In Defense of the Curve

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In Defense of the Curve Provoked by Reason By Brandon Clifford

In a conversation between Mies van der Rohe and Hugo Häring, Mies inquires, “our steel beams, they have been born straight haven’t they?” he then argues, “It takes a great deal of effort to bend them”.1 Implicit in this pointed attack is a requirement to justify the use of a curve; ironically, Mies just justified his use of the line. This attack on the curve is not an isolated one, but one that is pervasive throughout the scales of design – architecture, urban, and furniture. While subtle variations in argument between scales occur, what remains constant is a general understanding that the curve needs justification. Combating these attacks from the rationalists are designers motivated to validate the curve. This argument is not about renouncing the use of a curve, or advocating for the line, but rather a brothers quarrel. Both sides argue for structural clarity, honesty of materials, technological advancement (mass production), and origins of form. This paper will explore justifications argued for the curve versus the line p Mies van der Rohe (Armour Institute, 1938) drafting exercise . first year students

at three general scales -- the building scale, the regional scale, and the product scale. 1

The most common attack on the curve is the claim of arbitrariness, a rationalist critique which takes full advantage of the social tendency towards scientific proof. The curve does after all denote an authorship a universal geometry would not. Adolf Behne rejects Henry Van de Velde’s use of the curve in favor of Hugo Häring’s functionalist curve. He attacks Van de Velde’s curve as being merely illustrative and arbitrary. Behne then defends Haring by combating the line stating “the rectangular room and the straight line are not functional but mechanical creations.” He then goes on to argue the rectilinear room is nonsensical as a functionalist argument because the corners of the room are useless. “If I were to outline the areas in a room that are actually used and walked upon, then I would inevitably arrive at a curve”.2 By separating Häring and Van de Velde, Behne walks alongside a large sum of people defending the curve in rationalist terms. He is now speaking the same language as the rationalists, which suggests Van de Velde was a casualty, not the enemy. Behne later defends Van de Velde’s use of the curve for its consistent emphasis on functional form. He goes on to explain the real advancement of this work is its use of movement “as a force plastically organizing the building from the inside. [Behne states Van de Velde] arrives at curves and flourishes, at forms that could be true once only, i.e., they are valid in only one context”.3 This defense points to a common difference between rationalist and organic theories – the universal vs specific.

Mies van der Rohe friedrichstraße office building, 1922. competition entry. perspective sketch


Mies van der Rohe friedrichstraße office building, 1922. competition entry. floor plan


t Hugo Häring friedrichstraße of-

fice building, 1922. competition entry. plan of first design t Hugo Häring friedrichstraße of-

fice building, 1922. competition entry. floor plan u Hugo Häring friedrichstraße office building, 1922. competition entry. perspective sketch


In the Friedrickstraße High-Rise competition of 1922, both Mies and Häring submitted designs advocating their positions in this core argument. In an attempt to apply a universal technique to the site, Mies only makes an accommodation to the irregular site in the corner opposite the Bahnhof. He makes no attempt to recognize the main pedestrian approach while Häring (as described by Peter Blundell-Jones) generates an “axial thrust into the approach corner and spread[s] in the opposite direction towards the riverfront. The centre of vertical circulation, still on axis, is shifted towards the approach corner, shortening the axial wing and extending the other two to produce a bellshaped space between.”4 Each of these particularities of the design not only embrace the curve, but respond to specific problems of the project, rejecting Mies’ assumption that this is not a sited project. “I am interested in clear structure.” – Mies van der Rohe5 “The Rationalist who does not manage to produce architecture fails not because of an excess but rather because of a lack of true reason.” – Eladio Dieste6 Structure is a topic of high contention in this argument. While both argue for structural clarity, the results are polarizing. For Mies, structural clarity is the distilment of elements down to a simple and rational structural model. A beam is a beam and a column is a column 3

-- each performs its own task and maintains a separation. By adhering to these separations Mies is able to continue the deeper argument about universality. In opposition to such a rigid thesis, such architects as Eladio Dieste argue structural rationalism is not limited to the line. Eladio’s marriage of architecture and structural engineering develops a reciprocal process between the two professions that is more forgiving. In his Iglesia de Atlantida, Dieste’s interest in structural experimentation is testament to this counter argument. By undulating the walls and roof, he demonstrates that a linear brick wall would be incapable of such a structural feat without a significant thickening of the walls. This corrugation, or curving of the line is in itself structurally clear. While Eladio also differentiates between vertical and horizontal structure, the results are variations of each other and not distinctly new definiEladio Dieste iglesia de atlantida, 1958. construction image

tions. Corrugation is the answer for both wall and roof, but the wall

Mies van der Rohe illinois institute of technology, crown hall 1952. perspective

requires a consistent structural depth.

q q

begins with a line, where the roof has to span from wall to wall and

The use of the line is intriguing in the Iglesia de Atlantida. It is somehow unnecessary, but present as nothing more than a reference. Is it possible Dieste is suggesting a curve is only powerful in relation to the line? By saddling up to pure forms, he argues not for a whimsical use of curves, but rather a calculated and scientific approach that responds to forces – structure, space, program, gravity. This is not simply a speculation on structure, but an integration of structure, materials, and methods. Mies has a conception of structural clarity irrespective of materials. In order to make an argument for universality, structure is abstracted to a level of representation. While one could argue both Mies and Dieste are being structurally expressive, Dieste’s expression is towards a larger goal, while Mies’ expression through details could be considered diagrammatically beholden and patronizing. By utilizing this structural expression through a collaborative process between engi4


Eladio Dieste iglesia de atlantida, 1958. perspective


Eladio Dieste iglesia de atlantida, 1958. plan


Eladio Dieste iglesia de atlantida, 1958. structural plan


neering and architecture, Dieste’s work results in an architecture of the specific. Dieste’s focus on integrating multiple aspects of these separate arguments was not a unique one. Häring argued “before the advent of geometry, man’s inventive spirit explored with real success the potential of the many building materials provided by nature.”7 This could be viewed in contrast with this quote from Der Stil; “Every material [has] conditions that distinguish it from other materials and that demand a technical treatment appropriate to it.”8 Both of these arguments exemplify a focus on the importance of materials in architecture; however, their approach could not be further from each other. Rationalists argue each material contains its own unique properties. These properties are self-determined and inherent in the material. The architect is to apply these materials in a manner that best exemplifies these properties. When defending the curve in material terms, many architects and theorists have capitalized on this unwavering interpretation. Van de Velde claims “every material carries within itself forces and possibilities whose dramatic meaning and intensity lie within the graph that leads the material from the point of inanimate rigidity to life, from death to life!”9 This comment resonates with the work of Michel De Klerk whose expressive use of brick as a material ran counter to the rationalist tendencies of the Amsterdam School set in place by Berlage. De Klerk’s experimentation with the material proved he was not slave to one pre-conceived notion of the material’s property. Relevant to all Architects and designers of the 20th century were the issues of industrialization and the process of mass production. Both sides of the curve debate used the processes of mass production to frame their arguments. This debate stems around one fundamental difference – standardization vs. technological potential. Rationalists Michel de Klerk het schip, 1920. perspective



appropriated standardization (in the topic of materials) as an alibi for maintaining the purity of the line. This common conception among

rationalists that mass produced objects required a standardization that refuted curvature was a point of contention. In response Häring stated by “impos[ing] geometric figures on things means to make them uniform, to mechanize them. But we do not want to mechanize things, only to mechanize their production. To mechanize things means to mechanize their lives – and in consequence our lives, which Mies van der Rohe brick country house, 1923. plan


Hugo Häring country house, 1923/1924. elevation


Hugo Häring country house, 1923/1924. plan


is to deaden. But to mechanize their production is to win life.”10 Häring revolts against the standardized construction unit in favor of a process that would not limit the spirit of design. Industrialization proved to be the pivot of revolution. Defenders of the curve argue mass-production does not limit formal exploration. Arguments around origins of form are slightly more complicated as they are not grounded in functionalist theory. The Rationalist movement was born under a strong foundation of social embrace with scientific discovery. Their claim that basic geometries could somehow bring the architecture closer to god is baffling considering this assumes a belief in something outside the realm of scientific proof. For all their reliance on scientific enlightenment thought, the rationalists were relying heavily on old Greek thought, (Platonism, the purity of certain ideal forms) while those using organic forms were actually more based in relevant and current science. Defenders of the curve appropriated an increasing focus on the life sciences, birthing biomorphism. Häring directly confronts the rationalist platonic allegiance stating “under and during the reign of the geometrical culture, formal expression was derived from laws which were contrary to life, to the creation of life, to movement and to nature, laws recognized in purely geometrical forms. We have since discovered that purely functional things have forms which can satisfy us in terms of expression, and indeed some forms created solely out of functional necessity become more satisfying in terms of expression as they become functionally purer.”11 By making a direct connection with nature, Häring is able to confront the rationalists with scientific discovery that nature also uses curves. This quote as well as his work 7

speaks to a characteristic Häring exploits with the curve. Häring’s country house of 1924 is generated from a torque in plan that evokes a movement through the individual spaces of the project. While these spaces are organically woven together through movement, they respond to each other as an integrated whole. Each room nests next to its neighbors without an impression of dominance. These spaces are also developed with function in mind as furniture demonstrates in the plan. Mies’ Brick Country House on the other hand once again embraces an ambiguity and abstraction where the relations between spaces and functions are blurred. Clearly, applying curves to this project would have confused the matter. In the hands of Häring, abstraction is converted to specificity. Is it possible the application of curves without specific forces would result in an architecture no one could defend. The building scale argument hovers between a functionalist and a stylistic one. When moving to the urban scale, the human psyche enters as a factor in decision making. In his theory of the meander, Le Corbusier examines how a river becomes a curve when it meets an obstacle. “Following the outlines of a meander from above, I understood the difficulties met in human affairs, the dead ends in which they get stuck and the apparently miraculous solutions that suddenly resolve apparently inextricable situations.”12 For Corbusier, the curve is a solution to a problem. Here is an argument not simply for a formal approach, but rather for a method of responding and interacting. Corbusier is suggesting there is a quality in society (and nature) of resilience to forces through inventive solutions. Implicit in his theory is that a river would begin as a line and become a curve as the result of a force. This theory is suspect when applied to mountainous regions. The velocity and strength of the water overpowers its terrain and obliterates obstacles in its path. It isn’t until the river makes its way down stream to the floodplain that it begins 8

San Fransisco peak locations in san fransisco require curve mediations. aerial images


Fredrick Law Olmstead ansley park, 1904. development plan


suggested redevelopment of a subdivision plan in the booklet planning profitable neighborhoods, technical bullitin no. 7 (fha, 1938)


u contemporary suburbia - results of the federal housing administration guidelines of the 1930’s

to meander where there are relatively weaker obstacles to overcome. It would also be possible to argue the curve is the result of internal weakness or sluggishness. A relative comparison of force vs obstacle once again results in an argument about function. In San Francisco, for example, a grid is stubbornly applied to the variable terrain. This grid is irrespective of peak, valley, or ridge. It denies acknowledgement of external forces and results in extremely steep streets. Some areas of the city are so steep; a curve is required to navigate the impossibilities inherent in the grid application. Each of these curve moments in San Francisco exhibits a specific response in contrast to the universality of the grid. These curves are solutions to tangible problems. While many examples are solutions to tangible problems, there are other examples of designers responding to social and cultural forces. In 1904, Fredrick Law Olmstead designed Ansley Park, a subdivision of Atlanta, with curving roads in order to give a sense of leisure and tranquility as one rode their carriage down the street. This speculative project birthed a guideline by the Federal Housing Administration in the 1930’s that “promoted the curvilinear layout of new suburban communities”. This time the force as play to promote the curve was not experiential, but rather as a way of “mitigating the uniformity of the mass-produced houses that made single-home 9

ownership affordable;”13 -- a reality rationalists would distain. Counter to resolving specific natural conditions, this curvilinear solution is suburbia is pervasive. The curve is so prolific that it is no longer a response to a specific force, but rather a universal solution. It is, of course, possible for the curve to be used arbitrarily. While urban design grappled with the legitimacy of the curve on a natural, political, and social scale, at the level of furniture design the argument focused more closely on the scale of materials and process methods. In designing ‘the Red Blue chair’, Gerrit Rietveld claimed “the aim was to keep each part simple, preserving the form inherent in the original use and character of the material, the form that most easily leads to a harmonious entity based on a standard module for all the separate elements.”14 This description is in keeping with rationalist theory and the execution of the chair represents the Constructivist language of the De Stijl movement. While Rietved never on principle rejected the use of curves, his theory and practice clearly advocate for a universal and impersonal palette that would not accommodate the use of a curve. Rietveld was beholden the abstractions of artists Mondrian and Van Doesberg and desired to design without deformations; therefore, curves would be considered impurities. Rietveld (like Mies) makes all attempts to maintain the purity of individual elements. While the rails of the “chair cross at traditional right angles, they do not intersect but extend beyond the point of junction, and for aesthetic rather than structural reasons.”15 As a way of justifying this sobering design, Rietveld makes a couple of arguments in defense of his line. Each of these arguments stem around a central argument that promotes mass production. He first claims by extending the rails beyond each other, it is possible to adjust the dimensions of the chair as if each connection is a slip joint. Rietveld is essentially utilizing flexibility as an alibi for the use of primitive forms. This technique of slipping is a stylistic gesture implemented to solidify the 10

independency of each element and “approach the laconic splendor of a line drawing,”16 a tendency he shares with Mies. Rietveld also makes the claim that the factory process determines these primitive units and the standardization required of mass proGerrit Rietveld red-blue chair, 1917-19. t

Gerrit Rietveld red- blue chair, detail connection t

t Mies van der Rohe farnsworth house, 1951. detail

Michael Thonet bending forms incorporating a metal strip.


duction. In this argument, Rietveld reinforces Mies’s claim that beams are born straight. His assumption is that mass production generates standardized units, and therefore, these units exhibit the inherent nature of the material. By making this claim it is apparent his concern is not with the material, but with the result of the factory process. If the factory were making sticks out of plastic, the resulting chair would remain in its configuration. We can see in two examples where Rietveld’s fundamental theories can be accommodated for through the use of a curve. The bentwood fabrication technique of Michel Thonet was born of the same mass production spirit of Rietveld’s motivations; however, it was originally conceived of as a solution to the problem of carving curves as ornament in wood. Thonet began his career (1930’s) carving wood furniture in a traditional technique and found it impossible to carve curves entirely in the direction of the grain since it ran in a straight line. To design with large curves in wood, it was required to aggregate smaller curves into a larger one, a lengthy process incompatible with mass-production.17 Thonet is a great example of a curve


being generated in the fabrication process towards a goal of mass production. While Thonet’s process was developed with an ornamentation motive, we can reference Adolf Loos’s implementation of Thonet’s production method in his un-adulterated café museum chair. Loos applies two functionalist arguments in defense of the curve – structure and program. A classic problem of chair design is that the connections are the weakest moments. Designers are faced with the balancing act between a refined chair that will not sustain the brunt force of daily use, and a bulky chair that survives forever. Loos ingeniously applies a curve to each moment connection, navigating the horizontal and the vertical. This technique, made possible by Thonet’s method, maintains the refined character of the chair, while reinforcing its structural integrity. Loos also exhibits a reciprocity between form and function that doesn’t exist in Rietvelds design. Take the back support for example. In the Red Blue chair, a single rigid plane is supplied at an angle -- the

t Michael Thonet no. 14 chair, 1859-60 t Adolf Loos cafe museum chair, 1908


only suggestion of comfort for the occupant. In a subtle variation on the Thonet chair, Loos bends the back supports in response to the curve of the back. This reciprocity between an objects production and its purpose transcends such categories as organic, function, and form. This reciprocity can also be seen in the work of Charles and Ray Eames. Their integration of method, materials, and purpose into furniture design is strangely reminiscent of theories previously provided by Rietveld, but to an end that could be considered in opposition. “The idea was to do a piece of furniture that would be simple and yet comfortable. It would be a chair on which mass production would not have anything but a positive influence; it would have in its appearance the essence of the method that produced it. It would have an inherent rightness about it, and it would be produced by people working in a dignified way.”18 Eames touches on all the same aspects Reitveld does – mass production, simple, honesty. The Eames’s were associated with the Organic movement and had entered into a local climate that embraced the curve. It is important to note that it is not p

Charles and Ray Eames leg splint, 1941

simply the curve that interested the Eames, but the freedom to apply

u Charles and Ray Eames body splint, 1941

them to various forces. This can be seen in their leg splint design,

Charles and Ray Eames leg splint, 1941. demonstration u

where two major forces inform the resulting design – the means and methods of production and biomorphism. 13

Like Thonet, the Eames’s were highly invested in process and material experimentation. Through this research they were not just accepting a post consumer product as the inherent property of the material, but rather pushing the limits to discover the latent potential of materials. Bent plywood not only performs well structurally, (as Loos exhibited) but is capable of responding to the body as well. For the leg splint project, the design process began with a plaster cast of Charles’ leg proving the Eames’s dedication to the organic and biomorphic. The process for their chair designs are similar. “Both the leg splint and the chairs were meant to conform to the human body – that was their defining purpose – by necessity, they emerge from the shape of the living body, they are ‘biomorphic’. The mid-twentieth-century interest in ergonomics – the science of designing an object to fit its use by the body – naturally led to forms that were biomorphic.”19 One further point in comparison with the Red Blue chair is while Rietveld’s design is irrespective of the material used, the Eames designs changed form depending on material. When working with bent

Charles Eames casting fiberglass

plywood, they were constrained by the constructability of complex


curvature in wood, resulting in ruled surfaces. If a compound curve


was required – as the biomorphic force requested – a dart or break in the surface was cut to allow the geometry to bend in two directions. 14

Charles and Ray Eames lcw chair, 1945 - plywood process Charles and Ray Eames plastic armchair, 1950-53 - fiberglass process


Moving forward chronologically, the Eames’s began experimenting with fiberglass and plastics that would allow for compound curvatures, and the subsequent chair designs exhibited those geometries they considered inherent not just in the material, but in a combination of the material, its processing, and the final use of the object. The nuance variations of argument at each scale highlight the various forces that appear as scales shift. Urban design requires a response to social, political, and geographical forces resulting in arguments revolving around topological systems that can be applied at a large scale. Justifications quickly change their focus to materials, methods, program, and structure when the scale drops. Throughout the scales, while the particularities vary, the most prevalent concept used in justifying the curve surrounds function. Functionalist theory, while ironically agreed upon by both sides of the argument, acts as a nonconfrontational, tangible, and verifiable alibi. Defenders of the curve utilize these topics to combat rationalist accusations of arbitrariness. By responding with the same justifications the rationalist use to justify their lines, defenders of the curve are able to match apples to apples. Epistemological arguments are also introduced by defenders of the curve, although they were generally disregarded by the opposition for being incompatible with their root beliefs in universal design. Ultimately, the argument between the curve and the line was really one of universality versus specificity.


Mies van der Rohe “Mies Speaks: I Do Not Design Buildings.” Architectural Review, No. 862, December 1968: 452.

2 Behne, Adolf “No Longer Shaped Space But Designed Reality.” Modern Functional Building, CA, Getty Research Institute, 1996: 121. 3 Behne, Adolf “No Longer Shaped Space But Designed Reality.” Modern Functional Building, CA, Getty Research Institute, 1996: 111. 4 Blundell-Jones, Peter. Hugo Häring the organic versus the geometric. Stuttgart: Ed. Axel Menges, 1999: 40. 5 Mies van der Rohe “Mies Speaks: I Do Not Design Buildings.” Architectural Review, No. 862, December 1968: 452. 15


6 Pedreschi, Remo. Eladio Dieste (The Engineer’s Contribution to Contemporary Architecture). Nashville: Thomas Telford Ltd, 2000: 66. 7 Blundell-Jones, Peter. Hugo Häring the organic versus the geometric. Stuttgart: Ed. Axel Menges, 1999: 85. 8 Forty, Adrian. “Form.” Words and Buildings A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004: 161. 9 Velde, Henry van de. “Animation of Materials as a Principle of Beauty.” Trans. Kathryn Schoefert and Spyros Papapetros. Essays (Leipzig, 1910): 238. 10 Blundell-Jones, Peter. Hugo Häring the organic versus the geometric. Stuttgart: Ed. Axel Menges, 1999: 78 11 Haring, Hugo “Approaches To Form.” Form and Function, New York, Granada, 1980: 103 12 Le Corbusier “American Prologue.” Precisions, 1991: 5. 13 Filler, Martin “Building Organic form.” Vital Forms American Art and Design in the Atomic Age, 1940-1960. By Rapaport Brooke Kamin. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001: 134 14 Rietveld, Gerrit Thomas. Gerrit Th. Rietveld, 1888-1964 the complete works : Centraal Museum, Utrecht, 1992. Utrecht: Centraal Museum, Distributed by Princeton Architectural, 1992: 74 15 Eidelberg, Martin. “Charting the Iconic Chair.” The Eames Lounge Chair An Icon of Modern Design. London: Merrell, 2006: 12. 16 Cadwell, Michael. Strange Details (Writing Architecture). New York: MIT, 2007: 114. 17 Vegesack, Alexander Von. Thonet classic furniture in bent wood and tubular steel. London: Hazar Pub., 1996: 61. 18 Neuhart, John. Eames design the work of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1989: 53. 19 Kevin, Stayton L. “Introduction.” Vital Forms American Art and Design in the Atomic Age, 1940-1960. By Rapaport Brooke Kamin. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001: 27-28.


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