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 …

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Letters

Corbu’s Condo November 22, 2007