The Fashion(ing) of Architecture

Scott Crisman Sworts

Architecture has devolved into a stylistic excess, lacking in solid theory. This erosion of theoretical fundament began in the first half of the 20th century, and has culminated in the Starchitects 1 of the early 21st century. This is not to say that there is no deeper thought behind today’s architecture, and there are certainly architects creating masterpieces; what I am talking about is the lack of “deep theory” underpinning those works. Theory has devolved into process. In design studios, students are taught process driven design rather than theoretically based design. The difference is subtle, and many architects today may not recognize that distinction. Theory creates design discourse and a means to engage that conversation. 2 Process driven design depends on a set of steps or a kit of parts to create the design. Process driven design acts like an assembly line; if you put in the parts here and apply the process there, you will get a certain result at the end. 3 This sounds like theory on the surface. Both methods seem to lead to the same end, uniformity of form. However, without the cultural container of theory, there is no way to examine the results and weigh them except with the most base and crude analysis, which is the Market. And since the Market values either innovation or economy over other aspects, the deeper meanings are lost. I will illustrate this concept by comparing the architecture of the Renaissance with today. In the Renaissance, there was a certain homogeny in architecture. Even though there are distinctions between Brunelleschi and Alberti, there is a great deal of similarity as well. Even the average architecture student would be unlikely to be able to identify the specific architect who designed a Renaissance building unless it was well known. (And had appeared in an architecture history exam.) The lesser buildings of even the great architects blend together. It must be noted though, that homogeny of form reflected deeper thoughts about beauty,
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Starchitects is a contraction of Star Architect and Starchitecture is a contraction of Star Architecture. I will use these terms throughout this paper. I have not been able to track down the origin of the word. 2 Interestingly, a solid definition of what architectural theory is very hard to come by. Most modern writers side step the issue, most historic writers spend entire books trying to define it. The definition on Wikipedia is typical when it says “Architectural theory is the act of thinking, discussing, or most importantly writing about architecture.” These definitions include nothing about applying theory to the actual design. 3 This assembly line metaphor is not accidental. Le Corbusier, who led the Modernists to throw out theory as we knew it, was entranced by the industrial revolution, and applied machine logic to design.

about philosophy, about man’s place in the universe. They were not arbitrary compositional guidelines, but were infused with layers of meaning that could be read like a book. 4 Renaissance architectural theory created a set of rules that all architects followed. In essence, it was similar to music theory, where compositions have a set of rules that must be followed, in order for the music to sound “correct” and “pleasant.” When compositional rules are not followed, music sounds dissonant, even disturbing. 5 By the same token, in the Renaissance mind, when architectural composition was not followed, the building was also dissonant and disturbing. 6 Contrast that to today, the great architects are all highly distinctive. Even a lesser known work by Calatrava or Gehry is instantly recognizable, and it is unlikely that an average student will misattribute the building to another architect. A primary reason for this is that an architect’s style has become a brand. People hire Gehry, not for his superiority to another Starchitect, or even for any particular skill, but because they want his particular style for their building. 7 Cities now collect Starchitecture the way that Lady Gaga collects fashion designers. Further, the process is now part of the brand, and is a closely guarded trade secret. No famous architect will ever be genuinely honest about their design process. Some will obfuscate, others will lie outright, but none of them will ever actually share their true design process. I remember attending a lecture a few years ago, given by Frank Gehry, which I thought was a wonderful lecture; he was funny, sarcastic, profane, and quite possibly had had a couple of drinks with dinner to lubricate this joie de vivre. In all, it was one of the more enjoyable Starchitect lectures I have ever attended. 8 However, my students did not find it at all enjoyable; instead they had found it to be a waste of their time. They wanted him to go over how he had designed the buildings he talked about. They wanted to know the process.

Which led to some very obscure inside jokes in the architecture of the time. Renaissance architects sometimes deliberately screwed with the rules to create designs that they found hilarious. Even solid, upstanding Americans engaged in this tomfoolery, for example, George Washington’s whimsical façade for Mount Vernon. It’s a joke, even if we no longer get the punch line. 5 As a side note on this, when the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky premiered, it set off a riot. The ballet is one of the most “rule breaking” pieces of music ever composed, and still sounds alien and modern a hundred years later. 6 This explains much of the attitude toward Gothic Architecture. The architecture of that period had a very different set of rules to classical architecture. 7 This is not to imply that Gehry has no skill, although his design for the Eisenhower Memorial does raise questions, I am simply saying that Gehry has become a brand name. 8 Frank Gehery HATES being called a Starchitect. As he raged at a reporter from the British paper The Independent, "I don't know who invented that fucking word 'starchitect.' In fact a journalist invented it, I think. I am not a 'star-chitect', I am an ar-chitect." To that I say, if it looks like a Starchitect, walks like a Starchitect and acts like a Starchitect, it’s a Starchitect.

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That is the one thing I knew going to the lecture that he would not share. His process is intimately tied into his architectural identity, and it is the thing he sells to the world. If he revealed his process, others could copy it, and through that, dilute his brand. If there were a hundred copycat architects churning out Gehry styled architecture, there would be no cachet to the actual Gehry design. And this illustrates one way in which process is different from theory. An architectural theory is not a linear path that will lead to a specific outcome; it is an umbrella of rules that inform the design. It is a series of proportions, architectural elements, archetypes, arrangements, hierarchies, relationships, and compositional rules that refine the boundaries of architectural thought. 9 It is a container for cultural expression and higher ideal. It is layered with meaning and metaphor – it enframes architecture. Theory differs from style. Style is the physical manifestation of underlying architectural theory. Renaissance, Neo-Classicism, Federal, and even Baroque are derived from classical architectural compositional theories. They are stylistic variations on the application of those theories. 10 Gehry, Hadid and Libeskind, could all fall under the umbrella of Deconstructivism, which is the current style and can be confused on the surface with theory. They all use different processes to come up with radically different works. But, unlike previous architectural stylistic periods, there is no underlying theory uniting them. These radical differences between architects are the calling cards of their brands. As Rem Koolhas states, “It is really unbelievable what the Market demands (from architecture) now. It demands recognition, it demands difference and it demands iconographic qualities.” 11 In essence, we are mining iconography, trying to dig up the new, sexy architecture, to grace the skylines of America and the pages of Architectural Record. Substance has devolved into style, and style into fashion. Process has supplanted theory. This devolution of architecture into fashion began with Kant and his concept of “purposiveness without purpose,” where he split art into the categories of Fine Art (Aesthetics) and Utlity. (Purposefulness) 12 For the first time in history, there was a split between beauty and usefulness.

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These theories are often the subject of extensive treatises on architecture, such as Vitruvius’ “Ten Books of Architecture,” Palladio’s “Four Books of Architecture,” or Colin Rowe’s “Mathematics of the Ideal Villa.” 10 Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre “Classical Architecture: The Poetics of Order” 11 The Other Tradition in Modern Architecture, Colin St. John Wilson, Revised Edition 2007. 12 Emmanual Kant, “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment”

This directly contradicted the Greek concept of to kalon where beauty and utility were conceived as a single concept. 13 This concept of to kalon was essentially adopted into buildings by Vitruvius in his declaration that architecture exhibited three qualities, firmitas, (firmness or stability) utilitas (utility or purpose) and venustas. (beauty or aesthetics) 14 For two thousand years, Vitruvius’ qualities guided architecture. 15 With Kant, however, there developed a split in architecture, where architecture was divided into Architecture (with a capital “A”) and mere building. Architecture (what today we would classify as Starchitecture) became classified as a “Fine Art,” which was defined as an art where the artistic is the sum total of its purpose. 16 The other buildings that populate our world became a “Practical Art,” where the artistic existed only to serve a purpose other than itself. Again, this was a concept alien to the Classical thought that permeated all architectural theory until the late 1800’s. With Architecture (capital “A”) becoming separated from architecture, the stage was set for the destruction of both. The world of Architecture (capital “A”) was now free to explore increasingly irrelevant aspects of Formalism, 17 to the point where the buildings’ function, and even users, were sacrificed on the altar of how the building looked. 18 The aesthetic concerns of Kant’s “purposiveness without purpose,” the beautiful and the sublime first became apparent in the values of the Beaux Arts movement. This, in Lakoff and Johnson’s terms, is the realm of the “Myth of Subjectivism,” 19 where there are no rules, just absolute originality. 20 Uniqueness is an end unto itself, and is pursued as such.

Plato, “Hippias Majo” Vitruvius, “Ten Books of Architecture” 15 Except, obviously, for the time period when he had been forgotten. It should also be noted that Vitruvius was, in his day, quite likely a minor architect. We attribute mythic qualities to him because his treatise on architecture was the only one to survive intact into the Renaissance, where it would be “found.” It is highly likely that his qualities of architecture were not the product of his intellect, but were something he had been taught. They probably were derived from the core of “Roman Architectural Theory.” 16 This concept did exist for the Greeks, but they called it “decorative art” and it only applied to pure artistic endeavors, such as sculpture and adornments. It was never applied to anything that served an actual purpose beyond being beautiful. 17 Formalism is the concept that all function of the building is subsidiary to the form of the building. In formalistic architecture, when there is a conflict between use and form, the form will always win. 18 As an example of how far this trend has gone, one need only look at the Hamilton Wing of the Denver Art Museum. The angles of the grand stair and balcony are so alien that they induce vertigo in people with balance problems. (I’m one of them, and I find climbing that staircase to be horribly disorienting.) This problem was so severe at the grand opening that they had to place strategically located trash bins on the balconies for visitors to use in a way that needs no further illustration. 19 It should be noted that myth in the authors’ context does not refer to a fable or story, but to a culture’s way of describing the world around them. 20 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, “Metaphors We Live By.”
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On the other hand, the world of architecture (mere buildings) was now free to be driven by a vastly different set of pressures, where the aesthetic was of minimal or no importance whatsoever. These buildings could be based on economic concerns and ease of constructability. In this realm, all beauty was sublimated to cost, and all quality value engineered out. This engages the concept of naive functionalism, which Wilson describes as “function x economics.” 21 Like the “Myth of Objectivism,” 22 naive functionalism revolves around quantitative analysis and absolute fact. It is a view where there are only right and wrong answers, and no grey between. In architecture at least, Kant’s bifurcation of fine and practical art weakened both, and may ultimately lead to their destruction. Approaching a problem from strictly one viewpoint or the other creates something unbalanced. Focusing only on the aesthetic sends architecture off into the realm of airy thought and that ends in paper architecture. We have seen this in the (mostly) unbuilt works of Neal Denari and Zaha Hadid. Even though these architects have greatly pushed the bounds of architectural thought, their impact beyond academia has been blunted because there is little that they have produced that the average person can ever experience. It is Architecture for Architecture’s sake. On the other hand, naive functionalism, with its focus on function and cost without any aesthetic assessment reduces the idea of utility to “mere utility.” This course leads to the development of the tract home and strip mall – purely functional buildings that are cheap and easy to create, but have no inspiration, and do not inspire. 23 As the realm of mere buildings becomes more and more the bailiwick of the developer and the contractor, with the architect reduced to a subsidiary role, the world of Starchitecture expands to become the whole of the Architectural Experience. As it is the last remnant of Architecture, its profile rises even more, and it becomes an adornment, an object of pure ornament for a city, a corporation, a museum or even a person. 24 Divorced from the need to be even remotely practical, it can be paper architecture given actual built form.
Colin St. John Wilson, “ The Other Tradition of Modern Architecture” George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, “Metaphors We Live By.” 23 They ultimately also desensitize the user to what is “great Architecture,” by accustoming them to convenient buildings. As an example of this, there are about three basic layouts to a typical big box store. As soon as I go into one, I can quickly assess the prototype, analyze what that means, and use that experiential awareness to quickly locate what I am looking for. Most people find this ease of use makes their lives more efficient, if considerably blander. 24 Which is an ironic end for architecture to become in itself ornament. Adolph Loos decries ornament as a remnant of the primitive, with no place in a modern society. His manifesto “Ornament and Crime,” laid the foundations for the entire Modernist Movement, which resulted in buildings themselves becoming a form of urban ornament.
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And this leads to the conversion of theory to style wherein Architecture becomes fashion, and ironically subject to economic pressure. It’s just a different type of pressure from construction cost. When architecture becomes a “Fine Art,” it is subjected to pressure to be “cool.” As Adam Caruso states: “Mainstream practice has embraced the rhetoric of the market to make work that is infused with brand recognition. Strategies of cybernetics, phylogenics, parametrics, mapping – each strive to generate completely original forms, unusual shapes, in plan, in section, sometimes both. These bold profiles can amplify or even replace corporate logos… Architecture is now practiced at an unprecedented global scale, and the major players seem to be egging each other on. Who will produce the largest, and most formally outlandish project? Who will finally say stop? Never has so much construction been based on so few ideas.” 25 What has been lost since Kant is the concept of Architectural Theory. We give lip service to theory in schools and in numerous treatises on Architecture, but true “Deep Theory” is not something typically covered in architectural education. The first generation of Modernists was still trained in classical theory. This is evidenced by Rowe’s comparison of Villa Malcontenta by Palladio and Villa Garches by Le Corbusier. 26 Le Corbusier obviously knew about regulating lines, proportioning systems and classical composition. What he jettisoned in Garches was classical language and ornamentation. He stripped the form to an architectural version of Newspeak. 27 Newspeak was a version of the language that removed all elegance and symbolism, leaving only cold functionalism. Le Corbusier created an architectural language that removed all ideas that he deemed inappropriate, including the use of references to past cultures. The Modernists of the first generation, in their zeal to create “purity of form,” hoped to create in their students a “Tabula Rasa” or clean slate, uncluttered by

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Adam Caruso, “As Built: Caruso St John Architects” Colin Rowe, “The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays” 27 Newspeak was first defined by George Orwell in his book “1984.”

the outmoded traditions of the past. 28 They eliminated all architectural theory of the past, 29 and taught their students processes that passed for theories. This loss creates what I term “Idiopathic Architecture.” Idiopathic is a medical term meaning arising spontaneously or from an obscure or unknown cause. Without a solid theoretical grounding, architecture becomes idiopathic – it does not show where it comes from or how it is derived. It becomes a product of seemingly spontaneous generation, cast loose from the moorings of context, history or culture. This idiopathic architecture is the goal and the product of the “Tabula Rasa” approach to design. By creating form without content, the architecture can become a pure “Fine Art,” in the Kantian sense of the word – it is uncontaminated originality. In addition to throwing out theory, they redefined process as well. The Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) drew heavily on Descartes breakdown of complex problems. 30 The Cartesian Method, as described, breaks down complex problems into much more manageable sub-problems, which would then eliminate contradiction and allow for the creation of simple problem solving formulae. 31 This set the stage for the concept of the “Universal Solution,” advanced by the Modernist movement. As evidence of this, we only have to look at Le Corbusier’s “Five Points Towards a New Architecture.” 32 The five points are: the supports; the roof gardens; the free designing of the ground-plan; the horizontal window; and the free design of the façade. The application of the Five Points in architectural design eliminated the cultural constructs that enframed all previous architecture, freeing it to become a Universal Architecture, uncontained by the strictures of the past. On the surface, this may look like theory, but in actuality, it is merely a kit of parts, a process that will create a stylistically generated form. It does not speak to culture, it does not speak to geometry or proportion, and despite being called

This concept was first explored briefly by Aristotle in his work “De Anima.” It was later expanded by the Islamic Scholar Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Tufail (Abubacer). In the Western World, this concept heavily influenced St. Thomas Aquinas, who in turn influenced John Locke and Sigmund Freud. It is from Locke and Freud that we get the modern notion of Tabula Rasa. It should also be noted that the term was heavily applied in eugenics, which is not a surprising link given the Bauhaus influence on early Modernist architectural thought. 29 This had occurred one before in history at the transition from Gothic to Renaissance. The only difference was the Renaissance masters reached back into antiquity to resurrect the theories of Classical Greece and Rome. They did not try to wipe the slate clean as the Modernists did. 30 Renè Descartes, “Discourse on Methods and Meditation.” 31 While the Cartesian Method revolutionized the approaches to mathematics and scientific investigations, I question its application to solving architectural problems. An architectural problem is too holistic to be so easily disposed of. 32 Le Corbusier and Pierre Jenneret, “Towards a New Architecture”

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“Functionalist” it does not speak to function and use. 33 There is nothing here but some Archetypes of Architecture. 34 There is no actual architectural theory to guide the form making. This view has narrowed architectural education. Now, rather than taking architectural theory classes before ever taking a design studio, 35 students typically take theory near the end of their education, if they are required to take it at all. Most institutions have collapsed theory into the Architecture History class, and treat theory as a dead, dry subject of minimal relevance to today. To go back to my music analogy, this would be like learning to play an instrument without ever being taught how to read music – or how to actually play the instrument. Basically the student would be told, go into a room and bang around on this until you figure out how to make it sound good. Trust me; no one would want to listen to an orchestra composed of these sorts of music students, but we have no problem having them build our cities. In this atmosphere of distain, architectural theory has moved from being the “Object of Discourse” to the “Subject of Discourse,” as described by Foucault. 36 In the past talking about architecture was done for the explicit purpose of creating architecture. The object of discussion of theory was to further the creative process. In the last century, theory has become the subject of the discussion; we talk about architectural theory in order to be able to further talk about architecture. The theory becomes a way to enframe the discussion rather than a way to enframe the actual built form. The theory no longer has any application beyond conversation. 37 Instead of theory, students are taught a process. They collage, they build gestural models, sketch, they create interpretive art pieces. 38 And somehow, through all of this, they are expected to develop coherent architectural expressions. Without theory to guide them, they revert to either the Fine 39 or Practical Art 40 expressions described by Kant. They rarely think of making space that is both beautiful and functional. 41 Often, they don’t even address space
I do realize there is a paradox here. Culturally un-enframed architecture is actually culturally enframed, as the entire concept of un-enframed architecture is a pure cultural construct. 34 Pardon the pun. 35 The Traditional model 36 Michel Foucault, “The History of Sexuality.” 37 Again, as referenced in the Wikipedia entry, where it says architectural theory creates a method to talk about architecture. 38 I am not criticizing teaching students form making processes, I use these techniques myself. My criticism is that the process is not being paired with theories and philosophies. 39 The “A” students 40 The rest of them, with their grade typically being determined by how well the functional structure they design works. 41 Typically the response they create depends on the assigned program. If the program is functional, the building tends to be bland and performative. If the program is for a “imagable” building, the design rarely addresses how it will actually be used. This trending persists, and is even amplified, in practice.
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making. They view plan elevation and section as delimiters of space, rather than artifacts created by space. And when they get out of school, they are so engrained in trying to make “Cool Buildings,” they create branded architecture. Their architecture is “a la Mode” 42 And this brings me to another point: theory evolves; fashion changes, and fashion changes fast. At the accelerating pace of the in/out dynamic, I fully expect future buildings to look dated before they are ever finished. This year, everyone must have a Calatrava. In six months Calatrava will be so last year, now we want a Hadid. Oops, sorry, too late, now it’s SHoP. 43 The reason that theory moves so slow compared to fashion lies in the nature of theory. Architectural theory is cloaked in Pseudo-Science. I am not saying this to belittle it. Pseudo-Science is a term used for fields that have the processes of true science, but lack the experimental controls necessary for actual rigorous, duplicatable investigations. 44 Theory evolves slowly because it requires informative input to mould and develop it. It does not shift without a corresponding Paradigm Shift. 45 Fashion changes on a whim. Somebody gets something, and suddenly every one must have it – trendsetters can change a fad in a heartbeat. Theory needs a discovery or solid trending to alter its course. It needs experimental analysis and proof. It relies on conceptual vindication. It is not subject to the impulses of the market. A theory is not a brand; it will take years or even decades to shift. Even revolutionary change such as the theory of relativity took a decade to finally gain solid traction and be accepted by the majority of physicists. The Periodic Table of the elements took 30 years to gain acceptance in chemistry. 46 Evolution is still debated. 47

This does not mean “with ice cream” as most people think. It means “of the moment,” or “in fashion” depending on the literalness of your translation. 43 As an example of this, when I was an undergrad, I loved Helmut Jahn. I though he was the best architect in America (I know, I also had a funny haircut as well). I recently looked back at a monograph of his work, and I can’t believe how dated it looks to me now. It is like the architectural equivalent of a Members Only Jacket. I am almost as embarrassed by my past appreciation of his work as I am of my truly regrettable mullet that I had at the same time. 44 All of the social sciences fall into this category. Even though a field like sociology tries to be extremely rigorous, when you are dealing with human nature, there will always be an element of unpredictability that cannot be engineered out of the experiments. All evidence would fall into the anecdotal category. Hence these fields cannot be legitimately termed pure science, just science-like. 45 Thomas Kuhn, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” 46 Sam Kean, “The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements” 47 Although not among scientists. But then again, the general public does not have the same say in scientific truth as they have in architectural form. Nobody has to pay large sums of money to buy a scientific theory.

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So what is the solution? How do we stitch the practical back to the beautiful? How do we again blend the utilitarian and the aesthetic? Is there a model to reintroduce theory into the process? There are probably many answers to this. I will offer two examples of an attempt to reconcile the two, one specifically architectural, one grounded in cognitive theory and linguistics. The “Uncompleted Project” is a concept discussed by Colin St. John Wilson in his “Ethics of Architecture.” 48 He describes it as the bridge between architecture as pure art and the architecture of pure pragmatism. It is an architectural project that delicately balances meaning, function, purpose and usefulness. On the one hand, this project involves the aesthetic concerns of Kant’s “purposiveness without purpose,” while also engaging the concept of naive functionalism. As I have stated, approaching a problem from strictly one viewpoint or the other creates something unbalanced. The Uncompleted Project pushes through the barriers between aesthetics and utility to become a synthesis of the ideas, creating a whole that is greater than its parts. Another way of addressing the reconciliation can be found in the “Myth of Experientialism.” 49 Lakoff and Johnson deal with the way people view truth, the “Myth of Objectivism” and the “Myth of Subjectivism.” Experientialism takes the ideas of Objectivism and views them through the filter of Subjectivism. In other words, it states that there is no absolute truth or absolute fairness and certainty, only cultural understanding and reasonability. It also preserves the idea of what something means to a person, without stating that Imagination is completely unfettered. The “Uncompleted Project” and the “Myth of Experientialism” are closely related to each other. They both are a synthesis of the best points of polar opposite views. They become the place where the extremes meet. However, it is important not to think of either as a compromise. Nothing substantive is lost in this meeting; instead, both sides are supported and refined. With “the Uncompleted Project,” both subjective and objective values are vital to the finished project, neither can be more important. The same is true with the “Myth of Experientialism.” That view allows for a cultural truth, a cultural fairness, but recognizes that other cultures, even other people may have very different values. Aalto’s comparison of an objects’ quality to the spectrum of light is a way to understand this. He says that “in the red field of the spectrum lie social
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Colin St. John Wilson, “ The Other Tradition of Modern Architecture” George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, “Metaphors We Live By.”

viewpoints... all the way to the invisible ultraviolet field - where perhaps the rationally undeniable requirements... which exist in the individual human being are hidden.” 50 The “Uncompleted Project” and the “Myth of Experientialism” are ways to encompass the entire spectrum. These views both allow for the project or concept to be represented as a both/and situation, not as an either/or. This open world view allows a much greater understanding of situations than the more rigidly defined systems. Once we reconcile the Fine and Practical Art aspects of Architecture, we then are free to synthesize new architectural theories, and perhaps in the process, reinvigorate architecture and strengthen it for future generations.

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Alvar Aalto, “The Humanizing of Architecture.”

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