Sunday, 31 March 2013

At Last, the Bauhaus Myth is Rejected by a German Critic

As a homeless kid In Depression Detroit (1930-45, when I joined the Navy as an aviation electronics mate, an aspect of education shamefully neglected in Catholic grade school and a B.A. in philosophy at the Jesuit University of Detroit. In graduate school I took an interdisciplinary Ph.D in American Studies, specializing in literature but with a prelim in American art and architecture. So when I read Nicholas Pevsner’pioneer book on modern architecture, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the German Walter Gropius founded an art school in 1919 to bring good design to the working classes. 

Our first married house in 1954 was a National Home prefab (Lafayette, Indiana) designed by Charles Goodman, a marvelous Cape Cod on what been the fall before a corn field. $400 down, $40 a month! We’d still be there had I not won a Ford Grant in New York City in 1954-55 to mingle with TV brass (and especially with my first academic hero, Marshall McLuhan, whose first book had just published the popular culture essays I had read in “Commonweal” the lay Catholic weekly—who was a visiting professor at TC, Columbia.) 

I had invented a monthly column for “The English Journal” making it easier for high school teachers to assign outstanding TV programs for class discussion. Bill Boutwell asked me to become the radio TV editor of “Scholastic Teacher” which I did for six years until an appointment as the first director of the Institute of American Studies at Honolulu new East-West Center in 1961 made contacts with continental media impractical.

My Ford year was intellectually stimulating, but I was puzzled by a paradox: my humanities peers thought my stooping to conquer media was degrading. For example, my doctoral committee rejected my proposal to write a dissertation on Marshall McLuhan! But Pat Weaver, the creative head of NBC TV spent two hours with me, reacting to my program, putting me in touch with all the relevant NBC personnel. When I read that there was an educational convention in D.C., I invited myself! As I entered the convention HQ I saw Ralph Bunche speaking with great intensity with a I knew not. As the pushy Julien Sorel of East Lansing, Michigan, I orated “I'm Pat Hazard and I’m on a Ford grant to improve high school students responses to the Newer Media.” 

The anonymous one replied, “Well, how’s it going? “Lousy,” I replied, explaining how Pat Weaver’s secretary was getting more and more unfriendly the more I called. Mr. Anon identified himself, ”Well I’m the publisher of “Time” and I’m on the board of the Ford Foundation. And I like what you’re doing. Would an office in “Time” help?” “ GULP!” He handed me his card and told me to call Monday.” I called Weaver from “Time”, and his secretary was very, very amicable! A half hour later I was in Pat’s office, wondering if he always received guests on a bongo board!” I was treated like an ambassador at “Time”. He sent me around the country to better understand their national nature. One exciting afternoon I and the son of the founder of “Spiegel” (Germany’s “Time”) watched the main editor and photography editor decide on an issue of “Life”!

Not all the Humanists were media snobs. At the Freshman English teachers annual convention in May I gave a media plea, “L and the Future of Cultural Criticism”. Three tough looking cookies asked if I’d like to give that spiel in their blue collar commuter college, Trenton?! I said yes, hoping it would give me time enough to finish my dissertation on John Fiske, a popularizer of Herbert Spencer in America.(I finished it, thinking all the time I was letting Marshall down. It turned out all right—Penn gave me a two year Carnegie Post Doctoral grant to create the first two semester course on “Mass Culture.” 

I was being to think all my good luck would run out! Not yet, TV Guide publisher Walter Annenberg gave Penn 2 millions to found a graduate school of communication. And, faute de mieux,I began the university’s gofer: travel the USA around telling media and graduate J schools how different and good we were going to become! I convinced the brass that the Philly boy who first turned me on to media studies, Gilbert Seldes, “The Seven Lively Arts” (1924), should be the first dean! He was, and I became his gofer, a unique experience! I taught media history at the new Annenberg! Meanwhile, my commitment to architecture became bigger and bigger, I MC’ed a TV series at Walter Annenberg’s TV station. 

The most memorable hour was devoted to Louie Kahn’s maquette for his Biological Center in La Jolla, CA. In 1959 we had bought an almost new (1956) Kahn in Greenbelt Knoll a experiment in racial integration in North East Philadelphia.(We had only been able to buy it because the wife didn’t feel comfortable with the blacks!) By the way, we had lived for three years in Levittown. The great sociologist Herbert J. Gans who wrote the classic book on the values of “The Levittowners” while most humanist snobs mocked the genre. He came to Penn the same year I did, and I learned a lot about housing from him. I sadly sold “My Kahn” in 2009, to buy a flat in a 1782 villa in Weimar. Fifty years in a Kahn is a blessing.

So as the years passed, I saw all our greats’ works, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louie Sullivan, Kahn, the Saarinens, Albert Kahn, Bertrand Goldberg, and Timothy Pflueger. I spent 30 years teaching followed by 30 years roaming the world to comment on it in alternative journalism. I was ready for Weimar! In 1999 she was the Cultural Capital of Europe, I was ready to be thrilled. It has been the greatest disappointment of my cultural life. See if you agree with me why?

Friday, 29 March 2013

The Mystery of the Autodidact Architect

Middle Thuringia is in the glorious throes of honoring the two greatest autodidact architects of modern Germany: the Belgian Henry Van der Velde at Weimar’s New Museum and in Erfurt (the state capital); Peter Behrens at Arthall. The Belgian’s father was a distinguished pharmacist who balked at his son’s professional interest first in art and then in music. Poppa wanted him to get scientific. He didn’t choose architecture until he was 32. Behrens came from a prosperous Hamburg family that indulged his flair for painting. 

He answered the Duke of Hesse’s plea that he join a new applied art school to give the dukedom a better position in newly industrializing Germany. He went to Darmstadt and built himself a splendid modern house and filled it full of his own designed furniture. In due course I’ll review both these shows, but now I want to explore the paradox of early modern architecture.

My American Lit professor at the University of Detroit, C.Carroll Hollis, who shrewdly guided a Detroit millionaire’s Walt Whitman collection into the Library of Congress (he came with the collection!) Before he escalated to D.C. he spent frugal summers running the club house of the Detroit Golf Club. It was on the way to the Cranbrook Academy of Art in suburban Bloomfield Hills. It had been founded by George Booth, the publisher of the Detroit News, to civilize the families of the new auto barons. 
Hollis turned me on to Albert Kahn, the oldest of a Jewish rabbi’s six sons, who emigrated to Detroit in 1880, aged 10. He not only didn’t go to architecture school, he couldn’t afford high school. He started drawing for Detroit’s leading architecture firm. They were so stunned by his talent that they sent him to Europe to deepen his awareness! Eventually he became Henry Ford’s architect. When the Depression killed commissions in Detroit, he went to the Soviet Union where he designed over 500 buildings, many military. 

When I spent a summer on his Mercury factory in Dearborn, we used to joke that Kahn won World War II singlehandedly, when you pair the Russian tank factories with those he had built in the USA. My first “favorite” Kahn building was his Beau Deco Fisher Building! It had a glorious golden crown on top at night which my Irish Uncle Dan dubbed the Gillyhoo bird’s nest. That bird was always dropping Baby Ruth and Hersey bars on the front door step. What was a three year old to do, but to scoop up the sweets when Uncle Dan shouted, “Pat, did you hear him whoosh just now?”

So I had a belated giggle when Kahn called a defense building conference in 1942 at the U of Michigan (where he had designed the major buildings.) He invited Eliel Saarinen from Cranbrook Art School, and Gropius and Mies, who were hungry for commissions! He teased them by calling them the Glass House Boys. He scorned them for building structures for looks rather than function. He sneered at the Bauhaus by contending that architecture was 90 percent business and 10 percent art.
I quit teaching when my mother died in 1982 and went to San Francisco to live for a very satisfying decade. I soon discovered another poor German immigrant, Timothy Pflueger. His formal education ended with elementary school. No money for high school or college! Eventually he started conceiving great ideas: Union Square, underground parking; 540 Sutter: Doctor/Dentist office building: cars parked on lowest floors. He created a downtown depot that brought trains, boats and buses together. He created marvelous school buildings from kindergarten to graduate school. Churches everywhere. Marvelous theatres like the Oakland Paramount.

Later I discovered that the great Louis Sullivan spent only a few courses at M.I.T. He hurried off to Chicago, where they needed a lot of buildings, after the Great Fire of 1871. In due course, the school free Frank Lloyd Wright apprenticed with his Adler-Sullivan firm. Once you get the hang of good design by watching pro’s do it, you could do it, your way. Soon, you’re ready to “graduate”! 

When I celebrated the 50th anniversary of his Wisconsin “school” by visiting his new Arizona school, I asked the director why concrete was used in building . He said that originally Wright used wood because the water gushing through was glorious to regard. Except that the sun made the wood evanesce. 

Look and learn! Wait until I describe the idiosyncratic ways they created modern architecture, their ways! These are the books where I learned about the two self-made German immigrant architects. Brian Carter, ed. "Albert Kahn; Inspiration for the Modern" (University of Michigan Museum of Art, 2001.) and Milton T. Pflueger, ed., “Time and Tim Remembered” (Pflueger Architects, 1985.)

Another version of this essay can be read at Broad Street Review.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

What Makes Architecture Humane

Omar Ahkbar, the Afghani who directed the Dessau Bauhaus creatively for several years, posed a question I’ll not soon forget, at a recent Berlin Conference on Urban Design: “What have our starchitects done for the common man?” Longish pause, before his solemn answer. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” Because he is a thoroughly decent man, I’m sure he would be as thrilled as I am by the Pritzker(Sur)Prize choice of 2013: Toyo Ito of Japan.

With tiny (but rapidly growing) exceptions like Cameron Sinclair’s Architecture for Humanity, our architectural geniuses hunger to be the Frank Lloyd Wrights of their generation. Sinclair’s “bible”, ”Design As If You Give a Damn”, urges his generation to use their talents in abolishing the scandal of the favela in the fastest growing Latin American economy. Or employing the energies of unacknowledged prefab geniuses like Charles Goodman of National Homes, Lafayette, Indiana to bring American families out of utter urban darkness. Or the two million Syrians scrabbling out of their hellhole to whatever tent town will take them. 
So cheer the good news of our newest Pritzker, who when his fellow Japanese were suffering from the homelessness of a tsunami in Rikuzentakata, he responded by forming “Home-for-All”, a coop that innovates to contain the pain and waste of the tragedies of their coevals. It all started at the Venice Biennale of 2012 when his collaborator Takamasa Yoshizaka designed “Architecture: Possible here? ‘Home-for-all’”, the dashes signifying the togetherness of their thinking. Toyo Ito curated the exhibition with the participation of architects Kumiko Inui, Sou Fujimoto, and Akihisa Hirata—visualized by the photographer Naoya Hatakeyama. Group aid, to ensure the future.

The photographer illustrated Rikuzintakata, before and after the tsunami. Models illustrated solutions to the new crisis. (That magazine—new to me, by the way--is a marvelously accessible way to keep on top of all such architectural innovations.) When their exposition won the Biennale’s Gold Lion in 2012, the jury noted that “the presentation and the storytelling in the Pavilion are exceptional and highly accessible to a broad audience. The jury was impressed with the humanity of this project.” Or in other words, humane architecture involves more than a slide-rule!)

It takes a visionary like Toyo Ito: "Immediately post-quake I proposed a project known as Home-for-All: an attempt to provide places where those who’ve lost their homes can enjoy a little breathing space—a place to meet, talk, eat and drink together. Those living in the temporary housing erected in the disaster zone may at least secured a minimum of privacy, but having lost their former communities, are compelled to live an isolated existence. Dwellings are small and thus unsociable.
Even just to talk to the next-door neighbors requires standing outside on a bare gravel road. It struck me that we could supply small wooden buildings, places for people to gather, in a corner of these temporary housing sites, and I launched a campaign to do so. Soliciting funds from companies and organizations around the world, the idea is also to have manufacturers supply the materials free of charge.” (Arch.Daily, op.cit.)

Toyo Ito is not only gifted physically in his work, but metaphysical as well: "Home-For-All” may indeed be a small project, but this process by which the buildings come to fruition is actually hugely significant, because it questions the very meaning of ‘individual’ in the modern sense. Since the onset of the modern period, architecture has been rated highest for its individual originality. As a result the most primal themes—those of why a building is made, and for whom—have been forgotten.” 

AMEN! But not by Louis Kahn’s greatest protégé, Ricky Wurman, who in the 1970’s created a curriculum on architecture for the Philadelphia School System, currently lost in some long forgotten desk. We must recover it from ideological collapse of our educational system. Wurman went on to write a bookshelf of guides to our major cities. Then, he devised TED, that media genius that used the NPR empty Sundays to remind thoughtful Americans on why we are foundering! 

I’m going to recommend to Danny Miller, long the silent genius of the Terry Gross operation, that he get Wurman and Toyo ITO together on TED. We need their wisdom, not to mention their pizazz. (Go to “ArchitectureDaily” to learn about Toyo Ito’s superbly diverse achievements.) No SurPrize there!

Another version of this essay is published by Broad Street Review.