I‘m drawn to the broad revulsion by both critics and ordinary people against architecture that’s willful, acrobatic, theatrical—essentially attention-demanding. So I’ve found the diversity of comments on my story running now in Architectural Record (“Obdurate by Design: The Difficult Case of Willful Buildings That Demand Heroic Efforts to Adapt and Preserve”) instructive—running the gamut from vituperation to plaudits.
It’s not that flashy buildings can do no wrong. Indulgent horrors survive the misnamed value engineering and the numerous other processes that shave away uniqueness and idiosyncrasy during design. I want to dig into the strong feelings idiosyncratic architecture evokes because they reflect a cautious cultural moment, a difficult economic present, and a future that looks extraordinarily challenging and uncertain.
The passions bold architecture evokes these days have a lot to do with a belief that wealthy, esthetic elites are forcing our cities to accept foreign architectural bodies. Ego-driven architects in due course deliver chest-thumping gestures of these elites’ superiority, the argument goes.
It’s not so simple, of course. We should see boldness deployed to increase energy efficiency, to serve the underserved, to make public places in which we all can celebrate and argue. Unfortunately we mostly allow developers to deliver junk intended to deliver a simulacrum of what they think we want calibrated so that the split between cost and profit is as large as possible.
We’re getting a lousy deal, mainly, but complain far less about this than about the rare building that colors outside the lines. However, carping about “difficult” architecture is hardly new. Traditionalist advocates have long excoriated every kind of modernism for ignoring historical continuity and offering imagery that’s willfully obscure.
Yet columns, entablatures, domes, and red bricks don’t mean much to ordinary people today. They see them along commercial strips as largely tack-on symbols of gentility. Inside they are pretty much the same old bar-joist box with dropped acoustic ceilings and endless rows of fluorescent fixtures.
I couldn’t include in the story the more nuanced view of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who took inspiration from the telegraphic symbolism of the strip in their seminal Learning From Las Vegas, first published in 1972. They sought to derive an architecture of meaning by analyzing what architecture could “say” at the speed of the suburban arterial. They entered a debate among the generation of architects coming after Mies and Gropius who questioned the austere esthetics of architecture as a slab-towered, industrially curtain-walled social art that had emerged in Europe in the Bauhaus and coalesced in the era of Socialism that rebuilt Europe after Fascism was vanquished. The argument then was similar to today’s rejection of celebrity architecture in favor of architecture as a social and environment-enhancing art. The two need not be mutually exclusive. That they are reflects a much larger social dysfunction, not an esthetic dispute.
More individualistic architects, like Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, and—most importantly now—Paul Rudolph, naturally found fertile ground in an individualistic America (though Europe would become bold, too, in the 1960s and 1970s). Charles Jencks, who was a British critic both blistering and populist before he became the benign patron of architecturally adventurous cancer centers, quotes Rudolph as saying “Architects were not meant to design together; it’s either all his work or mine.” It’s a more shocking sentiment today—when collaboration is not only politically correct but impossible to do without—than it was then.
Rudolph was among the most published and discussed architects of the early 1960s, but his star rapidly fell in the 1970s, thanks in large part to Venturi and Scott Brown, who used him as a whipping boy in their mocking manifestos. They articulated a position that we would today call anti starchitect (a simplistic, condescending term unavailable at the time), making fun of the overwrought “heroic” aspirations of Rudolph and his ilk.
Here’s their takedown of a Rudolph low-income housing project, built in New Haven, Conn.
Vertical shafts of Crawford Manor connote structural piers (they are not structural), made of rusticated ‘reinforced concrete’ (with mortar joints), harboring servant spaces and mechanical systems (actually kitchens), terminating in the silhouettes of exhaust systems (suitable to industrial laboratories), articulating light-modulating voids (instead of framing windows), articulating flowing space (confined to efficiency apartments but augmented by very ubiquitous balconies that themselves suggest apartment dwelling), and articulating program functions that protrude sensitively (or expressionistically) from the edges of the plan.
Venturi, Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour developed what they felt was an authentic American vernacular of “ugly and ordinary” buildings made from standard commercial construction that deployed familiar, homey imagery (deployed in VSB’s case with Pop Art-inspired irony—the will to design triumphing over an “anti-style” stance). The best, like Princeton’s Wu Hall, possess a quiet integrity. But many of their once-lionized buildings have fallen into esthetic obscurity and may not be beloved enough to save should owners see a higher and better use in tearing them down.
Getting to No
Architectural boldness is actually so rare these days that cities that once nurtured inventive, innovative architects now largely stifle them in the interests of an elite political progressivism that pretends to consult with everybody, offers everyone a veto (especially the wealthy and well-lawyered), but can never say yes. Seattle? San Francisco? Chicago? New York? All guilty.
A nation—indeed a world—that loves Frank Lloyd Wright won’t likely swear off bold architectural statements—or so I hope. New York’s Guggenheim Museum, the progenitor of all the acrobatic museum projects of succeeding decades, has been a must-see since the minute it opened in 1959 (after a tortured gestation). Though some find the slope disorienting and the vast central atrium distracting, many works of art reveal new richness when seen from the many angles and distances the museum design offers.
Visitors can learn from juxtapositions of work that would not be perceptible in a more conventional art-viewing space. Yet, its sloping ramps, shallow alcoves, and predominance of low-ceilinged exhibition spaces have continually challenged curators.
Exhibition often looked underpowered until Thomas Krens became director and urged curators and artists to theatrically engage the central atrium space long ignored. He figured out how art and architecture could mutually enliven each other.
Ironically, efforts to save Rudolph buildings have led to a resuscitation of his reputation. He was a gutsy architect unafraid to take enormous esthetic risks when the client was willing to sign on (or unaware what they had gotten themselves into). His most most lurid sculptural extravaganzas were overbearing, like the monomaniacal University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, which, in places is a concrete tour de force of sinister militaristic forms. Yet the atrium lounges and circulation towers he built there are not only gorgeous they insightfully entice chance meetings and idea sharing, which is deemed essential in academia today.
I’d like to offer a perfect formula for balancing boldness, insight, and an appealing modesty. I most admire works that I think strike such a balance—and it’s not easy. But I’ve been around long enough to recognize that perceptions of buildings change over time, and human nature is too diverse. The creative brew of architect, client, and all the other “stakeholders” that must collaborate to realize an ambitious building is too unpredictable. Thankfully, when dullness threatens to overwhelm us, bold, willful, difficult, and gutsy architects will step in—if we let them.