Modern life


Microsoft campus, Seattle

Microsoft campus, Seattle

In the midst of the astonishing sale of the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos, a related announcement has received less attention: the newspaper will be getting a new home. Developers have been invited to make proposals, and while the final choice has not yet been made (and given the sale of the paper, who knows?), some of the alternatives have been made public. The architects include the usual megafirm suspects, and the designs are equally predictable–buildings for anybody, anyplace. What a difference when the Chicago Tribune held a well-publicized architectural competition in the 1920s for its home, and Eliel Saarinen, Walter Gropius, and Bruno Taut were among the entrants. That was a time when corporations sought to present themselves to the public through adventurous architecture–think Woolworth, Singer, Chrysler, RCA. Sometimes this strategy backfired (PanAm, CBS, AT&T), but when it succeeded it produced masterworks such as Wright’s Johnson Wax, Mies’s Seagram, SOM’s Lever House, and Saarinen’s General Motors Technical Center and the John Deere headquarters. Pepsi Cola, Bell Labs, IBM, and Union Carbide built exceptional buildings, too. In fact, a list of leading mid-century corporate patrons reads like the Fortune 500. One would be hard put to compile a comparable list today. None of our largest new corporations–Google, Microsoft, Intel, Dell, Amazon–would be on it. Exceptions: Facebook has hired Frank Gehry to design an addition to its campus, and Apple is building a high-tech donut designed by Norman Foster. But most of today’s technology companies appear content to occupy the safe architectural middle ground. Is it that buildings really don’t matter to them? Or are they sending the message: we’re not elitists, we’re one of the crowd, we’re just like you. Mr. Bezos, the new boss, could change that.


ward just

Ward Just

The protagonist of Ward Just’s latest novel, Rodin’s Debutante, makes a pronouncement that drew me up short, it is such a pithy and accurate description of the American polity.

“I think at a very early age I understood the American system, the country so various, so large and unruly, poised to fly apart at any moment. The system was founded on compromise and reconciliation, an infinity of checks and balances but always the willingness to look the other way until the world forced closed focus.”


nyplI am lending my voice to those who are calling for a reconsideration of the plan to demolish the stacks beneath the Reading Room of the New York Public Library. While it is true that these stacks are not generally open to the public, they are an integral part of this extraordinary building, a Beaux-Arts design but truly a machine for reading in. As a writer and researcher, libraries–especially public libraries–remain for me special places. Library stacks, even more than reading rooms, are their symbolic heart. I think that one of the things that drew me to writing was the experience of wandering the stacks of McGill’s old Redpath Library, an Erector set of steel shelves, glass-block floors, and low ceilings, clanging steel spiral stairs, murky light, and the smell of old paper. In those days, entering the stacks was a rare privilege reserved for graduate students. I remember the ever-present feeling of surprise whenever I found the book I was looking for, the mysterious LCCN numbers hand-lettered on the spine. And then discovering something even more interesting farther down on the same shelf.

Sant Francesc



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.


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.