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December 11, 2003

"My Architect" and Louis Kahn

Dear Friedrich --

A few discussions back, Annette asked an important question that I for one would like to see finally well-answered: if modernism is such a horror, and if its assumptions, methods and results run so counter to what people naturally prefer, why has it had such a good run?

[Note to the curious and the quarrelsome: I know I know I know that "modernism" in the official playbook indicates an art movement that came to an end circa 1975ish, thence to be succeeded by po-mo, decon and other movements. I don't use the word that way. As far as I'm concerned, po-mo and decon etc are extensions of -- and not refutations of or alternatives to -- official "modernism"; they're the same beast, even if dressed in different clothes. That's a minority opinion, I know, but I think it's a defensible one. Some other posting, in any case.]

I found myself scratching my head a lot over Annette's question the other night when I visited the Film Forum and watched the acclaimed documentary My Architect. Have you heard about the film? It was made by Nathaniel Kahn, the illegitimate son of the modernist architect Louis Kahn (1901-1974).

Narratively, it's about Nathaniel's attempt to find out what his dad, who he didn't know well while he was alive, was like and to perhaps come to terms with the old man too. As an example of the art of documentary filmmaking, "My Architect" is mainly a triumph of persistence and intelligence. And if I roll my eyes when presented with the theme of "coming to terms with the monster parent," who cares? The audience seemed moved by the film, and gave it a round of applause.

The film interested me mainly as a portrait of Louis Kahn, who was quite a character, talented-modernist-egomaniac division. (Once again I count my lucky stars that my own dad was a modest man and a sweetheart.) Kahn was a charismatic guy, despite being small and unattractive. His demise wasn't the stuff of a John Ford movie either; despite his reputation, Kahn -- who was found dead in the men's room of Penn Station -- died deeply in debt.

Did you ever wrestle with Kahn's work? He's known as one of American modernism's almost-lost opportunities. He never got to build many buildings -- certainly nothing like as many as the competition (Johnson, Pei, etc). But it's generally agreed that some of the buildings he did build -- the best-known include the Exeter library, the Salk Institute, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, and the National Assembly Building in Dacca, Bangladesh -- are among modernism's great achievements.

Kahn arrived in this country from Estonia when he was five and is generally thought to have hit his artistic stride around the age of 50. The quick version of what was wonderful about his work is that he put soul, texture and mysticism into modernism. It's also said that he created modernist buildings that have the qualities of ancient buildings: timelessness, monumentality, sombreness, grandeur, what have you. Unlike many other modernists, Kahn loved texture and mass, not reflective surfaces appliqued onto Erector-set frames. He liked rough brick and raw concrete -- soft, human, and heavy-seeming materials, at least by comparison to the usual glass and steel. In the context of modernism, his work can seem warm and humane.

As far as Kahn the person goes, the film's main focus is on what a difficult man he was. Understandably so, since he was one driven, ambitious, bullheaded, impractical and disorganized SOB. His office and practice were in a perpetual mess. He kept three families; he was married to one woman, by whom he had a daughter; he had an early affair with another, by whom he had another daughter; and he also carried on a longterm affair with Nathaniel Kahn's mother.

Despite his unappealing personality and appearance, he made a big, big impression on many of the people he came in contact with. Nathaniel's mother, for instance, is a gifted and attractive woman, but you're given to understand that she's never had another romantic relationship; Kahn, who visited once a week, was the love of her life. Kahn was well-known too for his workaholism; one architect who as a young man worked for Kahn recalls that his personal life suffered so much from Kahn's demands that he had to quit.

An uncontrollable alpha male, in other words, and willing to sacrifice a great deal for the sake of his vision. Near the film's climax, Nathaniel Kahn arranges a get-together in a Kahn-designed house (no one makes the case that Kahn was much of a designer of houses) with his two half-sisters to compare notes. They grew up barely knowing each other; when Kahn's funeral arrangements were made, the mistresses and illegitimate children were urged not to attend. They came anyway. The three kids understandably agree that Kahn wasn't much of a dad.

Nathaniel ends his film with a visit to Bangladesh, where he reverently explores the National Assembly Building; he includes some footage of a Bangladeshi architect tearfully speaking of what it meant to his country for a man like Kahn to have constructed such a great building for them.

I confess that I squirmed during much of the film. All these people who endured Kahn's ego, neglect and misbehavior ... Kahn's mistresses and children ... All these sacrifices made (or at least tolerated and survived) in the name of Kahn's genius ... The heartbreaks, the promises, the frustrations, the betrayals ... I couldn't help wondering, And what if it was all for naught? What if the old man's designs just weren't that good?

A cruel thought, I suppose. Yet as I watched Kahn's work in the movie go by, I couldn't help thinking, Wow, most of these buildings look really terrible! Cracked and stained, like the underside of a piece of sidewalk. And dated, too: will that era in institutional design ever come back? We can hope not.

I can only offer observation and opinion, of course, and for the sake of simplicity I'll assume everyone reading this posting knows that many architecture buffs disagree with me about Kahn, and that what follows has a lot of implicit IMHOs scattered throughout.

I haven't seen as much of Kahn's work as I have of Frank Lloyd Wright's, but I've done the mandatory reading and I've spent time in some of the major buildings -- the Salk and the Richards, as well as the Exeter Library, which I know quite well; I was in school at Exeter while the building was under construction.

Thank god, in any case, that some of Kahn's more lunatic ideas were never carried out. Nathaniel spends some time wondering why Philadelphia, Kahn's hometown, never commissioned a major work from his father, who in fact developed an extensive plan for overhauling the city's downtown. I'm pretty sure Nathaniel is presenting the city's failure to adopt Kahn's redevelopment plan as a major tragedy for both architecture and Philadelphia, though perhaps not; it's hard to tell.

But the plan itself would clearly have been a disaster. Have you visited downtown Philly recently, by the way? Lookin' good these days! It'd be looking empty and bleak these days if Kahn's plans had been acted on. All due credit to Nathaniel for being brave enough to include some unappealing footage of the Yale Art Gallery and the Richards Medical Center. He pokes around the Richards while running voice-over clips from people who work there. They relate that they laugh when they see architecture buffs visiting and paying homage, because the building is a nightmare to work in.


A little bit of Helsinki

Between you and me, and even from the superficial point of view of mere aesthetics: how can anyone make much of a case for these buildings? They look to me like perpetually overcast, Finnish civic buildings, the kinds of dismal places John Le Carre's spies spend so much time slipping anonymously in and out of.

Two major Kahn successes about which you'll seldom read a bad word are the Exeter Library and the Salk. I've spent serious time around the Library and a long day visiting scientists at the Salk. Aesthetically, the library doesn't strike me as a disgrace. It's just a punctured-and-pulled-apart brick cube dropped in the middle of a lawn. (It was near my dorm, the only kind of "siting" I cared about in those days.) But the brick is rough and handsome, and the building looks hefty; it looks like it'll be around for the duration, which suits a New England temple of learning. Kahn had a knack for conveying massiveness and texture, and more power to him for that.

The wood panels (a Kahn trademark) seem badly misjudged; they don't deal with the New Hampshire weather well and have given the building a bad-condo look. The building's famous atrium -- a cube chopped out from the insides of the larger cube that is the building, but with dramatic, large circles cut out from its concrete sides -- is what the library is best known for, and it's a very effective piece of set design. You enter the building and feel as though you've walked into an abstracted version of a classical ruin, or perhaps an especially grand (and pristine) abandoned industrial site. You're at the bottom of a sombre, stark, squared-off barrel; it's a brooding space -- Kahn gets his big "whoa!" effect here.

I give the building lower marks as something to use. It deals in volumes and shapes rather than anything so mundane as, say, rooms and corridors, so you never forget that you're being subjected to an architect's concept. You feel, as you often do in modernist buildings, as though what you're inside of is more a model than an actual building; the geometrical and lighting ideas weigh heavily. The study carrels, many of which are placed right up against the windows, look good in photographs -- but bright, unfiltered daylight is awful to try and read by. I've got no experience as a worker at the library; I'd be curious to hear what the building is like from the point of view of the library's staff.

That huge, much-praised atrium? Well, winters are cold in New Hampshire, and the year the library was completed was the year the Oil Crisis began. The school was suddenly burdened with a whole lot of empty cubic feet that it had to pay to keep warm.

The Salk is a campus-like complex on a cliff above the Pacific. I found its reputation one of the more mystifying of the modernist reputations. I know perfectly well how it's supposed to strike me -- as a modernist-American Acropolis, the ancient and modern coming together, the mind and its thoughts leading off into the vast blue of the ocean ...

But I walked around the place thunderstruck by how little it was doing for me; I've seen very few matches for it as an example of modernist wishful thinking. It's one of those places that works well (in a merely aesthetic sense) from the two or three angles that you always see it shown from in photographs, and from almost no place else. This is one of the failings image-based architecture is prone to that's widely recognized yet too-seldom admitted to: image-based buildings often make their touted impact from only a couple of viewpoints. They're made to be camera-ready, yet are as temperamental and vain as Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard": shoot me only from my good side, please! Inspected under less-than-perfect conditions, they can look like hell.


Ready for my closeup, Mr. Kahn: The Salk

The Salk has been shown from so few angles that it's hard for people who haven't visited to imagine how banal the rest of the place looks. In a word: it looks like any number of "progressive" college-campus additions from circa 1968, with the materials now cracking and stained.

As a place to use? The scientists I talked to weren't fond of it, despite the fabulous setting. The offices and labs are mere spaces tucked into the overall geometry; they weren't designed with utility or comfort in mind. And the Salk is surprisingly disorienting. The guy I'd come to interview hurried out to guide me to his office, explaining that newcomers always get lost. On the way back in, he told me that even after working at the Salk for a while, the scientists have trouble finding each others' offices.

As for its supposed grandeur: I explored the Salk, as I explored Wright's Fallingwater (here), in optimistic good faith; I was eager to experience what I'd heard and read so much about. What I wound up thinking was: gee, if I try really, really, really hard, I can kinda see a little something of the ancient world, if maybe a state-college version of the Acropolis ... But then no. The place refused to live up to its pretentions, and snapped back into what it had struck me as at first, one of those nondescript complexes where dentists and optometrists keep their offices.

first unitarian.jpg

I've also visited a minor work of Kahn's, the First Unitarian Church in Rochester. Some nice light-on-concrete effects, a Kahn speciality -- but otherwise? What a nothin' building. One of the great tragedies of American architecture (IMHO, of course) is the way American church architecture went to pieces after WWII. Why did the Presbyterians and Catholics and Lutherans all decide that the time had come to go modernist? Which, practically speaking, meant building brick and plywood warehouses. I can imagine churches more banal than the First Unitarian, which is at least a little more massive than most blah midcentury American churches. But that's hardly something to celebrate. No matter where I looked at it from and no matter how much eye-blurring I did, First Unitarian still looked like an overgrown drive-in bank branch to me. Here's a big photo of the church. Are you duly dazzled?

The fact is that what Kahn was really drawn to -- and all he really seemed to care about -- was creating certain effects having to do with massiveness and raw-seeming materials, with abstracted "ancient" shapes (arches, circles), and with backlight bounced off roughhewn materials. He seems to have had almost no interest in the common experience of the common person who might want to use one of his buildings, in other words. No, what he was interested in was greatness; he wanted to work in the modernist idiom but achieve timeless grandeur. His own idea of timeless grandeur, of course.

Critics often speak of Kahn's love of "natural light," but I found the way he used light in his buildings to be as natural as the way he used brick; he had an interest in the natural only so far as it served his idea of greatness. And his idea of greatness? As far as I can tell, Kahn aspired to be a prophet. The "natural" light he so insists on is the architectural version of the light that glows through many mystical works, such as Chagall's paintings and "Call It Sleep." This is (or at least wants to be) the light of divine illumination, irradiating the earth as it carries the Word to us; it's God letting his presence be known through the earthbound materials that this life is made of. And through Kahn, His chosen vehicle. To be fair, some of Kahn's glowing-light-on-raw-concrete effects are lovely. But they also leave me wondering, as I so often do when playing the let's-appreciate-modernist-architecture game, why the architect didn't simply work as a sculptor instead.

I should shut up about the buildings I haven't visited, I know. But I can't seem to help myself today. The Kimbell, for instance. Perhaps it's a nice place to look at art -- friends have told me that it is. But from overhead it looks like a shed where spare subway parts are warehoused, and it seems as divorced from its context and its surroundings as any other look-at-me modernist building. And compare Mary Ann Sullivan's page of photos of the Kimbell here to the glam shot of its interior above. Her photos suggest that maybe not everything about the Kimbell lives up to the official image.

Dacca? It looks to me like a lot of geometric shapes chopped out of a herd of grain silos. Which is an idea, of course, if more a sculptural idea than a traditional architectural idea, and not one that sounds promising for a building that's intended to be made use of. And I write as someone who really likes looking at and exploring grain silos.

In a word? Kahn's creations seem to me like little buildings so preoccupied with dreams of being great buildings that they can't bring themselves to be decent little buildings. I'm curious to know what you think of them.

* Here's a page about the Salk Institute.

* A review of the film by Chris Barsanti for filmcritic.com is here.

* Matt Prigge interviewed Nathaniel Kahn for the Philadelphia Weekly here.

* Here's a helpful and informative page about Kahn.

* Here's a Paul Goldberger appreciation of Kahn and his work. I couldn't disagree more, but Goldberger sums up the pro-Kahn case eloquently.

* David Sucher wonders about the persistence of modernism, here, and about the greatness of the Salk too, here.

* A small sidelight: Kahn was a student of Paul Cret, who was a genuine American architectural giant. But we don't hear much about Cret, do we? Here's a page of drawings Cret made for the University of Texas at Austin. And here's a page about Cret's Folger Shakespeare Libaray.

All of which leads me back to Annette's question: How to explain the success of mid-century modernism? Any hunches?

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at December 11, 2003




Comments

Salk Institute.

Now I'm glad my last visit to the place was back in 1966. Not that I had any choice in the matter, mom had to pick up some work a friend was doing for her, and I got to come along.

Got to meet Dr. Salk. My mom said, "Jonas, this is my son, Alan."

I said, "Hi."

He said, "Don't touch anything."

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on December 11, 2003 07:21 PM



Wow...Cret's stuff is pretty cool. And everybody does say (by that I mean, real people) that the UT-Austin campus is one of the beautiful in the country.

I wonder if it's possible that some of this has to do with the fact that a lot of these "famous" architects became famous for institutional buildings...universities, museums. Not residences. So is it possible that decision making by committee takes over---you have one far out artsy type who tells the bankers and businessmen on the Board that you just HAVE to do it this way, anything else is so bourgeouis, and they, feeling like rubes, because secretly they hate it, feel that they can't deny the university the prestige and hipness of the modernist design, then vote for it, too? Maybe they aren't selecting it for "beauty"---but for---"see, how hip and new we are!" This says that all our ideas are hip and new. I said before that it can't be just artists and intellectuals forcing this down our throats, but actually I'm reconsidering that...

Maybe people's natural insecurities take over, and assume anything they don't understand is just too hip, too subtle, too cool for them to understand, which makes it valuable. Think of the personalities who actually get selected to "serve on boards." Most people who write blogs are NOT the type who are serving on Exeter's Board of Trustees.

Atonal music, icky architecture, Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury", Plath's incomprehensible poetry, all of it...could it be a big "the-emperor-has-no-clothes" tale? If everybody just understood the literature or the architecture---why would you need such pompous people to "teach" it to you? Gosh---they'd be out of a self-important job, now wouldn't they? Everybody gets cowed, and says, if I was just smarter or cooler or more perceptive, this poetry would make sense to me. The problem is with me.

I took a lit class in college, and the lit i now understand was very modernist. And this professor just ticked me off, so I was the one always raising my hand and saying "Or, is it possible, the protagonist is just an asshole?" Later, a classmate of mine said to me that she was just so glad I was there because she felt like I was the "voice of reason" in the face of this goofball professor. Is it possible, though, that people who actually make it onto decision making boards aren't cocky 21-year-olds in college class, and DON'T say---"or, is the building just ugly?"

Could it be, in touchy-feely terms...just huge evidence of humanity's lack of self-esteem?

And, by the way, I don't care if this guy designed the Taj Mahal---it wouldn't justify treating people who loved him badly.

Posted by: annette on December 11, 2003 09:33 PM



You know, I actually like modernism. Which puts me very much in the minority around here ...

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on December 12, 2003 01:14 AM



Of course Phillips Exeter Academy does have the money - an endowment of half a billion - to heat that atrium space. And Philip Johnson, down there in CT, too, has enough to heat his glass house. It shows what money brings about.

Modernist materials, in particular, certainly age unevenly. The two Kahn galleries at Yale look pretty beat up. At Exeter they have had problems - it seems every time I am in that area they have scaffolding up & some work on the library is being done.

Something is slightly ominious about the interior concrete, as nice as it is, because it has not been subject to the elements. There's a new hospital that has a fake garden interior space which is furnished with very nice (&, presumably, expensive) teak furniture. The problem there is that untreated teak weathers beautifully (Kahn used it, & was criticised for it, I think because it does not hold up as architectural detailing) to an ancient gray. On the inside the chairs still seem green.

Richard Saul Wurman - a student of Kahn's.

The argument against modernism shouldn't be applied en masse to all the arts. re poetry, a common zinger against Pound/ Olson/ Zukofsky/ etc is that the stuff is incomprehensible. One does hear similar voices, tho, in the different arts. Cut out Le Corbusier, etc, and Schoenberg, etc, Picasso, etc, Ezra Pound, etc - that sort of thing.

Modernism, as something detached from a long tradition, seems silly. Nothing much changed around 1909/1910. Maybe electrification, tech things...

What use can you get out of Wright - sure the thing is falling into Bear Run Creek or whatever that water is - but what did he do right?

Posted by: rex on December 12, 2003 03:11 AM



Really, Michael, how dare you enthuse about someone like Cret? I mean, all he did was design attractive, functional buildings. So what? In the process, he did nothing for Architecture!

Maybe Modernism triumphed because the Modernists were the first guys to use the notion of Architecture with a capital A as a marketing tool.

Ya think?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 12, 2003 10:56 AM



Alan -- The great Dr. Salk left his mark on you!

Annette -- I wish you'd been a fellow student in all my lit and art classes. They'd have been a lot livelier than they were. Why do you suppose the art intellectuals are so antagonistic towards common sense? Is it because they can't make head nor tail out of the human content of work, only the formal properties of it?

Tim -- Shh, but I actually like some modernist art and writing and design. (Although architecture, being a public art, strikes me as a special case.) What I dislike is the modernist-etc. stranglehold on the way the arts are thought of and discussed, their self-assigned right to say what's "art" and what isn't "art." I think it's inevitable (especially given electronics and the web) that their monopoly is going to crumble soon, but anything I can do to hasten the process along is something I can get enthusiastic about. I wonder what'll rise up from the ruins. Any hunches?

Rex -- Good observations, thanks. One of the probs with modernist architecture is that it hasn't aged well. Their choice of materials and their love of blankness seems to lead to their work looking decrepit very quickly. Brick and stone that are worked in traditional ways often seem to acquire dignity and a rich patina with age, where modernist buildings just look shitty. They seem to move from brand-spanking-new gloss and kapow to "Blade Runner"-ville awfully fast. Good to hear that Exeter's endowment is huge these days. Back in '73, the cost of maintaining the Library was a worry that was spoken of quite openly -- there were those who regretted having commissioned a building with such a vast empty atrium. Sounds like it's not a worry now.

FvB -- Maybe what the modernist architects did was abstract the "architecture" out from the traditional bundle of functions architecture once served, and then pushed that abstract thing as what they had to offer. Classic case of deriving theory, abstracting things, and then applying the abstract theory, which seldom seems to lead to any good. Similar to what painters did, no? I mean, that whole process whereby painters decided that since photography could take care of making recognizable images so easily, they had to market something else ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 12, 2003 12:58 PM



I'm tempted to relate a story from when I spent a year in Rochester with my wife some years ago. We went to a chamber music concert held in the First Unitarian Church. I had never been there before, but had the address. For some reason, I drove by it three or four times before I checked the street number and drove in. This was such a disconcerting experience that it left me worried throughout the time we waited for the concert to begin. How could I have missed this building, standing apart and so clearly indicated?

I had to draw this very disturbing conclusion by re-playing my memory of what really occurred on the numerous drive-bys. The reason I did not see the building is that I was expecting to see a church, and this building looked like a maximum-security prison. My mind could not possibly reconcile the actual object in front of me with my previous expectation.

I of course looked around once inside, and discovered that it was designed by Louis Kahn. I did not know this beforehand, and at that time was not yet taken up by architectural questions.

The interior was so disturbing in its raw concrete slab form that I could not pay attention to the concert -- the surfaces ruined what would have been a lovely performance of the Brahms Horn trio. I'm talking about visual effects and not acoustics. I asked my wife to leave at the intermission.

Several years later we lived in Dallas, and went to the Kimbell Museum often -- but that's a story for another time.

Best wishes to all.

Posted by: Nikos Salingaros on December 12, 2003 01:19 PM



The First Unitarian really does have that bunker-like quality, doesn't it. Would love to hear about your experiences with the Kimbell.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 12, 2003 01:42 PM



How refreshing. Growing up in Fort Worth, all I heard was local boosterism about the beauty of the Kimbell, blah blah, when I found it so distinctly underwhelming. The light through various high windows and skylights seems to fall oddly, and I remember not always being able to get a good look at a painting or sculpture easily because of a shaft of light or patch of shadow in the way--surely a problem in a museum.

Actually, architecturally speaking, the nearby Will Rogers Coliseum

http://www.fortwortharchitecture.com/cd/willrogers.htm

has some very interesting, if crumbling, Art Deco ornaments. Also the State Fairgrounds in Dallas. I wish the cities would spend more money keeping those up and less blathering about revolutionary uses of concrete, surely the least inspiring of building materials.

Posted by: emjaybee on December 12, 2003 03:13 PM



Bravo. What a pleasure to read. I'm not sure you aren't insulting Finnish institutional buildings, however.

You have hit exactly on my main complaint about most modernist architecture -- the architects aren't especially interested in how their buildings work and feel, qua buildings. Their interest focuses on producing mega-monumental sculpture. "Look at me" indeed. There's a sort of grand solipsistic hubris in the way the architects seem to have absolutely no regard for how their building will fit in and interact with extant buildings, byways, vistas, and the general human environment, let alone how people will feel about working in and around them in an everyday way. Seldom does the question of harmony with existing needs seem to even enter in the scheme, let alone become recognized in the final structure.

One of these days I'll have a t-shirt made for myself which almost no one will understand, which will read:

"Architecture is not sculpture.
Sculpture is not philosophy.
Philosopy is not physics.
Get over it."

You've nicely addressed the "Arcitecture is not sculpture."

Posted by: Ulrika O'Brien on December 13, 2003 02:18 PM



Oh, and a final thought: why has modernism (which, I agree, does essentially include pomo) had such a long run? Because it's cheap to build. Any style that genuinely marked a return to decoration would require the reconstitution of craft labor to build it. Since the great trend at the moment is to export all manufacturing labor to the cheapest available developing nation, and to lock out, downsize, or otherwise phase out skilled labor wherever it flourishes, to replace it with "service workers" who do the same job with less security and leverage, the economic juggernaut is entirely against any real revolution in architecture toward a more human paradigm.

Posted by: Ulrika O'Brien on December 13, 2003 02:25 PM



Ulrike -- Perfecto: You've made the case much better (and faster) than I did, thanks.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 13, 2003 02:48 PM



"Any style that genuinely marked a return to decoration would require the reconstitution of craft labor to build it."

Hmm...Interesting.

Then how does one square that statement with the reality that most of the terrific buildings we like from the late 19th and early 20th century are an applique of factory-made objects? There is skill but not an awful lot of craft or artistry in taking factory-made moldings (inside- and outside-corners etc etc in wood, plastic and metal) and cutting them to length and attaching them to to a box. More dollars yes but the skills are all there in the labor pool. It's simply that people, the buyers and renters, in the absence of slave and cheap immigrant labor, are not willing to pay what it costs. Blame "the system" if you like but just recall, please, that all those beautiful buildings of the past were the product of repressive class-bound societies.

Sad ? Maybe. But does it condemn us to a world absent of comfort and delight? Hardly.

Moreover, institutional buildings such as the Salk -- as one instance-- are not a cheap buildings. Even though bare and austere, the Salk appered to me to be very well-detailed and constructed.

Posted by: David Sucher on December 15, 2003 12:32 AM



The success of "modernist" architecture:

It catered to the widespread neophilist tendency of the 20th century. From 1850 to 1950, science and technology had explosive success. Just about everything in everyone's daily lives changed radically for the better during this period, and was continuing to get better. During this process, metal and machinery, formerly rare, became ubiquitous. The result was that by the end of this period, this new and different look of metal-glass-and-machinery acquired very strong positive associations. People wanted _stuff_ with that "new" look, because they had internalized the idea that "new" was better.

The modernist aesthetic didn't conquer everywhere and everything, of course. Consider... silverware. The old floral/curlicue designs were still produced, but people now also bought squared-off machine-like 'modern' designs. Architecture was similarly affected. (Furniture, too. Clothing largely escaped, as metal, glass, straight lines, and flat surfaces are utterly impractical for clothes.) Architecture added concrete to metal and glass, that being the 'modern' material of construction.

The "new" aesthetic got an economic boost - omitting traditional applied decoration was cheaper. (Though not as dramatically so as was touted.) And a box is an easy way to build large buildings.

It got another, subtler boost from the great improvements in building technology that were happening. As noted, many modernist buildings have serious practical problems. But the technologies of construction, heating, lighting, and ventilation improved so much that all but the very worst designs managed to be at least marginally functional. In the absence of outright failure, the emotional grip of modernist fashion still controlled.

That fashion was interwoven with the ideology of architectural auteurism as promoted by the Bauhausers. "This is what you should build, and You, The Architect, should pay no attention to mere clients." The esthetic component could have been traditionalist, or something independent like Wright. But it was modernism, and there was a market for modernism, and fashionable architects pushed it hard, along with the doctrine of their supremacy. (Louis Kahn's Yale Art Gallery annex is a good example.)

It should be noted that in its most concentrated form it sold mainly to museums, colleges, and governments, the institutions most easily dominated by intellectual fashions. Private homes remained almost exclusively traditional.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on December 15, 2003 08:35 PM



When most people speak of "traditional" architecture in America, they are refering to European derivatives. European architecture doesn't "fit" in America. At least Modernist architecture challenged the aesthetic status quo and served to rid our cities of some of the Euro copies. Perhaps now the palate has been cleansed and we can get back to a search for our own style; an American architecture that reflects our unique culture and aesthetic.

Posted by: Pete on December 26, 2003 01:30 AM



The Yale galleries designed by Kahn, The Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art, the bookends of his career, are certainly not "beat up", and in my considerable experience with museums great and small, are two of the most humane, perfectly scaled and lovely art galleries I have visited. There are certainly more beautiful and grander buildings that house collections of art, but most of them were not designed inside and out for the institutional display of art for public consumption, which is a relatively recent (late 19th century) concept.

The YUAG, Kahn's early commission, is in the process of receiving a renovation, so I don't know if Kahn's son filmed it during or before such work; perhaps that is why some of you seem to think it looks "beat up". But regardless of that, the completely modular interior walls, which facilitate the configuring and reconfiguring of the gallery spaces for changing displays, and the complex pyramidal patterns of the ceilings, which mask (but don't hide) the wiring, ventilation and lighting systems, seem to me an elegant and structural solution to the essential needs of an art gallery space.

And the Yale Center For British art is immaculate, and was during my time at Yale five years ago, so there is nothing there that can substantiate the charge of "beat up" for that building. Even moreso than the adjacent YUAG, the YCBA is a perfect solution, and features both intimate spaces and grand, towering internal galleries, both the stone-like profusion of concrete textures and the warmth (and British-like) softness of wood panelling and details. It is also one of the most light-flooded art museums I can think of, with a profusion of window panels and skylights.

Give these buildings a visit before you decide to condemn them. Architecture is not easily conveyed through films or photographs. and while I don't like all of Kahn's work, I am very wary of making judgements about art from second hand accounts and especially about letting character judgments inflect aesthetic concerns.

Just my quick two cents. Thanks for at least giving Kahn space and trying to come to a reasoned conclusion rather than a quick dismissal.

Posted by: goldsmith on March 10, 2004 02:13 PM



Just got back from watching "My Architect" (it opened in Houston this weekend). I agree about the schmaltziness of the film's theme; otherwise, I enjoyed it. Kahn succeeded in showing the strong points of his father's best work, in particular the Bangladeshi capitol. (On the other hand, I was not amused by the younger Kahn's hatchet job on Edmund Bacon.)

UT-Austin is a charming campus, and the Paul Cret buildings are its jewels. I spent two years at UT, and marvelled as much at the beauty and proportion of the West Mall on the day I left as I did on the day I arrived (and almost every one of the 700 days in between).

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