Two prominent architects died this week, and I saw their obituaries in the Times. These are worth reading, because if you've ever wondered why architecture is the way it is today, these two stories will give you some idea.
In the postwar years Mr. Johansen and four other young Modernist architects — Philip Johnson, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores and Eliot Noyes, all with connections to Harvard’s architecture school — dotted southwestern Connecticut with houses conveying the optimism of the time. Hugely influential in the field, the buildings were seen in museum exhibitions and on the covers of Life and Look magazines.http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/27/arts/design/john-m-johansen-last-of-harvard-five-architects-dies-at-96.html?_r=0
As an aspiring architect, he assembled impeccable Modernist credentials, studying under Walter Gropius, the founder of Germany’s Bauhaus school, at Harvard (where he was a member of the varsity track team and captain of the soccer team), then working for Breuer (who designed the Whitney Museum of American Art building in Manhattan) and for the blue-chip firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. He later held teaching posts at the Pratt Institute in New York and Yale. In 1948 Mr. Johansen opened his own office in New Canaan, joining the other Modernists in what came to be seen as a five-man architectural movement.
A lot of people wonder why post-war architecture is so radically different than what came before. John M. Johansen's career was symptomatic of the radical shift in the way architecture was taught and practiced following the Second World War. After the war, a series of prominent intellectuals fled Europe and crossed the pond to America, where all the post-war building action was to be thanks to our temporary cultural and economic dominance. They set up shop in the elite schools such as Harvard, Yale, IIT and others to inculcate the next generation of professionals. It was here that architecture became an intellectual, rather than a practical art. Rather than learning by apprenticeship and experience, the sons (in those days) of prominent East-Coast families would get years of expensive schooling and learn at the feet of these European "geniuses" what architecture should be. Architecture became totally divorced from the art of building and became a sort of intellectual exercise practiced on paper. Architecture underwent a sort of Cultural Revolution, where all tradition, adornment, and previous forms were purged from the discipline, with permanent revolution taking its place and dissenters publicly denounced. From now on, they would be the enforcers of desired styles and architectural purity, and their ideas alone would be passed on through the enforced exclusivity of the university system to a select group of (mainly wealthy) insiders. Architecture was to be endlessly reinvented anew with each building using the latest cutting-edge techniques. Tradition was out, as was public opinion. Architecture is, by it's very nature, is a derivative art driven by the wider social milieu in which it finds itself; it does not occur in a vacuum.
All other paths to being an architect besides expensive schooling were closed off. A nexus of institutions including professional associations, elite universities, licensing boards, large corporate firms, accreditation boards, and magazines made sure that there was only one true path to becoming an architect - years and years of expensive schooling, and all others were marginalized. Architecture became "centralized", with a small group of mandarins deciding what architecture should be with the power to silence all other alternative voices. The earliest graduates of these programs, inevitably the scions of prominent families, had all the essential social connections to those with money - corporate titans looking for a new headquarters downtown and a vacation retreat to be featured on the covers of all the magazines. Thanks to these universities, architecture became a thing like fine art or sculpture - a method of signalling to their peers by the one percent, and it was this that architects devoted their efforts to, leaving tract-house developers and bare-bones builders hungry for quick profits from the baby boom to reshape the American landscape into the temporary drive-though sprawl nightmare in which we now live and abandoning all efforts at place making for anyone without deep pockets. Big centralized corporate firms (inevitably founded by Harvard/Yale graduates) working hand-in-hand with institutionalized America (the merging of corporations and big government) dictated what architecture was now to become (notice that resume, above). The next generation was filtered by an internship system in which lowly newly-minted graduates provided the slave labor for the master for years building models and making drawings, often with zero pay save for their requisite trust funds, in the hopes of someday being the next made man by the architecture mafia.
What did the public think? Well, just as with business and politics, elites made the calls, and the public was along for the ride. At the earliest opportunities, the poorly-functioning intellectualized experimental eyesores were torn down with no remorse whatsover:
His Morris A. Mechanic Theater in Baltimore (1967) and the Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City (1970) — now the Stage Center — consist of concrete “pods” connected by walkways and tubes. With their raw concrete exteriors, they were easy targets for criticism. From 1973 to 1987 Mr. Johansen worked with Ashok Bhavnani, with whom he completed the Island House and Rivercross apartment buildings on Roosevelt Island in New York.
Mr. Johansen outlived some of his creations. Of the seven houses he designed in New Canaan, three were demolished and one, he said, was “remodeled beyond recognition.” In 1988 his Labyrinth House in Westport, made of rough-hewn concrete forms bracketing floor-to-ceiling glass — a kind of domesticated Stonehenge — was torn down by the television host Phil Donahue, who described it as “an avant-garde bomb shelter.” Its loss, Mr. Johansen said at the time, was like a death in the family.
By then, all the skilled tradesmen had long ago left the field to sell insurance or used cars, leaving nothing but poorly trained and paid finish carpenters, concrete pourers and drywall hangers to put together the kit of parts laid out on the instruction sheets turned out by roomfuls of less-privileged drafters getting arthritis over sheets of mylar and high on marker fumes. Utilitarianism ruled, and machine made dimensional materials were churned out for assembly, enough to encircle the world multiple times, and put to work in the rebuilding of post-war "modern" America. America now went to school and work in the now-familiar gridded glass boxes and concrete bunkers, and drove home to their one-story plywood ranch home in the suburbs. And it all started with five guys from Harvard. It's tough to remember, sometimes, how recent all of this truly is.
In an era when many architecture stars earned healthy commissions designing high-rise condominiums or corporate headquarters, Mr. Woods conceived of a radically different environment, one intended for a world in conflict.http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/01/arts/lebbeus-woods-unconventional-architect-dies-at-72.html
He conceived a post-earthquake San Francisco that emphasized its seismic vulnerability. He flew to Sarajevo in the 1990s and proposed a postwar city in which destruction and resurgence coexisted. He imagined a future for Lower Manhattan in which dams would hold back the Hudson and East Rivers to create a vast gorge around the island, exposing its rock foundation.
“It’s about the relationship of the relatively small human scratchings on the surface of the earth compared to the earth itself,” Mr. Woods said of his Manhattan drawing in an interview several years ago with the architectural Web site Building Blog. “I think that comes across in the drawing. It’s not geologically correct, I’m sure, but the idea is there.”
Mr. Woods’s work was often described as fantasy and compared to science-fiction imagery. But he made clear that while he may not have expected his designs to be built, he wished they would be — and believed they could be.
“I’m not interested in living in a fantasy world,” Mr. Woods told The New York Times in 2008. “All my work is still meant to evoke real architectural spaces. But what interests me is what the world would be like if we were free of conventional limits. Maybe I can show what could happen if we lived by a different set of rules.”
He spread his message from many platforms. He was a professor at Cooper Union, spoke at symposiums around the world and built sprawling temporary installations in Austria, Italy, Southern California and elsewhere. He also wrote a well-read blog.
Instead these "paper" architects disappeared into a world of abstract theory. They couldn't care less whether their designs were built or not, or whether actual human beings even wanted them built (most probably didn't) or could live in them. But these were the very same people who were ubiquitous in the most "prestigious" universities. These people were teaching the next generation! And instead of creating a world of harmony and order in line with man's highest ideals as had been the case since Ancient Greece, the new generation of architects wanted to celebrate a world full of violence, chaos, and impermanence. Architecture became ever more theoretical, and architects became philosophers of chaos, with no requirement to even know how a building was put together, or kept watertight or code compliant (with such menial tasks delegated to poorly paid interns or well-paid outside consultants.).
Earlier this year, in a post explaining why he chose to become an architect, he said winning commissions was not a major motivation.Unfortunately, many people took the scribbling and abstract theories of these "paper" architects to heart and got the crazy idea that just because advanced computer technology, cutting-edge waterproofing membranes and heroic levels of engineering now existed to make these things a reality, that they should be. Emboldened by major commissions and with money to burn, such designs became more and more outlandish. Dramatic, disconcerting and disorienting, these buildings amaze and astound, playing with our perceptions the first time they are seen, but like a piece of experimental music, familiarity breeds contempt, and they are ultimately recognized for the stunts they are. It's one thing looking at an abstract piece of sculpture in the art museum, it's quite another living in one. Buildings are not one-time experiences, nor sould they be built to look good in glossy photos or magazine covers; they must be lived in and experienced day after day, year after year. They will be here a long time, long past the expiration date of their particular style. They must be for people, not for designers; they must be more than tryouts for that next commission on the stepladder to stardom. You can only be astounded once.
“The arts have not been merely ornamental, but central to people’s struggle to ‘find themselves’ in a world without clarity, or certainty, or meaning,” he wrote.
Christoph A. Kumpusch, a longtime friend and colleague who, like Mr. Woods, taught at the Cooper Union in New York, said Mr. Woods “wanted life and architecture to be a challenge” and “always wanted us to feel a little uncomfortable in order to make things change.”
Mr. Kumpusch collaborated with Mr. Woods on the only permanent structure he built, a pavilion for a housing complex in Chengdu, China, designed by Mr. Holl. Called the Light Pavilion, and completed in October, the pavilion is reached by several glass and steel bridges and ramps.
Throwing away several millennia of aesthetics and building sensibility, even with modern technology, led to a range of awkward, unusable spaces, acoustical problems, safety issues, and the inevitable water penetration, frost, and temperature issues. These were egomaniacal white elephants at their most extreme, astonishingly complex, expensive and time-consuming to build, riddled with construction problems, hogging energy and difficult and costly to maintain. It's the same old story of the Emperor With No Clothes, but on an international scale.
So here we have the modern architect - degrees from hyper-expensive prestigious universities on multiple continents, winners of prestigious prizes awarded by the mandarins of the field, unpaid internships in the offices of globe-trotting masters, postings as teachers in those same elite universities, papers and articles full of abstract theory and criticism, multiple mentions in books and magazine articles, a scattering of temporary pavilions and installations never intended to last more than a few weeks, several competition entries and judging panels under their belt, and, finally, commissions to build art museums in Europe or entire cities in China or Dubai with unlimited budgets. Winning! Welcome to architecture in the twenty-first century.
Such people are talented artists, to be sure. Perhaps they are writers or philosophers. But are they architects? Is there not, at last, a difference?