Overheating

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In 2018, in a special report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change described what a temperature increase of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels might look like: a greater probability of droughts; more of Earth’s landmass affected by flooding and runoff; heavier rainfall from tropical cyclones; an increase in vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. Frozen permafrost soils will thaw, causing irreversible loss of stored carbon. Instabilities in ice sheets could lead to rising sea levels. Entire ecosystems will shift. And wildfires will break out — a lot more of them. There is no single “1.5 degrees Celsius warmer world,” the report cautions. Some parts of the planet have already experienced temperature rises greater than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Climate change is what is called a threat multiplier: barring a political revolution overnight, its impacts will be uneven, exacerbating inequality and poverty. Densely built cities are their own kind of multiplier, creating heat islands that boost indoor temperatures, which in turn prompts air-conditioning use. In the most extreme cases, modern buildings not only perpetuate ecological devastation but simulate a hellish future — sometimes absurdly so.

Residents of The Beacon, a 595-unit condominium in San Francisco, have alleged, in court and on Yelp, that construction and design defects caused such severe overheating that apartments were rendered uninhabitable at times. Like many mid- and high-rise apartment buildings that have sprouted up in American cities this century, The Beacon (architects HKS Inc. and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 2005) makes liberal use of glass. “We had a FULL DAY of sun in our unit anytime it was sunny. There were four windows total that created minimal air circulation (we had to purchase a portable AC unit). I also had to tie sneakers to the windows to prop them open,” writes Karen A. in a 2015 Yelp review of the condo that reads like Jacques Tati’s Playtime for the Anthropocene. “It could have been 65 degrees Fahrenheit out and it was still shorts-and-tank-top weather in our unit. Expect sun-facing units to be at LEAST 10–15 degrees higher and then minus the possibility of airflow. You will be told you can do things to your unit to cool it down. Special UV shades or film on your windows, etc. I can tell you that the tenants/community email each other frequently asking if anyone’s investments into these alternatives have worked.”

The Beacon’s architects argued that these conditions stemmed from value engineering by the developer, not the design. But, as history shows, a generous budget and even critical recognition is not a guarantee of thermal comfort. When Edith Farnsworth sued her architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, for cost overruns on her 1951 namesake house, financial loss wasn’t the only thing she was having to endure. Sun protection consisted of silk curtains and the canopies of surrounding sugar maples, both of which were insufficient for a glass box in a humid Illinois climate. Electric fans installed in the floor augmented natural cross ventilation, assuming the east entry door and west hopper windows were both open, and the wind was blowing in the right direction. In a book on the house, critic and Mies biographer Franz Schulze offered in defense that Midwesterners “were long accustomed to enduring summer heat in their homes.” Besides, he added, air-conditioning was not yet common in domestic settings in the early 50s.

AC, or the lack of it, wasn’t always an alibi. In his forthcoming book, Modern Architecture and Climate: Design Before Air Conditioning, Daniel Barber describes the history of attempts to control the way the sun affects buildings by architectural rather than mechanical means. Many architects saw their work as a strategy of climatic adaptability, bringing specific thermal conditions into being through design of the facade (louvers, screens, and other shading devices), the siting and orientation of the building, the volume of enclosed spaces, and other strategies. “Developments of Modernism,” Barber writes, “were a means to induce a way of living (l’esprit nouveau, in Le Corbusier’s phrase) in which the building was the essential medium through which to construct adaptable conditions of comfort according to regional and seasonal vagaries.”

Although Barber concedes that “at many junctures this premise of adaptability was overwhelmed by an insistence on normative conditions, especially in the context of architecture’s relationship to economic development and the global spread of capital,” after the widespread adoption of HVAC in the 1960s, architects generally saw little need to understand the principles of climate-design methods or even analysis. In industrialized economies such as the United States, interiors were increasingly cut off from the environmental conditions that surrounded them. From sealed and conditioned rooms we distanced ourselves, too, from nonmodern—or insufficiently rational or scientific—forms of knowledge. “Cultural engagement with the question of how design mediates social and climatic conditions was largely relegated to a kind of nostalgia for so-called primitive cultures that were seen to live in harmony with their environmental surround.”

Today we can no longer speak with such condescension about the past if we intend to have a future. Dominant models of sustainability, which seek to achieve carbon reduction through technical fixes, have proven insufficient: despite significant innovations in energy efficiency—from better insulation and double glazing to smart thermostats—fossil-fuel consumption has continued to rise globally. We need different ways of living, different rituals and practices, different relationships to the sun. We need different design approaches that go even beyond the structured unsustainability that theorist Tony Fry describes as “defuturing.” Edith Farnsworth, in her brush with high Modernism at the dawn of HVAC, sensed a similar imprudence. “Something should be said and done about such architecture as this,” she told House Beautiful in 1953, “or there will be no future for architecture.” To this we must now add: innumerable forms of life, and even the planet.

Toward a Concrete Utopia

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“Left out” and “overlooked” are some of the phrases used to describe the work under consideration in “Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980,” a substantial survey at The Museum of Modern Art that aims to augment our dominant accounts of history. To this list should be added “lost,” and not in a metaphorical sense. I’m referring to the modular K67 kiosk, a Yugoslav icon acquired by the museum in 1970, summarily exhibited, then loaned to a university on Long Island and never returned. The designer of the kiosk, the Slovenian architect Saša Mächtig, explained this debacle to me over lunch last summer in Ljubljana, recalling a letter the museum had recently sent him apologizing for the error and pleading for help in finding a replacement. At 77, Mächtig has endured personal and professional misfortunes and lived through the protracted decline and messy disintegration of Yugoslavia, but in this matter, he seemed oddly defeated. The first-generation model MoMA wanted, unlike the more commercially successful second, had a small production run, he explained. He didn’t even know where to start looking.

To everyone’s relief, another kiosk was found and beautifully restored. Bright red and lit from inside like a beacon, the fiberglass structure stands proudly near the entrance to the galleries, as if the whole mishap never even happened. MoMA has plenty of reasons to be ashamed, that’s for sure, but guilt is an undercurrent instead of an overarching concept of the exhibition, which was organized by MoMA’s Martino Stierli and architectural historian Vladimir Kulić, with curatorial assistant Anna Kats. The central claim of the survey is that, far from being a cultural backwater or peripheral player, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was, by virtue of its leadership in the Non-Aligned Movement, uniquely positioned to exchange and integrate knowledge and ideas across divides—both sides of the Iron Curtain but also the Middle East and newly independent post-colonial nations in Africa. Put another way, Yugoslavia’s unique position anticipated the current age of globalism, and studying its architecture will tell us more about postwar modernity than the tired old histories do.

Most museumgoers—who aren’t up on metahistorical debates and probably can’t tell overlooked architecture apart from the canonical—will wonder at some 400 drawings, models, photographs, films, and, occasionally, full-scale objects like the K67, and counter-narrate in their head. “They actually built that? Yugoslavia wasn’t a Communist country?” The first of the show’s four sections, “Modernization,” does much of this contextual groundwork, beginning in 1948, the year Yugoslavia broke with Stalin’s USSR and, under the leadership of the charismatic strongman Josip Broz Tito, pursued a form of socialism based on workers’ self-management. A flurry of building activity swept through a still largely rural society that had only a few years earlier been occupied by Axis powers. Industrialization and urbanization were the twin engines of modernization and essential ingredients for engendering a socialist society governed by the working class. The most ambitious project was the creation of a massive new federal capital on marshland in Belgrade, comparable to Brasília and Chandigarh in both scale and the application of Corbusian planning principles.

Though New Belgrade may have been the administrative heart of the new socialist state, in everyday life, as Kulić writes in his catalogue essay, “pan-Yugoslav unity was more effectively performed through the networks of architectural programs distributed across the country.” New schools, libraries, community centers, hospitals, museums, and other public facilities supported a “social standard” of free educational, health-care, and cultural services available to all. Seeing this agenda as exceptional, and so without an easily assignable model, architects were pushed to experiment. Concrete was the material of choice, contributing to wide spans and sculptural form, but the aesthetic of the social standard was in no way as coherent as its ideology.

Heterogeneity was a byproduct of a wider governmental policy of decentralization and a reflection of the role of architecture in reconciling diverse ethnic populations spread across six republics and two autonomous provinces. Regional idiosyncrasies were explicitly cultivated by designers. For instance, Juraj Neidhardt advanced a Bosnian Modernism rooted in traditional Ottoman architecture (his ethnographic studies of vernacular culture are a standout in the exhibition, specifically the sketches and photo collage), while Edvard Ravnikar extended the traditions of Central European Modernism through his significant built work in Slovenia and teaching at the University of Ljubljana.

Local references did not preclude global influences. Ravnikar’s student Vladimir Braco Mušič, together with Marjan Bežan and Nives Starc, redefined Yugoslav urban planning with Split 3 (1968–c. 1982), an astounding residential neighborhood for 50,000 inhabitants that was inspired by Kevin Lynch, Team 10, and Japanese megastructures, but remained cognizant of the coastal topography and traditional Dalmatian street structure. Another student, Mächtig, fused his teacher’s emphasis on tectonic legibility with an individual interest in British and American consumer culture and Italian industrial design. Tradition did not preclude reinterpretation either, as evidenced by Šerefudin’s White Mosque (1969–79), located in Visoko, near Sarajevo, and designed by Zlatko Ugljen. Making the bare minimum of concessions to Ottoman conventions, its truncated pyramidal space and lime-green tubular ornamentation are like nothing I have ever seen.

The balance between regional diversity and countrywide unity was delicate, although the monuments, or spomenik, featured in the section of the exhibition entitled “Identities” are quite the opposite. Commissioned by Tito to commemorate, among other things, World War II sites, they’re remarkable for their scale, bold abstraction, and visual razzle-dazzle, which has lent them currency on social media and contributed to their dominating recent interest in the architecture of former Yugoslavia. Seen in relation to everything else in the exhibition, from the perspective of our current neoliberal age that is flush with flashy signifiers and short on essential public services, my desire rushes elsewhere. The monuments look unbelievable, sure, but the idea of a well-functioning, even thriving, civic infrastructure as the backbone of a multiethnic socialist experiment blows my mind. Schools! Libraries! Cultural centers! Swimming pools!

The remarkable thing about“Toward a Concrete Utopia” is how much it concerns actually realized buildings. People designed them, extracted the materials used to construct them, built them; people lived and learned in them, and in most cases continue to do so today. These buildings are as participatory as anything — certainly more so than the quasi-agitprop that biennials and museums like to think reflects the political vanguard. What the exhibition presents, to put it plainly, is the most concentrated instance of architectural experimentation allied with a progressive political project that we have in recent history. Of course, the flipside of being a companion to a nation-building effort that would stall after Tito’s death in 1980, and eventually terminate in the 90s with violent ethnic conflict, is that the architecture is saddled with the extremities of feeling. And depending on how you feel, “accomplice” might be preferable to “companion.”

This emotional tension is perfectly enacted in the first gallery, where a montage of Yugoslav propaganda put together by contemporary Serbian filmmaker Mila Turajlić rapid-fires, across three screens, scenes of smiling faces, enthusiastic camaraderie, and industrial showmanship (railroads, power plants, etc.). Turajlić’s piece is equal parts ebullient and sinister, a sensation that is hard to shake even as newly commissioned photographs by Valentin Jeck overwhelm the whole exhibition with their melodrama. Gray skies and desaturated color cast a pall over the photographic subject, arresting the potential of these buildings and giving outsize importance to their symbolic dimension, over and above any other aspect. The desire by the historian-curators to avoid blindly championing the exhibition’s subject I recognize, but the photographs feel like an overcorrection, and partially undermine their endeavor. Some kinds of loss can be easily remedied, as the kiosk replacement shows; other kinds, like the loss of hope, less so. Yugoslavia’s aspirations are too relevant, and models of architecture committed to such a strong social project are too scarce, for us to satisfy ourselves with the empty conclusion that this was all simply a failure.

 

"Yugotopia: The Glory Days of Yugoslav Architecture on Display," PIN-UP, Fall/Winter 2018

Grill Houses

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Without fire, nights would be chilly and dim. Food would be raw. Without fire, there would also be no wood-fired ovens dotting Croatian landscapes; none of the winsome masonry structures to stoke, to no end, my curiosity. On the Dalmatian islands, these small wonders — referred to as “garden fireplaces” (vrtni kamin in Serbo-Croatian), “garden grills” (vrtni roštilj), and “grill houses” (roštilj) — are ubiquitous. Practically every home has one, as they do a mailbox, except these receive parcels of vegetables and meat and octopus, and emit smoke.

That last bit — the food and the smoke — I have to imagine, as I must the fragrance. In my time spent there these past few years, during the languid late-spring months before tour groups flood the Adriatic and the Balkan diaspora reclaims family homes, I rarely, if ever, see the grills used for cooking. Regardless, their function is in large part symbolic, perpetuating a social ritual and vernacular iconography more so than satisfying basic biological needs (kitchens here have conventional ovens). Of course, the barbeque has a significant place in the American mythos — caldrons of suburban pleasure and depravity. Yet, whereas Webers are dragged out in fine weather, Dalmatian grill houses remain firmly planted — stoic witnesses to the four seasons and multiple generations. In dense settlements such as Račišće, a village on the north coast of Korčula, grills are shoehorned into tiny lots; they are pushed up against roads and footpaths and, thus, into public life. Their quiet splendor, strong frontality, and intimate scale evoke for me shrines to the Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico and their counterpart in Croatia, the statue grotto. Grills are secular infrastructure, however, in the service of Epicurean delight.

From a formal perspective, grill houses abide by a classical tripartite scheme. A table-height base, which might include a surface for food preparation, supports the open oven; and atop the oven is a chimney, which is tapered to draw air through. Supposing that basic principles of convection are followed, and nothing is flammable, there is wide latitude in terms of the design and construction of grills. Readymade versions are available for purchase (a quick Internet search reveals a range of styles, often visualized with faux, photoshopped flames). But much of the wonder of the grills is how they provide an occasion for vernacular craftsmanship and creativity. While an ordinary house is usually entrusted to professionals — who construct grills to accompany new house, from identical materials — grill houses are a reasonable project for do-it-yourselfers. (There’s hours worth of how-tos on YouTube — have a look.) Less encumbered by the social and economic pressures placed on home design, like future resale value, the grills reveal a native creativity, a personality.

On the mainland of Croatia, at the gargantuan postwar development Split III, the folksy vernacularism of the grill house has been smuggled into the seaside tableau skillfully planned by Miran Bežan and Vladimir Braco Mušič. Every so often, amongst the 14,000 dwellings, limestone-clad chimneys peek out over concrete walls that surround ground-floor patios. There is no substitute for the intoxicating sounds and scents and social rituals of the outdoor grill, so quitting is difficult and relapses are inevitable.

Of all the garden fireplaces I have encountered, the most surprising ones aren’t in Croatia, nor improvised interventions. They are in Ljubljana, Slovenia, built into the base of an unassuming 12-story housing block from the 1960s. Spanning the 90-degree inside corners at 45-degree angles and cast from the same structural concrete as the rest of the building, the oven hood resembles a sloped sun visor. Inside, they are black with soot. I spotted them by chance while riding a bike along the river that cuts a gentle course through the capital city. Recently, deciding I wanted more information, I contacted an Airbnb host named Nada who advertises an apartment in the building. In her reply, he explained nothing about the fireplaces, only that flats were given to affiliates of Yugoslavia’s secret police (UDBA), and that Melania Trump (née Melanija Knavs) is rumored to have spent a few nights there way back when. For now, like many other aspects of this tower, the story of the fireplaces shall remain a mystery.