The Illness of Modern Architecture
Architecture and medicine have always been tightly interlinked. If classical theories of the Greek polis followed theories of the four humors, contemporary ideas of health organize design theories today. Architectural discourse weaves through theories of the body and brain, constructing the architect as a kind of doctor and the client as patient.
Vitruvius launched Western architectural theory in the first century BC by insisting that all architects needed to study medicine: "Healthfulness being their chief object." Just as Renaissance schools of medicine used casts of body parts, design schools used cast fragments of historical buildings for teaching, and anatomical dissection was a central part of the training.
As medical representations changed, so did architectural representations. In the twentieth century, the widespread use of X-rays made a new way of thinking about architecture possible. Modern buildings even started to look like medical images, with transparent glass walls revealing the inner secrets of the building. Indeed, modern architecture cannot be understood apart from tuberculosis. The symptoms, if not the principles, of modern architecture seem to have been taken straight out of a medical text on the disease.
Every age has its signature afflictions and each affliction has its architecture. The age of bacterial diseases gave birth to modern architecture, to white buildings detached from the "humid ground where disease breeds", as Le Corbusier put it. The discovery of antibiotics put an end to that age. In the postwar years, attention shifted to psychological problems. The architect was not seen just as a doctor but also as a psychoanalyst, the house not just as a medical device for the prevention of disease, but also as providing psychological comfort, "mental health".
The twenty-first century is the age of neurological disorders: depression, ADHD, borderline personality disorders, burnout syndrome, and allergies - the "environmentally hypersensitive" unable to live in the modern world. What is the architecture of these afflictions? What does it mean for design?
Colomina, Beatriz. Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994.
-. Domesticity at War. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007.
Colomina, Beatriz and Mark Wigley. Are We Human? Notes on an Archeology of Design. Zurich: Lars Müller, 2016.
Publications from the Fellows' Library
Colomina, Beatriz (
X-screens : Röntgen architecture
Colomina, Beatriz (
X-ray architecture : the tuberculosis effect