In ‘The Exhibitionist House’, Beatriz Colomina highlights how the house has become ‘the most important vehicle for the investigation of architectural ideas in this century’.1The role that what I would call ‘style rooms’ – exhibited house interiors – have played in this process should not be underestimated. These temporary and relatively simple architectural installations are not only able to quickly demonstrate an idea to a large audience, but can also transcend the manifesto, the sales brochure, or the promotional leaflet by evoking an immediate illusion of the interior.
In my article, I want to position several of these style rooms in a debate about style and interiors that up to the present day remains of great importance to architecture and design. These specific interiors played a role in this debate at crucial moments in the first half of the twentieth century. Style, a key architectural concept, forms the foundation of many architectural-theoretical considerations and polemics,2 and is defined in the dictionary somewhat laboriously as the ‘collective characteristics of (…) artistic expression or way of presenting things or decorative methods proper to a person or school or period or subject.’3
Style also plays an important role in the private interior of the home. The personal character of the interior and the relative ease of adapting it to changing needs and tastes mean that it is often difficult to maintain ‘collective characteristics of artistic expression’ in the long term, but style is nonetheless an inescapable issue in the interior of the home. The major changes in society over the past few centuries, such as the rise of the middle class, increasing industrialization, and the development of the free global market, have turned the home, and by extension the interior of the home, into an architectural assignment. Style in this sense is not so important in terms of its art-historical significance, but rather in describing the aesthetic choices of the designer in terms of space, proportions, coverings and comfort, which are indeed eminently architectural concepts.
In the nineteenth century, style was the subject of a lengthy and intense debate among historians and architects.4 In welchem Style sollen wir bauen became the lofty phrase that managed to sum up that debate within the field of architecture, with all of its eclectic freedom, but also the nervous despair that was implied by the question itself.5 The question goes far beyond the choice of this or that historical building style: style represents not only an era and a culture, but also takes on a strong ethical and political meaning as an expression of power, or a projected ideal. In the process, the inherent relativism of the style debate is consistently beset by a desire for a ‘natural’ style that is supposed to express the new era.
The question of whether and how this kind of Überstil should or could arise forms an important breeding ground for the theoretical edifice that architect Gottfried Semper constructed in the middle of the nineteenth century, one that is still important today for reflecting on architecture.6
- Beatriz Colomina, ‘The Exhibitionist House’, in: Richard Koshalek, Elizabeth A.T. Smith and Zeynep Çelik (eds.), At the End of the Century: One Hundred Years of Architecture (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1998), 126-166. See, for example: OASE, no. 42. (1995).
H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler (eds.) The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964), 1282.
- Mitchell Schwarzer, German Architectural Theory and the Search for Modern Identity (Cambridge/New York/Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 33-87.
- Nowhere was the style debate more actively contested than in the German language countries. The title In welchem Style sollen wir bauen appears at least three times: in Heinrich Hübsch in 1828, in August Reichensperger in 1852, and in Albert Hofmann in 1890.
- Ibid., 331, 332, 336.
- For a concise version by Semper himself (translated by Harry Francis Mallgrave
and Wolfgang Herrmann), see: Gottfried Semper, The Four Elements of Architecture and Other Writings (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 101-129.
- Udo Garritzmann gives a good summary of the theories of Semper: ‘From the Colour of Dressing to the Dressing in Colour and Back Again’, in: Suzanne Komossa, Kees Rouw and Joost Hillen (eds.), Colour in Contemporary Architecture (Amsterdam: SUN, 2009), 172-196.