Modern life

Speaking Ill

One should not speak ill of the dead, it is said. Yet in a week fill with encomiums for Dave Brubeck (1920-2012) and Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012) it is hard to hold back. When I started listening to jazz, in the late 1950s, the Dave Brubeck Quartet was already famous—or at least as famous as jazz musicians got at that time. I loved Paul Desmond, and Joe Morello could do no wrong (I was a drummer), but I never warmed to Brubeck himself. Me and my friends much preferred Ahmad Jamal, Monk, and Bill Evans.

Nor was I ever an admirer of Oscar Niemeyer. His curvy, rather simplistic one-note architecture never appealed to me. Nor did his authoritarian ideas about city planning. Robert Hughes called the city of Brasilia“a Carioca parody of La Ville Radieuse.” And so it is, a dystopian parody, “an expensive and ugly testimony to the fact that, when men think in terms of abstract space rather than real place, of single rather than multiple meanings, and of political aspirations instead of human needs, they tend to produce miles of jerry-built nowhere.”

 

Simply Ike

The final review of Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C., has been postponed yet again and the project seems more and more likely to be shelved. In a recent letter to Sen. Daniel Inouye, John S. D. Eisenhower, the President’s son, raises an issue that has nothing to do with the quality of Gehry’s design (which I have supported), nor with the over-wrought classical-modernist debate. Why couldn’t the memorial simply be “a green open space with a statue in the middle” he asks? Good question. Ever since the FDR Memorial spread over more than seven acres, memorial sponsors have felt the need to appropriate large sites, and then fill them up with water basins, fountains, figures, walls, and reams of quotations. The lackluster Korean War Memorial occupies over two acres, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial uses three acres, Martin Luther King Jr.’s overblown memorial sits on four acres, and the memorial to World War II consumes no less than seven. John Eisenhower’s suggestion of turning the four acres of the  proposed Eisenhower memorial into a green square with a single statue of the President would reverse this trend. The challenge would be to find a modern sculptor who is up to the task of creating not merely a depiction of the president-general, but a work that captures his somewhat elusive mixture of modesty, shrewdness, and grit. The moving statue of Eleanor Roosevelt by Penelope Jencks in Riverside Park is one model. The memorial to Winston Churchill in Parliament Square in Westminster is another. Ivor Roberts-Jones’s bronze is twelve-feet tall and stands on a plain granite block inscribed with one word—CHURCHILL. The Eisenhower memorial could say simply IKE.

Ask the People

Speaking recently at a British conference on urbanism, Daniel Libeskind called for a greater degree of public participation in the design process. “The people have to be empowered to be involved in shaping the program, not just the program but also the actual space,” he said. Let the voice of the people be heard! I was reminded of this tired nostrum as I was watching Seven Days in May. In a taped commentary, director John Frankenheimer several times emphasized that this excellent movie, shot in 1963, could not be made today (he died in 2004). Imagine, a political thriller without a shooting, a fight, or even a car chase! One of the differences in 1963 was the absence of preview screenings. Frankenheimer speculated that had the film been subjected to a test viewing, as almost all movies are today, someone would have complained about the long scenes and extended dialogue, or the complicate plot and the lack of action, and changes would have been ordered.

Fredric March (holding telephone), Edmond O'Brien and Martin Balsam in "Seven Days in May."

The architectural equivalents of the pre-release preview are the community boards, design review panels, and neighborhood oversight committees that “screen” new projects before they are built. It is virtually impossible to realize an urban building today without considerable input from the public. Sounds democratic, but the problem is that the The Public is often those who shout loudest and complain the most, well-meaning pressure groups, single-issue lobbies, and disgruntled individuals. It is hard to believe that more of this process, which tends to produce improvised compromises and mealy-mouthed consensus, would really raise the quality of the built environment.

The Master Builders

I attended a meeting of the Design Futures Council ambitiously billed as a “Leadership Summit on Sustainability.” Present were engineers and representatives of the building materials industry (whose parent organizations were the chief sponsors of the event), but most of the participants were architects. The last group voiced a recurring theme. “It is important to think not only about buildings but about neighborhoods, and not only neighborhoods but cities, or preferably regions. Better still, the entire planet.” During the meeting, one architect voiced the opinion that architects could design anything. Oh, really? Architects are trained to design buildings. A few architects, like Eames and Saarinen, have designed great furniture, although that is the exception rather than the rule. And most architects are ill-equipped to function as city and regional planners, just look at the urban renewal fiascos of the 1960s. Designing buildings is a perfectly honorable profession, and if the buildings are functional and beautiful, the profession will be respected and listened to, as it was in the early 1900s. Sadly, that is not the case today. Although a few architects are almost household names, they are in the celebrity category, and their fame is as brittle and fleeting as that of Hollywood stars. As for the largest firms, which employ upward of a thousand people and have offices around the world, they are bigger but not better. None exerts the artistic and political clout of a Daniel Burnham or a Charles McKim. “Leadership” remains an elusive chimera.

Daniel H. Burnham painted by Anders Zorn

Portlandia

Dateline: Portland, Oregon. This city is an odd mixture of urbanity and provincialism. A walkable downtown with light rail but with more backpacks than attaché cases—that’s not so odd, but people carrying sleeping bags on the street is. Everybody waits for the traffic lights to change—that appeals to the orderly Canadian part of my soul. Cities are about obeying rules in order to live together. Portland isn’t exactly Manhattan, but I like it. Perhaps this is the new “urban-light living” that a recent article in the Atlantic talked about.

 

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings are derivative—this could be Buffalo or Rochester—and equally sophisticated. The current crop of office buildings is no less derivative but done with considerably less conviction. A little of this, a little of that. Graves’s Portlandia Building is getting a bit frayed (although Ray Kaskey’s statue looks as good as the first time I saw it, years ago), and so is the Equitable Building, designed by Graves’s nemesis, Pietro Belluschi (the first real modernist office building in the US). But compared to the current generation of hacks, Belluschi and Graves were at least trying to make a coherent statement. I look for Filson’s, but it’s moved to a new location;  L.L. Bean has just moved away, period. John Helmer Haberdasher is still there. I must have bought my first hat from this shop 30 years ago. I buy an Italian linen cap, for old times sake.