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Master Builders

Competent critics of architecture are not thick on the ground, and first-rate ones even rarer than first-rate writers of any kind. The world, or perhaps one should say the tiny globe, or better yet the ping-pong ball, of architectural criticism is close and restricted, and once you have subtracted the jargoneers, the self-indulgent theorists, and the captives of fashion-as-ideology it gets very small indeed.

Most American newspapers do not bother to hire architectural critics; the important task of discussing our built environment tends to be assigned to people who, by rights, should be confining themselves to the more evanescent aspects of kitchen “lifestyle” and interior decoration. (One of the many surprises waiting for anyone who tunes into a rerun of The Fountainhead is to see the character of the architectural critic Ellsworth Toohey, sworn enemy of Ayn Rand’s Nietszchean superman-hero Howard Roark—that malign, power-crazed creature who wishes to control American society by encouraging some kinds of building and crushing others. Such a parody of critical power is hardly even imaginable, let alone believable, today.) And of course the most powerful medium of all, television, only talks about buildings if terrorists blow them up—never about architecture as such.

Most of the time, it seems, there is only one regular critic in the American press who writes consistently well about architecture and whose pieces are a guaranteed pleasure to revisit—or to read for the first time. He is Martin Filler, whose collection of essays is entitled Makers of Modern Architecture. Behind this rather humdrum title is by far the most intelligent and shapely writing on architecture done in recent years. Filler’s opinions are direct, subtle, written with clarity and intense feeling, and (not least in importance) clean of hidden interests: in a field often disfigured and muddied by undeclared allegiances, he is a highly trustworthy critic. He seems, moreover, impervious to the pressures of fashion. He really understands, and is not afraid to spell out, how reputations are made and how, once made, they influence the careers of architects.

This enables him, inter alia, to offer some of the best writing that has ever been done on the career of Louis Kahn, designer of America’s most beautiful late-twentieth-century museum, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, whom Filler ranks as one of the few authentic moral heroes of the profession. Other architects of Kahn’s generation far outdid Kahn in salesmanship, surface eloquence, and Schwung. But it was mainly Kahn, the awkward, often evasive Estonian migrant with stoat-like morals and a fire-scarred face, who showed himself able to feel his way back past adroit “styling” to the roots of the classicism he adored, and convey the sense of built grandeur without which there is no monumentality. Kahn’s career was in large part a narrative of lost opportunity, for America no less than for himself. What would Boston have gained if the suggestible and modish Jackie Kennedy had not, at Bobby’s prompting, nixed the proposal that Kahn design JFK’s presidential library? (It went, with sleek and boring results, to I.M. Pei.) Like Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, Filler argues, Kahn struggled “to see past the superficial characteristics of the Classical style,” seeking to approach the essence of “the archaic spirit of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, which he felt was missing in…mainstream Modernist architecture.”

This was a radically different project from the mere assembly of clever, rather tinny quotation, a volute here, a metope there, that went under the rubric of postmodernism—“Po-Mo” for architects. And of course it was also different from the rhetoric about the architect as social engineer, inherited from “primitive” modernism. Filler has little patience with that sort of guff, though he is too astute to imagine a world in which buildings have zero effect on people’s behavior.

Other than Kahn, the older architects most celebrated in Filler’s essays are mainly the familiar titans: Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Mies van der Rohe, and so on. But what he says about them is not necessarily familiar. Filler does not care at all for the notion of avant-gardism, that hobgoblin of “advanced” thinking in the visual arts, which sets up discontinuity and generational clash as a cultural ideal. His deepest engagement is with ideals of unity expressed in building. If Mies, he writes, refined architecture to essentials,

if Le Corbusier reconceived it more thoroughly than anyone since Palladio, and if Louis Kahn elevated architecture to a plane of timeless aspiration…, then Wright insisted that his buildings be organic—that is, unified in conception from the largest principle to the smallest detail. He rejected the celebration of discontinuity that has been a main characteristic of Modernist art from Cubism and Dada onward.

Wright was the greatest visual artist ever born and raised in America. In his profuseness and grandeur of output, no American painter comes near him—certainly not Jackson Pollock, who is coming to look more and more (though not to some multicenti-millionaires and the museum directors who serve their tax and prestige interests) like a bizarrely overestimated figure. Wright was not a fragmenter, like Picasso, but a powerful integrator, like Richard Wagner or Antoni Gaudì. There is little doubt which kind of artist Filler thinks nobler and more important. It is for him artists such as Wright and Wagner, all the way. And when they fail, their failures are sometimes exemplary in a way that the successes of other figures may not be. There are very few “pure” successes in architecture, an art inevitably tethered to the real world of politics, compromise, and money in ways that painting a picture or imagining a book are not.

Filler writes very well about architecture and politics, making the essential point that you cannot judge an architect by the interests he serves. Mutatis mutandis, this is as true of twentieth-century Europe as of fifteenth-century Florence or seventeenth-century Rome. No architect can afford to be too picky about his clients. The classic modernist example was, of course, Mies van der Rohe himself, who swung both ways in the field of twentieth-century ideology. He famously designed a monument to the murdered Spartacist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in Berlin (1926). This was demolished by the Nazis when they came to power; so eight years later, he (less famously) sketched a plan, complete with swastika flags and eagle sculpture, for the German pavilion at the 1935 Brussels Exposition. Both the Nazis and the Spartacists would have hated the capitalist Jewish clients for whom he did his best-known structure, the Seagram Building in New York.

The truth, in any case, is that great architects, like some great painters but unlike most great writers, can take advantage of a certain amount of wiggle room. Filler’s essay on Le Corbusier is the first I have read that considers his by no means admirable transactions with the Vichy regime during the war, which he sat out “in salubrious anonymity,” “hidden in plain sight,” with “a gift for making unsavory aspects of his career invisible, much as he had a more obvious talent for publicizing his praiseworthy activities on behalf of architecture for social betterment.”

Filler finds much to praise in the decision of the French Ministry of Reconstruction to hand Corbu one of the plum commissions of the immediate postwar era, the design of the Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles. And indeed, it would have been a mortal sin against French culture to have blacklisted the greatest French architect since Charles Garnier, designer of the Paris Opera. But then, one can’t help wondering why Filler, drawing on a 1987 essay by the architectural historian Tim Benton, effusively praises the Marseilles Unité (“one of the most popular of twentieth-century avant-garde housing developments…active community life…no graffiti and little deterioration”), which, when I spent two days filming it for Shock of the New in 1980, was a miserably depressing wreck of a place. Perhaps Filler never saw it in its later condition and uncharacteristically believed what the architectural press continued to say about it.

But most of the time, Filler has no reluctance to go against the grain or to defy bien-pensant modernist opinion. He is, for instance, lethally frank about the mess that the 1972 Pompidou Center in Paris became, through the designs of Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano—a fidgety pastiche of the high-tech ideas of the London-bred Archigram group, “essentially a gigantic shoebox enmeshed in miles of mostly useless painted metal ducts, pipework, and scaffolding.” Nobody who has suffered through repeated visits to this awful building can doubt the justice of Filler’s loathing for it: the Pompidoglio, as it was soon christened, was a huge and costly mistake, a shining example of how vulgar official French taste in the 1970s could become, in its efforts to project a forward-looking image.

It is still not clear what economic hardships other recipients of France’s cultural budgeting had to endure to keep Beaubourg running. But then the shortcomings of this museum were probably no worse than other French grands projets to come: the dysfunctional national library, for instance, or the huge arch by Otto von Spreckelsen that looms so unlovably over La Défense. And what is one to say of the Bastille Opera House by Carlos Ott, an almost wholly unworkable building which now appears to have been commissioned on the erroneous assumption that it would be designed by Richard Meier instead of one of his imitators?

But then, backed and encouraged by a truly enlightened client, Piano saw the light himself and was hailed for it by Filler. The client was the late Dominique de Menil; the project, a museum to house the private collection formed by herself and her husband Jean, in Houston. Both these people were extreme rarities in America, or anywhere else. Neither had the mercenary motives or the egotism of the usual collector. Both were historically informed, exquisitely responsive to the meanings of art, and, best of all, almost telepathically aware of the kinds of space works of art seemed to need. And one of the things art needed most, Dominique de Menil knew, was reticence and precision in its surroundings. By turning to Piano, she gave him an opportunity to escape from being known mainly as the coauthor of Beaubourg. He embraced this chance and produced a museum without mannerisms, its light-washed spaces immeasurably subtler than the sequence of bright white boxes that new museums tend to be. And so, as Filler put it,

In a period of rampant commercialization in the museum world, the Menil Collection became a model of how architecture can elevate the public experience of art to a supreme level of intellectual stimulation and sensual pleasure.

Not all Piano’s museum designs are on this level. Indeed, one might see it as remarkable that he should have done three that are, and all in Texas: the Menil Collection; a one-artist museum (1992–1995), also commissioned by Dominique de Menil (it is across the street from the Menil) and dedicated to the paintings of Cy Twombly; and the beautiful Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. (It says something about the present insanity of painting prices that the Nasher Sculpture Center cost about $70 million to build, half the price that was soon to be paid in 2007 by the Sezession-infatuated billionaire Ronald Lauder for one oil painting by Gustav Klimt, which he ludicrously described as “my Mona Lisa.”) Filler makes the point, a valid one, that even if Piano never did another building his eminence among late-modernist museum designers would be amply secured by these three works.

Makers of Modern Architecture is a sustained brief for a quality which has too often been ignored in the wow and static over “postmodernist” architecture: sincerity and directness in design. We have heard about clever ironies until we’re sick of their sound. But more than once, Filler takes pleasure in citing the ideal qualities of the building art enunciated by Vitruvius: “firmness, commodity, and delight.” His most enthusiastic writing is done in the belief that architecture in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has as much right to be considered a master art as ever—provided, and this is a crucial point, that it does not degenerate into a kind of linguistic toy, without organic connections to its own history or to human needs. This is what particularly gets his goat about one of the most successful American architects of the late twentieth century, Philip Johnson.

Filler regards Johnson, who died in 2005 at the age of ninety-eight, as an empty stylist who was to modernist architecture what the Vicar of Bray was to English theology and politics. His principal gift was an adroitness, the finest of nostrils for the next shift in the coming breeze, coupled with an unerring business sense and something akin to genius in packaging and selling. One should not take Filler’s animadversions against Johnson as being in any way facile. Anyone can be rude about Johnson now that he is dead. But at the time they were written Johnson was still very much alive, as vain as any other prima donna, and as mean as a snapping turtle. He had for years been doing the worst work of a very long career, turning out a stream of pastiche and kitsch—for the lipstick skyscraper on Third Avenue in Manhattan, as well as for the PPG corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh, Charles Barry’s Victoria Tower at the Palace of Westminster redone in mirror glass, references that meant nothing but gave corporate clients a sense of being somewhere in the stream of history. And Filler was the only architectural writer who could be relied on to ring the alarm bell at the sight of this stuff—and worse, to make fun of it.

When I think of Johnson I think of an interview I did some twenty years ago with the distinguished but by then long-retired architect Albert Speer, in his home in Heidelberg. I had expected a severe Prussian-Doric villa in the manner of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, or at least of Speer’s teacher Paul Ludwig Troost; actually the house was more gemütlich than that, with oak newel-posts on the stairway whimsically carved in the form of bears. During our interview I questioned Speer about the practice of authoritarian architecture—for who could know more about it than Hitler’s architect? What traits of building were likely to commend a designer to a dictator? The impression of grandeur, Speer replied unhesitatingly. It does not matter what the small man may think personally. And for grandeur, he said, you must be sure to use fine materials—ordinary people will not be impressed by a crude building. (So much, I reflected, for Corbu’s raw concrete.) And suppose, I asked Speer, that a new Führer were to appear tomorrow. You are too old to be his official architect. Whom among the living would you nominate as your successor? A tiny smile flickered on Speer’s face. “Well,” he said, “I hope Philip Johnson would not mind if I put forward his name.”

This was in 1978, well before Johnson’s youthful Nazi affiliations had been written about by Michael Sorkin in Spy magazine, and thus had become unambiguously public; and I am not altogether sure that Speer would necessarily have known about them anyway. I think that Speer, odd as it may seem, was going on style alone. He may have been too high up the Nazi tree to have even heard of Johnson when Johnson was an obscure young sycophant of the far American right.

Be that as it may have been, Speer now loved the look of the AT&T building, with its Chippendale pediment top—it had just appeared on the cover of Time, in the form of a model, being held by Johnson as though it were one of the tablets of the law in the hands of Moses descending from Mt. Sinai (by now the formerly anti-Semitic Johnson did not mind being compared to so eminent a Jew). He felt its quotation of the past was a late-coming vindication of his own architecture—that it would encourage a much later generation to see his buildings as just that, buildings, not Hitlerian logos, just as you could appreciate the qualities of Schinkel’s designs without knowing the opinions of the King of Prussia. “Ours was a fine architecture,” I recall him saying of the German pavilion at the Paris World Fair of 1937, with its aloof eagle squaring off against the sculpted figures on the roof of the Russian pavilion across the avenue, he with a hammer, she with a sickle.

He wanted to send a message to Johnson and he produced a copy of a newly published book on his own work: Albert Speer, Architektur, with its chaste white cover. He was clearly delighted with this production, since it was not a vanity book (it bore the name of a respected German publisher) and it treated his drawings as those of a real architect, not as ideological curiosities. Would I mind giving it to Johnson? Of course not, I would be delighted to. And Speer wrote in the flyleaf, in his crabbed hand:

For Philip Johnson, in sincere appreciation of his most recent designs. Albert Speer.

The next month, back in New York, I rang Johnson and told him I had a gift for him from a German admirer. We met for lunch at his usual corner table in the Four Seasons. When Johnson unwrapped the book and read its dedication, his expression froze. “Oh, Speer,” he said, in a tone somewhere between a snarl and a sigh. “How interesting. Of course I never knew the man.” He slid the book back into its padded envelope and pushed it out of sight under the banquette, from which it did not reemerge for the rest of our lunch, during which we chatted of younger postmodernists.

Undoubtedly the most courageous and bravely argued section of Filler’s book, however, is not about Johnson, the decline of whose reputation is now irreversible and may be said to date from Filler’s essay. (You could say it was ripe for collapse, but it needed a push which it wasn’t going to get, or not right then, from other critics.) Rather, it is the chapter dealing with the terrorists’ destruction of the World Trade Center, and the subsequent efforts to repair the damage to America’s national pride. More hysterical lamentation, more tendentious moralizing, more fraudulent sentimentality masquerading as noble Christian patriotism have been disgorged over this event than over any comparable one in American history—but largely because American history had no comparable ones to show. Even the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had a certain rationale, since the Japanese plan to destroy the American Pacific fleet, though misjudged and bungled, made some sense with respect to Japan’s pan-Pacific ambitions.

The attack on the World Trade Center had no strategic rationale—it was, in essence, a public relations coup, designed to frighten the Great Satan into realizing that it was not, after all, invulnerable. But it was an attack on the American mainland, not on an offshore island about 2,500 miles from the Californian coast, as Pearl Harbor had been—and there lay the difference. From this, fanned by the ardent sentimentality of various outraged interest groups, grew the extraordinary notion that the entire site of the World Trade Center should be treated with the reverence befitting a cemetery, and a military cemetery at that. “How can we build on top of their souls that are crying?” asked a furious widow at one of the hearings on rebuilding the site.

Of course, if such superstitious standards of ground sanctity were to apply anywhere else—in Europe, say—nothing could ever be built or planted anywhere: not in once-blitzed London, not on the former battlefields of Kursk or Waterloo, and possibly not anywhere in America until someone determines, with 100 percent certainty, that not a bone or a fingernail of a Native American mingled with the churned earth of the site. “Though the civilian casualties at Ground Zero were without equal in American history,” Filler acerbically reminds his readers,

the death toll in countless urban bombardments six decades earlier was vastly higher. Yet to present such an indelicate argument at the time…would have been considered scarcely less treasonous than to suggest that America’s military response to the attacks of September 11 was likewise out of proportion.

The idea that all ground that has seen death is ipso facto sacred is one of the coercive delusions of a therapeutic culture.

Not the least odd thing about this entire episode is that it marked the only time in its twenty-five-year history when the World Trade Center got reverential reviews. At the time it was built, you never heard a good word for it, from architects or anyone else. In general New Yorkers decried it as an out-of-scale, monotonous monster, a giant exercise in featherbedding imposed on lower Manhattan by the then governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, who filled it with floor after floor of government offices. Nobody loved the thing until two planes hijacked by Arab fanatics made it compulsory for Americans to do so.

As Filler makes clear, there is not the faintest sign that its replacement, if the powers involved ever manage to agree on what that replacement will be, stands any chance of being better loved. Indeed, quite apart from the natural distrust that any sensible person has of working long hours so high in the air, the very site now has a curse on it—hence, in part, the almost frenzied sanctimony pumped up by the real estate big shots over the World Trade Center as a sacred site. “There was no need, nor would there likely ever be,” Filler writes, “for ten million square feet of rentable space to replace what was lost there, any more than there had been to build the World Trade Center four decades earlier.” This is undoubtedly true. Once again Filler’s has been the most persuasive voice we have in exposing the sources of architectural folly.


Corbu’s Condo November 22, 2007

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