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Hall of Mirrors,
Various Reflections

Part 1 Dissertation 1998
Esther Waterfield
Royal College of Art London UK
When Louis XIV Strode through the Gallery at the head of his court, the glass walls reflected the diamonds in his crown. These glass walls were the first hall of mirrors, built in the Palace of Versailles, the later and more familiar manifestation is a maze of rooms full of distorting mirrors which turn the visitor into as many hilarious versions of themselves. In this dissertation I am going to describe three buildings in which the presence of positioning of mirrors is significant, as is their relationship as distorted reflections of each other.

Of these three buildings, the Haus Tugendhat (1928-30), designed by Ludvic Mies van der Rohe and Butlin's Funcoast World (1936), originally designed by Sir William (Billy) Butlin, were first built within a few years of each other, whilst at first glance this may seem their only similarity, in this discussion I hope to place the buildings side by side so that they reflect each other; as if in a hall of mirrors, with both buildings appearing as strangely related versions of each other. A third unbuilt project will be used as an intermediary between the two apparent opposites describing any common ground and measuring difference. This reference project is Dan Graham's Alteration of a Suburban House (1978).

What all of these projects have in common is to emerge as the salient point of my discussion, that is, that they all reorder the home in very particular ways which exaggerate and redefine both the possibilities and implications of living, and the commonly held and maintained prejudices of both an accepted architectural discourse and a notion of domestic 'cosiness'. Whilst the Haus Tugendhat can be seen as relating to the hall of mirrors at Versailles culturally insofar as they both belong to a legitimate and traditional architectural heritage and were originally built at huge expense for very rich clients (the usual prerequisite for an architectural prototype), Butlin's conversely does not yet have that status architecturally but nevertheless remains a significant part of British culture built and sold cheaply, the usual prerequisite for the architecture of mass-production. In other words both of these structures have been hugely influential at very different 'ends' of the cultural spectrum. If the Haus Tugendhat is Versailles, then Butlin's is the seaside funhouse. Graham himself relates Alteration to the tradition of 'rollercoaster or funhouse mirror', whilst simultaneously belonging to the art world with its attendant prototypical status.

These apparent opposites are at times surprisingly convergent, as if encountering a true, flat mirror after seeing your distorted reflection in innumerable previous rooms. The concepts of heimlich, the uncanny and the ugly will be looked at as an attempt to pinpoint such moments of convergence and recognition. The examples used in this dissertation all represent particular manifestations of the rigid cultural structures embedded in commonly held concepts of the home which through their apparent oppositions alter the perceived architectural content of each and therefore offer multiple readings and potentialities of both the house and the home when viewed together.

Bibliography:

Russell, Frank, ed. Architectural Monographs: Mies van der Rohe. 1986, Academy Editions: London.

Freud, Sigmund, The 'Uncanny', in Pelican Freud Library: Art and Literature, Richards, Angela, Editor. 1919, Pelican Books: Harmondsworth.

Vidler, Anthony, Unhomely Houses, in The Architectural Uncanny. Essays in the Modern Unhomely. 1990. The MIT Press.

Cousins, Mark, The Ugly (i). AA Files, (28): pp 61 - 64; 1994

Esther Waterfield


This outstanding thesis received a distinction. It is notable for combining studies of a canonic opus of architectural modernism, a conceptual project by Dan Graham and Freudian ideas, with a personal analysis of a popular commercial building-type, the holiday chalet. The result is a fertile and sprightly intersection of aesthetic, psychoanalytic and anthropological insights into conceptions of home and neighbourhood.

The three cases are shown as reflecting particular ‘essences’of home, but each one dilating or exaggerating their respective chara teristics to a point where something ‘unhomely/uncanny’emerges from within the model of what conventionally constitutes ‘homelessness’.

The Tugendhat’s rarefied aesthetic and Butlin’s bleak cheeriness are seen as mirror inversions of each other whilst sharing certain visual regimes which GrahamÕs ‘Alteration’brings ‘out’and enscenes on the _óstage of a suburban avenue/garden/theatre. The three cases perspicuously triangulate and phenomenology of a common type which, while responding to fantasies of home and communality, withdrawal and revelation, betrays underlying tensions of alienation.

This is a student essay; not every line of its ideas is fully drawn through. Nevertheless, three features are impressive:

1. It is definitely the work of a young architect, not a displaced would-be students of ‘theory’. Esther’s analysis at Butlin’s was done on the spot, not from a book.

2. The range of its combinations of high and low culture, theory and practice, architecture and art is commendable, because synthesis must be the ground, no matter how difficult, to negotiate of real architecture.

3. The essay’s shortcomings are just that: they could be resolved in a longer study without serious methodological redirections. This is one of those essays of which one can say ÒI look forward to its expansion into a book.

1998
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