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January 09, 2003

Mies Redux

Friedrich --

Felix Salmon, our very own gadfly, left a typically provocative comment on a posting of mine about Mies van der Rohe. "Which leaves the building design to, um, the developers," wrote Felix. "And if there's one thing worse than a building designed by an architect, it's a building not designed by an architect." We Blowhards do wonder sometimes about Felix. Given how deeply and often he disagrees with -- and even objects to -- us, well, why does he even bother stopping by? But he's intelligent and provocative, and he doesn't mind a good dust-up. So I'm going to take the bait once more.

Felix will object that I'm tilting at straw men, and he'll be right. But what the heck, what interests me is taking advantage of the chance he's offered me to spell out some fundamentals.

My first, and most important, point is that 99% of what I'm writing here when I write about buildings and architecture isn't remotely controversial, despite how some people (ahem, Felix) seem to take it. Not everyone agrees with me, obviously, but plenty do. I like to think I have a couple of contributions to make to the discussion, but I'm mostly just passing along information. The fact that anyone would consider the information I'm passing along to be controversial, let alone disputable, amazes me, and is for me a sad sign of how passively we accept an academic-media-lefty establishment that is still (if by now somewhat frantically) clinging to its sense of self-importance.

So, a few basic facts.

1. Traditionalist architecture? New-traditionalist architecture? Huh? Wha'?
No, I didn't make these movements up. They've been flourishing since the 1980s, and are flourishing today. There have always, of course, been architects and builders (and developers and homeowners) building in traditional ways, even during the heyday of High Modernism. What's new (or newish, given that this particular movement began quite a while ago now) is that people graduating from fancy schools are doing it. Self-conscious people are doing it. High-end people are doing it. People who you wouldn't expect it of are doing it in conscious reaction against the academic/media/institutional establishment.

People with brainwashings from snazzy schools like Yale, Princeton and Berkeley have turned against their modernist training in order to embrace traditional styles. They aren't reacting against modernism by advocating post-modernism (although there are certainly many people who are doing this). Instead, they're learning how to design and build traditionally. No tongue in cheek, no irony. They're simply saying, Gee, IMHO the whole Modernist thing was a great big mistake, and rather than try to patch it up or redeem it, I'm just giving up on it. And they're proceeding ahead from there.

Some examples: There's a new-Classicism movement (that's right: columns, lintels, pediments, the whole shmear) pepping along quite successfully. There's the New Urbanism, led by some Yale-Princeton grads, which makes an ideal of the American small town, and is one of the more successful recent movements in neighborhood development. (Do a Google search on "New Urbanism" if you're interested in taste-testing some of the many New Urbanist neighborhoods that are being developed around the country.) Even shopping-mall design has been affected by the thinking of anti-modernists such as Christopher ("A Pattern Language") Alexander. Have you noticed how some recent shopping malls are full of variety -- walkways, stores that are in different shapes and styles, efforts to resemble old towns and neighborhoods? For better worse, done well or not done well, like the results or not, all of this is evidence of his influence.

There are developers, builders, craftsmen and, yes, even architects all over the country who are more interested in user-centric values (comfiness, neighborhoods, context, tradition, craftsmanship) than they are in showing off their design prowess. There are even architects working in modernist (postmodernist, etc) styles who do so very modestly.

2. Why don't I know about any of this? Isn't this simply evidence that you're some bizarre loony?
What it's actually evidence of is a strange and tragic development in the history of architecture, which is the way elite-establishment taste has split off entirely from the great mass of people (let alone common sense). There's an antagonism today between the elite establishment and the general run of people that's very unusual, with the elite showboating about, turning pirouettes and sneering at the general populace, and the general populace just getting on with life, with or without a little taste and class. The general history of architecture doesn't consist of this kind of hectoring-and-ignoring, mutually-resentful standoff; it consists largely of conversations -- between the high (the classical) and the popular (the vernacular), and between the present and architecture history itself. "Revival" wasn't a bad word, because architecture history consisted of one revival after another, with a little more being added here and there, new types of buildings and solutions being arrived at, old solutions being rediscovered, modified, and then folded back into the general knowledge and experience base, there to be revived (or not) at some future time.

Modernism was a very deliberate attempt to break away from this process. It was a movement of radicals, and an act of radicalism, in other words. Here's a passage from an interview with the architect Bertrand Goldberg, himself a noted modernist architect:

It's easy for the architect to deal with a single vocabulary, such as Mies did in seeking his universal society, in seeking an archtiecture that would be useful for everything from apartments to jails to courts of law. As Mies once told me, he would 'teach people to live in his buildings'... While I was at the Bauhaus the men with whom I studied had become artist-architects dedicated to the elimnation of 'style' as an expression of the modern world. Style to them was false; it was a cover for the failure of art. The artist and the artisan together would not create style, but by avoiding style would create the thing-in-itself ... What Mies wanted to do was establish a vocabulary useful in all architectural environments. That uniformity can very readily be traced to what we today call a fascist mode of people -- not human -- organization. Uniformity denied the credibility of variance, which a Frank Lloyd Wright or a Louis Sullivan had.

"Fascist"! This from a man who studied and worked with Mies, and who worked in the modernist idiom himself. And don't you love that bit about Mies saying that he'd "teach people to live in his buildings"? (I think it's perfectly OK if images of the Khmer Rouge are dancing around in your head at this point: we will teach you how to live!) You couldn't sell a car, or a computer, or an eggbeater, with that attitude. Why a building?

These days the architecture establishment (editors, academics, high-end architects, certain developers) is pushing post-modernism, cyber-architecture, deconstruction -- flashy, fashion-driven things that look dazzling (as "design") when photographed yet are often nightmares to work or live in and around. (It's one of those open secrets: the buildings that get a lot of press and discussion aren't buildings that people love, or feel good about, or like using. They're the buildings that photograph well -- ie., that lend themselves to publicity. These buildings are the equivalent of people who are famous for being famous.)

These people don't consider the work of the new classicists, or of people working in traditional modes, to be architecture. Why? Well, the same situation we're all familiar with in politics holds as well in the arts; if you think that the NYTimes and the networks and foundations and academia have too firm a grip on public discourse, as well as on people's sense of what's significant, I couldn't agree more -- and, I'll add, that holds just as true in the arts, where the same kinds of people are feeding you the same kinds of slants and angles. They're defining what's news in the arts, and what's worth thinking about in the arts, and they're doing so in ways that suit them, and not the rest of us. Why has Arts & Letters Daily (here) been such a boon for free-thinking people interested in the arts? Because it welcomes brains, input, thinking and writing from lots of points of view. Prior to the Web, many of these points of view were almost impossible to find. Blogging has been something of an antidote to the dominance of the media-lefty establishment where hard news is concerned. Here at 2Blowhards, we're hoping that something similar will happen in the arts.

The funny thing is that there's in fact plenty being published about the kind of work I tend to focus on. You just won't find it in the architecture magazines. You'll find it instead in what are called the "shelter magazines" or the "house and garden" magazines -- publications that deal with how people actually like living, mixed in with a certain amount of fantasy material. As the egotecture world has grown narrower and more peculiar in its concerns -- why should anyone give a shit whether a building is deconstructed or not? -- more and more publications and TV shows have come along to deal with houses, interiors, kitchens, etc. I just dropped by the local magazine store. For every Architectural Record there are probably five shelter magazines: American Bungalow, Country Living, Fine Homebuilding, etc etc. In other words, not only do people like thinking about buildings and rooms and neighborhoods, they're already doing it, all the time. They're getting on with life (part of which is building and sheltering) in their own way, and are already expressing their own preferences. (By the way, if you check out architecture magazines from the 19th century on into the early 20th century, they're quite accessible; they resemble house & garden magazines considerably more than today's architecture magazines. It was modernism that turned the architect from someone who served a clientele into a white-coated, "advanced" R&D-thinker figure.)

And all the while, the elite egotecture crowd keeps turning deconstructed pirouettes, and pretending that only what they do, only what they see, only what they make, and only what they discuss is "architecture."

3. How do you, Michael Blowhard, get away with making these assertions?
Balls, baby, big clanking balls! Well, more truthfully, sheer failure. I'm no specialist, and there are lots of people who know more and have more experience than I do. But I am a longtime architecture buff, and there comes a time when you find you can swing freely and think your own thoughts -- you're no longer exhausting yourself trying to keep up, or to please the profs. I also did a lot of independent research over the years, and wound up meeting with a fair number of building-and-architecture people. I even pitched stories about this stuff to establishment-architecture editors and magazines. Big surprise: I got nowhere with it. The reason for this may be that I'm ugly and have bad breath. It may also be that the editors considered my ideas to be non-stories about non-architecture.

4. What is it that's widely-known about the failures of modernism?
A lot that's widely acknowledged even by the modernist establishment itself these days. Modernism has always been lousy at creating public spaces, for instance; they can build striking individual buildings, but have never shown any gift for, let alone much interest in, knitting them into neighborhoods. They've stunk at parks, too; their conviction that parks="open space" has resulted in unused, even dangerous parks, cracked, dirty and windy plazas, blocks that were once bustling that are now avoided.

Streetscapes often suffer when a modernist building is inserted into them -- so much so that some critics have argued that modernist architects in fact simply don't like cities. (Le Corbusier especially seemed to have it in for cities.) Even the way some modernist architects talk can make you suspicious. They sometimes talk not about building a new building, or enhancing a block, but about "making an intervention in the urban fabric."

It's widely acknowledged that modernist architects played a huge role in the 1950s-through-early-'70s scandal known as "urban renewal." In this country, this is the shame they can't live down, the guilt that haunts them. They were in love with huge buildings, huge plazas, huge "interventions," huge housing schemes. They imagined they were making the world better, and gosh what an opportunity to make some money too! They were eager collaborators in the worst period in the history of the American city. Given one of the biggest chances architects have ever been given to strut their stuff, what did the Modernists do? They drove people out of cities in droves. Experiment run, experiment failed, as far as I'm concerned.

In fact, in a general way, and exceptions allowed for, modernist architecture has been the embodiment, in building terms, of the giant top-down social-engineering approach to things that many people have become suspicious of. The buildings and projects currently being marketed by the elites are looser-goosier (deconstructed, torqued, dematerialized) than the old ones (they're said to be more "pluralistic"), and have been given a twinkly cyber-database look that I guess can be taken as glamorous. But it's still basically the same top-down stuff, and it's coming from the same sorts of Great-Society people. They want to tell you how to live and what's good for you, and they want you to cheer them on for it, and to give them awards for being so brilliant.

Modernist (and post-modernist and deconstructed, etc) buildings have too often been built at the expense of pleasure, beauty, and neighborhood. Even function. For a quick reference, here's Peter Sjeldahl, the New Yorker's art critic, writing about Tadao Ando's Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth. Sjeldahl (pardon the spelling, which I can never remember) likes Ando's museum (all concrete, aluminum, water, flickering games with reflection and perception) and contrasts it to other recent and new museums this way: "Many museums these days look their best before any art is installed in them."

For another example: remember Prince Charles and his criticisms of modernist architecture? He wrote a book about it called "A Vision of Britain" (pretty good, IMHO). Alexander Cockburn, who you wouldn't think of as someone likely to be sympathetic to the Prince, reviewed the book. While disagreeing with the Prince's preferred solution (a return to classicism), Cockburn agreed with the Prince about the nature of the problems. He freely referred to the "dehumanizing" effects of huge modernist buildings, and he wrote, "A lot of Charles' views make decent sense."

Another example: Jacquelin Robertson, who studied with Vincent Scully, worked with Peter Eisenman, and who has directed the University of Virginia's architecture program. He's no crank; he's a rather patrician, Jeffersonian, southern-gent liberal. Here are a few comments from him: "Architects are not normally interested in the culture ... We have to learn to protect ourselves from brilliant men while still using them." Robertson himself is now helping create New-Urbanist neighborhoods, including the much-loathed (by modernists) Celebration.

Many people in the egotecture crowd are brilliant and talented, and many of their designs are dazzling. But they're running aesthetic experiments on the rest of us. We wouldn't put up with this from designers and engineers of refrigerators or cars. Why do we endure it from architects?

5. Don't modernist (postmodernist, etc) architects do any good work? Gee, how about Frank Gehry in Bilbao?
Sure. A widely acknowledged thing about modernist architects is that they often do wonderful work rehabbing and updating old buildings. When busy with that, their values (abstraction, simplicity, blankness, clean lines) often work beautifully -- because they have something pre-existing to contrast with, bounce off of and enhance. Modernists have been less successful when they have to come up with the basics themselves. Why? Because when they're creating work from scratch, they're piling abstraction and theory on top of abstraction and theory. The building too often has no real base in anything except some abstract "program." As a result, much of the work they do (especially at the higher ends) is like the clothes peddled at at the glitzy shows -- chic, flashy, and entertaining, and nothing you would ever consider using yourself. (What I'd like to see? Nice of you to ask, thanks. 1) More and better architectural equivalents of the Gap and Banana Republic, and 2) More intellectual/critical respect given to the buildings we actually like and use. And then work from there.)

Another not-unusual thing to notice (again, this is not my contribution; there's no reason to dispute this; I'm just telling you some of what I've found in my adventures) is that modernism's batting average is lousy. For every Bilbao, there are dozens of modernist attempts that flop.

Felix wrote in his comment on my Mies posting that any architect is better than no architect, because then you're left with developers. Ie., it's either the architectural establishment or we'll be overrun by developer awfulness. An arguing style that reminds me of a lot of lefty carrying-on, alas, and evidence (so far as I'm convinced) of a good mind entirely consumed by the NYTimes/Nation/Village Voice point of view, where everyone is always on the verge of yelling "it's our way or it's fascism!" To such people, the jackboots are always about to tromp around the corner, and the only solution to the crisis is ... Well, you name it: more welfare, more expertise, more government intervention, more architecture. It's always more, and it's always top-down.

But to take on a couple of points that seem implicit in what Felix wrote (and to enjoy the fun of having a go at some Felix-supplied straw men -- thanks, Felix!):

*Felix seems to be setting up an exciting, vivid clash: architects (good!) vs. developers (bad!). This is the kind of melodramatic worldview that many people (especially in the world of the arts, and in journalism) find satisfying. Let's just say that it may be a little simplistic. There are bad architects and good developers, too. And, let's face it, without developers, architects wouldn't have much to do.

*Felix seems to be under the impression that life without architects would be awful, or at least ugly. Yet many of our best small towns and many of our best city blocks were built without architects, let alone star architects. May I suggest a couple of books to anyone whose interest is piqued by this fact? "Architecture Without Architects" by Bernard Rudofsky, an illustrated discussion of folk architecture from around the world, and "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" by Jane Jacobs. Colin Ward's books on architecture are good in a similar way too.

A fun topic to look into is the history of "pattern books." These were mix-and-match housing recipe books, basically, which were very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were put together by designers, artists, and architects, and were full of designs, styles, and ideas. And they were meant to be used as owners and builders saw fit. You lived in a small town or the country and you wanted to build a new house? You might very well have picked up some ideas from a pattern book and then contracted with a local carpenter to have such a house made. The local carpenter would have done things in his way, you'd have argued some, the house would have gone up. That's how many of the old houses we cherish so much today were built. No architect. Rather like shopping at the Gap, in fact.

I repeat that almost none of the above is my opinion. Instead, it's stuff that I found out during my years of poking around the architecture world. It's simply a fact that everyone in the building and architecture world is reacting in one way or another to the essential arrogance and failure of modernist architecture. Some kick it around, goose it up, call it post-modernism, and peddle it all over again; some argue that modernism has now become an accepted historical style and demand (amazingly, to my mind) that crumbling modernist buildings be treasured by the historical-preservation crowd as much as, say, an old Beaux-Arts wedding-cake building. Some people looked at modernist architecture and never got on board; others got on board, didn't like what they saw, and have since jumped ship.

My own view is pretty boring: accept that there are going to be developers, and celebrate the good ones; accept that everything's imperfect; welcome good input from all over. Don't be ridiculously demanding. Accept incremental improvements. I recall an architecture critic who wrote a blazingly angry review of a New Urbanist suburb. Why, he sputtered, it didn't address the deep underlying social problems at all! And the gingerbread on the houses! Sputter, sputter. All very academic, somewhat Marxist, and thunderingly angry. Why, after all the hoopla, it was just a suburb! Outrage, fume, sputter. A letter to the editor came in from a reader saying, Gee, but it's a nicer suburb than most, and can't we value that? Well, the reader, not the critic, won my vote.

And anyway, there has been more continuity in designing and building than the modernists want you to know about. Because they and their descendents still control the conversation, you just don't hear about it much. There have been architects and builders behind such much-loved buildings and styles as pueblo houses, arts and crafts bungalows, and Spanish-revival hotels. And we live with good work, too, every day, even if we don't think about it much. Who designed and built the houses in the neighborhoods you like the best near where you live? That new shopping plaza that's so much more pleasant than the old one? Who's behind that? That park your kid enjoys? How did it come into being? What was done right there? And by whom?

But enough of my interminable griping about modernism. If you want praise for modernist (postmodernist, etc) architecture, or a good soak in the modernist brain-set, all you have to do is pick up any architecture magazine. (And, hey Felix, why are you giving your very intelligent, high-class writing in praise of the usual modernist suspects away for free? There are editors out there who will pay you decent money for it!) This is a blog, and why not have a little offbeat fun with it? So I've decided to lay off the whining and bitching from here on out. Instead: positivity! I'll provide short and easy discussions of designers and builders the textbooks and architecture pages don't tell you about, and I'll suggest books and readings your profs, drenched in theory and PC nonsense, probably don't even know about, and would be horrified by if they did know.

Here's a fun start: the critic and author Philip Langdon, who really is an expert about all this, giving a talk entitled "The Revival of Traditional American Community Design," here.



Update: Chris Bertram, here, writing about his own thoughts and experiences, adds much in the way of nuance and information. I'm hoping Chris returns to the subject regularly.

Apologies to everyone for the somewhat stressed-out and pedantic tone of this posting, by the way. Both represent deep personal flaws, of course. But I can also plead a bad cold and a busy day at work...

posted by Michael at January 9, 2003


Great post Michael. One problem with developers as opposed to architects is that they have a shortish time-horizon (about 30 years). I've posted a few further remarks on my blog.

Posted by: Chris Bertram on January 10, 2003 10:07 AM

I agree with your assessment of modern architecture, and appreciate both architects and developers who strive to put community and people back into the equation.
However, I get a little nervous about these planned communities. It reminds me of my first introduction to Minneapolis when we visited my wife's family (I'm from New England). I was impressed with the smallish houses, many sidewalks, treelined streets, and the alleys which service all the houses. But I also found that the social mores about "keeping house" -which were just then breaking down- were incredibly restrictive. My wife's uncle was famous as one of the first people to actually plant flowers in the strip between the sidewalk and the street (they call it a boulevard). This was not only considered radical, but as something that could be dangerous to the shared sense of community. When he added ivy and bushes instead of a lawn, it was quite a scandal.
It seems to me, that kind of neatnik conformity must be guarded against whenever a planned community is developed.

Posted by: Michael L on January 10, 2003 10:13 AM

A data point:

I live in downtown Bethesda Md., where recent in-fill development (Bethesda Row) has been hailed as a great success for 'New Urbanism', 'Smart Growth', etc. And, truth to tell, the development has been a case where good ideas and good practices actually came together to produce an impressive result.

But the catch is that good development takes a long time (the complete Bethesda Row development plan will take ten years to complete), a lot of money, and a real estate developer who is patient, ambitious, -and- willing to take risks. In this case, shares of the developer of Bethesda Row (Federal Realty Investment Trust) have been hammered by the stock market, and FRIT will not be doing any more of this sort of development.

Posted by: Matt on January 10, 2003 10:30 AM

hay everyone
i'am the biggest fan of gehry frank. he is one of my fravirite architects. also cause i'am double majoring into civil and architectrual engneering. keep send me his biodata..and his famous work and best wish to..all future architecture.

Posted by: ankita panchal on January 22, 2003 6:06 PM

hay everyone
i'am the biggest fan of gehry frank. he is one of my fravirite architects. also cause i'am double majoring into civil and architectrual engneering. keep send me his biodata..and his famous work and best wish to..all future architecture.

Posted by: ankita panchal on January 22, 2003 6:06 PM

If something look to good sit back, to see what people has to say about the structure. I have read number of novel on this architects "Andrea Palladio" 1566. he has wrote great book on architecture.
First preparation of site, domestic architecture, public building, and temple. i say u all should read it, try to get the best out of it.
in his previos verison of book they wrote many things about "milan cathedral."

Posted by: ankita panchal on April 9, 2003 12:51 PM

I am a grade nine student from Canada, I am taking visual arts and we have to do a project regaring a art career. I chose architectural field to study: what is architecture? What do architects do at work?
How much they get paid? We also had to study about a architect and information about him or her. We had to also show three art works that he or she have done to tell the teacher what they doas an example.
I have been searching for the answers on the Internet for day now and I can't seem to find the answer. I was wondering If you could please sent me the answers and a picture of the artist on my e-mail address which is:
I will appreciate your help seriously!
I have this project due on tuesday and it's Saturday night right now can you send me the e-mail as soon as possible. Thanks!

Posted by: tommy on January 10, 2004 11:22 PM

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