Architects

THE EMPEROR’S CLOTHES

cooper-union-eng-low-dandelucaNicolai Ouroussoff called the Cooper Union Building “a bold architectural statement of genuine civic value.” Paul Goldberger described it as “the most exciting, energetic, and well-composed academic building to go up in the city in at least a decade.” James Russell was only slightly more circumspect: “Mayne’s high-wire act may offer an important lesson in creativity for Cooper’s students.” How could so many New Yorkers be taken in? I thought to myself as I looked across Cooper Square at the building. The photographs I had seen did make the building appear bold and exciting. The impression in real life was very different. The design struck me as a willful exercise in architectural nihilism. Everything you thought you knew about architecture is wrong. Columns should be vertical–wrong. Walls should be straight–wrong. God is in the details–wrong. The context is important–wrong. Buildings should represent some sort of order–wrong. Writing in Slate about the U.S. Federal Building in San Francisco, I once described Mayne as a Mannerist, as much so as Venturi, although Mayne’s vocabulary was industrial rather than historicist. But Cooper Union ventures into darker, dystopic territory. I found this shabby, crabbed design intensely upsetting–and not in a good way. “Thank goodness for the trees,” my wife said.

TOO MANY WORDS

KrierI was listening to a lecture on YouTube by Léon Krier. He was in full apocalyptic mode, his rousing talk illustrated by his charming but barbed drawings. At one point he recounted a quotation: “I wish I could speak a language where no word is repeated.” Krier couldn’t remember the source–it sounds like Marcel Duchamp or Max Ernst to me. In any case, Krier’s point was that this could serve as a maxim for today’s modernist architects, who judge themselves–and are judged–almost solely on their originality. What makes the metaphor so cutting is that a language of unrepeated words would be simply meaningless gobbledygook, which encapsulates Krier’s opinion of the architectural avant-garde. He maintains that meaning in buildings emerges not from the maker’s imagination but from a shared tradition. He characterizes this tradition as a blend (in the proportion of about 20:1) of vernacular and classical. (This formula is an implicit criticism of modern classicists, who drape the orders on everything–big and small, important and humble–with sometimes reckless abandon.) While I was fruitlessly trying to identify the no-repeated-word quotation I came across another. This one from Alexander Pope:

In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold;
Alike fantastic, if too new, or old:
Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.

PROBLEM SOLVER

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New (left) and old (right) at the Gardner.

I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston the other day. I had been there before, but not since the new addition, designed by Renzo Piano. Piano has become a specialist at adding to prominent buildings (Ronchamp, the Morgan Library, the High Museum, and soon the Kimbell Art Museum) and I was curious how he would respond to this rather eccentric museum–a Venetian palazzo in New England. At first glance, the new addition, clad in a green rain-screen, is distinctly odd. It seems to share nothing with its historicist neighbor. But it grew on me. I think that’s because Piano’s architecture has a certain inevitability; when there is a problem, he solves it, when there isn’t, he doesn’t. This needs saying for so many architects today put their energy into dramatically solving aesthetic problems of their own devising, which often results in complicated and eccentric buildings. The Gardner addition is neither. It neatly solves the problem of connecting to the palazzo by a) keeping its distance, and b) aligning the glass link with one of the cloisters, which produces a new entry sequence that actually improves on the original. I particularly liked the back of Piano’s building: ordinary moves but done with a light touch and a razor-sharp intelligence.

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FOLLOW THE MONEY

guys

Whenever I hear of complaints about the makeup of the architectural profession, whether  it concerns race or gender, I think of a comment by my old teacher, Norbert Schoenauer. He observed that a disproportionate number of the architects working in the housing field in Canada were either Jews or immigrants. He cited Irving Grossman, Jack Diamond, Peter Dickinson, Oscar Newman, Sandy and Blanche van Ginkel, Len Warshaw, Andre and Eva Vescei–and himself. Schoenauer surmised that since housing commissions were less lucrative, they were neglected by established architects, and hence became an opening for “outsiders.” Incidentally, the same was true in the US, think of Emery Roth, Clarence Stein, Bertrand Goldberg, Percival Goodman, and Morris Lapidus. Or Albert Kahn (an immigrant as well as a Jew), who built his practice on designing factories, another neglected field.

 

Social connections have always been a big part of a successful architectural career. In the early part of the twentieth century, WASP clients tended to hire WASP architects–Burnham, McKim, Hastings, Cram, Platt, Pope, Delano, Atterbury. This started to change when European immigrants (some of whom were also Jews), came to the fore: Schindler, Neutra, Mies, Gropius, Breuer, Belluschi, Sert. When Louis I. Kahn began his career, he joined forces with Oscar Stonorov, likewise an immigrant, and designed mainly housing, but by the 1960s, things had changed and Kahn  began to get institutional commissions, and became the leading architect in the US. For the first time, many of the the most prominent names in American architecture were no longer WASPs: not only Kahn, but also Gordon Bunshaft, Max Abramovitz, Minoru Yamasaki, I. M. Pei, Gyo Obata, Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Robert A. M. Stern, Cesar Pelli. This shift was less due to open-mindedness, although that is a part of the story, as to a change in the nature of the architectural clientele. Yes, talent is important, but you also have to follow the money.

SAD ENDS

 

Massey College

Massey College

Ron Thom (1923-1986) is not a name any longer familiar to many, but in the 1960s he was one of Canada’s leading architects, second only to his fellow Vancouverite, Arthur Erickson. Like Erickson, Thom started small, designing prize-winning houses in a woodsy, modernist style that became associated with the West Coast. Like Erickson, he had difficulty translating his exquisite personal designs into the world of large, corporate commissions, and the arc of both architect’s careers contains more tragedy than triumph. Nevertheless, Thom produced at least two masterpieces of collegiate architecture, Massey College (1963) in Toronto and the new campus of Trent University (1963-79) in Peterborough, Ontario. Massey College is unusual in being inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, at a time when most people consigned the master’s work to the dusty shelf of history. It is doubly unusual in looking back to the young Wright of Midway Gardens and the Imperial Hotel. Perhaps it was Thom’s lack of formal training (he went to art school and studied painting) that enabled him to find something fresh in Wright’s then 50-year-old work. Sadly, Thom’s later buildings did not fulfill the promise of his early masterworks. Like Louis Sullivan, Thom died young (Thom was 63, Sullivan 68) of alcoholism.

Trent University

Trent University

Sullivan and Thom’s sad ends are exceptions in the world of architects. According to Vasari, Raphael, who died at only 37, succumbed to excessive love-making, which must be a bitter-sweet end. Usually, when architects die before their time they do so thanks to illness (Richardson, Mendelsohn, Kahn, Saarinen, Stirling). Violent ends are rare: the great Gaudí was killed by a streetcar, Stanford White was murdered by a jealous husband. Most famous architects live long lives, productive until the end (I wrote about this in Slate). I was once told of a Viennese architect who committed suicide when a prominent government building he built was discovered to have no stairs. But surely that is an apocryphal story. Wikipedia lists only nineteen “architects who committed suicide,” although the only widely recognizable name is that of the great Borromini, who suffered from depression.