Lars Müller Publishers, Year
Hardcover | 6 x 7-3/4 inches | 200 pages | 277 illustrations | English | ISBN: 978-3037784433 | $40.00
X-Ray Architecture explores the enormous impact of medical discourse and imaging technologies on the formation, representation and reception of twentieth-century architecture. It challenges the normal understanding of modern architecture by proposing that it was shaped by the dominant medical obsession of its time: tuberculosis and its primary diagnostic tool, the X-ray.
Modern architecture and the X-ray were born around the same time and evolved in parallel. While the X-ray exposed the inside of the body to the public eye, the modern building unveiled its interior, dramatically inverting the relationship between private and public. Architects presented their buildings as a kind of medical instrument for protecting and enhancing the body and psyche.
Beatriz Colomina traces the psychopathologies of twentieth-century architecture—from the trauma of tuberculosis to more recent disorders such as burn-out syndrome and ADHD—and the huge transformations of privacy and publicity instigated by diagnostic tools from X-Rays to MRIs and beyond. She suggests that if we want to talk about the state of architecture today, we should look to the dominant obsessions with illness and the latest techniques of imaging the body—and ask what effects they have on the way we conceive architecture.
The first sentence in the Wikipedia entry for “Modern architecture” is closely aligned with how I learned about it in architecture school: “Modern architecture … was based upon new and innovative technologies of construction, particularly the use of glass, steel and reinforced concrete; the idea that form should follow function; an embrace of minimalism; and a rejection of ornament.” Although it broke with the past, modern architecture was seen as an extension of the train sheds and other industrial architecture of the 19th century. Iron, glass, and concrete were appropriate materials for the new typologies born from the industrial age. What this accepted view of modern architecture ignores are outliers like Alvar Aalto, whose version of modernism departed from Corbu and Mies and fell into what Colin St. John Wilson called The Other Tradition of Modern Architecture. Aalto was an important part of Wilson’s 1995 book and also Beatriz Colomina’s new book, a fascinating essay on the relationship between architecture and medicine in the early 20th century.
Although the name of the book, X-Ray Architecture, points to the x-ray as the most important medical technology influencing architecture, the most interesting part of Colomina’s book is the chapter devoted to tuberculosis. Before a vaccination was developed for TB and antibiotics was used to treat it, people with the infectious disease were sent to sanatoriums, which were designed since the mid-1800s to maximize patients’ exposure to fresh air and sunlight. For Colomina, TB was the perfect typology for form to follow function, in that the building, not medicine, was the treatment. Architects, including Aalto, designed sanatoriums that became masterpieces of modern architecture. (That their highly specific designs were no longer needed post-antibiotics meant they were either demolished or preservationists had to fight to save them.) The approach used in designing them ultimately infused other typologies, like schools, such that architecture as treatment became architecture as preventative medicine. After the chapter on TB, Colomina’s reading of x-rays relative to architecture feels shallow, as it is based on some architects incorporating x-rays into their books and designing buildings with x-ray-like qualities. In the end, although she can only touch upon the newest technologies (M2A) and the maladies affecting people today (sick building syndrome), the preceding chapters make a strong enough case for architects to seriously consider how the interiors of buildings relates to our interiors — if anything, so the former does not (continue to) harm the latter.
Beatriz Colomina is an architecture theorist, historian, curator, and professor at the Princeton University School of Architecture. One of her research focuses are sexual fantasies in association with architecture.