In New York City last summer, there were two shows of the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one at the Whitney, the other at the Museum of Modern Art, as well as a Frank O. Gehry exhibit at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. In addition, the Philadelphia Museum of Art held a major retrospective of the work of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.
These exhibitions underlined the fickle nature of architectural fame. Robert Venturi rattled the cage of modern architecture when he built an iconoclastic house (for his mother) in 1962 and followed it with Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, “probably the most important writing on the making of architecture since Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture,” according to Vincent Scully. For the following two decades Venturi was architecture’s most influential theorist. He advocated buildings that showed an awareness of architectural history and vernacular culture, and he ridiculed formally monumental buildings, which he called “ducks,” proposing to replace them with “decorated sheds.” Two famous—and infamous—decorated sheds of the 1980s were Michael Graves’s gift-wrapped Portland Building and Philip Johnson’s Chippendale-topped AT&T office tower. What came to be known as postmodernism was all the rage, but it didn’t last. Graves went on to a sort of stylized classicism, and Johnson just went on and on in his eclectic way. As for Venturi and Scott Brown, their ironic combination of flattened decoration and mannered modernism never became popular. Although they built some striking campus buildings and several well-known museums, including the handsome Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London, they also failed to obtain prominent commissions, notably the Staten Island ferry terminal and the new Philadelphia concert hall. They stuck to their guns, but it turned out that ducks—or rather titanium artichokes, in the case of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao—not decorated sheds, were what clients and the public wanted.
Frank Gehry is, of course, the architect of the day. The Guggenheim in Bilbao is not only at the cutting edge of architectural design, it is also a hit with the public. Hundreds of thousands of people have flocked to an obscure Basque industrial city, attracted by his extraordinary sculptural confection. Currently Gehry occupies a unique position in the architectural world: he is a popular avant-gardist, or an avant-garde populist, I’m not sure which. This is unusual. All too often in the last seventy-five years the architects most admired by other architects and the critics did not find favor with the public, which was unimpressed by bare concrete, unadorned brick walls, and steel-pipe railings. On the other hand, the crowd-pleasing work of Raymond Hood, architect of Rockefeller Center, Morris Lapidus, of Miami Beach hotel fame, and I.M. Pei, whose East Wing of the National Gallery of Art is the most visited site in Washington, D.C., was on the whole dismissed as unoriginal by the architectural cognoscenti.
Mies van der Rohe never achieved popularity, let alone celebrity. On …