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June 07, 2007

More Glassiness

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Taking note of the fact that Philip Johnson's famous Glass House is officially opening to the public, The NY Times' Christopher Mason collects quotes from Johnson's acquaintances and neighbors. They describe a charming man, some great views, and ... Well, when it comes to the gritty particulars of the House itself: leaks, crazy-high fuel bills, and floors so hot you couldn't walk on them in bare feet.

As well as -- this is key -- a couple of inhabitants (Johnson and his companion David Whitney) who were, in the words of Robert A.M. Stern, "anal-retentives of the most incredible kind." In the Glass House, there was to be no mess, no rumpus, no trace of anything that wasn't spare, and stage-managed to the final millimeter.

Hilary Lewis, a writer, recalls one visit:

I was there for a photo shoot, and a photographer went to move a couple of objects on the Barcelona table -- an ashtray and a malachite box -- to better focus the shot on Johnson. David silently walked over and moved them back into their original position. Johnson nodded to the photographer and said, "I think it's better."

Just to spell some of my own reactions out: It was Johnson's house and property to do with as he pleased, of course. And the Glass House evidently suited his finicky nature to a T. But...

  • Would such a place suit your nature?
  • How and why should such a peculiar structure have come to play such an important role in accounts of architecture history?
  • Why does our architecture press (and academic establishment) continue to fixate on angles-and-glass modernism?

One possible reason: Although it can be hell to live in and work in, glassy Modernism makes for pretty photographs and attractive magazine layouts. Another: Perhaps the people who swoon over glassy Modernism are the kinds of people -- "anal-retentives of the most incredible kind" -- who live for blankness, transparency, and crisp lines. If so, are these people the rest of us should be taking terribly seriously?

Philip Murphy blogged -- in informed and down-to-earth terms -- about visiting the Glass House here.



posted by Michael at June 7, 2007


I don't know -- in terms of office and public buildings, the modernists have definitely done some damage. But in terms of home building, they hardly seem to have caused a ripple. "Lovely place to visit, but wouldn't want to live there" seems to be the consensus. And it *is* lovely -- it goes right to the eternal childhood fantasy of living out in nature.

How powerful were the modernists really, in terms of the kind of spaces in which we choose to inhabit? 99.9% of the houses I see going up are pretty traditional.

As a side note, I can't believe the Glass House wasn't made of tempered glass. Yikes!

Posted by: Steve on June 8, 2007 11:47 AM

Ka-rrrrrrrash! Yeah, I don't think practicality, comfort, *or* safety were high on Johnson's mind. All for art, darling.

You're right that 99% of residences are in some kind of sorta-traditional style. The modernist establishment never made much of a dent there, except maybe in California, and with some kinds of ranch houses. The market speaks. And then speaks even louder.

What gripes me in this case isn't any monopoly on the market, it's the monopoly on respectable discussions about home design. Mainstream architecture and high-end home-design publications (and the academic treatment of both fields) are astonishingly devoted to modernist and modernist-derived concerns and styles. The occasional space and time devoted to traditional styles is done in a spirit of condescension and concession -- oh, those funny clueless, stuffy people.

This has two bad effects, as far as I'm concerned. One is that it (obviously) overemphasizes the importance of modernism. The other is that it forecloses needed discussions about traditional designs and houses. Most suburban-trad designs are lousy and clueless -- they need acknowledgement, looking-into, criticism, and better suggestions. That doesn't happen, at least not within the chic-er and more academically-endorsed architecture and design worlds, whose solution to everythign is to go modern.

A funny upshot of all this is that there's been a weird division into "architecture and design" on the one side and "shelter" on the other. The architecture and design crowd has very little interest in how people live, or like to live -- you almost never see a discussion, for instance, of topics like "why does this park work and that one doesn't?" in an architecture magazine. Meanwhile, the shelter industry is relentlessly focused on how people really do live (redwood decks!), but is much too clueless about aesthetic matters.

Weird, no? Architecture (official architecture, anyway) has become almost like high-fashion design, mostly fantasy-fodder. No harm in that, until people start taking it too seriously (and in the wrong way), of course ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 8, 2007 12:03 PM

Good point about the high-end design/low-end shelter distinction. Certainly what actually gets built in terms of suburban traditional design isn't very good. I'm constantly amazed at how I *wouldn't* want to live in these brand-spanking new homes friends and acquaintances are constantly buying.

And yet -- are the "shelter" magazines/publications really that clueless? I get "This Old House" magazine and "Sunset" (which has, among other things, a section on home design in every issue). I haven't really surveyed the market for these magazines, and probably there are better ones out there. But the designs/guidelines/tips I find in these mags are pretty good, and do take into account aesthetic concerns. Frequently they do before/after makeovers which are all about aesthetics and efficiency and liveability. And they look pretty good to me. Don't these fill that niche you're talking about?

Go down to your local Home Depot or other home center (whoops! I forgot you're a Manhattanite; do they have such things there?) and check out the magazine racks. You might be pleasantly surprised. Or maybe not -- maybe I'm just clueless on these matters.

Posted by: Steve on June 8, 2007 12:29 PM

No, you're right, some of the shelter mags are pretty terrific, and valuable additions to the culture. I'm flailing a bit as I try to say that the line between "architecture and design" and "shelter" is riduculously absolute, and ought to blur and become more porous. Some of what concerns the a&d people ought to percolate into the shelter world, and a lot of what the shelter people yak about ought to be let into the a&d world.

Or, what the hell, let's just all laugh at the a&d people and go on our merry way, I suppose. Why hang up on 'em?

What's funny, just from an arts-sociology p-o-v, is how many decades behind most of the other arts the architecture world is. They carry on like a bunch of groovy radicals. But it's been many years since, for instance, high-art music *denied* that blues and rock are music. And it's many years since the high-art music world controlled the general music discussion too. Not that I hang with a lot of musicians, but the ones I know have no trouble with this. They think that there are whole bunches of different kinds of music, and isn't that cool? Some people are into classical, some into world, whatever. And iIt hasn't been since the '60s that serious people laughed at the idea that movies are an art form, for another example.

But the a&d crowd (or much of it, anyway) is still living in a world where their snooty/chic stuff is art and everything else is not-art. I often wonder how and why they get away with it. Any thoughts?

There was a kind of break in the '80s when it looked like the whole pretentious edifice might be crumbling. Po-mo was distressing the hardcore modernists, New Urbanism (whose whole idea is to take what people already like and what demonstrably works and then try to sell a classier and more satisfying version of it -- an Audi, not a Chevy) was gaining some momentum ... And then the conversation closed back up again. The modernists and academics regained the commanding heights. I wonder how that happened ....

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 8, 2007 12:45 PM

Hm, maybe the architecture world has been able to remain so insular and out of touch for so long because most people don't think much about architecture, beyond the designs of, say, the houses and stores in their neighborhood. People have a strong visceral reaction to movies and music -- I would guess that most people listening atonal dissonance versus blues develop a strong emotional preference within a few seconds. Similarly, they might not get through more than a few paragraphs of a modernist novel before reaching for a mystery or romance.

For suburbanites, at least, big ugly office buildings just don't impinge on our consciousness in the same way. If pressed, I'm sure that most people would favor the Chrysler Building over a blank glass box, but I don't think it hits us in our gut the same way that modernist follies in the other arts do. And some mo and pomo follies (the Disney Concert Hall in LA) are kind of fun to visit and gawk at.

Another point is that people may be willing to defer more to the "experts" when it comes to architecture because buildings are so big, so permanent, so expensive. Ordinary mortals probably feel a bit intimidated in even venturing an opinion.

Posted by: Steve on June 8, 2007 2:05 PM

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