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.

No comments: