Ah Modern Architecture

We've not really had a particularly good word for modern since, well, Modern.  Post-modern is not really descriptive (even with the modifier) and is probably just used to sell books.  Perhaps this we're stuck with Modernism because, as aesthetics are concerned, we haven't had a great shift away from what just was -- Modernism.  Or perhaps they just took the best word first because they were alive and working first.  

This initially-promising, ultimately-too-short-as-with-most-Slate-articles article article has gotten me remembering the worst of Modern architecture.  My grandfather designed his own home in Cuba (allow me to describe it gently: concrete square on rectangle) and his Bauhaus 'aesthetic' was rooted in the same dialectic philosophy that drove him off his island.  It seems like men and women of that era didn't do anything without a manifesto or theory (getting the groceries must have been a chore).  

Amazingly -- an accident of unlucky history -- almost all of those theories were similar in this respect: rich white men kindly telling worker's that they should want to live in buildings that look an awful lot like the factories they kill themselves in.  As time past, the rich white men forgot why the buildings looked the way they did (why is forgotten first) and wanted them for themselves because they looked different, were in nice parts of town, and were vaguely European and Americans have had inferiority complexes about vague Europeans since before Edith Wharton's day.  

4 thoughts: 
  1. Isn't Frank Lloyd Wright impressive by comparison?  His main interest wasn't theory but how people should live their lives in their spaces, his main aesthetic was a decorative integration with nature and the need to limit choice (furniture stuck to the floors; no basements for no clutter). 
  2. Shouldn't we allow the environment and environmentalism to function as our governing aesthetic?  If we align our houses with the sun, keep them a reasonable size, have our windows let in the most natural light, use renewable materials, etc. doesn't a sense of well-being come from the home that's greater that just looking nice?  
  3. Isn't Frank Gehry's stuff really, really ugly? What about Liebskind?  Rem Koolhaas?  Could 1,000 monkeys given 1,000 years come up with something as disgusting as that Venice Beach House?  I know it's Venice Beach, but come on.  What if these ideas trickle down into the mainstream?  What if we forget that these are ugly buildings, have nostalgia cloud our taste, and then go on living in cities filled with these things (like Tati's nightmare, Playtime)? 
  4. Do we find these building attractive because they were built?  Isn't this a case of the emperor's new clothes?  While not horrible on a Clement Greenberg scale, doesn't the architecture critic function as a salesman with an interest in conflating shit and shinola?  Is the businessman lucky enough to build a building really so easily deceived by namebrand architects and so confused by aesthetics? Perhaps his isn't an aesthetic decision?  Consider Ratner's Atlantic Yards: after much community opposition (it will be a terrible drain on the area), he hired Gehry to redesign the project as if his minimal changes and maximal name would make all the difference in the public's eye.  All Gehry did was plopp out a skyscraper, call it Lady Brooklyn, and hope that by confusing a beloved statue with a reviled project some goodwill might rub off.  Beware the professional expert. 


Sarah said...

It made me happy to hear my uncle's complaints--and he really nails the role of complaining, bespeckled, monochrome clad, effete architect--validated with MIT's November lawsuit against Gehry and Skanska USA. This was a double win as he hates Gehry AND Skanska,a former employer.

Mansfield said...

It made me happy too. You've also reminded me that I'd neglected to mention how many of those buildings are either dysfunctional (Jewish Museum in Berlin) or cease to function (Gehry's MIT debacle).

Still, I hate just being critical and will post a list of new buildings that are thoughtful and beautiful.