John Silber’s “Architecture of the Absurd: How ‘Genius’ Disfigured a Practical Art” (The Quantuck Lane Press, 2007.)
Why listen to a allegedly cranky past president of Boston University go “ad hominen” against the starchitects of our era? Begin with his provenience. His Beaux Arts trained architect/sculptor father left Berlin in 1902 to prepare Germany’s participation in the 1904 Louisiana Purchase World’s Fair in St. Louis, 1904. And his son John, later a distinguished U of Texas Professor of Philosophy, got a special tutorial as his gofer when Dad liked what he saw so much he settled down in an architectural practice in Palestine TX.
His father was a stickler for detail! If the client called for three coats of varnish on the doors, he’d wait till the contractors went home and the mark the second coat with a pencil to see whether they later applied the third coat! If they didn’t, he’d raise holy hell until they complied. Naturally, this rankled contractors used to cutting corner. But eventually his rep was so strong, the honorable complied! Bit by bit, son John learned the details of design and construction the hard way—shadowing his eager teacher father.
So that when he became a client as Boston U prexy, he was a shrewd analyst client who knew what he wanted and how to ensure getting it. One sad story involved a new library facing the Charles for “esthetic” reasons! Winters made the main entrance a frozen exit, and it took millions to finally design a practical side entrance, less glamorous but functional 365 days a year.
The book is a collection of such architectural faux pas, culminating with his indictment of the arch(itectural) fiend Frank Geary. MIT needed a new Stata center where important secret military and industrial research was to be carried out. It was to replace the humdrum Building 20 (1943), which looked like a Bauhaus warehouse, bland beyond belief. (Except that it functioned perfectly!)
His Dream Center was to have “grand avenues” (formerly called corridors) where the artisans could inspire each other. Originally it was to cost about $100 million, or $252 a square foot. Alas, the final cost was more than 3 times the original budget at $315 millions, at $442 per square foot. And four years over due!
Juxtaposed to his Higher Goofy were splendid buildings by Fay Jones (Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel, 1988, Bella Vista, Arkansas) and Moshe Safdie (Yitzak Rabin Center, Tel Aviv, 2002). And wouldn’t you know, the old philosophy prof drags Aristotle into the argument. Listen to the timeliness of the Old Greek: “There are a number of arts in which the creative artist is not the only, or even the best, judge. There are the arts whose products can be understood and judged even by those who do not possess any skill in the art. A house, for instance, is something that can be understood by others besides the builder: indeed the user of the of a house—or in other words the householder—will judge it even better than he does.” (Ibid.,p.44.)
Think a pious moment of the thousands of pioneer modernist householders with leaky roofs! When Philip C. Johnson deigned to make the first Miesy house for the great art collector De Menil family in Houston in 1950, it rained so often their kids thought the roofer was the architect. So much for the Modernist goofs who abandoned the gable, the first major innovation in architectural history, thereby committing the Original Sin of their craftless art!
Silber shrewdly forces us to accept our given rights as users of buildings. They’re supposed to^please us not the vain architect! Old presidents don’t always die. They revert to their first expertise, and make us all think about the humanmade landscape that are supposed to serve our living needs.
Thanks, John, for clearing that up. Class dismissed!