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Beauty and Utility

Martin Filler, interviewed by Noel Stevens

Martin Filler; photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Martin Filler; photo by Brigitte Lacombe

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

In the Review’s December 22, 2022, issue, architecture critic Martin Filler wrote about the “undulating lines, swirling excesses, and propulsive forms” that characterized the turn-of-the-century movement Art Nouveau. Admiring its “vulgar and on occasion blatantly sexy” qualities, he argued that “this novel aesthetic caught on so completely because it presented modernism garbed in the raiment of pure pleasure, not the hair shirt of social obligation or moral uplift.”

Filler has been closely chronicling art, architecture, and history for nearly half a century. Born in Colorado Springs but raised in Brooklyn and Camden, New Jersey, he received degrees in art history from Columbia and has lived and worked in New York City ever since. New York Review Books has published three volumes of Makers of Modern Architecture, collections of essays he has written for these pages since 1985. The third, subtitled From Antoni Gaudí to Maya Lin, was published in 2018.

I spoke with Filler via e-mail this week about the ethos and ethics of the “building art.”


Noel Stevens: What do you find in architecture that you might not get from other artistic media? Do you have any guiding principles that inform your evaluation of the practice?

Martin Filler: I’ve always been drawn to architecture more than any other art form, in large part because of its social dimension. A well-executed building or inviting public space can bring people together in ways that strengthen our communal values and at the same time make us more aware of our individuality. One conspicuous example of that power is New York City’s High Line, a collaboration among the landscape firm James Corner Field Operations, the horticulturist Piet Oudolf, and the architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro. It’s the biggest urban-design success story since the turn of the millennium and a model for the conversion of disused infrastructure in cities and towns around the world. Central to its astounding popularity is the architects’ awareness that people-watching is an irresistible pleasure of city life.

Because creating architecture involves so many people—I’m not alone in having likened the process to filmmaking, in which the director heads a huge team of specialists but nonetheless garners most of the credit—there is often a fascinating backstory that can add to our understanding of the built environment. An important part of my job is to bring such hidden elements to readers’ attention. As for guiding principles, I never forget the advice about writing—simplistic though it now may seem—that my early idol Lewis Mumford gave me at the outset of my career: “Have something to say, and say it as briefly and clearly as possible.” He also urged me to remain open to unconscious sources of inspiration, and although some of the ideas I get in my sleep evaporate in daylight, many others wind up in print, for better or worse.  

Do you think an organic movement like Art Nouveau could still happen today? If not, what might be preventing it?

I seriously doubt that the fragmented nature of contemporary culture—a condition that has been in full swing since at least the 1960s and is unlikely to change now that diversity and pluralism are basic tenets of enlightened thought—would allow any one style to be as pervasive as Art Nouveau was around the turn of the twentieth century. One might think that the omnipresence of social media and the widespread addiction to electronic devices would lead to more cohesion, but in fact the opposite has happened, despite the cybersphere’s pernicious stranglehold on the collective imagination.      

You briefly discuss the relationship between Art Nouveau and its “closest spiritual antecedent,” Rococo. I wonder if you could tell us at a little more length what you think are the major similarities and distinctions between those two styles?

Rococo and Art Nouveau took their primary cues straight from the natural world, but did so with a determined playfulness generally not encountered in high-style design. The main difference between them was psychological. Rococo aimed for a carefree lightness, whereas Art Nouveau exuded an anxious ambivalence. Both employed similar motifs, such as sinuously swirling lines and vertiginous perspective, and ignored the Classical ordering systems that were reintroduced during the Renaissance. The relaxed rules of decorum that typified both Rococo and Art Nouveau in due course prompted the equal and opposite reaction promised by the laws of physics: each movement in turn was superseded by a Neoclassical correction that sought to stabilize wayward notions of design with historically inspired schemes patterned after Classical antiquity and believed to be more suitable for the public realm.

Furthermore, a strong sexual undercurrent pervaded these kindred styles. This can be seen in the subliminal sensual charge that similarly animated two wildly divergent designs: Balthasar Neumann’s insistently ecstatic German Rococo pilgrimage churches, which were intended to increase Roman Catholic religious fervor in response to Protestant austerity; and Hector Guimard’s embracingly tactile Art Nouveau ironwork for the Paris Métro system, meant to humanize a new technological advancement. This thinly coded carnality was not lost on killjoys who pulled the culture back from such impudent affronts to established order. The innate eroticism of Art Nouveau also helps to explain its exuberant revival during the 1960s, when the burgeoning sexual revolution found a close visual parallel in the style’s seductive twists and turns.     

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In your essay from last spring about Francis Kéré, who in 2022 became the first African national to win the Pritzker Prize, you wrote that you often fear “that my initial enthusiasm might wane, as can happen when promising young architects get off to a fast start and then produce more and more work that suffers from the myriad financial constraints, bureaucratic obstacles, and circumstantial disappointments—to say nothing of the temptations and corruptions of fame and fortune.” Kéré, in your view, managed to avoid these pitfalls. Which other architects have managed to impress you in this way? Are there any other contemporary architects working at this level?

Francis Kéré strikes me as a law unto himself given his determination to leverage his newfound celebrity to benefit the people of his home country, and thus far he’s done a remarkable job in delivering on that promise. Kéré’s fame grew considerably when he designed the 2017 Serpentine Pavilion in London’s Hyde Park, a temporary summer art gallery that each year since the program began in 2000 has served as a postmillennial bellwether of the profession’s up-and-coming talent. In a trade-off for designing essentially an architectural trophy, Kéré in 2019 completed a visitors’ pavilion titled Xylem for the Tippet Rise Art Center, a Montana sculpture park founded by a rich American couple. He accepted the job with the proviso that in return his patrons must also finance a new school building designed by Kéré in Gando, his Burkina Faso hometown. I can’t name another contemporary artist doing anything comparably admirable in an ethical sense.

It’s much easier to find architects who are on a creative roll. For nearly a decade I felt that Thom Mayne of the Los Angeles–based firm Morphosis was producing some of the finest architecture in America, a remarkable run that began with the Diamond Ranch High School of 1999 in Southern California, continued with the Caltrans headquarters in LA and the San Francisco Federal Building, and culminated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite facility of 2007 in Maryland. Two years after that, however, he lost me with his chaotic Cooper Union building in New York, and I don’t think much of his dull-to-dreary Cornell Tech campus of 2017 on Roosevelt Island, either. Why the falloff? I have no idea, though such periodic ups and downs occur in many artists’ careers. But whether or not Mayne rebounds, in my estimation his turn-of-the-millennium winning streak stands as quite an accomplishment.

Likewise, I detected a decline in the quality of Frank Gehry’s work soon after he completed LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003. But with that masterpiece as a follow-up to his universally admired Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, nothing could dislodge his high standing in architectural history. Diller Scofidio + Renfro are brimming with inventiveness, as seen in their renovations of the High Line and Lincoln Center’s Juilliard School of Music, and their start-from-scratch Vagelos Education Center at Columbia’s medical school, a little-publicized gem. But their readiness to accept commissions under dubious conditions—their much-decried expansion of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which opened just before the pandemic, destroyed Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s American Folk Art Museum—puts them in a different moral category from Kéré.             

What do you consider the architect’s most important duties, aside from aesthetic appeal?

For me, Kéré’s work achieves an ideal balance between beauty and utility, which I consider the two essentials of architecture. In purely compositional terms, his designs are brilliantly resolved, combining various forms, materials, and textures in unexpected ways that nonetheless look absolutely right the minute you see them. This he has managed to do without relying on traditional design fallbacks, such as symmetry and mimicry, which architects frequently resort to when more original solutions elude them. So far, most of Kéré’s built work is in Africa, and his designs there respond intuitively and effectively to the specific climatic conditions he grew up in, using low-tech methods like passive insulation, natural lighting, and non-mechanical air circulation. This is not to say that only an indigenous architect can address such all-important functional issues. But it does suggest that climate change demands a more aggressive program to extend design education throughout the Third World, where local residents know best what kind of buildings they need.

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Architecturally, do you have a favorite neighborhood in New York City? A favorite building? 

New Yorkers become very attached to their own neighborhoods, probably because the scale of the metropolis can be so overwhelming. There are people I went to Columbia with fifty-five years ago who are still in Morningside Heights, and when my wife, the architectural historian Rosemarie Haag Bletter, and I moved from there to the far eastern edge of Yorkville, on the Upper East Side, in 1984, one Upper West Side friend of ours denounced us as defectors. Right across the street from the early postwar apartment building where we’ve lived for almost four decades, the ensemble of Gracie Mansion, Carl Schurz Park, and the promenade overlooking the East River makes this my preferred corner of the city. But when I travel around town these days, I often involuntarily recall long-forgotten episodes in my life that have unfolded in just about every section of Manhattan, a virtual diary in real estate.

For me, the ultimate New York landmark is William Van Alen’s Chrysler Building of 1928–1930, in my opinion the best skyscraper ever built. Its Art Deco flourishes—that showgirl-like headdress, those gleaming eagle gargoyles, and its lobby like a set from a Fred and Ginger movie—capture the brash glamour of the city at its most confident, optimistic, and sophisticated. Its instantly identifiable spire is also the cover image on Skyscraper Style: Art Deco New York, the 1975 book that Rosemarie wrote with the peerless architectural photographer Cervin Robinson, who died in December at the age of ninety-four. Their re-evaluation of a style disparaged by puritanical modernists marked a major turning point in the appreciation of Art Deco as serious architecture rather than pop kitsch.

The Chrysler Building never fails to put a smile on my face whenever it comes into view from behind the latest high-rise atrocity. In diametric contrast, the new Needle Park of supertalls has wrecked Manhattan’s once glorious skyline with a plethora of ultraskinny pinnacles, monuments to Michael Bloomberg’s brand of business-driven civic governance, which loosened long-established zoning laws to spur economic development. They remind us of the long-term architectural consequences when commercial interests take priority over the greater public good.

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