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October 09, 2002

Been there, Done That Redux

Friedrich --

Many thanks for your rant about Paul Goldberger’s review of the Times Square Westin. Goldberger’s an odd critic (as I noted in a posting, here, about his review of the new L.A. cathedral), often on the verge of taking a shot at orthodoxy, then retreating straight back into it. He may believe what he writes; he may also suspect that if he were to blow the alarm on the hoax that is most new architecture he’d soon be out of a job.

Like you, I enjoy sounding off about bad new buildings. (The Wife doesn't share my passion, but puts up with it graciously.) I wonder what it is that’s so satisfying about lambasting awful architecture. Its generally public nature? A bad building is an offense not just against individual taste, but against users, passersby, even entire neighborhoods.

Is it the ponderous self-importance of the architecture establishment? Various malcontent architects have told me that there was a brief moment in the early 1990s when it looked as if the Kremlins of architecture taste were finally going to throw open their doors. Then the doors slammed shut once more, and they have been locked ever since. These days, I know of only three schools (Syracuse, Miami, and Notre Dame) that teach anything but mainstream modernist-postmodernist dogma.

You write that you first saw through the propaganda of modernism when you wrestled with architecture in college. Sorry to say that I woke up somewhat later, but it was also while wrestling with architecture that it happened. I remember (to my shame) reacting indignantly the first time I read Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House (buyable here). Well, I huffed, he has some points, but he just doesn’t really know what he’s talking about, blah blah. I knew a bit about architecture history, see, and clearly Wolfe didn’t get it.

Then I learned much more about architecture history, re-read the book, and realized that Wolfe had indeed gotten it. He’s deliberately provocative, and he cartoon-ifies everything he touches. But his main point isn't just perfectly valid, it's key to understanding what's happened to cities and buildings in this country over the last 50 years.

The two cents that I’d try to add to the discussion is that it doesn’t hurt to be wary of the rhetoric of postmodernism, which poses as a playful rebellion against modernism but which in practice turns out to be an extension of it. Postmodernism can be just as academic and imposed-from-above as the worst modernism. I'm pleased, for instance, that Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown (godparents of postmodernism) think architects should pay attention to the American strip. Big of them! But I find the buildings that they've built at Our Lousy Ivy College as stuffy and shallow as a building with lots of goofy brickwork can be. I mean, decoration's nice, but a shoebox is still a shoebox.

Venturi and Scott Brown's Lewis Thomas Building

The most entertaining and useful critiques of the modernist-postmodern mafia that I’m aware of have come from ‘way, ‘way outside the mainstream. Here's a brief reading-and-resource list for anyone who's intrigued.

Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities, buyable here, helped kicked off the vogue for preserving old buildings and neighborhoods. Jacobs is a natural-born appreciator of the human scale, and her book is a hymn to street life and the genius of the unplanned. Here's a site devoted to Jacobs. Bill Steigerwald interviews Jacobs for Reason magazine here.

Bernard Rudofsky in Architecture Without Architects (buyable here) shows and discusses buildings from old cities, Italian hill towns, Dogon villages: amazing structures assembled without the help of the architecture profession. The book is a salute to vernacular building: left to their own devices, people figure out how to build what they like.

The architecture historian David Watkin argues that classicism is the basic language of western architecture, and that modernism is a bizarre and dead-on-arrival deviation from it, akin to Esperanto -- something no one (but a self-elected elite) wants to speak or hear. Watkin is a bit of a priss, but a brilliant one, and has written a History of Western Architecture that -- gasp! -- isn’t shaped as a story leading inevitably to modernism. It’s the best general intro to Western architectural history that I know of. (It's available here.) If you want to sample Watkin's mind fast and cheap, you can read an informal piece of his on the Web, here.

Roger Scruton argues much the same thing as Watkin -- that classicism is akin to tonality in music, and to narrative in fiction: basic to western civ. But he's got his own vigor and flair and makes his own points. He's more than worth wrestling with, even if you finally disagree. The Classical Vernacular is a brilliant collection of his reviews and essays, buyable here.

Christopher Alexander has taken on the looniness of modernism in a different way. He argues that building traditions embodied the accumulated wisdom of the millenia, and that modernism pushed that knowledge off the table. He has dedicated much of his career to re-creating that wisdom (though, unlike Watkin and Scruton, he doesn’t advocate returning to classicism). He’s written a number of books making these points, and has led study groups in an effort to figure out how people prefer to live. His A Pattern Language is a legendary work on the topic, and it has a fractal/Rubik’s Cube-like fascination that can set your mind spinning on any number of topics. (Buyable here.) Alexander is perpetually on the verge of finishing his magnum opus, The Nature of Beauty, in which he argues that beauty and pleasure have biological and scientific bases. But it isn't on sale yet. He also runs a website that can be of use to people making or re-doing homes of their own, here. He strikes me as rather mad, but possibly a genius. Nikos Salingaros, of the University of Texas at San Antonio, has a helpful page devoted to Alexander here.

Alexander's Julian Street Inn

For what it's worth, I have hopes that the Web will enable more and more people to get over their susceptibility to architectural fascists determined to build monuments to their own genius. Why it should be such a charged, controversial thing to assert that buildings ought to serve the needs, pleasures, functions and tastes of the people who use them is a mystery.

A propos of not much, I giggle when I remember that people in the field refer to the more obnoxious and flashy new buildings as “egotecture.”



posted by Michael at October 9, 2002


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