I’ve been researching Marcel Breuer in connection with a new book. The 18-year-old Breuer started as an art student in Vienna, then transferred to the new Bauhaus in Weimar. He chose the woodworking program, and proved to be so talented in furniture design that after he graduated Walter Gropius invited him back to be the master of the woodworking shop. In one short period, 1925-30, Breuer designed some of the seminal modernist chairs of the twentieth century: the Wassily, the Cesca, the B35 lounge chair. During the 1930s, he started working as an architect, collaborating with F.R.S. Yorke in UK and Gropius in the US, and finally working on his own. What is striking is that Breuer moved so effortlessly from designing chairs to designing buildings. This is explained in two ways. Breuer had completely absorbed Gropius’s teaching that design was a universal discipline, that is, if you could design a teacup you could design a city. So having no formal training in building design or construction whatsoever (the Bauhaus did not teach architecture until long after Breuer was there), did not discourage him from undertaking building commissions. The second reason is that modernist architects were inventing as they went along; they did not rely on history, traditional construction, or conventional building practice. Hence, the lack of training was not a liability. Just as a tubular steel lounge chair had no precedent, so too a glass and concrete building was breaking new ground. It was all new.
Of course, such an improvised art could not last. By the late 1950s, as modernism became an academically entrenched discipline—instead of an avocation—it began to show signs of flagging. You can’t really teach improvisation, any more than you can teach jazz. Neither modern jazz nor modern architecture survived.
A New York Times story described a recent report of the House Natural Resources Committee criticizing the commission that is in charge of building the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C. But the Times didn’t mention, as the Washington Post did, that the Congressional committee has not actually voted on the report, which was released by the Republican majority. Moreover, according to Martin Pederson, editor of Metropolis, the report is the work of a single staffer. The Times headline was Memorial Plan Called a ‘Five-Star Folly’. “If you read the Times account, you would have been led to the incorrect conclusion that the House Committee had called the Gehry design a ‘five-star folly,”” writes Pederson. “No, a subcommittee staffer with a clear ideological agenda crafted that epithet.” The Times article has two interesting bits of information. According to the article “The report also criticizes the design selection process, asserting that the panel chose Mr. Gehry’s approach over the objections of the design jury, which had characterized his proposal as ‘mediocre.’” If true, this would be extremely unusual, and throws a poor light on the commission; it sounds like a canard to me. The Times also quoted a statement released by Frank Gehry that includes the revelation that “I personally have done all my design work pro bono.” Given all the opprobrium that has been heaped on Mr. Gehry, it is a touching admission.
A month ago the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the current building boom in Bogotá. It described a planned luxury residential building designed by Richard Meier. Why import an architect from thousands of miles away, who has never built anything in that city? “One aspect of new construction is important to local buyers: no red brick. Exposed brick is so prevalent in Bogotá that many apartment buildings look the same.” Well, Mr. Meier’s building, which is white steel and glass, will certainly not “look the same.” Indeed, to my eye, it will likely stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. No doubt, other “not-the-same” buildings will follow, and soon this brick city (look at those wonderful buildings on the right side of the image above), will look like everywhere else.
An account of Paul Rudolph’s life would make a good opera—a tragedy. Act One. The provincial rube, son of an itinerant Methodist minister in the South, studies architecture in Alabama. He designs his first house at 22, and joins an office in Sarasota, of all places. Goes to Harvard, and studies at Gropius’s knee. The war interrupts. He returns to Sarasota, becomes a partner in the firm, and begins to design remarkable houses—as if Frank Lloyd Wright had attended the Bauhaus. He completes his Harvard degree and returns to Florida and continues to build. The houses are airy, light, delicate, romantic. Act Two. Rudolph acquires a national reputation. He designs an unbuilt embassy in Jordan, a campus building at Wellesley, and an office building in downtown Boston. All striking. He is appointed head of the architecture department at Yale, and builds the Art and Architecture Building—massive, concrete, brooding. Not Form Follows Function, but Form Follows Imagination. He leaves Yale to set up an office in New York. Act Three. It is the Age of Theories—postmodernism, populism, regionalism—but Rudolph is no theoretician; he is an artist. His romantic monumentalism appears outdated and he is left behind. The Yale building, increasingly unpopular with students, burns—perhaps arson— and in some undefinable way the architect is blamed. His commissions dry up. Rudolph continues to build in Singapore and Hong Kong, but he cannot recapture the old magic. He is forgotten. The curtain descends.
Until such an opera comes along, we have Timothy M. Rohan’s forthcoming The Architecture of Paul Rudolph (Yale University Press). The book shows Rudolph to have been an intensively private man, an introspective romantic, and while Rohan covers the work (although the photographs appear awfully flat to me), his subject never quite comes alive. Rudolph’s buildings, on the other hand sing out, forte fortissimo.
“The best metaphor for getting older,” Twittered Paul Goldberger recently, “all the hills are steeper, but the views are better.” That sounds about right, although from where I stand—and increasingly sit—the views are not always what they were. I was brought up on Sixties jazz, for example, and I can’t help but agree with with the late Frank Zappa’s pithy assessment, “Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny.” I remember when there was just one telephone company, you didn’t actually own your home phone, and it never, ever broke down. And I remember when cities were real places rather than tourist attractions. Oh, well. I thought about the good old days last week when I received a fat little journal called Thresholds, published by the MIT Department of Architecture. Student-edited architecture magazines are an old tradition—I co-founded one–Asterisk, or * as we insisted on calling it– when I was a student. We ran on a shoestring, typing stencils on a Selectric and running the pages off on a Gestetner machine; we silk-screened the covers ourselves. Thresholds is much plushier, 192 heavy stock pages, although the illustrations are in purple, for some reason, so they have the blurry quality of an early duplicating machine. The text is pretty blurry, too. “The individual human subject is the encultured bodily subject.” I’m not sure who wrote that since the magazine contains nothing as mundane as Author Bios. Like most architecture school magazines today, it is determined to write about anything except buildings, and to do so in as opaque prose as possible. I sighed, and set Thresholds aside. I have been reading an article in another student-edited journal, but from an earlier time. In researching a book, I came across the 1977 issue of VIA, which was published by architecture students of the University of Pennsylvania. The contributors included British historian John Summerson, the great observer of the vernacular landscape J. B. Jackson, Denise Scott Brown (the revised edition of Learning From Las Vegas had just appeared), and Henry Hope Reed, the granddaddy of the classical revival that was just around the corner. Also present were such relatively unseasoned architects as Tom Beeby, and Allan Greenberg, whose essay on eighteenth-century furniture I was consulting. The theme of the issue was Ornament, and the editor was Stephen Kieran, who would go on to found KieranTimberlake. The issues addressed were timely, the writing lucid, the presentation clear. I wonder if, in four decades, Thresholds will stand the test of time as successfully?