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« San Francisco Defaces Itself | Main | Everyday Every Day »

March 25, 2007

Dear National Trust ...

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I just wrote a note to the National Trust for Historical Preservation. Somebody's gotta take the hard-reactionary stance, darn it.

Dear All --

I'd been under the impression that the preservation movement came about in large part as a protest against what modernism has done to our environment. An anti-modernist stance is certainly why I at least am interested in supporting the preservation movement.

So imagine my dismay in recent years as the National Trust has taken it more and more on themselves to speak up for and agitate for preservation of modernist buildings. I notice in your Jan/Feb issue two major articles cryin' the blues about supposed modernist masterpieces, for example. (One of them is here.)

I'm very sorry to see that you've fallen for the architecture world's argument that modernism now deserves to be seen not as a disastrous episode in architecture history, but as a worthy-of-preservation moment.

The argument the architecture establishment is making is yet another in a series of their endless attempts to legitimize and perpetuate modernism. "It wasn't so bad ... It was well-intended ... After all, some of the buildings were great ... It deserves love and care too ... Why not embrace it?"

No no no. The current architecture establishment is the direct descendant of the original modernists, and they're doing what they can to entice preservationists into supporting their awful line of descent. They're doing what they can to co-opt their enemies.

Don't fall for it. Insist on the facts: Modernism stank, and was a destructive and totalitarian disaster.

We should be fighting these attempts to redeem modernism, not falling for them. Let's be clear: Modernism was a terrible disaster, the worst thing to happen in all of architectural history. The scale of its damage to our shared environment is on a par with what happens when wars devastate cities and countrysides.

Well, I guess you already have fallen for the let's-preserve-modernism line, darn it.

Would you mind directing me to a truly anti-modernist, pro-preservation-of-traditional-architecture organization?

Best,

Michael Blowhard

(I didn't really sign my note "Michael Blowhard.") I wonder if they'll print it. Any bets?

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at March 25, 2007




Comments

In Britain there is a particularly simple test. Do architects, on the whole, choose to live in modernist houses or in, for example, Georgian? In my experience, Modernism loses.

Posted by: dearieme on March 25, 2007 5:38 PM



To the man in the street who I'm happy to say
Is a keen observer of Art
The word "modernist" suggests straight away
A chap who's a bit of a fart.

Posted by: dearieme on March 25, 2007 5:42 PM



Well, if they do, you don't have an anonymous blog anymore.

Posted by: Ethan on March 25, 2007 6:35 PM



There have been architectural masterworks built in the modernist mode. And Phillip Johnson's Glass House is one of them. Two others immediately come to mind: the office building, Lever House; Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water. I just thought of a third: the Seagram Building.
I'm not at all thrilled with modernist architecture.
But credit where credit is due.

Posted by: ricpic on March 25, 2007 8:30 PM



P.S. Mies van der Rohe, the architect of the Seagram Building, was the quintessential modernist and much of his work is chilling in its severity. But in the Seagram he created a work of burnished glory.

Posted by: ricpic on March 25, 2007 8:45 PM



Historical preservation can't preserve every modernist building, thank God. If they concentrate on out of the way things like Johnson's house, instead of buildings in downtown areas, that would be optimal.

Posted by: Omri on March 25, 2007 10:18 PM



Would you really call Frank Lloyd Wright a "modernist"? Certainly he had no connection to the European glass box style. I would call him a sui generis genius.

Fallingwater is one of the most moving and beautiful buildings ever constructed. One of the great 20th century American works of art.

Posted by: MQ on March 26, 2007 2:40 AM



For all the 2blowhards talk about the horror of elitists pushing their agenda on the rest of us, isn't this another case of saying that your aesthetic is so obviously superior that it should determine what types of art and architectural history are worthy of preservation and what are not? This topic arises again and again here. Each time I suggest that I, along with substantial numbers (even if not a majority) of others, DO appreciate and enjoy modernist works I get hammered ... often personally.

I find, for example, Baroque and Roccoco styles ugly, overblown, pretentious, unnatural and celebratory of the worst aspects of wealth consuming conspicuously in wretched excess. Should those buildings or art objects that exemplify B&R tendencies be blown up or allowed ot fall into ruin because they offend my taste? Would or should I send a letter to the National Trust for Historical Preservation asking that all buildings with these attributes be stripped of protection?

It seems you're calling for rewriting architectural history, not preserving it. Furthermore, for all the anti-elitist talk that accompanies these 2blowhards anti-modernist tirades, each time I ask (in slightly different ways) this question and get no cogent answers, just personal attacks: in our capitalist system, where market forces determine what is and is not built, how is it that so many modernist buildings exist if the style supposedly has no support?

Posted by: Chris White on March 26, 2007 8:01 AM



Your expectations are too high, Michael. As I do historic preservation as my day job, I have to point out that the National Trust is very heavily tied to the government bureaucracry that administers the National Register of Historic Places. Under their criteria for eligibility, any building 50 years old or older is eligible for preservation if it can be judged emblematic of a particular style or associated with important historic events or individuals. Doesn't matter if it is an obnoxious style.

Posted by: Reid Farmer on March 26, 2007 8:30 AM



Dearieme - I think ideas about the arts generally would be interestingly complexified if questions like your were asked (and answered). Similarly, I know a number of "literary" types whose own leisure reading is mysteries and celebrity biographies. And Andy Warhol was a big fan and collector of neoclassical art.

Ethan -- True. Whoops.

Ricpic -- I'm probably being unfair and extreme. But for some reason, where modernist architecture goes, it doesn't bother me to play that role ...

Omri -- Thank god indeed.

MQ -- I don't think you were dropping by back when we compared notes about Fallingwater. Here's the post and comments. Short version of my p-o-v: a beautiful objet, but absurd as a house.

Chris -- I think you and BTM should go on-air with your routine, you the civilized liberal, BTM the pugnacious Rush-like reactionary. It'd certainly generate a lot of fun interest in the arts. My point here about preservation is that the preservation movement got its start specficially as a protest against modernism, or at least as a protest against what modernist-style development was doing to cities. The movement became popular and powerful as a protest against modernism. So it's weird and dismaying to see the main organ of the movement start to view modernism as a legit part of architecture history, rather than as a huge break with (and defiance of) architecture history. And, btw, the academic modernist-derived architecture establishment has in fact made this co-opting of the preservation movement a specific goal. It's too bad to see the National Trust fall for it.

Reid -- There's something about contempo bureaucrats and "progressive" architecture ... I wonder what it is?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 26, 2007 9:59 AM



Mr. White:

You write:

...in our capitalist system, where market forces determine what is and is not built, how is it that so many modernist buildings exist if the style supposedly has no support?

This is a far less straightforward issue than you seem to suppose. Modernism is the "house style" of the New Class--professionals, high corporate managers, financiers, government bureaucrats, the professoriat, etc. (What are described in "The Bell Curve" as the high-IQ professions, members of whom constitute 5-10% of the population.) The whole aesthetic thrust of modernism rather obviously pays tribute to the conceptual, cognitive qualities of this class, as well as to its isolation from the mass of society.

This class clearly has, despite its limited membership, predominant power in our society, in large part because of its effective control of government. By and large, it is a mistake to call the economic policies of this class "capitalistic", BTW, as they are actually, um, fascistic (albeit, not in the concentration camp way.)

So it is very possible that modern architecture can have the support of the New Class without, um, greatly appealing to the remaining 90-95% of the population. Hence, MB's derogation of "elites". Hence, likewise, the fact that residential real estate, where the bulk of the population exercises great influence, is almost entirely un-Modernist in style.

Now, this domination of urban showpiece architecture by elites isn't really any different from the situation prevailing in the 17th century, where the Baroque architecture you dislike was built and designed without much input from the mass of the population. However, pre-modern elites generally defended their supremacy by appeals to past authority and by emphasizing their service (chiefly military and religious) to the community. Contemporary elites defend their supremacy by pointing to their high SAT scores. You will admit this justification might leave the mass of the population somewhat less content with the outcome than in ancien regime societies.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 26, 2007 12:24 PM



How is baroque or rococo "pretentious"? What do these styles of decoration pretend to be? How "unnatural" are they compared to ugly squares, boxes, and endless lakes of glass?

Did it ever occur to anyone that excessive ornamentation is equalled by an excessive avoidance of ornamentation?

I thought Mr. White liked egregious displays of wealth. But I guess that's only as long as the wealth is supporting the modernist charade.

See, now the modernists are going to use the legislature, courts, and government to suck your tax dollars out to preserve these horrid pieces of junk. The process works like this: first, the schools are taken over by modernists, who discourage pursuit of traditional knowledge, and brainwash the kids into their religion of ugliness; second, the modernist acolytes then go on to recieve degrees and advanced degrees, and worm their way onto public and private foundations, bureaucracies, and boards (who require advanced credentials, don't you know) where they enforce the modernist religion to the point of censorship; and last, they then force the money generators (the wealthy by propaganda, and the taxpayers by force of the state) to finance their ugly aesthetic. They have become the new establishment.

Older, traditional, and beautiful forms of art are only kept in place and referred to if they came before modernism, as they provide a degree of legitmacy to the new religion. See, modernism is the evolution and last stage of all the progress before. They need a throne to sit on top of, and the classics of the past are that throne. But anything that resembles those great works and methods of the past, if practiced today, are considered ridiculous and archaic, like vacuum tubes. They are censored and choked off if possible. Nothing today may compete with modernism. There will be no other rivals for the throne.

In addtion, in taking over the schools, they also ensure that modernism prevails because traditional skills are not taught to the students. So now, even if a client wanted a beautiful Art Deco-style office building, no one could convincingly build one because they have no idea how. All they would do is cut and paste from other existing buildings, which is why historic preservation has a legitimate function.

Modernism can easily be restored if it becomes lost knowledge. All you have to do is build the basic structural elements of the bulding and then cover it in a skin of glass, that's it. Whoopee, such advanced style! I can't wait until my tax dollars are stolen to support it!

Posted by: BTM on March 26, 2007 1:04 PM



This class clearly has, despite its limited membership, predominant power in our society, in large part because of its effective control of government. By and large, it is a mistake to call the economic policies of this class "capitalistic", BTW, as they are actually, um, fascistic (albeit, not in the concentration camp way.)

The same can be said of every ruling class from every era. Forward-thinking people with the means to finance big projects and the eos to want to stand out and/or be the first to own or live in the very latest. Whatever style is the "very latest" at the time, then trickles down to the rest of us plebs. This dynamic hasn't changed, only the styles have. I'm sure there were sensible people railing against Neo-Classical edifices when those were first being built.

Posted by: the patriarch on March 26, 2007 1:57 PM



"This class clearly has, despite its limited membership, predominant power in our society, in large part because of its effective control of government. By and large, it is a mistake to call the economic policies of this class "capitalistic", BTW, as they are actually, um, fascistic (albeit, not in the concentration camp way.)"

The same can be said of every ruling class from every era. Forward-thinking people with the means to finance big projects and the eos to want to stand out and/or be the first to own or live in the very latest. Whatever style is the "very latest" at the time, then trickles down to the rest of us plebs. This dynamic hasn't changed, only the styles have. I'm sure there were sensible people railing against Neo-Classical edifices when those were first being built.

Posted by: the patriarch on March 26, 2007 1:57 PM



Mr. White:

One more thing: I would point your attention to your own terminology--to wit, your phrase "market forces." You are reifying, that is, using an abstraction as if it was a genuine actor. I would suggest you think about who the actual humans are behind the notion of "market forces." In the case of urban showcase architecture, those humans include architects, corporate executives as lessors, corporate executives as developers, government bureaucrats, etc., etc., all members of the New Class. None of this amounts to an endorsement by "the man in the street" or implies widespread support of the choices.

I only bring this up to point out how conventional notions, especially conventional political notions (like the U.S. is a "capitalist" country, where "market forces" call the shots) lead primarily to confusion and obscure far more than they clarify.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 26, 2007 3:17 PM



BTW, as they are actually, um, fascistic (albeit, not in the concentration camp way

"Corporatist" is maybe a better term - less inflammatory anywhere - although it tends to get used to mean "a system dominated by large private corporations", which is not quite the idea. Philippe Schmitter was the big man in neo-corporatist theory, but that school of thought seems to have closed.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on March 26, 2007 3:40 PM



Patriarch -- I'm with you on that, but only halfway. There have always been elites, and there have always been elite-sponsored styles and projects. What's different about the modernist thang is that it has been reviled by the great majority right from the outset, and continues to be detested by most. As FvB notes, almost all domestic architecture takes traditional form, if dunderheadedly so in many cases.

As far as I've been able to tell, this was a first. You don't hear about middle-class and working-class Parisians moving out of Paris because they so despised Neoclassicism. In fact, they generally found it attractive and wanted some of it for themselves.

The main reason for the diff, as far as I can tell, is that previous elite forms of building took their place within tradition. Parisian Neoclassicism isn't all that different than Roman, and you can still see all those forms and ratios in American city architecture right up until 1930 or so. And tradition has attained traditional status because it works. So there are good reasons why trad architecture works for most people. It's tried and true, yet ever evolving too.

Modernism was -- explicitly, btw -- a break with the 2500 year long tradition of western arcitecture, a raze-it-to-the-ground-and-start-again thing. I have no idea why anyone ever thought such a ploy would go over with the vast majority of people. It seems like an attempt to defy common sense, common tastes, shared experience, and established lifeways, and it seems to have affronted many civilians right from the outset.

I think it also oughta be said that the modernist-architecture thang is a consequence not just of elites brainwashing themselves and then forcing abstraction on the rest of us, but also of economics. Modular building, planes of glass and steel, open floor plans, etc -- they're all cheaper than traditional building. I'm told that they only appear cheaper -- that operating expenses are in fact huge, and that the buildings don't last long and need lots of maintenance. But who thinks long-term these days, eh?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 26, 2007 3:53 PM



Aw c'mon, FvB, isn't there anything good to say about The New Class?

Posted by: ricpic on March 26, 2007 3:58 PM



"As far as I've been able to tell, this was a first. You don't hear about middle-class and working-class Parisians moving out of Paris because they so despised Neoclassicism. In fact, they generally found it attractive and wanted some of it for themselves."

Dwell Magazine, for instance, butters its bread on the teeming middle-class masses who want a bit of modernism for themselves. So I would disagree with you there. There is an entire market for Modernism that does not include the "elites."

Posted by: the patriarch on March 26, 2007 4:10 PM



Patriarch,

I am not a Dwell reader but I was under the impression it was more about houses and interiors than skyscrapers.

It is interesting that you don't tend to see so many people ranting about how modernist housing and interior design are so awful. Perhaps that's because they're not. Both tend to be very much constrained by personal choices, not committees - there is not a lot of room for Dilbert in the decision process. I rather like modernist furniture and even most of the housing I've seen.

Modernism is an aesthetic and a perfectly valid and effective one. It can be remarkably subtle and elegant in the right hands - even in large buildings. The Salk Institute? The Saarinen TWA terminal? Anyone for tearing these down? Didn't think so.

FvB is on the right track, I think. It is not the style itself, but the interaction between the style, the culture and the political system, that created the problem.

Perhaps modernism is so successful because it's so hard to do well. It's a classic academic fuck-you: create an unsolvable problem and then solve it. Can you build a beautiful building out of flat, bare concrete? I can. Guess my SAT must be higher than yours. Pity about that, poor chap.

It's pretty easy to see how this essentially repellent attitude can thrive in a New Class world, where academic accomplishment is the only legitimate form of social status. It's also easy to see how the emperor's new clothes syndrome developed, and so many second-rate buildings, in which the subtle elegance was so subtle as to be nonexistent, got built.

What the modernists despise about the decorative traditions is that a second-rate architect, a man (or woman) with no real genius at all, can design a perfectly attractive structure in one of these styles.

It's like playing tennis without the net. It's as if the SAT asked you who's buried in Grant's Tomb. Noninnovative architecture, which means nonmodernist architecture, will never be a legitimate path to New Class status.

Innovative architecture doesn't have to mean ugly architecture - just as innovative furniture doesn't (always) mean ugly furniture. But as long as architectural decisionmakers are juries and committees rather than eccentric, Randish corporate tycoons, Dilbert is here to stay. Playing by the New Class rules gives us New Class buildings - the architecture we deserve.

Sometimes I dream about a world where everyone had to work for a living and no one gave a rat's ass about SAT scores. But then I wake up.

Posted by: Mencius on March 26, 2007 9:17 PM



FvB – “Hence, likewise, the fact that residential real estate, where the bulk of the population exercises great influence, is almost entirely un-Modernist in style.”

The post WWII flight from the cities with their teeming tenements (in both “traditional” - not particularly pleasing 19th C. five story walk up firetraps - & “modern” ugly, soul damaging, tall tower housing projects) created the suburbs. The styles of homes selected included Cape Cods, Split-levels and Ranch houses. While at least the name of the first, perhaps along with some ornamental shutters, might be deemed traditional, the latter two styles could easily be called modernist; as were the strip malls, office parks and shopping plazas that made up the commercial side of the ‘burbs. One might even make the argument that the beloved art & craft bungalow is an essentially Modernist style. In short, I’m not sure I buy the argument that residential real estate is ‘almost entirely un-Modernist in style.”

“ …pre-modern elites generally defended their supremacy by appeals to past authority and by emphasizing their service (chiefly military and religious) to the community. Contemporary elites defend their supremacy by pointing to their high SAT scores.”

Are you saying you prefer some type of hereditary aristocracy or a military &/or clerical elite over a meritocracy?


BTM – “I thought Mr. White liked egregious displays of wealth.

My opinions once more twisted beyond recognition.

Michael – “Modernism was … a break with the 2500 year long tradition of western architecture”

And a good part of that break could be attributed to the exponentially faster pace of technological developments. Note the skyscraper as being the creation as much of modern (not modernist) plumbing, lighting, heating, steel girder construction and, most of all, the elevator.

Posted by: Chris White on March 27, 2007 9:57 AM



Patriarch -- There's a market for modernist design, but it's a relatively small and special one. (Outside of institutions, that is -- institutions are the main supporters of modernism. Just out of college young people often like it too -- the Ikea crowd. It's cheap, it reminds them of school, etc.) Dwell's subscriber base (by comparison to many of the more mainstream shelter mags') is pretty small, less than a quarter million. It's a very special market.

A funny thing about modernism is how few people it's won over despite having been avidly supported by the schools and the media for over half-a-century. If you look at curricula and magazines, you'd think the whole country is panting for the latest and greatest in modernist design. But in fact that isn't the case. It's had a big impact on the schools, institutions, and the media. Despite this, though, the overwhelming majority of regular people prefer to live in more traditional circumstances, even in bad imitations of traditional circumstances.

The split for me is like the split in the fashion world -- the fashions in Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, etc, vs. how everyday women actually dress and make themselves up. But the situation in the fashion world strikes me as a lot less pernicious, actually. Most people have no trouble understanding that Vogue and the others are basically peddling fantasy -- they're dreambooks for gals to buy and browse and daydream through (and maybe pick up one or two little ideas from). Brilliant as the designs often are, they're understood to be absurd. When gals want to read about their actual situations, they have a huge world of Redbooks and such to consult.

In architecture, though, the establishment really wants us to think of their absurd fantasy creations as "real architecture," while the rest of what's built and used isn't, according to the snobs, architecture at all. It's just "building" and not worth taking note of except to deplore.

It's a destructive posture (IMHO, natch) not just because it overemphasizes and oversells the modernist approach, but because it gets in the way of useful discussions -- what's the diff between bad suburban trad design and good, for instance? The world would be much improved if regular people were encouraged to think about such questions, and if more pro architects had a vision of their profession that consisted of serving people's already-exisiting prefs and tastes rather than showing off their own egos and supposed geniuses.

Mencius -- As usual, smart and funny, tks. I'll take issue with one thing though, which is your belief that Modernism is a legit style. Where architecture and urbanism are concerned, I really think it's worth taking a strong stance against it. Its record has been terrible -- Modernism was installed in cities, and people fled 'em. Modernist plazas encouraged filth and crime; modernist parks didn't work. Even modernists and their present-day descendents admit that modernism sucked at creating public spaces.

These are immense and basic failings, akin to building cars that were great in theory but that couldn't turn around corners. They're such enormous failings that I can't understand why any sensible person would persist in cutting Modernism (in architecture and urbanism) any slack. As you point out, traditional approaches more or less guarantee pleasant (at a minimum) results. Plus they're empowering -- building beautiful and nourishing buidings and spaces in the trad way is well within the abilities and talent-ranges of many. It isn't the genius-or-die thing that modernism is. Modernism bats about .001, where trad bats about .800. Why is the first guy allowed in the league at all?

I'd be happy to see the Salk Institute come down, btw. I've visited it and though I went to worship it struck me as nothing special. Scientists who worked there who I talked to were pretty funny about how easy it is to get lost, and how not-wonderful the (often oddly-shaped) offices and labs are. They laughed freely about its status as Great Architecture.

Anyway: modernist architecture and planning was a huge social experiment, akin (as far as I'm concerned) to communism, and it just didn't work. It was a complete disaster, in fact, the very-occasional (and debatable) exceptions aside. So why not toss it in the dustbin?

Not that I'm about to get over-annoyed by some glassy-boxy thing so long as it plays by traditional urban rules...

Chris -- The flight to the suburbs had to do with post-WWII modernist development: govt-sponsored highways and freeways, "urban development," Bauhausy towers-in-the-park ... Cities were rendered unattractive to common taste, and the means to escape them was supplied. So people did. And, yeah, sure, by far the majority of suburban houses and retail has been done in mock-trad styles (many of which are awful, of course). That's one of the reasons the architecture establishment is so contemptuous of suburban living -- because they've never been able to make many inroads into that market.

Most of the modernist-eseque shopping plazas from the '50s and '60s have either come down or have been done over in mock-trad styles. Corbusier's own buildings in France are famous for the way that their inhabitants quickly started putting up traditional decorations and besmirching the supposed abstract beauty of them. The great majority of people have simply never liked modernist buildings, and have never wanted to live in a modernist world -- it's really hard to avoid this fact.

You and I probably disagree where skyscrapers and such are concerned too. In my view, the early skyscrapers -- in fact skyscrapers right up through the 1930s -- are anything but modernist. What I see in them isn't modernism a-borning, it's traditional architecture adapting to, as you say, new technological possibilities. As architecture, they're all about questions like, How to use arches and spires and masonry and such to civilize the expansion in technology? How to pull together and integrate such huge (and tall!) pieces of building?

In my view, it wasn't until the steel-and-glass curtain-wall approach took over that skyscrapers became modernist. And then the modernist propagandists started peddling their absurd tale that skyscrapers were always trying their best to be modernist ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 27, 2007 11:39 AM



Mr. White:

In regards to my claim that modernism had a limited impact on residential housing, I think you're stretching a point (past breaking) as regards split levels and ranch houses; while they are certainly forms of contemporary architecture, I've never seen either held up as canonical examples of modern architecture, nor do I think that Le Corbusier would have accepted their inclusion in his "white world."

As for my contrast between pre-modern elites and current day elites, I wasn't expressing a preference for either. I just pointed out that when elites function in a cultural setting which acknowledges only the authority of past, of appeal to the "fathers" or the "seniors," as well as justifying their dominance by virtue of their service to king, church and country, you tend to get some form of traditional architecture, however tweaked. In contrast, when elites function in a cultural setting which acknowledges only that they claim to be smarter and more "meritorious" than the average person (and can prove it because of where they went to college and grad school)and hence they are more in touch with the highly conceptual future than the average person, you get a rather different design aesthetic.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 27, 2007 11:45 AM



Michael,

I'll have to defer to you on the Salk Institute. I have not been there - only seen pictures (and the Louis Kahn movie). I find it very easy to believe that it's a bad design for the things people actually use it for. To me in the pictures it looks cool, but the photographer's art should not be underrated.

I meant Modernism in a slightly broader sense, encompassing stylistic minimalism in general. For example, I definitely think there is such a thing as Modernist furniture, I think it is not out of line to use the same word for the culture of design that gave us the furniture and the buildings - and yet, by and large, I like the furniture and not the buildings.

What this makes me think is that the problem is in the process, not the style. To me Modernism, at its best, flirts with ugly, boring and stupid the way punk rock flirts with loud, dissonant and incompetent. Which much of punk simply is (or rather was) - but if you think that makes the whole musical trope useless, I'll have to disagree.

What this suggests to me is that Modernist furniture and (private, individual) housing is like good punk - the Clash, say - simply because of the economic process of selection that worked on it. To put it baldly, these were items designed for rich people, all of whom had personalities and were at least somewhat resistant to the emperor's new clothes effect.

Whereas the glass boxes and Brutalist monstrosities were more like Official Punk. (I'm not sure if the Soviets ever quite got to punk, but imagine what they would have come up with.) The whole process of Dilbert-Brezhnev New Class mandarin government is almost perfectly designed to weed out anything subtle or ineffable. It is the worst possible fit for a minimalist aesthetic. It stops flirting with ugly, settles down to business, knocks it up and marries it.

Chris, while I can't speak for FvB, I think you might want to ponder another possibility entirely: a society with no parasitic elite at all.

If you count the press (or "media") as a form of continuing education, power in the West today belongs to its educators, much as in the past it was held by soldiers, churchmen, landlords, etc. Like previous elites, this group has granted itself enormous subsidies and privileges, which it justifies by transcendental and mysterious principles of government which are apparently true for all space and time (except, it seems, in Iraq, where strangely they don't seem to work at all).

Of course, educators provide essential services, and there is no helping the fact that educators with higher IQs are, by and large, better at educating. But that doesn't mean they should be subsidized to the gills and organized in a centralized authority structure which bears a remarkable resemblance to the Catholic Church, only with slightly less intellectual diversity.

The argument that soldiers, churchmen, real estate agents, cooks, auto mechanics, etc, should not be a parasitic power elite, is not an argument that these important occupational specialties should not exist. It is an argument that they should function according to the normal rules of economics by which us mortals exchange these and many other important goods and services.

The fact that neither of us can even imagine a society without this enormous, bloodthirsty parasite strapped to its back is the best conceivable argument for starting to peel its suckers off. Ecrasez l'infame!

Posted by: Mencius on March 27, 2007 2:05 PM



Mencius - Private, personal-taste modernism I have nothing against. Why not enjoy it? I just argue that it's been a disaster as an architectural/planning thang, a social experiment that not only failed but blew up the lab. Fun to nibble at the subject for some of the pvt-public reasons you bring up. When does personal taste start to intrude on the public, for instance? What kind of role ought there to be for "expression" in public works? Fun, if muddy, questions. Well, fun partly because they're muddy.

Let me know how you react if you do get to the Salk. It struck me as made for photographs, as many modernist buildings and spaces do. They often do look good in photos! (That's because they're made more to be photographed than used or lived-in.) But when you visit you often awaken to the fact that they look good from that one place and no others, and only when the light and art-direction have been optimized.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 27, 2007 2:16 PM



Michael, you mentioned Ikea. Duh, I can't believe I didn't think of that considering I was just at one of their sprawling complexes a few weeks ago. The founder of Ikea recently surpassed Bill Gates as the richest person on earth. Make of that what you will. Granted, it's furniture, not architecture, but you seem to dismiss the modernist movement as a whole. I'm willing to agree to disagree with you on the institutional architecture aspect, but modernism in interior design and residential housing is absolutely mainstream.

To Mencius: get a blog, quick. Your writing is highly enjoyable, even when I disagree with you. That's quite a trick.

Posted by: the patriarch on March 27, 2007 2:25 PM



Small point: I was recently shocked to realize that the "flight to the suburbs" actually began in the 1880s and the 1890s, not 60 or 70 years later. Commuter railroads and tramlines apparently gave people the same itch to leave central cities as freeways did after WWII. I believe the tempo of suburban flight also picked up during the 1920s, although it came to a pretty grinding halt in the Depression and during WWII.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 27, 2007 4:03 PM



Small note to FvB (I have nothing to add to the post itself that I already haven't said multiple times...it's boring, really):
I read some time ago that the there is a rapidly growing phenomenon of "flight into the cities from the suburbs", mostly by 2 groups: middle-aged empty-nesters and 20-somethings (the latter category isn't so surprising).
I happened to talk to one such couple last Suturday; they just bought a beautiful 2Br apartment in my neighborhood after selling their 5-bedroom house in Bronxville and were doing some reno. The wife explained why they transformed one of the bedrooms into a kitchen: "Here we have such terrific views of the City and the water and all the ships that come - just like us, missing the great city! We want to look at it at every chance we had"

Posted by: Tatyana on March 27, 2007 7:32 PM



Probably too late to get read, but...MB, read your post on Fallingwater. Very interesting, didn't change or necessarily even contradict my views though. I think the greatness of Fallingwater is precisely that it holds in such perfect tension the desire to overwhelm nature with the force of human ego and technology, and the desire to live in harmony with nature. This is a great, resonant theme in American history and character. Fallingwater is the best expression of it I have ever seen, which IMO makes it one of the great American works of art.

As you said, there is an element of humor in the building striving to instantiate two such contradictory drives. But that to me just adds to its richness and complexity. Not to mention just the beauty of the building, which you didn't seem to let yourself respond to because you were too busy judging the egomania of its creator. So odd how you turn moralistic on art sometimes...I mean, of course Wright was an egomaniac! This is news?

Posted by: MQ on March 28, 2007 1:42 AM



P.S. didn't mean that harshly, BTW -- I understand, I think, that you want architects to think of themselves as in service, that from architects in particular humility is important. I mean, you can always just not watch a big mess of a movie, but someone has to live in a big mess of a building. But to me one of the cardinal rules in art is that great enough vision and talent can excuse ego, and in fact in some cases requires it. Of course, this means that the art world is overpopulated by assholes with the ego but without the vision or talent, but that's the price you pay.

And Wright's talent was sufficient for his ego. Which was in any case more modest than the comparatively untalented modernists you criticize. Show me a single American downtown ruined by Wright.

Posted by: MQ on March 28, 2007 1:46 AM



MQ -- "I think the greatness of Fallingwater is precisely that it holds in such perfect tension the desire to overwhelm nature with the force of human ego and technology, and the desire to live in harmony with nature."

That's really well-put, and glad to hear you like the building. I honestly went there expecting to be knocked-out myself -- didn't go in order to diss it. But I just didn't like it. Seemed overly stage-managed (as many of his buildings to do me), and absurd as a house as well. A very beautiful object, at least from the points of view he wants you to look at it from. But the humidity, the sense of it falling apart around you, the vertical compression (my six-foot wife felt very uncomfortable in it) ... I dunno, I just started giggling at it right off the bat. But, as you say, better FLW than the Euro-modernists.

The ego question's an interesting one, isn't it? Architects probably need to have healthy egos. But what modernism gave them license to do was set aside traditional understandings of comprehensibility and urbanity and foreground rationalist theory and individual ego -- not a happy combo in most cases. It's funny: the real titans of western architecture (as well as the many anonymous builders) had no trouble working within and with -- and even innovating and generally being exciting within -- traditional understandings. For 2500 years! Suddenly the modernists announce that they need, they just need, to cast all that aside. Funny how we've let them get away with that, isn't it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 28, 2007 6:59 AM






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