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X-ray Architecture: Illness as Metaphor

Author(s): Beatriz Colomina

Source: Positions, No. 0, Positioning Positions (Fall 2008), pp. 30-35
Published by: University of Minnesota Press
Stable URL: .
Accessed: 15/09/2014 21:35

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Mies van der Rohe,
A Sky Scraper for
Berlin, 1921

WL-y Ik

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Beatriz Colomina

Illness as


31 Position isa spatial and ultimately military term. To take a position isby
definition to have changed one's position, tomove ground and therefore to
see theworld differently fora while. Modern architecture is not only a subject
that can be viewed frommany angles, many positions, it is itselfa way of
viewing. To be more precise, modern architecture isa way of changing
positions, a way of moving ground. Itestablished an intellectual mobility that
ismore critical than itsmore obvious physical mobility?the new freedoms of
movement of people and materials or even buildings. Ina sense, modern
architecture is simply the promise that everything can move and in so doing
be modern. To respect modern architecture, to appreciate it indetail, one must
8 move positions and keep seeing itthrough new eyes.
To give justone example of such change inviewing position, thinkabout the

relationship between modern architecture and medical technologies for

viewing the body. Ifarchitectural discourse has from itsbeginning associated

buildingand body, thebody thatitdescribes isthemedicalbody, reconstructed

new theory of health. Modern architecture can be argued to have
by each
been shaped by the dominant medical obsession of its time: tuberculosis. It is
as though thewidespread success of modern architecture depended on
itsassociation with health, its internationalism the consequence of the global

spread of the disease was meant to resist.


The principles of modern architecture seem to have been taken straight out of
a medical texton the disease. A year before theGerman microbiologist
RobertKoch discovered thetuberclebacillus in1882, a standardmedical

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book gave as the cause of the disease, among other things, "unfavorable
climate, sedentary indoor life,defective ventilation and deficiency of light." It
took a long time for these notions to lose credibility. As Susan Sontag writes:
"The TB patient was thought to be helped, even cured, by a change inenviron
ment. There was a notion thatTB was a wet disease, a disease of humid and
dank cities.The insideof thebody became damp and had tobe driedout."
Modern architects offeredhealthby providingexactlysucha change of
environment. Nineteenth-century architecture was demonized as unhealthy,
and sun, light,ventilation, exercise, roof terraces, hygiene, and whiteness
were offered as means to prevent, ifnot cure, tuberculosis. The publicity

campaign of modern architecture was organized around contemporary

beliefs about tuberculosis and fears of the disease.

Inhisbook TheRadiantCityof 1935, LeCorbusierdismissesthe"natural

ground" as "dispenser of rheumatism and tuberculosis" and declares itto be
on detachingbuildings,
"theenemyofman." He insists with thehelpofpilotis,
from the "wet, humid, ground where disease breeds" and using the roof as a
uses pictures
garden for sunbathing and exercise. To reinforce the point, he
taken frommedical textsas architectural illustrations, showing the lungs and
their innerworkings, while giving architectural illustrationsmedical labels, as
when a photograph of an old part of the city becomes, via caption, "Historic
Paris, tubercular Paris." LeCorbusier develops in thisbook a
concept of "exact respiration" whereby the indoor air is continually circulated
and cleaned, made "dust free, disinfected, . . .and ready to be consumed
are eliminated, and the facades become
by the lung."Opening windows 32
walls of glass. One by one, all of the characteristic features of modern
architecture (pilotis, roof garden, glass walls, clean air, etc.) turnout to have
been presented as medical devices. Even thewalls are white to reveal any

would seem as though modern architects and theirpromoters were

Indeed, it
advocating life ina sanatorium. Take, forexample, Siegfried Giedion's
1929 book Befreites
little Wohnen ("Liberated Dwelling"),which issubtitled
Oeffnung("Light,Air,Opening"), almost likethesloganof a
sanatorium. Under the cover of a book on themodern house we findmore than
dedicated tohospitalsand to sports:RichardDocker's
halfof the illustrations
sanatoriumin Waiblingen (1926-1928), BernardBijvoetand Johannes
Duiker's Zonnestraal Sanatorium inHilversum (1927), a 1907 sanatorium in
Davos (famous site of Thomas Mann's novel TheMagic Mountain), sports
stadia, images of gymnastics, sunbathing, tennis,etc.When we get to the houses,
they seem to have been turned themselves into sanatoriums, with convalescents
resting on long chairs on terraces (as ina picture of a Max Haefeli house in
Zurich of 1928), or intogyms, as inMarcel Breuer's bedroom forErwin Piscator
inBerlin(1927-1928), with itsgymnasticequipment,and Andre Lur^at's
on theroofof theGuggenbuhlHouse inParis (1926-1927).

Another influential
book of thattime,RichardDocker's Terrassentyp
of 1927,
follows the development of the terrace inmodern architecture from the
sanatorium to the home, startingwith his own sanatorium inWaiblingen and

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proceeding toZonnestraal, Davos, etc., making a seamless transition from the
terraces of sanatoriums to the terraces of modern houses. Diagrams show
the penetration of the sun rays inmodern sanatoriums and inmodern terrace
2 houses and the book concludes with a series of photographs of domestic
terraces furnishedwith exercise equipment.

Modern even started to look likemedical images. The impact of the

technology of the X-ray isevident in thework of many avant-garde architects
of theearlydecades of thetwentieth Mies van der Rohewrote
about hiswork as "skin and bone" architecture and referred to the structure
of hisGlass Skyscraperof 1922 as "theskeleton,"renderingtheprojectas if
seen an
through X-ray machine. Mies was not alone. Architecture slide libraries
are filledwith contemporaneous images of translucent glass skins revealing
innerbones and organs. Take, forexample, LeCorbusier's Glass Skyscraper
(1925),Walter Gropius's Bauhaus (1926), JohannesBrinkman's
Van Nelle
Factory inRotterdam(1925-1927), George Keek's House
Crystal inthe
1933-1934 Fair inChicago, and PaulNelson's Suspended House (1935).
Books on modern architecture look like collections of chest X-rays. This ismore
than a dominant aesthetic. It isa symptom of a deep-seated philosophy of
design derived frommedical discourse.

The birthof thetechnology coincide.

of theX-rayand ofmodernarchitecture
They evolve inparallel. Ifexperiments with glass were numerous in the early
yearsof thecentury,theystilltendedtobe isolatedesotericprojectsby
33 avant-garde architects. Only by mid-century does the see-through house
become a mass phenomenon, justas themobilization against TB involved
programs for themass X-raying of the entire population. Mobile X-ray
machines appeared inplaces such as department stores, industries, schools,
and suburban streets, supported by a barrage of newspaper articles, radio
broadcasts, and films.Glass walls, likeX-rays, are instrumentsof control. Just
as the X-ray exposes the inside of the body to the public eye, themodern
its interior.That which was now subject
house exposed previously private was
to public scrutiny.

Indeed, the association between X-rays and glass houses became a common
place inmid-century popular culture. Images of glass houses appeared
educational filmson TB while images of X-rays appeared inmass media
and Shadows, a 1937
discussionsofglass houses. Forexample, inHighlights
Kodak Research Laboratories filmon the virtues of X-rays indisease prevention

by the filmmaker-radiographer James Sibley Watson, Jr.,a woman wearing a

swimming suitisshownstrappedtoa laboratorytablewhile herbody is
subjected X-rays.As herphotographicimagegivesway to the imageof her
to a
X-rayed body, the narrator declares: "This young lady, whom henceforth
no terrors,will after an examination of her radio
glass house should hold
graphs,be reassuredthatshe is indeedphysicallyfit."The glass houseacted
as a symbolof both thenew form and of health.
of surveillance

same set of associations can be seen in the discourse around

Exactly the
canonical works of modern architecture. In the course of an interview inHouse

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Beautiful, Edith Farnsworth, a successful doctor inChicago, compared her
famous weekend house, designed byMies van der Rohe in 1949, to an
X-ray and goes on to say that there isalso a local rumor that the house is
tuberculosis sanatorium. The X-ray aesthetic is inseparable from the discourse
about the disease. Modern architecture was literallypresented and
understood as a piece of medical equipment. To study the direct association
between diagnostic technologies and architecture is to open a longer history,
stretching before and after the avant-garde of the 1920s.

and medicinehave always been tightly

Architecture as schoolsof
medicine used casts of body parts, schools of architecture used cast fragments
of historical buildings for teaching, and the same conventions for representing
the body's interiorwere used to represent the interiorsof buildings. During
the Renaissance, forexample, when doctors investigated themysterious
of thebody by cuttingintoand dissectingit,architectstriedtounder
of buildingsby slicingsectioncuts throughthem.Inthe
stand the interiors
sketchbooks of Leonardo da Vinci, cutaway views of architectural interiors
appear beside anatomical drawings. He understood the interiorsof the brain
and thewomb inarchitectural terms, as enclosures thatmust be cut through
to reveal their secrets. The central reference forarchitecture was no longer a
whole body but a dissected, fragmented, analyzed body. Eugene Viollet-le
Duc likewise illustrates his Dictionnaire raisonne de ^architecture fran$aise du
XI au XVIe siecle (1854-1868) withperspectivalsectionalcutawaydrawings
showingmedieval buildingsas ifdissected. Inhispreface to thefirst
Viollet-le-Duc?who, Barry Bergdoll has pointed out, was influenced by 34
Georges Cuvier's Legons d'anatomie comparee (1800-1805)?called for the
as thatof an "animate being," involving
study of medieval architecture
"dissection" to allow separate study of itsparts. He developed a new mode of
drawing to show the functional role of each dissected fragment.

As medical representations changed, so did architectural representations. In

the twentieth century, thewidespread use of X-rays made a new way of

thinkingabout architecture possible. At the turnof the twenty-first

century, the
CAT scan (Computerized
Axial Tomography)
may be forthefield
what the
basic X-raywas forarchitects early in the twentieth century. In fact, theCAT
scan is
simply many X-ray images compiled by a computer to generate cross
sectional views and three-dimensional images of the body's internalorgans.
A typical
medical brochuredescribes the layering
of slices: "Imaginethebody
as a loaf of bread and you are
looking at one end of the loaf.As you remove
each slice of bread, you can see the entire surface of that slice from the
crust to the center." The crust, skin, or envelope becomes an almost invisible
line.What matters is the dense interior,which is rendered likea new, more
complex kind of facade.

As with theX-ray, architects have been quick to respond. Ifarchitectural

publicationsat thebeginningand middleof thecentury
were full
contemporary architectural publications are fullof CAT-scan images. For
example, ina 1992 catalog ofan exhibitionof hiswork, JosepLluis
shows a CAT scan of a brain on the cover and insists that "The architect has to

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act with the callousness of themedic: he cuts, analyses, researches. But he
must never mummify an organism that lived once." Likewise, UNStudio show
CAT scansof thebrainalongside their
projects intheir
bookMove. The
Renaissance obsession with the brain continues century, as
into the twenty-first
V) does the interest in the fetus, evidenced by the "embryological" work done by
digital architects.
of theCAT scan is reflectedinturn
The influence of thecentury
envelopes. InOMA's entry to the Bibliotheque Nationale de France competition,
theexposureof a skeletonbehinda glass skingivesway to translucent
s revealing organs. Foreign Office Architecture's Yokohama Port Terminal also
X seems to follow the logic of theCAT scan: An endless series of section cuts is
used to assemble a three-dimensional body. At Yokohama, there is no simple
opposition between the outside and the inside. Itsdream is to be a continuously
folded surface where structureand skin are one and where there are no bones
or discrete organs.

Today, there are new instrumentsof medical diagnosis and new systems of
architectural representation. Each implies new positions forarchitecture and
new positions forcriticism. The position of the historian or the critic isafter all
a one.
diagnostic Analyzing the intimate relationship between modern
architecture and medicine simultaneously opens up new readings of modern
architecture and new ways of reading all formsof architecture, multiplying
which isa healthythingforthefield.The strength
positions, and resilienceof
35 as with modern architecture, comes from the capacity to
change and multiply positions.


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