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In Defense of the Curve


Provoked by Reason
By Brandon Cliord
p Mies van der Rohe (Armour In-
stitute, 1938) drafting exercise . rst
year students
In a conversation between Mies van der Rohe and Hugo Hring,
Mies inquires, our steel beams, they have been born straight havent
they? he then argues, It takes a great deal of effort to bend them.
1

Implicit in this pointed attack is a requirement to justify the use of a
curve; ironically, Mies just justifed his use of the line. This attack on
the curve is not an isolated one, but one that is pervasive throughout
the scales of design architecture, urban, and furniture. While subtle
variations in argument between scales occur, what remains constant
is a general understanding that the curve needs justifcation. Com-
bating these attacks from the rationalists are designers motivated to
validate the curve. This argument is not about renouncing the use
of a curve, or advocating for the line, but rather a brothers quarrel.
Both sides argue for structural clarity, honesty of materials, techno-
logical advancement (mass production), and origins of form. This
paper will explore justifcations argued for the curve versus the line
at three general scales -- the building scale, the regional scale, and the
product scale.
22
p Mies van der Rohe friedrich-
strae oce building, 1922. competi-
tion entry. perspective sketch
p Mies van der Rohe friedrich-
strae oce building, 1922. competi-
tion entry. oor plan
t Hugo Hring friedrichstrae of-
ce building, 1922. competition entry.
plan of rst design
t Hugo Hring friedrichstrae of-
ce building, 1922. competition entry.
oor plan
u Hugo Hring friedrichstrae of-
ce building, 1922. competition entry.
perspective sketch
The most common attack on the curve is the claim of arbitrariness, a
rationalist critique which takes full advantage of the social tendency
towards scientifc proof. The curve does after all denote an author-
ship a universal geometry would not. Adolf Behne rejects Henry
Van de Veldes use of the curve in favor of Hugo Hrings function-
alist curve. He attacks Van de Veldes curve as being merely illustra-
tive and arbitrary. Behne then defends Haring by combating the line
stating the rectangular room and the straight line are not functional
but mechanical creations. He then goes on to argue the rectilinear
room is nonsensical as a functionalist argument because the corners
of the room are useless. If I were to outline the areas in a room that
are actually used and walked upon, then I would inevitably arrive at a
curve.
2
By separating Hring and Van de Velde, Behne walks along-
side a large sum of people defending the curve in rationalist terms.
He is now speaking the same language as the rationalists, which sug-
gests Van de Velde was a casualty, not the enemy.
Behne later defends Van de Veldes use of the curve for its consistent
emphasis on functional form. He goes on to explain the real ad-
vancement of this work is its use of movement as a force plastically
organizing the building from the inside. [Behne states Van de Velde]
arrives at curves and fourishes, at forms that could be true once only,
i.e., they are valid in only one context.
3
This defense points to a
common difference between rationalist and organic theories the
universal vs specifc.
2 3 2
In the Friedrickstrae High-Rise competition of 1922, both Mies and
Hring submitted designs advocating their positions in this core argu-
ment. In an attempt to apply a universal technique to the site, Mies
only makes an accommodation to the irregular site in the corner op-
posite the Bahnhof. He makes no attempt to recognize the main pe-
destrian approach while Hring (as described by Peter Blundell-Jones)
generates an axial thrust into the approach corner and spread[s] in
the opposite direction towards the riverfront. The centre of vertical
circulation, still on axis, is shifted towards the approach corner, short-
ening the axial wing and extending the other two to produce a bell-
shaped space between.
4
Each of these particularities of the design
not only embrace the curve, but respond to specifc problems of the
project, rejecting Mies assumption that this is not a sited project.
I am interested in clear structure. Mies van der Rohe
5
The Rationalist who does not manage to produce architec-
ture fails not because of an excess but rather because of a
lack of true reason. Eladio Dieste
6

Structure is a topic of high contention in this argument. While both
argue for structural clarity, the results are polarizing. For Mies, struc-
tural clarity is the distilment of elements down to a simple and ra-
tional structural model. A beam is a beam and a column is a column
44
q Eladio Dieste iglesia de atlan-
tida, 1958. construction image
q Mies van der Rohe illinois insti-
tute of technology, crown hall 1952.
perspective
-- each performs its own task and maintains a separation. By adher-
ing to these separations Mies is able to continue the deeper argument
about universality.
In opposition to such a rigid thesis, such architects as Eladio Dieste
argue structural rationalism is not limited to the line. Eladios mar-
riage of architecture and structural engineering develops a reciprocal
process between the two professions that is more forgiving. In his
Iglesia de Atlantida, Diestes interest in structural experimentation is
testament to this counter argument. By undulating the walls and roof,
he demonstrates that a linear brick wall would be incapable of such
a structural feat without a signifcant thickening of the walls. This
corrugation, or curving of the line is in itself structurally clear. While
Eladio also differentiates between vertical and horizontal structure,
the results are variations of each other and not distinctly new defni-
tions. Corrugation is the answer for both wall and roof, but the wall
begins with a line, where the roof has to span from wall to wall and
requires a consistent structural depth.
The use of the line is intriguing in the Iglesia de Atlantida. It is some-
how unnecessary, but present as nothing more than a reference. Is
it possible Dieste is suggesting a curve is only powerful in relation to
the line? By saddling up to pure forms, he argues not for a whimsi-
cal use of curves, but rather a calculated and scientifc approach that
responds to forces structure, space, program, gravity. This is not
simply a speculation on structure, but an integration of structure,
materials, and methods.
Mies has a conception of structural clarity irrespective of materials.
In order to make an argument for universality, structure is abstracted
to a level of representation. While one could argue both Mies and
Dieste are being structurally expressive, Diestes expression is towards
a larger goal, while Mies expression through details could be con-
sidered diagrammatically beholden and patronizing. By utilizing this
structural expression through a collaborative process between engi-
4 5 4
p Eladio Dieste iglesia de atlan-
tida, 1958. perspective
u Eladio Dieste iglesia de atlan-
tida, 1958. plan
u Eladio Dieste iglesia de atlan-
tida, 1958. structural plan
66
p Michel de Klerk het schip, 1920.
perspective
neering and architecture, Diestes work results in an architecture of
the specifc.
Diestes focus on integrating multiple aspects of these separate argu-
ments was not a unique one. Hring argued before the advent of
geometry, mans inventive spirit explored with real success the poten-
tial of the many building materials provided by nature.
7
This could
be viewed in contrast with this quote from Der Stil; Every material
[has] conditions that distinguish it from other materials and that de-
mand a technical treatment appropriate to it.
8
Both of these argu-
ments exemplify a focus on the importance of materials in architec-
ture; however, their approach could not be further from each other.
Rationalists argue each material contains its own unique proper-
ties. These properties are self-determined and inherent in the mate-
rial. The architect is to apply these materials in a manner that best
exemplifes these properties. When defending the curve in material
terms, many architects and theorists have capitalized on this unwaver-
ing interpretation. Van de Velde claims every material carries within
itself forces and possibilities whose dramatic meaning and intensity lie
within the graph that leads the material from the point of inanimate
rigidity to life, from death to life!
9
This comment resonates with the
work of Michel De Klerk whose expressive use of brick as a material
ran counter to the rationalist tendencies of the Amsterdam School
set in place by Berlage. De Klerks experimentation with the material
proved he was not slave to one pre-conceived notion of the materials
property.
Relevant to all Architects and designers of the 20
th
century were the
issues of industrialization and the process of mass production. Both
sides of the curve debate used the processes of mass production to
frame their arguments. This debate stems around one fundamental
difference standardization vs. technological potential. Rationalists
appropriated standardization (in the topic of materials) as an alibi for
maintaining the purity of the line. This common conception among
6 7 6
q Mies van der Rohe brick country
house, 1923. plan
q Hugo Hring country house,
1923/1924. elevation
q Hugo Hring country house,
1923/1924. plan
rationalists that mass produced objects required a standardization
that refuted curvature was a point of contention. In response Hring
stated by impos[ing] geometric fgures on things means to make
them uniform, to mechanize them. But we do not want to mecha-
nize things, only to mechanize their production. To mechanize things
means to mechanize their lives and in consequence our lives, which
is to deaden. But to mechanize their production is to win life.
10

Hring revolts against the standardized construction unit in favor of
a process that would not limit the spirit of design. Industrialization
proved to be the pivot of revolution. Defenders of the curve argue
mass-production does not limit formal exploration.
Arguments around origins of form are slightly more complicated
as they are not grounded in functionalist theory. The Rationalist
movement was born under a strong foundation of social embrace
with scientifc discovery. Their claim that basic geometries could
somehow bring the architecture closer to god is baffing consider-
ing this assumes a belief in something outside the realm of scientifc
proof. For all their reliance on scientifc enlightenment thought, the
rationalists were relying heavily on old Greek thought, (Platonism,
the purity of certain ideal forms) while those using organic forms
were actually more based in relevant and current science. Defenders
of the curve appropriated an increasing focus on the life sciences,
birthing biomorphism. Hring directly confronts the rationalist
platonic allegiance stating under and during the reign of the geo-
metrical culture, formal expression was derived from laws which were
contrary to life, to the creation of life, to movement and to nature,
laws recognized in purely geometrical forms. We have since discov-
ered that purely functional things have forms which can satisfy us in
terms of expression, and indeed some forms created solely out of
functional necessity become more satisfying in terms of expression
as they become functionally purer.
11
By making a direct connection
with nature, Hring is able to confront the rationalists with scientifc
discovery that nature also uses curves. This quote as well as his work
88
q San Fransisco peak locations
in san fransisco require curve
mediations. aerial images
speaks to a characteristic Hring exploits with the curve. Hrings
country house of 1924 is generated from a torque in plan that evokes
a movement through the individual spaces of the project. While
these spaces are organically woven together through movement, they
respond to each other as an integrated whole. Each room nests next
to its neighbors without an impression of dominance. These spaces
are also developed with function in mind as furniture demonstrates in
the plan. Mies Brick Country House on the other hand once again
embraces an ambiguity and abstraction where the relations between
spaces and functions are blurred. Clearly, applying curves to this
project would have confused the matter. In the hands of Hring,
abstraction is converted to specifcity. Is it possible the application
of curves without specifc forces would result in an architecture no
one could defend.
The building scale argument hovers between a functionalist and a sty-
listic one. When moving to the urban scale, the human psyche enters
as a factor in decision making.
In his theory of the meander, Le Corbusier examines how a river
becomes a curve when it meets an obstacle. Following the outlines
of a meander from above, I understood the diffculties met in hu-
man affairs, the dead ends in which they get stuck and the apparently
miraculous solutions that suddenly resolve apparently inextricable
situations.
12
For Corbusier, the curve is a solution to a problem.
Here is an argument not simply for a formal approach, but rather
for a method of responding and interacting. Corbusier is suggest-
ing there is a quality in society (and nature) of resilience to forces
through inventive solutions.
Implicit in his theory is that a river would begin as a line and become
a curve as the result of a force. This theory is suspect when applied
to mountainous regions. The velocity and strength of the water
overpowers its terrain and obliterates obstacles in its path. It isnt un-
til the river makes its way down stream to the foodplain that it begins
8 9 8
q Fredrick Law Olmstead ansley
park, 1904. development plan
q suggested redevelopment of
a subdivision plan in the booklet
planning protable neighborhoods,
technical bullitin no. 7 (fha, 1938)
u contemporary suburbia - results
of the federal housing administra-
tion guidelines of the 1930s
to meander where there are relatively weaker obstacles to overcome.
It would also be possible to argue the curve is the result of internal
weakness or sluggishness. A relative comparison of force vs obstacle
once again results in an argument about function.
In San Francisco, for example, a grid is stubbornly applied to the
variable terrain. This grid is irrespective of peak, valley, or ridge. It
denies acknowledgement of external forces and results in extremely
steep streets. Some areas of the city are so steep; a curve is required
to navigate the impossibilities inherent in the grid application. Each
of these curve moments in San Francisco exhibits a specifc response
in contrast to the universality of the grid. These curves are solutions
to tangible problems.
While many examples are solutions to tangible problems, there are
other examples of designers responding to social and cultural forces.
In 1904, Fredrick Law Olmstead designed Ansley Park, a subdivision
of Atlanta, with curving roads in order to give a sense of leisure and
tranquility as one rode their carriage down the street. This specula-
tive project birthed a guideline by the Federal Housing Adminis-
tration in the 1930s that promoted the curvilinear layout of new
suburban communities. This time the force as play to promote the
curve was not experiential, but rather as a way of mitigating the
uniformity of the mass-produced houses that made single-home
10 10
ownership affordable;
13
-- a reality rationalists would distain. Coun-
ter to resolving specifc natural conditions, this curvilinear solution
is suburbia is pervasive. The curve is so prolifc that it is no longer a
response to a specifc force, but rather a universal solution. It is, of
course, possible for the curve to be used arbitrarily.
While urban design grappled with the legitimacy of the curve on a
natural, political, and social scale, at the level of furniture design the
argument focused more closely on the scale of materials and process
methods. In designing the Red Blue chair, Gerrit Rietveld claimed
the aim was to keep each part simple, preserving the form inherent
in the original use and character of the material, the form that most
easily leads to a harmonious entity based on a standard module for all
the separate elements.
14
This description is in keeping with rational-
ist theory and the execution of the chair represents the Constructivist
language of the De Stijl movement.
While Rietved never on principle rejected the use of curves, his
theory and practice clearly advocate for a universal and impersonal
palette that would not accommodate the use of a curve. Rietveld was
beholden the abstractions of artists Mondrian and Van Doesberg and
desired to design without deformations; therefore, curves would be
considered impurities.
Rietveld (like Mies) makes all attempts to maintain the purity of indi-
vidual elements. While the rails of the chair cross at traditional right
angles, they do not intersect but extend beyond the point of junction,
and for aesthetic rather than structural reasons.
15
As a way of justi-
fying this sobering design, Rietveld makes a couple of arguments in
defense of his line. Each of these arguments stem around a central
argument that promotes mass production. He frst claims by extend-
ing the rails beyond each other, it is possible to adjust the dimensions
of the chair as if each connection is a slip joint. Rietveld is essential-
ly utilizing fexibility as an alibi for the use of primitive forms. This
technique of slipping is a stylistic gesture implemented to solidify the
10 11 10
t Gerrit Rietveld red-blue chair,
1917-19.
t Gerrit Rietveld red- blue chair,
detail connection
t Mies van der Rohe farnsworth
house, 1951. detail
q Michael Thonet bending forms
incorporating a metal strip.
independency of each element and approach the laconic splendor
of a line drawing,
16
a tendency he shares with Mies.
Rietveld also makes the claim that the factory process determines
these primitive units and the standardization required of mass pro-
duction. In this argument, Rietveld reinforces Miess claim that
beams are born straight. His assumption is that mass production
generates standardized units, and therefore, these units exhibit the
inherent nature of the material. By making this claim it is apparent
his concern is not with the material, but with the result of the factory
process. If the factory were making sticks out of plastic, the result-
ing chair would remain in its confguration. We can see in two ex-
amples where Rietvelds fundamental theories can be accommodated
for through the use of a curve.
The bentwood fabrication technique of Michel Thonet was born of
the same mass production spirit of Rietvelds motivations; however,
it was originally conceived of as a solution to the problem of carving
curves as ornament in wood. Thonet began his career (1930s) carv-
ing wood furniture in a traditional technique and found it impossible
to carve curves entirely in the direction of the grain since it ran in a
straight line. To design with large curves in wood, it was required to
aggregate smaller curves into a larger one, a lengthy process incom-
patible with mass-production.
17
Thonet is a great example of a curve
12 12
t Michael Thonet no. 14 chair,
1859-60
t Adolf Loos cafe museum chair,
1908
being generated in the fabrication process towards a goal of mass
production. While Thonets process was developed with an orna-
mentation motive, we can reference Adolf Looss implementation
of Thonets production method in his un-adulterated caf museum
chair. Loos applies two functionalist arguments in defense of the
curve structure and program.
A classic problem of chair design is that the connections are the
weakest moments. Designers are faced with the balancing act be-
tween a refned chair that will not sustain the brunt force of daily use,
and a bulky chair that survives forever. Loos ingeniously applies a
curve to each moment connection, navigating the horizontal and the
vertical. This technique, made possible by Thonets method, main-
tains the refned character of the chair, while reinforcing its structural
integrity.
Loos also exhibits a reciprocity between form and function that
doesnt exist in Rietvelds design. Take the back support for example.
In the Red Blue chair, a single rigid plane is supplied at an angle -- the
12 13 12
p Charles and Ray Eames leg
splint, 1941
u Charles and Ray Eames body
splint, 1941
u Charles and Ray Eames leg
splint, 1941. demonstration
only suggestion of comfort for the occupant. In a subtle variation
on the Thonet chair, Loos bends the back supports in response to
the curve of the back. This reciprocity between an objects produc-
tion and its purpose transcends such categories as organic, function,
and form.
This reciprocity can also be seen in the work of Charles and Ray
Eames. Their integration of method, materials, and purpose into fur-
niture design is strangely reminiscent of theories previously provided
by Rietveld, but to an end that could be considered in opposition.
The idea was to do a piece of furniture that would be simple and yet
comfortable. It would be a chair on which mass production would
not have anything but a positive infuence; it would have in its ap-
pearance the essence of the method that produced it. It would have
an inherent rightness about it, and it would be produced by people
working in a dignifed way.
18
Eames touches on all the same aspects
Reitveld does mass production, simple, honesty. The Eamess were
associated with the Organic movement and had entered into a local
climate that embraced the curve. It is important to note that it is not
simply the curve that interested the Eames, but the freedom to apply
them to various forces. This can be seen in their leg splint design,
where two major forces inform the resulting design the means and
methods of production and biomorphism.
14 14
t Charles Eames casting ber-
glass
p Charles and Ray Eames lcw
chair, 1945 - plywood process
p Charles and Ray Eames plastic
armchair, 1950-53 - berglass process
Like Thonet, the Eamess were highly invested in process and materi-
al experimentation. Through this research they were not just accept-
ing a post consumer product as the inherent property of the material,
but rather pushing the limits to discover the latent potential of mate-
rials. Bent plywood not only performs well structurally, (as Loos ex-
hibited) but is capable of responding to the body as well. For the leg
splint project, the design process began with a plaster cast of Charles
leg proving the Eamess dedication to the organic and biomorphic.
The process for their chair designs are similar. Both the leg splint
and the chairs were meant to conform to the human body that was
their defning purpose by necessity, they emerge from the shape of
the living body, they are biomorphic. The mid-twentieth-century
interest in ergonomics the science of designing an object to ft its
use by the body naturally led to forms that were biomorphic.
19
One further point in comparison with the Red Blue chair is while
Rietvelds design is irrespective of the material used, the Eames de-
signs changed form depending on material. When working with bent
plywood, they were constrained by the constructability of complex
curvature in wood, resulting in ruled surfaces. If a compound curve
was required as the biomorphic force requested a dart or break in
the surface was cut to allow the geometry to bend in two directions.
14 15 14
Moving forward chronologically, the Eamess began experimenting
with fberglass and plastics that would allow for compound curva-
tures, and the subsequent chair designs exhibited those geometries
they considered inherent not just in the material, but in a combina-
tion of the material, its processing, and the fnal use of the object.
The nuance variations of argument at each scale highlight the various
forces that appear as scales shift. Urban design requires a response
to social, political, and geographical forces resulting in arguments
revolving around topological systems that can be applied at a large
scale. Justifcations quickly change their focus to materials, methods,
program, and structure when the scale drops. Throughout the scales,
while the particularities vary, the most prevalent concept used in
justifying the curve surrounds function. Functionalist theory, while
ironically agreed upon by both sides of the argument, acts as a non-
confrontational, tangible, and verifable alibi. Defenders of the curve
utilize these topics to combat rationalist accusations of arbitrari-
ness. By responding with the same justifcations the rationalist use to
justify their lines, defenders of the curve are able to match apples to
apples. Epistemological arguments are also introduced by defenders
of the curve, although they were generally disregarded by the opposi-
tion for being incompatible with their root beliefs in universal design.
Ultimately, the argument between the curve and the line was really
one of universality versus specifcity.
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5 Mies van der Rohe Mies Speaks: I Do Not Design Buildings. Architectural
Review, No. 862, December 1968: 452.
16 16
16 17 16
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: Centraal Museum, Utrecht, 1992. Utrecht: Centraal Museum, Distrib-
uted by Princeton Architectural, 1992: 74
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