Architecture

THE OTHER STYLE

Louis Sullivan, Gage Building

Louis Sullivan, Gage Building

The first international style in architecture was not the white-box style of Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius but Art Nouveau, modernism’s predecessor and in many ways its aesthetic and philosophical opposite. Art Nouveau flourished from 1890 to 1910, and along the way it produced a surprisingly large number of masters: Gaudí, Hoffmann, Horta, Mackintosh, Plečnik, Sullivan, Van de Velde, and Wagner. And that’s just the leading architects; there were also painters, designers and craftsmen: Beardsley, Klimt, Lalique, Moser, Tiffany. Thirty years is a good long run as architectural fashions go, indeed, the International Style lasted barely that long, nevertheless, modernist apologists have always pooh-poohed Art Nouveau, promulgating the view that “the demise of Art Nouveau was attributable to some fundamental internal flaw,” as Peter Kellow writes in a recent issue of American Arts Quarterly. The modernist apologists were understandably defensive; nobody would ever put a Gropius architectural fragment in a museum, as they would the work of Sullivan and Horta. Moreover, the anti-rationalism of Art Nouveau flew in the face of “scientific” modernism. Yet a quick glance at subsequent history reveals that Art Nouveau was the harbinger of a significant strain of modern architecture, visible in the work of Scharoun, Mendelsohn, Poelzig, the late Wright, and surviving today, though without the exquisite details, in the work of Gehry and Hadid. Though there was a brief revival of Art Nouveau, at least in graphic design, during the psychedelic Sixties, an architectural revival seems unlikely. But you never know. As Kellow writes. “Art Nouveau buildings are surely some of the most beautiful ever designed. Not necessarily the best, but the most beautiful.”

Sant Francesc

formentera

 

I took this photo in the spring of 1967, in the village of San Francisco on the Balearic island of Formentera where I was living at the time. The wall in the background is the church of Sant Francesc Xavier, an eighteenth century building, fortified against attacks by the Barbary pirates who periodically descended on the island. The mesh above the court must be there to keep the soccer ball in bounds. I assume that the taller figure is that of the local priest, or brother, acting as a referee, as he is the only one wearing street shoes. I took this with a Leica M3, I think. Like many architecture students (I had just graduated) I was a devotee of sports cars (which I couldn’t afford–my first car was a VW bug, though later I graduated to a Mini Cooper) and cameras (which I could). So what do I like about the photo? Volumes in sun and shade–the Corbusian trilogy–boys at play, the moment frozen forever; it is the world of a 24-year-old architect on the edge of life.

GOD’S HOUSE

Notre-Dame du Raincy, Auguste Perret, arch.

Notre-Dame du Raincy, Auguste Perret, arch.

In an article in the current issue of Design Intelligence, the architect and Notre Dame professor, Duncan G. Stroik writes that the design of contemporary  megachurches, which he characterizes as “non-architecture,” leaves much to be desired. It’s hard to argue with that (see my Slate slide show on megachurches here). But then Stroik goes on to equate megachurches with modernism, whence he elides into the classicist’s standard litany of the failings of modernist architecture. “Gone was the need for human scale and proportions, natural materials, historical elements, and the classical understanding of civic order,” he writes. I am not sure what he means by “natural materials,” but presumably concrete does not qualify, yet Auguste Perret’s all-concrete Notre-Dame du Raincy, an early classic, is a modern reinterpretation of the Gothic. I don’t know that Gaudi had a classical understanding of civic order, but Sagrada Familia shines with his deep religiosity. So does Fay Jones’s Thorncrown Chapel, which incorporates natural materials and human scale.

First Church of Christ Scientist, Bernard Maybeck, arch.

First Church of Christ Scientist, Bernard Maybeck, arch.

Stroik similarly exaggerates when he writes that Wright, Le Corbusier, Aalto and Mies “did very few churches.” It is true that Mies designed only the rather forlorn chapel at IIT, but Le Corbusier built three churches, and Wright built no less than six places of worship: Unity Temple, Unitarian Meeting House, a Greek Orthodox church, Congregation Church, Beth Sholom Synagogue, and a chapel at Florida Southern University. As for Aalto, he designed six churches as well as two funerary chapels (one unbuilt). I have not seen his transcendent church at Imatra, but I have seen Wright’s Beth Sholom, and it is a numinous space. So is the dark cave of Ronchamp. I recently re-visited Bernard Maybeck’s First Church of Christ Scientist in Berkeley. While this exceptional design is hardly a paragon of modernism, neither is it bound by tradition. But it is a moving and much loved place of worship.

I AM A MEMORIAL

VenturiThe book launch of Civic Art, a history of the first hundred years of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, was the occasion for the Charles Atherton Memorial Lecture at the National Building Museum, delivered this year by Thomas Luebke, the current secretary of the commission. In the course of his talk, Luebke made an interesting observation: commemorative memorials in Washington, D.C. have become increasingly influenced by other media, specifically photography. When the Lincoln Memorial was completed in 1922, Daniel Chester French’s statue of the president was the sculptor’s interpretation of his subject (French did have access to a life mask of Lincoln, as well as plaster casts of his hands), and in due course the seated figure became a national icon. When the Marine Corps Memorial was unveiled in 1954, it consisted of a giant statue based on the AP correspondent Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima. Instead of creating an original work, the “sculptor,” one Felix de Weldon, simply appropriated an already famous image. The photo, not the memorial, was the real icon. More recent commemorative works, such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, have been similarly based on photographs. Likewise the current version of the proposed memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Why does this matter? Memorials that simply mimic another medium lose much of their power; they are more like billboards than sacred markers. Robert Venturi once proposed  that a civic building should be designed as a simple box with a blinking sign on top saying I AM A MONUMENT. One is never quite sure how seriously to take Venturi’s offbeat pronouncements, but the current crop of photographic-inspired memorials suggests just how thin the joke really is.

GREATEST HITS

860 Lakeshore Drive (1948-51)

860 Lakeshore Drive (1948-51)

Anyone watching “Ten Buildings that Changed America” last night on PBS was challenged to make their own additions or deletions to the list. I must admit that I was surprised to find Jefferson’s Virginia Capitol rather than his University of Virginia, leading the Top Ten, for it was the university that set the model for the bucolic college campus, which is one of America’s great architectural achievements. But the show convinced me that the Capitol, which established Classicism as the de facto government style, deserves to be included. No one would argue with Trinity Church, the Wainwright, or the Robie House. Albert Kahn’s factories for Henry Ford are an outlier, but every Greatest Hits needs a surprise. Seeing the factories is a reminder of how much more advanced in functionalist design America was compared to Europe (the Bauhauslers greatly admired Kahn’s work), although the Prussian-born Kahn wisely restricted his no-frills style to factories. I’m not sure I would have included Saarinen’s Dulles airport, which jumbo jets rendered obsolete within a decade, and whose goofy mobile lounges had few takers. Dulles never had the national influence of, say, Boston’s South Station (Shepley, Ruttan & Coolidge, 1898). And does the Seagram Building really qualify as a building than changed America? Beloved by architects—though not so much by the public—the Seagram was too expensive to be widely influential. And by the time it was built—1958—the gridded steel-and-glass curtain wall was already in widespread use, thanks to Mies’s pioneering 860 Lake Shore Drive apartments. But then the producers could not have included a lively interview with Phyllis Lambert, which would have been a loss.