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Life without walls. Modernist approaches to the domestic free plan.

Part 1 Dissertation 2009
William Boyd Fisher
London Metropolitan University | UK
This essay looks at how the free plan was conceived and developed in the writing and built work of several Modernist architects. In the context of the social and technological changes that were taking place in the 1920s, it asks what sort of freedom architects were looking to achieve in domestic space, and how these desires were resolved in the material and structure of buildings.

The different ways in which Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and van Doesburg understood freedom to be possible are examined, followed by more detailed analysis of the internal environments of Rietveld’s Schroeder House, and Eileen Gray’s two completed houses. These reveal the complex boundaries, in relation to privacy and different types of openness and control, that are reached in the free plan.

Through these questions the essay explores how the concept of freedom might apply to the physical structure of a building, and the relationship between the material of architecture and the intangible ideas and desires that are invested in it.

William Boyd Fisher

This is certainly one of the best things I have read on the notion of freedom in architecture, bracing in its skepticism and unwillingness to accept things at face value. In fact it does not read like student work, above all in its breadth of view and ability to bring out the profound human consequences in narrowly focused questions about planning.

One of the work’s principal strengths is its specificity: the writer is particularly acute in explicating the meaning of plans in the Schroeder house and Eileen Gray’s two houses. Even readers who know these houses well will see them differently after reading this paper; I thought I had understood how the upper floor of the Schroeder house works; The author convinced me that matters are not as simple as the conventional idea of the design’s much-vaunted flexibility would have us think. He goes too far for me in the claims he makes for Gray’s built in furniture, but his argument is important and gives the subject a welcome depth. An instance of his ability to seize telling details and exploit them effectively is ‘the enemy smiling’, a phrase taken from Gray which he understands poetically and from which he extracts real illumination.

He also quotes very well from Wright and characterizes Wright’s approach to living space acutely. If there is a weakness, it may be in relating the separate treatments to each other. Especially Wright seems somewhat out on a limb, distinct from the others, but to a degree this reflects a real state of affairs. Wright represents a different development, parallel but separate.

This work is wonderfully probing in its analysis of spaces, and particularly impressive in its careful scrutiny of photos and plans. Rarely have I seen anyone put his visual intelligence to such good use. Such fresh and ingenious treatment is particularly welcome on a subject treated so often by other writers that a complacent orthodoxy has come to prevail. The author shows its limitations.

Prof Robert Harbison
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