In April 1970 the Historical Society of Chestnut Hill, an old garden suburb of Philadelphia, organized a public panel to discuss the future of their community. The venue had to be changed to accommodate the 800 people who showed up. I suspect that the audience, which included many students, was drawn less by the subject than by the panelists: Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi, and Romaldo Giurgola. The local newspaper referred to them as “three of America’s foremost architects” and “today’s pacesetters.” Kahn was already a national figure; Venturi had built little and was probably best known for Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, published in 1966, although the house that he had recently designed for his mother had caused ripples in the architectural world; Giurgola was head of Columbia’s department of architecture and his architectural career was taking off, he had just designed the American embassy in Bogotá. All three had built houses in Chestnut Hill: Kahn the Margaret Esherick house, a little gem; Venturi the Vanna Venturi House, his mother’s house; and Giurgola the Dorothy White House. By curious coincidence all three houses were for single women.
Almost fifty years later the reputations of the “pacesetters” have taken different courses. That of Kahn, who died only four years after the Chestnut Hill panel, has, if anything, grown; his place in history is secure. Venturi’s reputation is harder to assess. Few later projects lived up to the promise of his mother’s house (my favorite is the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London), and the demise of postmodernism didn’t help, despite the architect’s vain attempt to disassociate himself from that movement. Giurgola received the AIA Gold Medal in 1982, but a well-intentioned effort to expand Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum savaged his reputation and he ended up moving to Australia, where he had won a competition to design the national capital. Like Harry Seidler before him, he seems destined to be remembered—if he is remembered at all—as a purely regional star.
Kahn, Venturi and Giurgola are sometime lumped together as belonging to the “Philadelphia School.” That is hyperbole—they were very different sorts of architects. It is said that at the dinner after the Chestnut Hill panel, they hardly spoke to each other. Still, it would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall.
I came across the following passage recently.
There have always been dazzling personalities that flashed out of the surrounding gloom like the writing on the wall at the great king’s feast; but they are not manifestations of healthy art. They are phenomena. The sanest, most wholesome art is that which is the heritage of all the people, the natural language through which they express their joy of life, their achievement of just living; and this is civilization,—not commercial enterprises, not industrial activity, not the amassing of fabulous wealth, not increase of population or of empire. These may accompany civilization, but they do not prove it.
This was written by Ralph Adams Cram, the introduction to his Church Building, published in 1899. I read this at the same time as numerous fulsome encomia appeared in the media on the occasion of the death of Zaha Hadid, certainly a “dazzling personality.” She was also, in Cram’s sense, a phenomenon. Like so many leading architects today, her work was personal, eccentric, and idiosyncratic, the very opposite of a natural language, a popular heritage. Not an architecture grounded in a particular place, like Gaudí’s equally eccentric buildings, but global in nature, built in faraway lands for faraway people often of fabulous wealth. Accompanying civilization, but not proving it.
The other day we drove to Mount Cuba, a horticultural center in Delaware. The forest garden is part of an estate built in the 1930s by Lammot du Pont Copeland and his wife Pamela, a branch of the mighty Delaware family. We went to look at the trillium garden, but I was also impressed by the house, a very large Colonial Revival mansion that was completed in 1937. The beautiful brick architecture was exquisite, simple to the point of distillation. The design was the work of Victorine and Samuel Homsey. Samuel (1904-1994), a native of Boston, graduated from MIT and met and married Victorine du Pont (1900-98), who had studied at the Cambridge School of Domestic and Landscape Architecture for Women. They set up shop in Delaware, which is where Victorine had family contacts; theirs was probably the first husband-and-wife practice in the United States. In addition to Mount Cuba they were responsible for several building on the nearby Du Pont estate, Winterthur, as well as the Delaware Art Museum. The Museum of Modern Art selected their house design to represent the International Style for the 1938 Paris Exhibition, but they were not modernist converts. “We certainly are not modern if that means following worshipfully the so called functional or international style,” wrote Victorine. “Nor do we follow with blind admiration the great designers of earlier periods. We try to work out each job as a totally separate problem and to divorce from our minds any preconceived idea of style.” Eclecticism is maligned today, but looking at Mount Cuba one can only admire its rigor and sense of conviction.
Rather silly op-ed piece in today’s New York Times arguing that the mayoralty of Toronto’s Rob Ford, which made most Torontonians—and Canadians—cringe, was actually a sign of a healthy politic. Toronto, like Montreal, has regional not municipal government, imposed, I hasten to say, not by popular choice but by a provincial fiat. The amalgamation of a traditional central city with its surrounding metropolitan suburbs, is virtually impossible to achieve in the U.S., although it is the dream of many American city planners. Such amalgamation, the argument goes, would spread the advantages and burdens of urbanization over the entire metropolitan population, shifting suburban resources to inner city problems. Sounds like a good thing. Except that when the suburbs outnumber the city, you get a “suburban” dingbat like Rob Ford, who managed to get elected as mayor (and re-elected to his council seat), despite his embarrassing behavior precisely because of his pro-suburb, anti-city policies. Ford was a symptom of urban success? I have never read about Toronto’s “livable suburbs,” or about the “suburbs-that-work.” The image of Toronto is precisely that—the image of a city that is dense, well served by mass transit, safe, efficiently managed. Toronto suburbs are not much different from their American counterparts. The Times article compares Toronto to nearby Detroit (talk about a loaded comparison). The latter is a ring of white suburbs surrounding a majority black city. I can imagine what the Times would say about a Detroit regionally governed by a redneck white (suburban) mayor riding roughshod over his predominantly black city constituents? Amiri Baraka could certainly imagine it. Back in 1993 I was on a Wayne State University panel with the late Newark poet discussing urban issues. In my Canadian naiveté I suggested that Detroit might be better off with a regional government—spread the wealth, etc. Baraka exploded. That would simply place city government back in the hands of the white majority, he remonstrated. A ridiculous suggestion. In 1993, a fresh immigrant to the U.S., I was puzzled by his response. Now I take his point.
The newly completed Oculus in Manhattan is not just misnamed (an oculus is a round opening, not a slit) it is misconceived. It is not a question of design, or execution, or cost, but rather of the entire concept. Does a daily commute really require this level of architectural rhetoric? Even if this were a substitute for Penn Station, it would be a dubious proposition. It made sense for our forbears to celebrate long distance train travel, when railroad terminals really were the “gateways to the city.” Today, that is no longer the case. Even air travel has become a mundane, everyday affair. just look at how plane travelers dress—for comfort, not for distinction. This does not mean that an airline terminal—or a train station, for that matter—needs to be banal, the equivalent of architectural Muzak. But maybe Scarlatti rather than Wagner is in order? I recall my first experience of Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, some thirty years ago. It was a comfortable relaxing (and quiet) place, just right for the jet lagged intercontinental traveler. Does the weary commuter really need Calatrava’s over-heated hoopla? I think not.