"Nordic Cool: Hot Women Designers," an exhibition on Scandinavian design at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, is not about architectural design, yet it evokes plenty of thoughts about that subject.
By celebrating what Washington Post writer Linda Hales, in her review of the exhibit, characterized as the "cool style, clean lines, natural materials and seriously spare form" of the Scandinavian modern movement, this exhibition is a reminder of how often these aesthetic attributes are lacking in much of today's overwrought architecture.
"Nordic Cool" features a diverse array of industrially and manually produced artifacts -- some functional, some decorative, some purely metaphoric works of art inspired by the flora, fauna and natural landscapes of Europe's far north. On display are glassware, pottery, tableware, furniture, lamps, jewelry, clothing, tapestries, household accessories and even medical equipment designed over the past 100 years by women from Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland.
Many items in the exhibition demonstrate the foundation of modern Scandinavian design: inherent elegance arising from simplicity and clarity of form, honest expression of materials and beautifully crafted details.
Somewhat familiar to Americans during the first half of the 20th century, Scandinavian design became really hot after World War II, from the late 1940s to the 1970s. Consumers with modern sensibilities bought Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish furniture framed with grain-rich hardwood or chrome-plated steel and upholstered with durable textiles or pliant leather. They set tables with matte-finish or polished stainless steel flatware and utensils forged in Denmark. Their bedspreads, draperies, tablecloths, place mats, napkins and garments were made with colorful Finnish fabrics, boldly or subtly patterned.
Many 20th-century American and European architects of the era enthusiastically embraced design simplicity, or some version of it. Their architecture was not labeled Scandinavian but rather "International Style," "functionalist," "modernist" or "minimalist." Regrettably, marginally talented design minds, striving to achieve elegant simplicity, often produced buildings that were merely simple-minded.
Happily, laudable architecture embodying the ethos of elegant simplicity has not disappeared. But in recent years it is frequently eclipsed in the public eye by more exuberant architecture embodying complexity and "complicatedness," buildings perceived as hot rather than cool, messy rather than clean and profuse rather than spare in form.
We see ever more super-sized, inhabitable architectural sculptures whose ultimate purpose is aesthetic stimulation and whose architects' ultimate aim is aesthetic originality, no matter what the context.
Peruse the media and you will see a tendency to focus cameras on buildings that vary in stylistic language but share common characteristics. Their volumetric compositions, structural systems, spatial geometries, finishes and construction details are visually dynamic, provocative, unconventional and sometimes downright perverse. Many seduce us not only by defying design norms and challenging our expectations and habits of thought but also by seemingly defying nature and the laws of physics.
Architects such as Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry and Peter Eisenman are widely publicized and admired because their idiosyncratic work possesses undeniable visual energy. That energy is primarily attributable to use of irregular, fragmented, overlapping, interpenetrating and sometimes exploding or fused forms.
Of course, such adjectives could just as well describe a piece of modern, abstract sculpture. Some edifices are so complex and complicated that designing and drawing them manually is impossible. They are creations of the digital age. Architects can conceive, represent and build them only because of sophisticated visualization and modeling software, powerful computers with high-speed processors and huge memories able to store immense files of graphic data. Moreover, most of these intricate buildings are possible only because of immense budgets.
Consequently, it is increasingly difficult for buildings embodying the design ethos of elegant simplicity to compete for attention. Such architecture is too subtle, too cool, too cerebral for instant, popular gratification. It yields less dramatic photographs, the principal medium through which both architects and the public learn about new works. The visual energy of "cool" architecture is released more slowly, requiring more time and contemplation to absorb, understand and appreciate fully.
Only occasionally do we publicly celebrate, much less remember, rationally configured, functionally straightforward buildings whose beauty stems not from architectural bombast but rather from logical massing and geometry, systematic patterns of structure and circulation, elegant proportions, judiciously chosen materials, handsome details and solid craftsmanship.
With its traditional taste for architectural classicism, the nation's capital is hardly a place where modern design movements take root. Yet Washington contains good examples of buildings embodying the ethos of elegant simplicity. For example, many downtown commercial buildings designed in recent decades -- 2099 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 701 Ninth St. NW; and the National Place office building facing F Street NW, to mention a few -- exhibit this ethos with facades composed of glass, metal, masonry or pre-cast concrete. The Finnish Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue NW, designed using metal and glass a decade ago by Heikkinen & Komonen, remains the District's best example of compelling architecture of the Nordic persuasion.
The ethos of elegant simplicity, inherent in Scandinavian design and in much good architecture, is never out of date. Subtly and perhaps unintentionally embedded in "Nordic Cool," this is a lesson well worth learning at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.