Monday, 31 January 2011

Verbal Bombs For Bonnie Prince Charlie

The annual Grassroots Seminar of the American Institute of Architects ended riotously with a spate of Prince Charles-and media-bashings. A distinguished panel of gold medal winners (Cal's Joseph Esherick, Canada's Arthur Erickson and the world's Kevin Roche--pinch-hitting for the hospitalized Philip Johnson) made a preemptive strike against the future king of England.

Their assignment was to speculate aloud on how excellence in architecture was to be achieved. But these stars of the architectural firmament exercised their droits de seigneurs by drifting boldly off their assigned topics. The ebullient Roche was the most egregious kicker-off of his traces.

He magisterially chided his assembled peers (and assorted media camp-followers) by asserting that Modernism had failed because its first vision of democratizing abundance for the poor and underadvantaged had been abandoned by the architectural elite. He further attributed the median mediocrities of Modernism to the architects' endemic failure to listen to their clients.

"There is no such thing as a bad client," he flew in the face of the architects' favorite copout. "There are only architects who fail to serve their clients." Having alienated his peers, the Peck's Bad Boy of American architecture proceeded to trash the only two other available victims--architecture critics and the Prince of Wales.

He faulted Charles (with the venom that only a Hibernian can feel toward the House of Hanover) for his abysmal ignorance of great modern architecture in contemporary Britain. But he saved his choicest spleen for the journalistic critics of architecture and for the art history professors who were inflicting on architectural discourse an incomprehensible jargon that spawned Post-Modernism--among other avoidable evils.

A less contentious but no less radical Esherick attributes the squalid results of the Modernist movement to defects in architectural education. He recalled ruefully, the pre-industrial days when children went to work as soon as they were physically capable of toting their bales. This system of forced education avoided today's paradoxical plight of the architect seeking good apprentices from the prestige schools.

"They can talk good architecture," Esherick said, "but they have no idea how to do the simple physical things that go into erecting a building." He hypothesized that if such learned ignoramuses were ever forced to shovel a footings ditch, their jargon would end in their fellow diggers hitting them over the head with the business ends of their implements. Architecture critics were especially faulted for their total ignorance of how buildings are made.

Erickson hurled another dart at the prince. (Charles at that moment was all unwittingly preparing to lunch with President Bush, as foreplay for awarding the AIA gold medal to the widely unknown-Ozark Wrightist, E. Fay Jones). This dart would have really hurt, because Erickson traced the current economic and ecological malaise of Britain to its 17th- and 18th-Century denuding of its forests by the Royal Navy.

And he chided the prince for the singular A Vision of Britain, contending he should be talking "Visions," since the de-imperializing hordes that Britain had grown rich off in centuries past were now complicating the urbanities of contemporary Britain by their contending presences.

In short, the assembled architects were nursing the hangovers of their perennial dilemma: We need to get the public more involved, yet involvement can lead to the simpleminded clout of a Prince Charles. It's a cold, cruel world out there in Clientland. You literally can't live (easily) with 'em or without 'em.

Who ever said architecture was an easy art? Their puzzled peers took a coffee break before reassembling for a pep talk on leadership. They'll clearly need all of that they can find, threading their tricky way through the labyrinth of modernism at the end of which is the Minotaur of Wales, surrounded by a protective phalanx of architecture critics.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, March 28, 1990

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