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Smash It: Who Cares?

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University of Southern California Freeman House Archive
Harriet Freeman in a living room window seat of the house designed for her and her husband by Frank Lloyd Wright, Los Angeles, circa 1925

Wright turned to the architecture of ancient Mesoamerica as a suitable, ecologically proven prototype. He adapted the solid masonry massing, flat rooflines, and stylized ornament confined within small sculptural squares reminiscent of pre-Columbian architecture for his new approach to California living. Wright was always intrigued by innovative technologies and standardized designs whereby his revolutionary ideas could reach a far broader audience than the well-to-do arts enthusiasts who commissioned his custom-built houses. Between 1912 and 1916 he had developed a series of small, prefabricated domestic schemes, the American System-Built Homes, but they never caught on, and he hoped to have better luck with his textile block system.

In typically Wrightian fashion, his LA houses were much more enclosed than the later indoor-outdoor compositions of his former assistant Richard Neutra, a Viennese émigré who preceded him to the West Coast and there used large expanses of glass in ways his old boss never ventured. Far from the sun-washed interiors characteristic of Neutra’s approach, the dim rooms of Wright’s 1920s LA houses were gently dappled with discrete motes of daylight filtered through small apertures in his concrete building blocks. He needed seventy-four different molds to give a range of geometrically embossed and pierced blocks varied enough to create the rich tapestry-like patterns of interior light he desired.

Wright’s biggest mistake in erecting the Freeman House was to skimp on materials and labor. Instead of taking pains to have each hand-cast block carefully crafted, the task was left to unskilled workers. As Wright ruefully but frankly wrote in 1927:

We had no organization. Prepared the molds experimentally. Picked up “Moyana” [mañana?] men in the Los Angeles street…. The work consequently was roughly done and wasteful.

Thus the internal fabric of the house was a mess from the first. Things were not helped when Wright left LA for good in 1924 and fobbed off supervision of the complicated job onto his overwhelmed architect son, Lloyd, whom he directed via telegram. Chusid’s account of the building and breakdown of the house is both meticulous and troubling.

Experimental architecture by its very nature is more prone to the depredations of time and natural elements than buildings made from conventional materials through traditional methods. Avant-garde architects often simply do not know how the products of their imagination will perform when implemented, especially if untested components are involved. According to a recent report on NPR, the titanium-zinc-alloy cladding of Koolhaas’s CCTV building is already showing damaging effects of Beijing’s poisonous air pollution only four years after the material was installed and even before the megastructure is fully occupied. One feels fairly certain, however, that its architect will be in favor of the preservation of this latter-day landmark.

3.

High among the unpredictable variables that endanger the survival of worthy buildings are the vagaries of taste. For example, by the late 1950s, Victorian architecture was held in such low esteem that Frank Furness’s splendidly oddball University of Pennsylvania Library of 1889–1891 in Philadelphia—akin to a Venetian-Gothic armadillo—faced impending demolition. Although several commercial buildings by Furness fell to the wrecker’s ball around that time in order to satisfy narrow-minded city planners’ Georgian-only vision of the newly created Independence National Historical Park nearby in downtown Philadelphia, a parallel catastrophe on the Penn campus was averted thanks to the special pleading of Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, among others including Wright, who after a 1957 walk-through of the Furness library proclaimed, “It is the work of an artist.”

The following year saw the founding in London of the Victorian Society, the pioneering group dedicated to preserving that long-derided style, and in 1966 a sister organization, the Victorian Society in America, followed suit even as urban homesteaders from Brooklyn to San Francisco were rediscovering the quirky charms of the diverse range of fanciful design subsumed under the portmanteau term “Victorian.” By the 1980s there was widespread disbelief among a younger generation that there could ever have been such utter contempt for this delightfully imaginative mode.

One wonders, though, if a similar volte-face will ever happen with Brutalist architecture, the postwar style identifiable by assertive, not to say aggressive, geometric forms in unfinished concrete (béton brut in French, hence the name). Among America’s most critically acclaimed public works of the Sixties was Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles’s Boston City Hall of 1962–1968, a top-heavy, fortress-like Brutalist structure erected next to historic Faneuil Hall and influenced by Le Corbusier’s Couvent de Sainte-Marie de La Tourette of 1953–1960, a Dominican monastery in the countryside near Lyon. Though the Boston building won praise for its bold attempt to recast civic grandeur in new architectural forms, few questioned if an inward-turning rural religious cloister was the optimal model for the governmental offices of a twentieth-century American city.

With the opening in 1976 of Benjamin C. Thompson’s hugely popular Faneuil Hall Marketplace—the first and most successful of the inner-city food-and-shopping malls promoted as “festival marketplaces” by their populist-minded developer, James Rouse—the adjacent Boston City Hall soon began to look more menacing than monumental, more defensive than defensible. In 2006 the city’s mayor asked for the démodé pile to be sold and the seat of municipal government moved to South Boston. In a Catch-22 all too typical of toothless preservation regulations, the Boston Landmarks Commission declined to declare the building a landmark unless it was in imminent danger of destruction. The financial crash of 2008 forced the relocation plan to be shelved, and the fate of this once-admired, now- disparaged architectural survivor remains uncertain.

Surely no American Brutalist’s works have had a tougher time lately than those of Paul Rudolph, whose reversal of critical fortune long predated his death in 1997. Beginning in the early 1950s, his intriguingly sculptural, spatially dynamic concrete structures beguiled critics and design buffs alike, particularly his Art and Architecture Building of 1959–1963 at Yale, where Rudolph served as dean from 1958 to 1965. The building has thirty-seven separate levels breaking up space of what would conventionally be seven floors. He was succeeded in that post by the Postmodernist Charles Moore, who viscerally disliked what he viewed as his predecessor’s overbearing, inhumane designs and encouraged students to freely alter the new Yale school’s interiors in accord with his own very different, “inclusive” attitudes.

When the A&A Building was gutted by a fire of suspicious and unproven origin in 1969, Moore appeared to be insufficiently perturbed, and Rudolph hated him until the day he died. A scrupulous $126 million renovation by Gwathmey Siegel Architects finally brought the A&A Building back to its original condition in 2006, but alas that exemplary effort was fatally undermined by the firm’s dreadful addition, a graceless composition that neither defers sufficiently to nor contrasts effectively enough with Rudolph’s original, and seems wrong in just about every way possible. Still less fortunate was Rudolph’s Riverview High School of 1957–1958 in Sarasota, Florida, his first large-scale public project, which was torn down in 2009. Several of his early houses have likewise been destroyed in recent years, structures built predominantly of wood, and remarkable for their lightness and airiness, in complete contrast to his ponderous public commissions.

Given such attrition, fans of Rudolph’s work (mainly coprofessionals able to see past the many impractical and unlivable aspects of his designs) were dismayed to learn that yet another building from his brief heyday was also in danger of disappearing: his Orange County Government Center of 1963–1967 in Goshen, New York—a busy, boxy composition of rectangular forms pulled away from a wall-like backdrop that resembles a low, wide filing cabinet with its drawers half-opened at random. It has been plagued from the outset by functional problems, including leaks attributable to the relatively small building’s eighty-seven separate roofs.

How much taxpayers might be willing to spend to save a building many deem an eyesore was again rendered moot by the weak economy. In May, the Orange County Government Center won a de facto stay of execution when the county legislature rejected a $14.6 million bond issue to fund a replacement for the damaged structure, another example of benign architectural neglect imposed by the recession. The question remains, however, of what will happen to such unloved relics when better times return. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but ugliness seems easier for many nonspecialists to define. As one architecturally trained Orange County resident told The New York Times:

There are plenty of people who say [the government center] is ugly. The only response that I have to that is this: Define ugly. A lot of people don’t like Picasso. Does it mean a Picasso doesn’t deserve as much attention and respect as a Monet? Does it mean we get rid of the Guggenheim because it looks like a toilet bowl?

Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center is hardly comparable to one of Wright’s most thrilling works, but it is not a stretch to include the Guggenheim among the forerunners of Brutalism (although its architect had the museum’s colossal concrete coils painted, contrary to standard Brutalist practice). Masters on the order of Wright or his Victorian antecedent Furness are rare enough. Yet in a world of ever-diminishing resources, it seems unconscionably profligate not to allow future generations to decide for themselves which architectural works of the past they wish to enrich their own times. The choice should be theirs, not ours.

Letters

Gropius Didn’t Do It December 20, 2012

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