When Ludwig Wittgenstein designed a house he spent a year on just the door handles. Then another year on the radiators. Then even longer on a system of steel shutters that would rise from the floor between the windows and the specially designed heating grilles. The 150kg shutters were fitted flush into the floor. Wittgenstein, apparently, really hated curtains. We might know the eccentric Austrian as a philosopher but he was also an engineer who studied in Manchester and once patented an airscrew propeller which presaged the development of the jet engine.
Wittgenstein’s 1928 house in Vienna, designed for his sister, is a wonderful example of obsessive engineering — so rational it becomes almost irrational — that either infects or illuminates (depending on your point of view) some of both the oddest and most brilliant houses of the modern era.
Inside Villa Girasole near Verona, for instance, is a glass-fronted box set like a safe into the wall. Inside that is a button which, when pushed, sets the whole house revolving. The remarkable 1935 villa was designed by Angelo Invernizzi to follow the path of the sun. Centred around a 42-metre tower, this art deco/modernist building exemplified the early 20th-century obsession with fresh air and sunshine as the panacea for the ills of the modern urban world as well as the era’s implacable faith in technology. Two diesel motors drive a system of gears and machinery reminiscent of a huge, surreal clock and, in its way, that is exactly what it is, measuring out 24 hours in one whole rotation. Of course, there was nothing new about rotating houses. Nineteenth-century England had its fair share of revolving summerhouses; George Bernard Shaw had a writing hut that revolved to catch the sun, while aluminium manufacturer Floyd D’Angelo commissioned aerospace engineer Henry Conrey to build a house outside Palm Springs that revolves precisely to avoid the sun’s rays. Richard T Foster’s 1967 revolving house in Wilton, Connecticut, is, perhaps, the most elegant of them all. Yet Villa Girasole is in a different league: massive engineering as artwork. Truly a machine for living in. Or at least revolving in.
One of the most remarkable of all these over-engineered houses adopts the deceptive appearance of a Tudor mansion. Designed by arms manufacturer Lord William Armstrong and his architect Richard Norman Shaw (designer of the original New Scotland Yard building), Cragside, in Northumbria, looks strikingly picturesque and nostalgic in a very English way. Yet beneath its tall brick chimneys and half-timbering are the guts of an extraordinary technological beast. Developed over the course of 15 years from 1869, Cragside was the first house to be powered by hydroelectricity and to use newly invented incandescent bulbs. The power, generated by the lakes on the grounds, was used to drive a huge rotisserie, hydraulic lift and laundry. It contained, in effect, the world’s first hydroelectric power station and was the first house to be lit by electricity. Armstrong was a prolific inventor responsible for modern artillery among other things. He was also a prescient proponent of what we would now call green energy, predicting that coal would be phased out and that the sun would become our main source of power generation.
Perhaps the most curious of the exquisitely engineered houses remains one of architecture’s most enigmatic and influential spaces. The Maison de Verre was commissioned by Parisian gynaecologist Dr Jean Dalsace. Originally intending to build a freestanding structure in the courtyard of a Left Bank block, Dalsace was stymied by the refusal of an upstairs tenant to move from her apartment. So Dalsace was forced to prop up her apartment and build beneath it. The ground floor serves as the consulting room and the interior echoes the mechanical, cold steel-sterility of the examination equipment: precision-made and exquisitely engineered. Dalsace’s own apartment, above the consulting room, shares an intensely, obsessively mechanical language. Every mirror, surface and piece of furniture seems to swivel, open, turn or reveal some other function. The building plays with transparency and translucence, an endlessly layered, theatrical interior in which even the glass block wall which defines it appears as a kind of screen on to which light is projected to create a filmic sparkle.
About the time the Maison de Verre was finished, US architect George Fred Keck designed his Crystal House for Chicago’s 1934 Century of Progress exhibition. An almost wholly glazed building made using an exoskeleton of steel trusses and industrial components, it would, with the Maison de Verre, inspire an entire architectural genre, albeit delayed by a generation.
That next incarnation of the fetishisation of engineering would emerge in London in the 1960s. High Tech was an aestheticisation of industrial materials and techniques — the creation of the appearance of engineering as a response to the perfection and increasing ennui of a modernism that had declined into repetitive concrete cliché. It was also, perhaps, a particularly British response which revelled in associations with the industrial revolution, Meccano, military technology and an emerging Pop Art which delighted in images of technology subverted for entertainment and kitsch value. Its best-known incarnation is the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
To recognise its appeal, it helps to understand that to reduce a building to engineering is, in a way, to abdicate aesthetic decisions to function. If a building is a machine then every part must be necessarily the most efficient and practical solution. The ideas also chimed with a new conception of a mobile architecture. Oil rigs were being constructed in the oceans, space stations and lunar modules were all the rage. On top of that the atomisation of society, the decline of the nuclear family and growing fears about environmental or nuclear catastrophe had prompted new ideas about dwellings as single-person pods. Archigram, British architecture’s most prominent High Tech provocateurs, proposed “plug-in” cities that would up and move around the earth as well as “cushicles”, inflatable pods with all mod-cons as an alternative to whole houses. These may have stayed on paper but their influence has been huge and the idea of the affordable modular house remains one of the enduring dreams of modern design.
In more conventional modernism, from Wittgenstein to the Villa Girasole, the engineering tended to be hidden from view, an architectural sleight of hand employed to achieve a particular function or effect. In High Tech the engineering became the architecture. In the houses of Michael and Patty Hopkins, for instance, or in Werner Sobek’s R128 house in Stuttgart, completed in 2000, the trusses, structure and corrugated cladding are all used as articulation — engineering replacing decoration.
That expression of architecture as pure engineering seems to have faded a little now. But it has been replaced by a re-emergence of delight in heavy mechanics, an almost steampunk interpretation of machinery as architectural conversation piece. No one does it better than Tom Kundig who uses elegant — and prominent — mechanical components to animate his architecture. Chicken Point Cabin in Idaho, by Kundig’s firm Olson Kundig, is fitted with a mechanism that allows the entire six-tonne façade to pivot up like a garage door, opening the wall to dramatic lake views. In other houses, Kundig has made weird contraptions that combine fans, televisions and light fittings into suspended sculptures. The slightly Heath Robinson character inherent in his designs is completely characteristic of this genre. It captures the essence of the sledgehammer-to-crack-a-walnut syndrome of the obsessive engineer. As we increasingly fill our homes with smart machines governed by incomprehensible technology, the trend is to pretend it doesn’t exist. We build layers of structure to conceal the viscera, the cables, conduits and wires on which modern life depends. Yet just as your maths teacher said, “always show your working out”, because sometimes, it is exactly in exposing the machinery of life that its essence is revealed.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture and design critic
Photographs: Mendrisio, Archivio de Moderno, Fondo Angelo Invernizzi; Keystone Pictures USA/Alamy; Tim Saxon/Alamy; Benjamin Benchneider; Matthew Weinreb; Roland Halbe; Photo Margherita Spiluttini, Architekturzentrum Wien, Collection; James Schnepf