When I went to look back historically to see, well, how long has it been that architecture has been obsessed with medicine, I ended up with Vitruvius. Very early on actually. It's the first book. He says every architect should also study medicine. Ha! Because, he says, healthfulness is the main objective of architecture.
I'm Beatriz Colomina. I'm a fellow at the business of Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin this year, but I'm normally a... [laughter]. I'm still a professor of architecture at Princeton University and the author of X-Ray Architecture, my latest book and in some ways my first idea.
So, it's my longest preoccupation in terms of research and intellectual—or maybe it's my longest preoccupation all my life. You know, my father was a first-class hypochondriac, to make it short. He was an architect. So I always associated the idea of architecture with hypochondria. But anyway, this is the long, long, long story.
The reality is that I came, after studying architecture in Barcelona, to New York in 1980, and I ended up at the New York Institute for the Humanities. It was an incredible stroke of luck for me to end up in this place so young surrounded by very, very accomplished fellows: people like Carl Schorske or orphan Wolfgang Schivelbusch or Susan Sontag. And I was particularly fascinated by this book of Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor. I was studying modern architecture, and all of a sudden I see the presence of this obsession with health and with hygiene and with all kinds of disorders, psychological and physical. And I thought to myself, what a fascinating question that we have never studied in terms of architectural history—how much these illnesses had an impact on architecture, and particularly tuberculosis and the obsession with health, with white walls, with ventilation, with the sleeping in the open air, with germs, and so on, and the impact they had on the development of modern architecture.
And I thought to myself, this is a great topic for a dissertation. And so did all these people around me that were all interdisciplinary characters. But of course the time had not arrived yet for that kind of interdisciplinary study in architecture. So I did something more, um, architectural. I worked on Loos and Le Corbusier, two of the canonic figures of modern architecture, and the question of modern architecture and the media. But since I repressed this desire—and actually I had already written some when I was in the Institute quite a bit on this idea—somehow it became something that is for me a bit like the return of the repressed. So every time my defenses were a bit lower, and I was in a conference, then it would come back like a virus.
This central argument is that before the discovery of the bacillus of tuberculosis by Robert Koch in 1882, medical books on the disease will tell you that the causes of tuberculosis are deficiency of light, lack of ventilation, sedentary indoor life, etcetera. And so the cure was environmental for a long, long time, despite the fact that they already knew it was caused by this bacillus, because it took a long, long time to find an antibiotic that was effective against this bacillus—1944. So you have more than 50 years in which the disease, the only way they could treat it, was environmentally. And modern architecture presented itself like the perfect cure. Avant-garde architects and doctors team up to do these white buildings that are like big ships—you know, in Davos, in Germany—designed for the tuberculosis patient to take the cure of the sun and the air.
And very soon we have immigrants in California. Many clients of Neutra had had tuberculosis. Esther McCoy, the great critic of modern architecture, went to California for the cure. But it's also very important to understand that Richard Neutra himself suffered from tuberculosis as a young man. He was for a year in a sanatorium. His brother died of tuberculosis. So they were directly affected by this disease. And then it's not surprising that he advocates that as a prevention the modern house also has to have these sleeping porches outside; it has to offer conditions for taking the sun, and big windows, etcetera, etcetera. So in that sense modern architecture is like a medical instrument and the client is a patient. It's a patient that either needs to be cured of tuberculosis or needs to prevent tuberculosis, so it's a potential patient, and it's a patient in any case.
So on the one hand, it's the house itself as a sanatorium, but on the other hand it's a fascination with the X-ray as a form of representation. So these architects were fascinated by a new kind of vision in which that which was previously invisible becomes visible, or becomes this blurry image. At the same time, architects seem to have had this desire, also, to look through the skin, let's say—the envelope of the building—and see the inside. And even if they could not do it technically yet—like, think about the glass skyscrapers, the projects of Mies van der Rohe in Berlin—1919, 1920. It's impossible, I think, to think about these buildings without thinking about the X-ray, because it's actually this effect of looking through the skin of the building into this kind of blurry structure inside. And in fact he talks about his architecture as skin and bones, in case we had missed the point. And in case we have missed the point, he also seemed to have been fascinated by the X-ray, because he publishes X-rays alongside his projects.
It's so interesting that once tuberculosis is under control with the discovery and success, finally, of Streptomycin—which starts in 1944, before the end of the war—and once tuberculosis becomes more and more controlled by this—sanatoriums start to close or be turned into regular hospitals—the very same architects that were arguing that their architecture, their houses were meant to cure you of tuberculosis, from night to day, they start saying that this is the perfect cure for your depression and your psychological problems. So, psychological problems of course were very dominant in the postwar years. People coming back from the war with all kinds of post-traumatic stress disorders. The housewives were not very happy either living in the suburbs. And in the very moment of this crisis, architects immediately say, no, no, our architecture is perfect for this. Neutra becomes for me a very key example, because he doesn't significantly change his architecture, but now he argues that the architect has to be like a shrink.
Modern architecture we have seen now by practically every single point of view, starting with new materials and techniques, and then the formalist studies, then all these postcolonial studies. But it seems to me unbelievable that the most obvious connection—which is the connection in my view with health and with tuberculosis—is the one that was never talked about. So, for me, the surprise of this book is that I could still write it so late in the game, when it's a secret in plain sight. You know, Le Corbusier says, we have to get rid of 19th century architecture not because I don't like it, not because of this and that. Because, he says, it's like an old couch full of tuberculosis. Okay, that's an incredible sentence.
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Beatriz Colomina is the Howard Crosby Butler Professor of the History of Architecture at Princeton University and a 2018–19 fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. She writes and curates on questions of design, art, sexuality, and media. Her books include Sexuality and Space (Princeton Architectural Press, 1992), Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media (MIT Press, 1994), Domesticity at War (MIT Press, 2007), The Century of the Bed (Verlag fur Moderne Kunst, 2015), Manifesto Architecture: The Ghost of Mies (Sternberg Press, 2014), Clip/Stamp/Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196X–197X (Actar, 2010), Are We Human? Notes on an Archaeology of Design (Lars Müller Publishers, 2016), and X-Ray Architecture (Lars Müller Publishers, 2019). She has curated a number of exhibitions including Clip/Stamp/Fold (2006), Playboy Architecture (2012) and Radical Pedagogies (2014). In 2016 she was cocurator of the third Istanbul Design Biennial.
Reading literature and understanding that this is how you get a lot of the culture of that time was very important to me. Magic Mountain was a very important reference for this book, but also Tristan. You can read it and realize what a sanitorium was like. Even the character says it’s the architecture—the white walls, the simple furniture—that has this effect on his well-being. So architecture is a form of cure. I got this idea from literature, not architecture.
Sontag’s book, which had recently been published when I arrived in New York in 1980, had an enormous influence on me. I started seeing modern architecture in terms of all the pathologies related to it, real or imagined—agoraphobia, claustrophobia, nervous disorders, and, above all, tuberculosis and the obsession with hygiene, with germs, with fresh air.
Psychological problems of course were very dominant in the postwar years and in the very moment of this crisis, architects immediately say, No, no, our architecture is perfect for this! Neutra becomes, for me, a very key example, because he doesn't significantly change his architecture, but he argues that the architect has to be like a shrink and that the house is good for your mental health.