Monday, 9 February 2009

Absurdities in Architecture

Humanists of my generation (1927-) are familiar with John Silber’s single-mindedness. This Lone Star State philosopher turned college administrator had a very visible mind of his own—and often inflicted it, effectively. But a critic of absurd architecture? You have to read his engaging book, Architecture of the Absurd: How "Genius" Disfigured a Practical Art (The Quantuck Lane Press, 2007, $27.50) to appreciate this new dimension in Silber’s single-mindedness.

To begin with, more than a few will be as astonished as I to learn that his German architect/sculptor father immigrated to St. Louis in 1902 to help with the German pavilion at the St. Louis World’s Fair. They won’t be surprised that the old man was as demanding of his clients and contractors as his son was of students and administrators.

Silber brags about incidents in which the architect father insisted on three coats of varnish for his doors and when one contractor tried to slip by with only two, his father’s No.2 pencil marks revealed that mini-fraud. Silber Junior contends that errant contractor ended up a partisan for that unbending adherence to standards. His father created a flourishing business in Texas until the depression (1931-41). Thereupon his old Good Rep brought him more business. Philosopher John loved to work with his dad on tiny architectural details. And they spent many vacations savoring architectural monuments on global trips. It’s clear that philosophy’s gain was Texas architecture’s loss.

Now I don’t come to this hunt without dogs of my own. My interdisciplinary Ph.D (specialty American Lit) includes a field in American art and architecture. And my only pedagogical innovation (Write a term paper on a Great American Building) drew the sneers of my architecturally ignorant humanist peers. I still believe my students who began by distinguishing styles in physical structures became more perceptive to differences in verbal styles.

Further, a democratic culture must tutor everyman in critical standards in all the arts. Indeed I have spent the last decade in Weimar, Germany explaining how hyper-aesthetic “operators” like Philip C. Johnson have corrupted discourse on Walter Gropius’ vision to bring good modern design to “the working classes”. As a homeless Blue Collar Detroit Depression child, that remains a primary conviction of mine in a culture where 90% of our design pros finagle for 10% of the world’s population—a formula sufficiently explaining the current disasters in our man-made landscape.

Indeed, it turns out I have my own Anti-Pritzker List: Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Daniel Liebeskind, and, after reading Silber, Josep Lluis Sert, the Spaniard who made so many useless buildings at Harvard. What the anti-Pritzkers have in common are idiosyncratic shticks which they blindly apply to utterly diverse assignments. For Gehry it’s CAD applied titanium, for Meier it’s men’s urinal modern on everything in sight, for Liebeskind it’s obscurantist drivel about the Star of David, on whose razor-sharp silly edges I have skinned my knees in Berlin, Osnabruck and Manchester—for the last time.

As Silber conclusively reveals, Sert makes no distinction between a law school, a high residence hall, or a student union. And he builds in Cambridge MA as if he’s in Madrid SP. Results: Main entrances and patio student unions unusable in winter and structures expensively unprotected from the weather. How did we dig ourselves into this bottomless pit? Arrogant architects who ignore the clients’ needs to flaunt their own cute signatures for the next sucker client with more money than good sense—and a hunger for the notoriety of being associated with an infamous building. We don’t need more “cute” signatures. We need acute attention to a client’s needs. Silber’s book is a must read for all undereducated administrators unwittingly sponsoring useless buildings.

Heh, let’s reserve our attention and admiration for the sweetly (and satisfyingly) absurd and self-financed Follies like the Watts Tower and Le Palais Ideal. And leave the striving up to US—on the Silber Standard.

No comments: