Sunday, 12 April 2009

Inductive Architectural Humanism

One crucial weakness of the first century of Modern Architecture was its a priori bias. Corbu dreamt of his “villes radiuses”, Mies intoned “less is more” when “less is really moronic” in Mature Modern, Gropius groped with his “Freies Kunsterlern” faculty towards blue collar Utopia and only achieved the ugly mediocrities of Törten. The German Architecture Museum has just shown the way out of this Platonic trap with two complementary shows, the first and larger exhibition “simply” shows how a score of European cities have, a fortiori, broken the a priori molds (I started to misspell it “moulds”!) to further urbanity!

If I may toot my very old horn, let's go back to 1957, when with a Ph.D in “American Culture” (with the ink still wet) from Western Reserve in Cleveland, I lucked out: got a Carnegie postdoctoral grant to create a new course on “The Mass Society” for the Department of American Civilization at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. First year, create the course: Fall semester, “Mass Communication”(Print, Graphics, Broadcasting), Spring semester, ”Mass Production” (Industrial Design, Architecture, Urban Planning”.

Nothing fancy. Identify excellence in these fields and try to explain how to encourage more such: John Updike, Ingmar Bergman, Paddy Chayefsky: George Nelson, Alvar Aalto, Victor Gruen. No whining about the “inevitable grossness” of Mass Culture. “Simply” identify the few extant superlatives and speculate about ways of expanding their breakthrough excellence.

But I hadn’t counted (or discounted!) the esthetic blindness of the Upper West Side New York Eggheads. When Harvard’s highbrow humanist quarterly “Daedalus” convoked a conference in the Poconos in 1960, I was the fall guy. Whilst the alleged Heavy Hitters bemoaned the quintessential drek of Mass Culture, I outlined my simple search for the superlative.

There were groans of dismay so boisterous that the poet Randall Jarrell literally closed the conference by waggling his Jeremiah like beard at me, screaming,” You’re the Man of the Future, Mr. Hazard, and I’m glad I’m not going to be there!” Poor man, he committed suicide a few months later by walking into a car on a South Carolina back road. And here I am, still peddling my simple tactic of inductive humanism, 48 years later.

And I’m now hard at work, editing a chrestomathy of fifty years of the same simpleminded cultural journalism in Hazard-at-Large: A Humanist Evaluates Mass Culture; 1955-2005. The H-A-L logo was my column for ten years in the Philly alternative weekly, “The Welcomat”. It was at your front door every Thursday. I’m grateful to Dan Rottenberg and Derek Davies who gave me astonishing latitude to express myself, as well as Herb Larsen, editor of the San Francisco Business Journal where for two years (I quit to go to Shanghai to study Mandarin) I made my first masthead and where Herb spread my ID searches for excellence in Mass Culture throughout the Dallas based chain of eight western weeklies.

It all began with Bill Boutwell, the editor of Scholastic Teacher, who published my first national piece while still a teacher at East Lansing MI High—“Everyman in Saddle Shoes” where I explained how I assigned Paddy Chayefsky plays and Edward R. Murrow documentaries to my 10th grade students. That led to a Ford Fund for the Advancement of Education grant in New York 1955-6 when I became the radio/TV editor of Scholastic, testing my hunches nationally.

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