Architects

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.

Detached Retina

The Fontainhead

The Fountainhead

My friend George Holt and I were talking about how architectural education ill-prepares young architects for the world of practice. “Is this sort of detachment from the realities of the profession a deliberate agenda that’s perhaps for some other useful purpose that escapes me?” George asked me. I don’t think so. In part, the detachment is a legacy of the art school tradition that shaped architecture schools since the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Bauhaus. Of course, artists have always worked on commission, too, just like architects, but the unspoken ideal is the self-sufficient artist—Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse—whose inspiration was entirely personal. In this view, the outside world of patrons, dealers, museums, and the public is extraneous at best, intrusive at worst. There is also a sense that in the architecture studio the external world should be kept at bay, lest it crimp the imagination of the young tyros, who will learn soon enough, the argument goes, about the realities of practice. Thus, even experienced architects set aside their practical knowledge when they put on their teaching hats, and weave the fairy tale of pure design. And then there is the attractive—if grievously flawed—myth of the architect as outsider, as if buildings, large and expensive, were somehow a vehicle for personal expression rather than a product of societal forces.

Soleri

soleri

Paolo Soleri died yesterday at 93. I first heard of him when I was a college student. A classmate, Ray Catchpole, had spent the summer at Soleri’s desert compound in Arizona (he had several sand-cast bronze wind bells in his room), and he encouraged me to go if I had the chance. That year—1964—I was editor-in-chief of Asterisk, a student magazine, and it must have been through Ray that we got Soleri to send us an article: “Computer, Craft, and Art Architecture.” I admired Soleri’s work, several bridge designs, as well as a desert house with a retractable dome roof. A few years later, I almost made it to Arizona but an opportunity to do graduate work intervened. At that time, Soleri (born in Italy, apprenticed with Wright) was already a mythical if somewhat elusive figure. In 1978, Stewart Brand invited me to the Whole Earth Jamboree; the deal was that you could speak to the assembled crowd (8,000 people) on any subject at all—but only for five minutes. Irresistible. The jamboree took place on a rifle range in a military reservation on the Marin headland, and accommodations were army pup tents. My wife and I struggled to put up the tent, and like most people made a botch of it. I looked over to the next tent and recognized Soleri; his tent was perfectly pitched, taut as a sheet of plywood. I can’t recall what he spoke about (I do remember Peter Coyote’s talk), most of the day was spent waiting for Marlon Brando—who never showed up. By then, Soleri had shifted to his guru mode. I was never much convinced by his “city,” Arcosanti, neither architecturally, nor urbanistically. It seemed a hand-crafted version of the misguided megastructure ideas of the time. But I still wish I had gone to the desert and learned how to cast bells.

Collegiality

Members of the Chicago Seven (Beeby at left) with Philip Johnson

Members of the Chicago Seven (Beeby at left) with Philip Johnson

During his acceptance speech at the Driehaus Prize ceremony in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, laureate Thomas Beeby made an interesting point: architecture is turning into an uncollegial profession. Of course, architecture has always been highly competitive. Building is a zero-sum game, that is, only a limited number of commissions are available at any one time, so if one architect gets to build, another doesn’t. Established, experienced practitioners have always had the inside track and access to the best jobs and the best clients; novices get whatever’s left over. But Beeby was making a slightly different point. Despite the competitive nature of the profession, there have been always been periods when architects have banded together. One thinks of the Beaux-Arts-trained group who came together to create the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and the McMillan Plan in Washington, D.C. Or the early modernists who formed Der Ring in Berlin in the 1920s and later CIAM, and the young firebrands who founded Team Ten in the 1950s. Beeby himself was part of a group called the Chicago Seven in the 1970s, a Midwestern equivalent to the Greys and the Whites of the East Coast. That sort of collegiality is rare today, he observed. In a period of signature styles, architectural celebrity, intense self-promotion, and design-as-biography, it is every man and woman for themselves.

Hitler’s Architect

speer

In 1985 Léon Krier published Albert Speer: Architecture 1932-1942, a monograph on the work of Hitler’s architect. The book, assembled with Speer’s assistance, was received with almost universal opprobrium, Krier was vilified, Speer’s version of classicism was ridiculed, the whole thing written off a sick joke. Now, almost thirty years later, Monacelli has produced a facsimile edition of the book, together with new material by Krier and a foreword by Robert A. M. Stern. Perhaps this time the reception will be different, but I doubt it. Speer’s brand of stripped classicism is so much associated with Nazism, and modernist ideologues have done such a good job of ensuring that this is so, that it is hard to evaluate the work objectively. Never mind that the architecture adopted by the Nazi regime is not therefore Nazi architecture—the stripped classicism, or New Classicism as its chief proponent Paul Cret called it, was a perfectly respectable style of that period. And never mind, as Krier points out, that other aspects of the Nazi regime—Leicas, Volkswagens, autobahns, rocketry—have easily shed their National Socialist roots. But if you are able, take a long hard look at Speer’s work, handsomely reproduced in photos, drawings and models, both architecture and urbanism. You may not agree with Krier that Speer was “one of the most famous architects of the twentieth century,” but it’s hard to deny him a leading position alongside such master of monumental classicism as Cret, John Russell Pope, and Gunnar Asplund. The Neue Reichskanzlei (demolished by the Soviets) in particular is a remarkable piece of work, inside and out.

Neue Reichskanzlei, Marble Gallery, 1938

Neue Reichskanzlei, Marble Gallery, 1938