Saturday, 13 November 2010

The Trouble(s) with Modern Architecture

Apologia pour vita mea: I’m often asked how a retired professor of American Literature presumes to pontificate on the subject of Modern Architecture. A good question, but a false premise.I don’t profess a specialist’s preparation. (Indeed, the closest I got to such special savvy was the “D” I got in mechanical drawing when as an nineteen year old ex-Navy aviation radar specialist I signed up for a degree in electrical engineering at the University of Detroit in my hometown!) What a shock for a student used to All A’s report cards. I decided on the spot that my profession must be one where sloppiness was an asset: I became an English Professor.

No, I bring the everyday experience of using architecture to my task. If I were gifted enough I’d aspire to be the Ralph Nader of American architectural criticism. Indeed, I believe our American architecture is a median mess because almost no one attempts to help the common man (I think of our public schools) learn how to judge their man made environment. I can offer one sterling exception to this dismal cultural failure: Louie Kahn’s protégé Reggie Wurman and his architectural partner Alan Levy in the 1960’s devised just such a curriculum for my second hometown, Philadelphia. It was an aspect of the enlightened era Cranbrook Art Academy educated urban planner Edmund Bacon brought to our city.

But my interest in architecture derives equally from the depressing architectural privation of my youth. I was “homeless” in Depression Detroit from 1930 to 1944, from age three to seventeen. My father absconded with his secretary to start a second life in Nevada, ending up as a highly successful real estate agent in partnership with the mayor who had made Las Vegas into a boom town. His death gift of $100,000 financed post-post doctoral traipses on unknown continents to see architecture by the likes of Corbu, Behrens, Aalto, Piano, Foster, Niemeyer et al in situ.

My mother was forced to teach in a middle school in Hamtramck, then the Polish “suburb” of Detroit. Her survival tactic was to double up on a rental with another beleaguered teacher, in this instance a nun who just kicked her habit. They would rent until summer vacation started, then switch to a cheaper summer cottage, and in the fall find another apartment! Ad infinitum, until the New Deal kicked in, making it possible for my mother and a different teacher to buy a new house in the last undeveloped sector, the Northeast. Meanwhile, I was parked a hundred miles to the North at Holy Rosary Academy in Bay City, along with my only other sibling, Mike, seven years older than I.

The “kindergarten” teacher (I was her only student!) Sister Mary Felicia really taught first and second grade when she wasn’t my virtual mother, turning me over to the nuns in the kitchen! I was a rebel from the start: when my Mother prepared to return solo to Detroit for the first time, she tried to ease my pain by giving me a $5 bill, not peanuts in those depression years! I tore it in two and threw it in her face.

And I date my interest in architecture to those weeks before I was parked in Bay City. The ex-nun Justine Fitzpatrick had her father boarding with us. Uncle Dan I called. He was in charge of deliveries at Crowley-Milner's, the number three department store in downtown Detroit. When I first saw Albert Kahn’s glorious Beaux Deco Fisher Building (1928)with its golden illuminated crown, my Hibernian “uncle” called it the GillyHoo Bird’s Nest. And most weekday evenings, as he settled in to read the Detroit Times, he’d ask me suddenly,”Did you hear that whoosh of wings, Pat? It must be the GillyHoo Bird!”

And sure enough, as I hopped outside on the front porch, there’d be a Mars Bar or a Baby Ruth! Later I would learn about the remarkable career of Albert Kahn, that first child of a German rabbi’s six, who emigrated at 11 to Detroit in 1880. He had to work so he didn’t even finish high school, let alone architectural school. He was so gifted a designer his proud bosses sent him to Europe for a polishing! I remember with pleasure that my first job as an autoworker was spot welding the Lincoln and Mercury mainframes in one of his factories.

When I went to Weimar in 1999 to write a book on Walter Gropius’s architectural idealism, I was motivated by reading Nicholas Pevsner’s pioneer book on architectural modernism which taught me that Pius founded the Bauhaus to bring good design to the working classes!

And I was stunned that the filiopietistic Germans were abysmally ignorant of Kahn’s greatness! Dieter Marcello’s superb film, “Albert Kahn: Architekt der Moderne” was unknown. I gave my copy to the Bauhaus Uni library and invited Marcello to Lecture in Weimar. Partly it was because Kahn was contemptuous of what he sneeringly called the Glasshouse Boys. He convened a Tagung at the University of Michigan in 1941 on Defense Factories. He invited the Saarinens, Eliel and Eero, Gropius and Mies. He chided them for not designing factories by first studying the production process and then enclosing the production lines. The Bauhaus was still the prisoner of the Glass Palace (1851) Showoff Syndrome: It’s evident in Gropius/Meyer’s Fagus shoelast factory (1910) and Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion (1928) as well as his ripoff Neue National Galerie (1968) which was designed to show off Bacardi rum in Havana until Castro said Nyet! In Havana it was concrete. In Berlin it was steel. Its first floor is good only for goofy shows of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Or for Pritzker Prize receptions. (I attended Lord Foster’s canonization there in 1999!)

Finally, my own architectural decisions. Our first house in Dewitt in 1954 (next to Michigan State) was a prefab redwood sheathed Cape Cod with three bedrooms, $400, $40 a month!(Teacher’s salary $3600!) In a former corn field! Designed by the most neglected architect in American history, Charles Goodman! OK so I had to put the tile onto the living room. At the same time that Gropius and Konrad Wachsmann were failing at the General Panel Corporation. With a money bleeding office on Park Avenue in New York. And a production plant in an abandoned Los Angeles airplane factory. (Goodman worked out of National Homes, Lafayette, IN-- dead in the middle of the country--and understood banking mortgage traditions.)

Our second(1956-1959) was a rental in Levittown, PA, after I got a Carnegie Postdoctoral fellowship at Penn to create a new course on the mass society (communication and production.) The Ivy eggheads mocked the three Levittowns (in NY, PA,and NJ), but Arthur Levitt was generations ahead of their facile cynicism.

Our third was the best ever (1959-2010), a three bedroom,two story modern house it turns out it was secretly designed by the great Louie Kahn, in Greenbelt Knoll, the first successful experiment in integrated housing in Philadelphia. So it is clear I don’t reject modern architecture. I want it to shed its bad habits. Those tics derive from the intellectual flabbiness of Modernism, which happily seems to be fast coming to an inglorious end. Before I crit the trouble(s) with modern architecture.

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