Sunday, 31 May 2009

Kaffeklatsch Books/addendum to "Prince Charles Bashing"

How did Modernism end in such a mess that we have to lean on the Prince of Wales to bail us out? When I asked Kevin Roche how it happened that the blue collar German socialists Mies and Gropius ended up being graphikers for the Fortune 500, he sighed that it was a long story but insisted that both men were decent men and great architects.

I was reminded of how in 1968 when the students of the Art School at Ulm (the lineal antecedent of the first Bauhaus at Dessau) pleaded with Gropius, there as an honored guest at the school's anniversary, to throw his weight against the city fathers' recent decision to close the school. He dismissed them brutally with the bromide "Art has nothing to do with politics".

Like Hitler closing the Bauhaus in Berlin? We can understand, if not condone, the flight from serious politics of a man harassed out of his country by the Nazi thugs. Although recent studies suggest that Mies was only too willing to get along with the Nazis when he succeeded Hannes Meyer as director of the school.

Perhaps the place to start understanding why Mies and Gropius neutered themselves politically when they fled West to America is to look at the life of the Swiss Huguenot from Basel Hannes Meyer (1889-1954) on whom a marvelously instructive centennial exhibition and catalog (Ernst & Sohn, 1000 Berlin 31, 98 DM) has been jointly organized by the Bauhaus-Archiv/Berlin and the Deutsches Architektur Museum/Frankfurt.

(It is showing between 21 March and 20 May at the Museum fur Gestaltung/Zurich. If the A.I.A. doesn't negotiate for an English translation and an Anglophone traveling exhibition, it's missing a marvelous opportunity to explain the morass of Modernism.)

Meyer was much more than a mere designer. He was an assiduous student and teacher. He went, for example, for several years to England to study the Garden City movement that turned Lewis Mumford on to the need for comprehensive planning to make modern city life civilized.

And early on he created such a precinct in Basel. You get the impression that Meyer was the kind of architect Kevin Roche called for when he said the first requirement of good architecture is learning to listen to the client. Meyer's openness to the needs of the society reminded me of the MOMA show on Mies in which his early competition entry for a skyscraper on Friederichstrasse in Berlin ran over the edges of the sidewalk.

Heh, if something's got to give, why not the pedestrians? Meyer went East after he quit the Bauhaus (Mies succeeded him as director) to found an architecture and planning school in Moscow. After six years in the U.S.S.R. (1930-36), he spent three years in Geneva working on a cooperative for children project.

After traveling in Mexico and the U.S. in 1938, he settled in Mexico to direct a school of architecture and planning for the progressive president Cardenas. He returned to Switzerland in 1949 and died there. As the exhibition and catalog suggests he became something of a man without a homeland.

His idealism overreached political realities. Like another Swiss Bauhauser, Johannes Itten (who despaired at tempering the engineering mentality of Mies and Gropius with his humanistic ideals), Meyer simply fell through the cracks of historical memory. It's probably closer to the truth to allege that Mies and Gropius couldn't deal with the heat of Itten's and Meyer's more humanistic ideals and simply repressed their recollections.

That is why Itten and Meyer are so relatively unknown in U.S. architectural education. That's an intellectual scandal that should end right now, especially since the Museum of Modern Art in Vienna did a similar retrieval of Itten with a fine catalog in 1988. We need to know how and why the humanistic and political dimensions of the Bauhaus visitation evanesced so "mysteriously" and Itten and Meyer are the missing bodies.

I must also make another pitch for"Les Architectes de la Liberte"(Ecole nationale superieure des Beaux-Arts, 1989,290 FF.) to establish the prehistory of Bauhaus architectural idealism. It was most instructive in Frankfurt to find an extension of the French Revolution experience in an exhibition parallel to the Meyer show on "Revolution and Architecture" with examples from Germany and Italy in the heady time between 1789 and 1848.

There was a pervasive spirit of the Enlightenment throughout European architectural circles, and only competing nationalistic scholarly traditions and our tendency towards amnesia have kept us from such knowledge.

We need such knowledge to vaccinate us against the contemporamania of contemporary American architectural criticism. Take, for example, Beverly Russell's "Architecture and Design, 1970-1990/New Ideas in America"(Harry Abrams, 100 Fifth Avenue, NY 10011). Ms.Russell did not want to risk imposing her ideas on the witless reader so she convened a panel of twelve ("carefully chosen so that no one design style or tendency--e.g., Modern, Post-Modern, Post-Industrial, Deconstructivism--would predominate", p.15) to palaver for a day into a tape recorder (20,000 words worth).

"It was a day that yielded a rich kaleidoscope of design history and wisdom. But the most interesting aspect of the experience was that these participants were insistent upon constantly juxtaposing the environmental design disciplines with the social and political context of the time." Like, presumably, the following great breakthrough in our common consciousness: "The growing design-conscious society--resulting from affluent living, the two-income family, environmental issues, the preservation movement, and the feminist revolution--has transformed architecture from a remote and specialized profession into an everyday topic, even turning some architects into superstars who take their place next to Elizabeth Taylor in People magazine." P.17.

And, I might add, even turning some readers' stomachs. The book proper begins with the demolition of world class architect Minoru Yamasaki's Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis on July 15, 1972, but ludicrously misanalyzes the causes of that architectural and sociological disaster--namely, racism and business exploitation. There are housing projects from the 1920s in Amsterdam with similar aims and higher architectural standards that did not have to be blown up because the Dutch are not racist and have social democratic ideals that humanize the housing market.

Then the book goes on to flatter the foolishness of Robert Venturi who made a name for himself by apotheosizing the ugly and the banal in Las Vegas and gone on to skim millions from the upper middle class gewgaw racket of PoMo bed sheets and dinner table fixings that are, you guessed, ugly and banal. How do you deal with an architectural community that is so helplessly and hopelessly lost. When its "thinkers" are glib charlatans?

Well, we might begin with the first (and in some ways, still the finest) careless rapture in American architectural history, the Greek Revival. Here we're in luck because Roger G. Kennedy's magisterial "Greek Revival America" (Stewart, Tabori, & Chang, Inc., 1949) is both visually luminous (All hail to photographers John M. Hall, Jack Kotz, Robert Lautman, and Mark Zeek--they make you want to get onto the next Greyhound and savor their shots in situ) and intellectually stimulating.

I have an esoteric theory that Nicholas Biddle Greeked up Andalusia on the Delaware as a reaction to Andrew Jackson's blipping his Second Bank of the United States as the federal depository, thus unleashing the WASP preemptive cultural strike against Jacksonian Democracy that rattles our politics (and especially Philadelphia's) to this day.

I bring this forward because my theory is as believable as Kennedy's! Don't let anybody's theory keep you from possessing our Greek Revival history when idealistic Americans worked together to express their common high hopes for our fledgling country with an architecture worthy of its aspirations. The trouble with the PoMo's and Decon's is that they have no ideals outside of making names for themselves and making a lot of money. Fooey, ptui.

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