A History of Whiteness in Architecture on Display

Published in: ORIS, Magazine for Architecture and Culture, issue 61, Zagreb, 2010


The Architecture of Whiteness  


Museums and exhibition buildings have experienced an unparalleled boom in the last few years. It seems that hardly any city can afford not to have a spectacular new museum designed by a star architect. The “success” of the Tate Modern in London, the MOMA in New York, or the Guggenheim in Bilbao sets the standards. If museums were once dedicated to be a cultural archive and to host exhibitions, they have now significantly taken over the function of tourist sites, of urban communication centers with a multiplicity of commercial agendas. While almost every other Institution intrinsically connected to the emergence of the Nation State in the 19th century as an epitome of Modernity has run into a deep crisis of identity, political oblivion or economic shortcuts, the Museum seems to have re-invented itself within its own foundations and its aura seems unbroken.  


Yet I would like to trace this rather twisted historic development by following the techniques of display as a device for producing aura. At just the same time Walter Benjamin addressed the loss of aura in the 1920s under the circumstances of an accellerated modernist aesthetic in film, photography and culture in general, architecture became the site of a production of another kind of aura: It became a device for displaying objects that were valued as embodying the new spirit of modern man, be it paintings, furniture, objects of everyday use as well as the modern subject itself, – emancipated, muscular, rational and surrounded by clear forms and white walls in a hygienic environment. Or at least this is the image left behind in the history books of modern architecture. Mark Wigley argued in detail how the whitewash of modernity was a propagandistic argument that put a certain force on architectural production in the 1920s, to adhere to the white cubic "look"[1]. Furthermore this tendency was enforced by the creation of an "International Style" Architecture afterwards - also an invention created by a logic of display - in a show at MOMA in 1932.  


Also the modernist key topic of transparency is one crucial aspect related to the logic of display. Transparency was seen as a key element in producing collective spaces for societies that tried to rid themselves from the opaqueness and heaviness of the past. The use of transparency in architecture as a concept indicating the notion of progress became an aesthetic and ethical imperative. This topic can be traced back to the development of the shop display window in the 17th century, when large glass plates became available and the consumer good was exhibited to the visual gaze, where desire was produced by distancing the object from the viewer and by exposing it in front of a specific background in order to stand out.[2] This logic of display was enhanced by the whiteness of early modernism. The white wall appears not as the absence of color, but as a "dressing up" of the space, whitewash „facilitates the subordination of the sensual“[3], it „channels the attention to the things worth it“[4] as Le Corbusier put it. In that sense modern Architecture's foundations are built on the logic of display in a much more fundamental form. It is no coincidence that a lot of modernist icons like Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavillion or the Weissenhof Siedlung in Stuttgart were built within the framework of exhibitions. For the IBA Building Exhibition in Weissenhof 1927, curated by Mies van der Rohe the pre-given restrictions were the use of flat roofs and white exterior walls  in order to create a unified image. The widespread publications and the subsequent dissemination of this project successfully transmitted the image that true modern architecture was white, even if some the architects at Weissenhof refused to follow the rules and used other colors. Still, in the black and white photography reproductions they all looked white. Also Le Corbusier was obsessed with the color white as a symbol of modern architecture's "moral, ethical, functional and even technical superiority", as Mark Wigley maintained. In his 1925 publication L'art decoratif d'aujourd'hui Corbusier even wished for a police decree for the inhabitants of Paris to use only whitewash in their rooms and houses.




[1] Mark Wigley: White Walls, Designers Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture, MIT Press, 1995

[2] Anne Friedberg: Window Shopping. Cinema and the Postmodern, University of California Press, 1994, p. 65

[3] Michelle Henning: Museums, Media and Cultural Theory, Open University Press, 2006 [4] Le Corbusier cited in: Mark Wigley: White Walls, Designers Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture, MIT Press, 1995, p.25