In Praise of Small Architecture

Architecture is not simply the stage set in which we live our lives. It is also a reflection of how we live our lives and who we are. An integral aspect to this is the unfolding of time. What happens when our needs, desires, and beliefs change, and the structures we have built no longer facilitate them?

Architectural preservation is often an issue of grandeur, both in a sense of size and richness, and decay. When we think of buildings that already been lost, they are almost always imposing structures—cathedrals, skyscrapers, temples. Yet the places where we enact our daily lives, and which reflect them even more than grand architectural statements, are smaller, more seemingly trivial and thus more vulnerable.

To appreciate the charms of small structures, it is useful to remind ourselves that we primarily interact with architecture from a ground level rather than the god’s-eye view employed in films and renderings. The architecture of day-to-day urban life is driven by utility and merges so integrally into our tasks that we barely notice it as architecture. There have been visionary architects who have recognized and celebrated the underrated nobility of everyday life, and there are some superlative little wonders scattered around our cities.

One of Hector Guimard’s famous Art Nouveau entrances to the Paris Metro, with a modern news kiosk behind it. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

Arising to offer a service or goods, what we could see as democratic architecture is also commercially motivated. Most small buildings are trying to sell something. This is evident in Herbert Bayer’s eye-catching Bauhaus kiosks, which are their own advertising. Similarly, roadside Googie architecture, as captured in the book California Crazy by Jim Heimann, was designed to grab the attention of passing motorists and their children with structures that immediately demonstrated their functions in their forms: giant hot dogs or coffee pots (a modern form of architecture parlante, or “talking architecture”).

Indeed, there is something innately childlike, or nostalgic, to our affinity with small spaces. They are perhaps an adult continuation of the child’s attraction to playhouses, dollhouses, treehouses, model villages—places of a comforting scale that offer us the illusion of Olympian-like control.

Ideology can also be sold to the masses. The structures used would be cheap, easy to move and assemble, but also attention-grabbing. Following the example of Soviet agitprop trains, Gustav Klutsis designed a series of constructivist kiosks in beguiling geometric shapes to pop up and spread communist propaganda. This approach lost favor with the Russian authorities, who opted for much more gargantuan and neoclassical forms of architecture to transmit the message of Soviet superiority. Klutsis was rewarded for his efforts by being executed on trumped-up charges during Stalin’s Great Terror.  

Mobility is often key to the need for and success of the small structure. It is built to capitalize on the flow of people and the rapidity with which someone acquires a newspaper or a drink. The bus stops of the former U.S.S.R., collected “from Samarkand to Yerevan” by Peter Ortner, are an example of architecture made to briefly shelter and pass through to somewhere else. Protection from the elements unites structures whose shapes and roots differ greatly, from the bothies of Britain to the sala of Thailand. Certain designs have spread across the world, such as the pavilions of China, while others retain a sense of the parochial, like the resurrection gates (or lychgates) you find in rural Britain, with their seated arches where coffins are placed to keep them out of the rain.

A woman waits at a brightly decorated bus stop near Chisinau, Moldova. (Bogdan Cristel/Reuters)

Ortner’s post-Soviet bus stops are also a fine example of how structures built to serve a social or commercial need accumulate character through the inventiveness of the architect. This can reflect the local conditions or architectural vernacular, as the diversity of the bus stops show; art is to be found in the extra, unnecessary details that raise an edifice beyond the solely functional. Such details may appear as a refined minimalist design approach or as decorative ornamentation—take the ornate Ottoman-era bird palaces that adorn the walls of mosques and other buildings in Istanbul.

An Ottoman-era “bird mansion” on the wall of a mosque in Turkey. (Firdes Sayilan/Shutterstock)

Given the passage of time, and architecture’s ability to reflect the culture around it, even the smallest of buildings can become a locus of memory. History and splendor can be found not only in the regal umbrella Chhatri pavilions of Rajasthan, but in the concrete Posuban military shrines of the Fante peoples of Ghana. Memorializing often involves loss and trauma, hence the numerous places of repose built to commemorate the dead of two world wars, or the so-called “widow’s walk” structures affixed to mansions that, legend has it, allowed the bereaved wives of sailors to gaze out to sea from their homes.

It’s no surprise that religions have a wide variety of small, but not necessarily modest, places to worship and commemorate, both outside larger buildings (Catholic grottos and bathtub madonnas; the wooden Stogastulpiai poles of Lithuania) and within them (confessionals; the maqsurah in a mosque that shielded powerful worshippers from assassins; Bernini’s Baldacchino di San Pietro).

Diminutive projects have long attracted major architects. Financial and logistical pressures are lessened, given more rein for experiment with less risk. They may be a chance to test or crystallize larger ideas and techniques, or indulge in some artistic escapism. Whether religious or secular, there is often an aspect of contemplative sanctuary (Bruno Taut’s long-lost kaleidoscopic Glass Pavilion or Peter Zumthor’s Bruder Klaus Chapel). With pavilions, there is also sometimes a kinship to the follies of old (House for Essex by FAT and Grayson Perry seems a combination of both folly and retreat).

Following the example of his mentor Louis Sullivan, who had moved from designing skyscrapers to making a series of exquisite jewel-box banks, Frank Lloyd Wright was never too afraid to take on a modest project (or perhaps never solvent enough to avoid them). He designed chapels, a windmill, a fountain, a playhouse, a gift shop, and an automobile objective. Wright even designed, being partial to a self-mythologizing story, a minimalist but characteristic doghouse for a pet named Eddie, a move that seems a like a punchline but fits with the long history of building for animals, from dovecotes to “catios” to the intricate chabutra bird feeders of India.

Given his architectural stature, Wright’s experimentalism, evidenced in the lily-pad columns of his headquarters for Johnson Wax in Wisconsin, can be too easily sidelined. Yet it is intrinsically there, from his gargantuan projects like the mile-high Illinois skyscraper right down to his R.W. Lindholm Service Station in Cloquet, Minnesota. In the latter, we find a distillation of Wright’s inventiveness, his talent for ennobling functional places, and his naivety. Originally, the gas station was to be part of his utopian, and ultimately unbuilt, Broadacre City, a sprawling mix of urban and rural that would offer everyone an acre of their own, while relying heavily on automobiles.

Wright’s service station in Cloquet, Minnesota, has a distinctive pyramid-shaped roof with copper shingles. (Jim Mone/AP)

Wright was correct in identifying the importance of social hubs, but mistaken in believing a transitory service station would be effective in that role, even if you added an observation lounge. Similarly, his space-saving idea of overhead pumps soon came into conflict with health and safety. As with many utopian visions, there were seeds of good ideas in his, but reality proved more resistant to the wider attempts to transform society.

By contrast, Mies van der Rohe’s gas station in Verdun, Quebec, seems crystalline in focus. It too encapsulates something of the architect’s spirit. It has a minimalist clarity at odds with Wright’s maximalism, even to the extent of being cold (a trait indicative of Mies’ work which is stunning and stuns in equal measure). So closely and consistently does it follow his larger work, with its use of symmetry, glass, light, monochrome and geometry, that it does not feel like a minor work. Tellingly, where Wright had failed to turn his gas station into a community center, Mies’s station has been converted into one. Improvisation can succeed where intention fails.

Today, small structures by major architects aim for the iconic, whether in terms of exterior image or what they contain. This is evident in various temporary art pavilions, from the Serpentine Gallery’s in London to the MPavilion in Melbourne. It is evident too in opulent ski chalets, woodland retreats, and so on. These structures are still advertising and selling things, but it’s no longer products so much as the reputations of the architect and the lifestyle of the inhabitants.

Perhaps this has always been the case. We may cast aspersions on viewing platforms that pay more attention to being seen (often via Instagram) than seeing from them, but that was always part of the attraction of royal belvederes, for instance.        

This is not to say that architects abandoned the functional: Many designs seem rational solutions to problems and models that could conceivably be emulated. Indeed, many have tried to create mass-produced pre-fab small buildings. Le Corbusier’s seaside Cabanon remained a curious and charming one-off wooden cabin, despite his intention to roll it out as a series of nearby holiday homes. By contrast, there’s the streamlined fiberglass K67 kiosk by Saša J. Mächtig that flourished, for a time, in Slovenia. Being modular, adapting to fit the role and size required, the kiosk allowed “the possibility of growth and change,” in the words of the architect.

Needs certainly change, which raises challenges as well as opportunities. The move away from fossil fuels may spell the eventual end of the gas station. It may also herald the arrival of electric charging stations. Automation is fueling the rise of self-service kiosks such as Singapore’s SmartPost network or McDonald’s “Experience of the Future,” but they are also changing the very meaning of kiosk from a physical space to a digital one.

As advances render certain technologies inefficient or redundant, we risk losing the structures built around them. Fotomat kiosks, with their iconic yellow pyramid roofs (mirroring the company’s logo), were lost once their one-day drive-through developing service became outdated. Chu Ming Silveira’s tulip-like Telefone de Uso Público (also called Orelhão, meaning “big ear”) booths are a popular and dynamic presence in Sao Paulo but have drastically declined in numbers, outflanked by mobile phones, and many have been allowed to fall into disrepair. A project was launched to reinvent them creatively, since it seems that people are less likely to vandalize a work of art than a superlative work of industrial design.

A double Orelhão (“big ear”) phone in Sao Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park. The ubiquitous phone booth was designed by Chinese-Brazilian architect Chu Ming Silveira in the early 1970s. (Samuel Kochhan/Shutterstock)

In Russia, urban kiosks have been under threat from periodic, and changeable, waves of government attention focusing on planning permission, changes in tobacco and alcohol licensing, and the idea of self-built structures as visual pollution. Whether threats are technological or legal, it’s easy to see such structures as akin to images of holdouts or “nail houses” surrounded by skyscrapers, stranded in a world that is moving on.

One solution is for architecture to adapt. With plummeting sales of newspapers, newsstands have been turning into coffee shops. A petrol station in White City has been turned into an art gallery. The glorious little Victorian Bath House, near Liverpool St Station in London, has been turned into a bar.

If the structures have attained any kind of iconic status, their continued existence is easier to justify. Police boxes were once so ubiquitous in London that Dr. Who’s TARDIS could hide among them without raising alarm. Now, rendered obsolete for their original purpose, they are simultaneously a tourist beacon and often a vending kiosk. So too are the red telephone boxes (based originally on architect Sir John Soane’s tomb for his wife), which have become everything from local miniature libraries to internet hubs.

Others are a harder sell. Though similarly iconic and historical, the Litfaßsäule billboard columns of Berlin, which long reflected the changing zeitgeist of the city, are under threat from neglect and demolition. The struggle is to defend their continuation in terms of usefulness that they’ve clearly outgrown. Yet in other fields, the very fact that a feature is outdated adds to its authenticity; consider the appeal of the Record Booth, a 1947 Voice-o-Graph, in Jack White’s Third Man Records store in Nashville.

The argument might then be to simply preserve. Custodians of modern architecture are right to point out the danger of losing recently outdated styles, like Brutalism or Postmodernism, because they don’t look like our conception of buildings worth historically preserving. They don’t seem like the past, even though they are. Yet architecture and street furniture from earlier eras rightly remain long after their primary functions cease; water pumps, Mughal music pavilions, stone lock-ups, Victorian bandstands, and so on. There is the added danger of supposing that, unlike the architecture of the powerful, structures created for supposedly lowly concerns like leisure or commerce are unworthy of maintaining. Signs are encouraging that this perception may be changing with efforts to preserve the likes of the Harvard Square Subway Kiosk.

At the heart of the issue is the question of what our cities are for and how we connect to them. While there is a place for transience in architecture, are the small treasures of our everyday settings worth conserving? And, once efficacy runs out, is there not a place for beauty for its own sake? The small street-level wonders are as much a part of our city life as the skylines, perhaps even more so, and once they are gone, they are gone forever.

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