Fall 2001

Bee Modern: An Interview with Juan Antonio Ramirez

Architecture under the sign of the hive

Eric Bunge and Juan Antonio Ramirez

Although humans had long exploited bees for their honey, traditional beekeeping relied until the nineteenth century on the use of “rustic” or “traditional” beehives, which entailed the annual removal of the honeycomb, and thus the destruction of the bees. Modern apiculture was born with the blind Swiss naturalist François Huber (1750–1831), who made important discoveries about bees and invented the first rational beehive. Built with hinged frames, Huber’s “leaf beehive” unfolded like a book, allowing the beekeeper to both harmlessly extract the honey and observe the hive in its totality. The technical developments in the second half of the nineteenth century were progressive improvements on this model, and included the observation beehive with a glass window, and the removeable-frame beehive by the American Lorrain Langstroth (1810–1895), still a fun-damental principle of beehive design. These inventions both afforded and were produced by an appropriation of the beehive as a metaphor for a perfect society, a fascination crystallized by the Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck in his famous 1902 essay, The Life of Bees.

Juan Antonio Ramírez, professor of art history at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, is the author of The Beehive Metaphor: From Gaudí to Le Corbusier (2000). His book traces the genesis of Modern architecture in the 19th and 20th centuries through the lens of the multi-faceted metaphor of the bee. In considering the formal and ideological connections between apiculture and architecture, Ramírez proposes that the founders of the Modern Movement were inspired by both the social metaphor of the hive, and the technological developments that emerged with the advent of rational beehives in the nineteenth century. Eric Bunge spoke to him by phone.

Cabinet: Whether real or mythical, animals have had various associations with architecture since antiquity. These associations have ranged from the benevolent and inspirational to the mysterious and deceptive, from the sphinx to the Minotaur and the Trojan horse. More recently, Robert Venturi made the famous distinction between the duck and the shed, forever associating this poor animal with postmodern architecture, while Santiago Calatrava’s fascination with the skeletons of birds is a constant theme in his search for structural expression. Do you see bees as fitting into a long history of relationships between animals and architecture or as a unique technical and philosophical association that has helped produce Modern architecture?

Juan Antonio Ramírez: I think it’s a bit of both. I think these are more examples of the use of metaphors of the forms, bodies, and structures of animals. But if we had to look for the equivalent in other animals, we’d have to look at similarities, which I have not found, between the form of the bee itself and the form of some buildings. In the case of relationships between apiculture and architecture, we find ourselves in front of something different. It has to do on the one hand with the perfect society, the society of the beehive, which until World War II has had positive implications. And given that architecture always carries the desire to organize social life in some manner, it seems to me inevitable that there is a desire to identify human society with the society of bees. The other problem is that as a consequence of this there has been a desire on the part of some architects to copy both the honeycomb and the beehive as a box.

The apian model has been very important in the genesis of the Modern movement. This does not mean that there have not been apian influences before this, for example in San Ivo della Sapienza [1642–1650] by Borromini [1599–1667], one of the most important Baroque churches of Rome. This church has a certain similarity to the bee found in the coat-of-arms of its first patron, Pope Urban VIII.

But you think that otherwise the apian model is a relatively new phenomenon?

I think it’s a relatively new phenomenon that was produced between 1890 and 1945. After World War II, there is an important transformation in ideological character: the beehive model acquires a totalitarian significance through Nazism and Stalinism, and there’s no desire in the West to openly defend the model of the beehive.

What are the different ways in which the beehive metaphor operated in the architecture of 19th and 20th centuries and what are the distinctions between the formal, spatial, and sociopolitical metaphors?

On the one hand there is the social model which in reality is more the concern of the social historian. What interests us most are the examples in which the model of social organization in beehives has been able to have formal repercussions, concrete architectonic repercussions. There have been two fundamental ways of detecting this influence in the world of architecture. On the one hand, there is the structure of the honeycomb—the clearest example of this would be Frank Lloyd Wright’s Honeycomb House, made with a hexagonal structure. The second is the way in which bees build honeycombs by hanging themselves and forming a catenary arc. They grab each other by the feet and form a sort of parabolic chain and from this they initiate the construction of the honeycomb from top down. This was very important for Gaudí, who made upside-down models of the chapel of the Güell Colony in Santa Coloma, near Barcelona, with string and little bags of lead that approximated the weight of the structure. The parabolic shapes that result in tension are turned right-side up to produce arches designed for their compressive loads.

Thirdly, there is the development of the man-made beehive, the boxes that contain honeycombs. The traditional conical bee-hives were generally made of straw, but with the emergence of rational apiculture in the second half of the nineteenth century perfectly orthogonal beehives were invented. This exerts a great influence on the genesis of Modern architecture. And then there is the observation beehive which has a glass front and which I think was very important for the appearance of the first glass skyscraper by Mies van der Rohe [1886–1969].

But is it not possible to see the design of beehives—especially observation beehives—as a manifestation of cultural shifts in spatial, technological and visual protocols that precede both skyscrapers and beehives?

Yes. I don’t think the genesis of Modern architecture can be ascribed solely to apiculture! I think in considering the genesis of architecture we ought to think about a whole confluence of metaphors: mineral, mechanical, and biological.

For the key to diagram, see notes below. For larger version of the diagram, click here.

And apian metaphors can cut across all three. I think it’s interesting to think of how observation beehives and architecture intersect in their nature as optical instruments. There is perhaps a relation there.

Yes, I agree. The observation beehive was very common in the homes and gardens of the upper classes at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. It was supposed to be very educational, because one could see a perfect society at work. I think this was a stimulus to imagine a society in which human life was transparent and in which there is no privacy.

Do you see any connection between the observation beehive and the camera obscura? I found interesting an image in your book of eighteenth-century observation beehives that had a single hole you’d look through.

This is effectively like a camera obscura, but the observation beehives that influenced Mies allow one to see the beehive in its totality, which is the idea of a large curtain wall. I see more a connection with the panopticon.

Which implies its use as a social model. Gaudí’s [1852–1926] appropriation of the beehive metaphor seems to operate at multiple levels, from the formal to the social. How would you qualify his deriving of socialist models from nature, and especially bees, with respect to the fact that he was born into a Catholic, conservative background?

Gaudí is a very different architect than others in his cultural milieu. He came from a very dynamic cultural environment; on the one hand economically prosperous, and on the other culturally free and less oppressed by cultural traditions. This kind of liberty permitted Gaudí to be more spontaneous in his approaches towards both architecture and nature. I think he observed many things in nature and decided to transplant many of these naively. In his youth, he was an atheist, freethinker, liberal radical, anarchist probably. For that reason, he produced his first building for the Cooperativa Mataronesa [1864–1887], which was a very innovative social experiment. He adopted all the iconography and ideology of the workers’ cooperatives of that era—anarchy, socialism, and the idea of the beehive as a cooperative society of workers. Gaudí converted to Catholicism later on when he started working with the bourgeoisie, especially the Güell family. When he got his commission for the Sagrada Familia [1882-1926], he became an extreme Catholic but he maintained the apian metaphor and readapted it to the Catholic world, which wasn’t very hard because Catholicism had traditionally used many of the “virtues” of bees as a model for human virtues. There is also the fact that his brother published a single article, entitled “Bees.” This must have had a large influence on Gaudí.

The roots of Gaudí’s parabolic arches have been traced to traditional Catalan architecture, amongst other sources. You believe that this important invention can also be traced to an interest in the parabolic hanging arches made by bees in natural honeycombs.

Yes, there are examples of this kind of architecture in popular Catalan architecture but what is more typical are the Catalan brick vaults. The parabolic arch appears and almost disappears with Gaudí. Gaudí is the one who gives it an application, for the first time in the Cooperativa Mataronesa. My thesis is that in this project Gaudí, having designed the flag with the bee on it, the coat-of-arms with the workers as bees, decides to emphasize the idea of worker cooperation. And so he came up with the parabolic arch, which is in fact a catenary arc upside down.

You quote Mies as having said “I do not want to change the times; I want to express them.” From this statement one can excavate two opposing Modernist myths: first, the architect as hero—and here Mies is responding to this myth, and second, the causal evolution of architecture as a result of technological determinism. Does your study of Modern architecture through the lens of beehives place a focus on inspiration in the act of designing, and therefore on the first myth of the architect as a visionary?

In the case of Mies, the beehive metaphor gave him the opportunity to think of the architect as someone who acts not as the consequence of technological but of social determinism. Let’s not forget that Mies was more revolutionary in those times. He designed the monument to Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht [1926] and that he published in Frühlicht, an avant-garde magazine of the radical Expressionists. At that time, Mies must have been more influenced than we tend to believe by all the ideas and revolutionary ideologies that proclaimed the inevitability that society would finally move toward revolutionary liberation. Therefore when Mies titles his Friedrichstrasse office building project, the first glass skyscraper, “Honeycomb” [1921], he’s in reality suggesting that the new society is unavoidable and with that a new architecture is unavoidable. This is what encompasses and brings him closer to the idea of the beehive, because in the beehive we find a perfect society in a different architecture. And this is not a purely technological determinism. Perhaps the novelty of Mies is not in his use of steel and glass—these had been used for 100 years in buildings like railway stations—but in his use of these materials for an office building.

So the difference between Mies and Joseph Paxton’s 1851 Crystal Palace would be the distinction between a social rather than a technological determinism?

I think that in Mies there is a social preoccupation in this kind of application of technology, which is what leads him to propose an industrial architecture for an office building.

The title of Mies’s Friedrichstrasse project demonstrates the naturalist side of the young Mies, who is formed during a period of German Expressionism. This side, in contra-distinction to his iconoclasm which is better known, is interesting today because of the revaluation by historians of Mies as more complex than a pure Modernist. There are two opposing interpretations of the Friedrichstrasse project: on the one hand, through the absence of a skin, as an anatomical expression of the structural frame. I quote from Frülicht: “Only skyscrapers under construction reveal the bold constructive thoughts, and then the impression of the high-reaching steel skeleton is overpowering. With the raising of the walls, this impression is completely destroyed.” On the other hand, there is the expression of glass as a mysterious material, both transparent and opaque—more or less visible under different lighting conditions. Which interpretation of Mies aligns with his use of the beehive metaphor?

I think in the case of Mies it operates in both ways. The beehive is effectively a type of society that has generated fascination. There’s a lot of mystery in the world of bees and beehives. And this perfect society must have fascinated him. I also think—although I’m not 100% convinced—that in the rational beehive there are structures that have influenced Mies. For example, the diagonal bracing in his convention Hall in Chicago [1953–1954].

I think the diagonal brace is a technological consideration that would apply to any construction, whether a building or a beehive.

This is possible, because the structure was neither invented by Mies nor for beehives. But the problem for me is another one: when an architect expresses an unusual element such as the diagonal brace, then you have to ask where the stimuli came from. And the question is, could one of these stimuli have been the beehive? I’m not sure, but it’s possible, given that we have proof that Mies was influenced by beehives in other aspects of his work. Of course you have to be careful and not think because you are obsessed with beehives that everything derives from beehives!

This reading of stimulus is part of a larger art-historical project that looks at direct connection between influence and the design process. In your introduction, you discuss this as a kind of detective looking for clues. How do you situate this approach with respect to an opposing project that tries to historically contextualize the cultural, technological, and even economic forces as a Marxist historian might?

I come from a Marxist tradition, and I don’t think the two positions are incompatible. But you know, what’s interesting is that the beehive metaphor is appropriated by ideological opposites with minor adjustments. Gaudí’s adaptation of the beehive metaphor from his initial socialist ideology to another one that was Catholic and conservative is paradigmatic. Other great architects influenced by beehives, such as Le Corbusier [1887–1965], flirted with both communism and fascism.

At which ideological extreme did Le Corbusier appropriate the beehive metaphor? He was very free in his use of images as references for an architecture compatible with the twentieth century. It seems to me that these images—which included airplanes, ships, cars, and filing cabinets—could adapt to his various ideological agendas.

I’ve tried to show in my book the many clues that Le Corbusier was interested in beehives. He had in his library Karl von Frisch’s Vie et meours des abeilles that he’d annotated. Le Corbusier was friends with Blaise Cendrars who lived in La Ruche [the Beehive] during Le Corbusier’s early stay in Paris. Le Corbusier was a master of what one could call the art of diversion, the art of occultation of his sources. When he started writing for a larger audience after World War II, and especially after he designed the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, he had to pass through a period in which he was accused of collaborating with the Vichy government. He had to be very careful not to be associated with totalitarian metaphors, and the beehive was a very dangerous metaphor from an ideological point of view, because it could allow for an identification with the very positions that he had been accused of during the war. I think Le Corbusier did not want to specify what he owed to the apian metaphor, but there is, for example, the apartment project Lotissements fermés à l’alvéoles [1922, “Honeycomb Apartments”], which is the first collective residential sky-scraper in Modern architecture. The idea of putting many people to live in a compact block is Le Corbusier’s idea, and the first time it appears, it appears with the name “Honeycomb Apartments”!

Does a space whose design was inspired by bees and beehives in turn produce beehive-like human activity?

This is an ideological question. I think the architects who invented the Modern movement believed that forms could be determinant in changing life. When Le Corbusier says, “Architecture or revolution,” he’s making a very clear formulation. If we have an architectural revolution, a social revolution is not necessary because the social revolution would be produced by itself in a non-violent way. By modifying design you modify life. When these architects were inspired by the beehive, they were tacitly imagining that a better society would emerge as a consequence of the realization of their designs. And now we know that that is a very naïve belief, and we know we can establish a bomb factory in a beehive building or in a church or synagogue.

So this was a Modernist arrogance?

Exactly. This was a fantasy of the makers of the Modern movement, the supposition that the mere modification of architecture without modifying anything else would produce another radical social formation.

While I recognize that your book is necessarily limited in scope and focuses on a period ending with Le Corbusier, I think it would be fruitful to update our discussion through the Japanese Metabolist Architecture movement in the 1960s and ’70s and Archigram in the UK. The Metabolists, for example, developed an architecture and urbanism that acted as a critique of both society and the construction industry. The dwelling unit was considered a repeated and irreducible unit. It minimized private space and was plugged into an infrastructural megastructure that could grow or adapt.

We have to find out whether the beehive metaphor was used casually or not. What I wanted to show was that some of the great innovators used the metaphor consciously. In some way what I propose is a reading that is not univocal but is more a voyage through the beehive metaphor that helps read some episodes of Modern architecture.

Key to diagram

  1. Behrens’s logo for AEG, 1907
  2. “Rustic” Beehives, from Layens’s Cours complet d’apiculture, 1890
  3. The huts of “savages,” from Le Corbusier’s Urbanisme, 1924
  4. Taut’s Glass Pavilion, 1914
  5. Le Corbusier’s Ateliers d’Art, 1910
  6. Buckminster Fuller, geodesic dome
  7. Steiner’s second Goetheanum, 1928
  8. The parabolic arc of bees constructing a honeycomb
  9. Natural honeycombs without guidelines
  10. Parabolic arcade in Gaudi’s Colegio Teresiano, 1889
  11. The Alley method for breeding queens, 1861
  12. Gaudi’s sketch for the chapel of Colona Güell, 1898-1908
  13. Behrens’s AEG turbine factory, 1908
  14. Natural honeycomb
  15. Langstroth’s movable frame beehive, 1852
  16. Huber’s leaf beehive, 1792
  17. Cross-section of Layens’s “Primitive” beehive, 1874
  18. Elevation of Mies’s Friedrichstrasse skyscraper, 1921
  19. Perspective of Mies’s Friedrichstrasse skyscraper, 1921
  20. Plan of Mies’s Friedrichstrasse skyscraper, 1921
  21. A.I. Root’s “Simplicity” beehive, 1870
  22. Rauchfuss nursery for queen bees
  23. Le Corbusier’s Honeycomb Apartments, 1922
  24. Lucio Ramirez’s Elmisana Beehive, 1948
  25. Prokopovich beehive, 1807
  26. Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, 1947-1952
  27. Bee larvae as illustrated by Langstroth, 1862
  28. Le Corbusier’s City for Three Million Inhabitants, 1922
  29. Interior, Kurokawa’s Nagakin Capsule Hotel, 1972
  30. Exterior, Kurokawa’s Nagakin Capsule Hotel, 1972
  31. Kikutake’s Tower Shaped Community, 1959
  32. Section, Metabolist student competition, 1960
  33. Kurokawa’s Takara Beautillion, Osaka Expo, 1970

Juan Antonio Ramirez is professor of art history at Madrid’s Universidad Autónoma.

Eric Bunge is an architect practicing in New York. He is a principal of nARCHITECTS and a visiting professor at Barnard College. Bunge is a contributing editor at Cabinet.

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