity: Man and Machines really lies in selectively magnifying transformative moments within design culture that most would overlook, drawing them together into a soft manifesto. The exhibition, however, trends more toward promoting visual representation and aesthetic output over spatial impact. It takes a critical eye to cut through the history-porn and find the true value in a majority of the work. It is troubling that there is little discourse around the architecture (realized or proposed) produced by the tools in the show beyond its representational value.
While Paul Rudolph may have been a quick study of the repro-machine, his monolithic housing proposal in the show leaves much to be considered in humanist terms, especially when examined through the lens of postwar urban development and the well-documented negative sociological impact such projects had on the more intimate prewar metropolitan culture. Similarly, for anyone who has lived Office Space at some point in their career, the Action Office System cubicle promoted by Herman Miller might seem more like a dystopian flashback, rather than innovative social and spatial tool.
The archival objects, drawings, and models in The New Creativity: Man and Machines invite a certain degree of introspection about the discipline’s hermetic tendencies. Why should we care about office furniture, when during the same decade Action Office invaded office space, humanity had its sights on a lunar landing?
There’s a comfortable clarity and pleasurable visual eroticism to be celebrated in the realm of cool machines, or hip representational proficiency. But more is at stake. Saarinen’s Bell Labs, which through its lifespan transformed from a space of deep computing into a space of deep consuming, endured as a testament to modernism’s infinite spatial flexibility. That shifting paradigm parallels the move from the 20th to 21st century and makes a point that The New Creativity hesitates to point out: While technology is temporal, the architecture it produces, for good or bad, is here to stay.