Thursday, November 1, 2012

Post War Architecture

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.

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 whatsoever:
 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.

Meanwhile, Lebbeus Woods is symptomatic of an even later evolution of post-war architect - one who didn't even bother to build things for people, or even create designs that were buildable or had any grounding in the real world whatsoever:
 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.

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.

“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. 
 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 should 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.

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?


  1. Funny there was one called "Labyrinth House", because the one picture with the guy coming around by the stairs straight-away reminded me of a hypothetical Jim Henson film in which the characters are on their travels toward some kind of wonderland, and the protagonist says, "What happened here?" and the deformed puppet sidekick just says, "Horrible things, horrible things".

    Another thing largely lost to technology: skilled puppetry.

    Anyway, I adore this blog. Thank you for writing.

  2. I liked 1970's Brutalism, especially when mixed with greenery to soften the rough concrete. Brutalism is probably the most natural architecture for humans, because caves (as in cavemen) is the ancient equivalent. There are some Brutalist modular apartment buildings in Montreal that were originally designed as an experiment in ultracheap housing (maybe for the Olympics?) and everyone laughed at them and they have since become very chic and desireable. Sure, there were some issues at first with sick building syndrome, but that is easy enough to fix and isn't really an architectural problem. Brutalism with windows that open or more fresh air in the HVAC system is hardly any different from Brutalism with windows that don't open and with HVAC that recycles the stale air. If I ever build my own house, it will be quasi-brutalist: made with cinder-blocks, partially embedded in the earth with a southern exposure, floor to ceiling windows that don't open but which support an indoor greehouse, buried plastic tubes that bring in a constant flow of fresh air that has been temperature modulated by the earth, etc. The 1970's was the last great decade in this country before the fascists took over. Next thing you'll be bitching about polyester.

  3. Kudos. Only Frank and a few penguins out on an ice floe like Brutalism. And the people who use those buildings? A Brutalist county seat was forced through against the will of the taxpayers in Goshen, NY. A horrible eyesore from the get go, it's decrepit because of the unfixable water leaks, and people hate working there. Feels about as habitable as a hangar. Now the county wants to tear it down and build something else. Same old, same old idiocy, aggrandizement and waste run amok.

    (You can find a pic on wiki. Amongst all the other similar eyesores, many already demolished.)

  4. Emily, thank you!

    Frank, don't get me started on polyester...;)

    Well, de gustibus non est disputandum. I never intended to critique Brutalism per se; you'll find it's not actually mentioned. I meant to describe the direction the profession has taken through the lens of these two recently deceased important architects and what that's meant for the built environment.

    Brutalism actually had an influence on my early design thinking. There is a certain stark beauty to the buildings, athough the greenery would help. All to often Brutalism fell prey to gigantism and coldness, set up as monlithic objects (office towers) or faceless filing cabinets (housing projects). Boston's City Hall, the whipping boy for Brutalism, is cold because of the context (that vast, empty, square) as much as the building itself. With several feet of topsoil and a microfarm in the square and covered with vines and overgrowth, in a hundred years I suspect it may be a beloved monolith. Personally, I prefer the warmth of brick, stone, stucco or terra-cotta, and would keep the concrete on the inside.

    Concrete is a durable and plastic and can have a wide range of patterns and textures. It can be very expresive in the right hands. Concrete's thermal mass can mitigate temperature shocks, and used as a structure it can last for centuries. A concrete structure can be stripped and refitted over and over again, and is strong enough for whatever future use is needed. This post (quoting Santiago Calatrava) says it better than I do: "Firstly, Calatrava praised the properties of Concrete for the freedom they bring in developing his forms. The word itself in Spanish “hormigon” means “with form”. It can take any shape, it is very humble, it has texture and natural pigmentation ranging from grey to brilliant white. It is also is extremely economical. It is not surprising that such praises should be sung at a presentation given at the concrete institute. However, his works do back up such claims."

    Vera, by coincidence I ran across this story about that very building:

    Brutalist Building, Damaged, Gets Repreive

    A lot of Rudolph's work seems to be in the crosshairs.

    For some good exapmles of concrete's potential, I would cite the Lovell Beach house in Los Angeles and Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity temple in Oak Park. I have also always been fond of Tony Garnier's Cité Industrielle project, for which I could find surprisingly little on the Web, but here's a bit: and For a modern master, see Calatrava's work, e.g.

  5. And what about those Montreal apartments I mentioned? has some photos. The J Edgar Hoover building is truly ghastly, but what do you expect? It's the FBI. Prisons are also ghastly-looking for the most part and always have been and always should be. These are the ghastly sides of society. Better to be honest and let the building reflect what is going on, so that everyone knows about it.

    That Carney library photo at the wikipedia site is particularly nice. Reason? They surrounded it with greenery. Water leaks have nothing to do with architecture. The technology for sealing flat-roof buildings in areas with heavy snowfall has long been perfected. I was just at a brutalist sort of area the other day. A bunch of distribution warehouses. 2 story tilt-up boxes with flat concrete walls extending for a thousand feet, broken only by glass doorways and truck loading docks. And yet the area is very pretty, because all that concrete has been masked by landscaping, and there are benches and picnic tables, a duck pond, workers spending their lunch breaks sitting on the grass and enjoying the sun. It's a very desirable area to work.

    And what would you suggest for the county seat? Something out of a Thomas Kincaid painting? The government in Goshen, NY is probably monstrous and so naturally they produced a monstrous building. It would have been monstrous regardless of architectural style. Most of our suburbs are monstrous because they were never intended as places to live, but rather as places to get-rich-quick from rising property prices. The sterility is an inevitable consequence of this original sin. Life means the possibility of poor people or dark-skinned people or other things to horrible to mention that might LOWER PROPERTY VALUES!!!!!

    The aspirational middle-class will always live in dreary places, because of their original sins of fear (falling down the social status ladder a notch) and greed (rising a notch). But the working-poor could have nice places, except they are incapable of designing them for themselves. Left to themselves, they produce chaotic trailer parks. There needs to be a master plan, with dense housing so as to allow for large expanses of greenery, and then allotments amidst this greenery so the little people can produce their works of folk art (decrepit cars raised on bricks, gardens with pink flamingos and ceramic dwarfs, etc). The modernist movement, with the planning done by elites, was moving in this direction back when it was socialist dominated, but then the fascists derailed the schemes because they threatened profits. Contented working-poor types who opt for leisure over work and putter around in their allotments during said leisure time are far less profitable than horribly insecure aspirational middle-class types. Instead of brutalism with lots of greenery, we get brutalism without greenery, which is indeed horrible. Instead of dense housing which works properly, we get dense housing which doesn't work (no sound-proofing, leaks, sick-building syndrome, etc). Failure was not an accident, failure was intentional. Failure discredited the elites who were genuinely trying to lead society forwards and were indeed on the right path. Making socialist-inspired architecture fail ultimately helped pave the way for the working poor to vote Republican.

  6. Heh. I hate the crap. Except Habitat 67. I kinda liked that it created its own space for each apartment.

    Here is some great news how this crap performs (re Goshen again): "The building has had problems over its life. It leaked severely enough after a heavy storm in 1970 that the Finance Department had to stretch a tarpaulin across the ceiling. Today many of its 87 roofs leak and it has also become expensive to heat.

    In 2011, flood damage from Hurricane Irene closed the building for over a week. Mold had been growing in spaces in some rooms, including the grand jury room, and there were concerns it might become unsafe for use by those with respiratory problems. The day after it reopened, the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee deluged the area, and on September 8, it was closed again until further notice."

    Mold, yum!

    Wright is another guy who built unlivable buildings, though he tried harder than the Brutalists. Falling Water cost a mint to bring back from the brink of utter disrepair and damage from the moisture. Concrete with iron rods do not do well in wet climates, naked like that... duh...

    Nice rant, Frank. We have some shared sympathies. But I don't buy master plans by any elites, architectural or otherwise. :-)

    1. Sorry to have focused on Brutalists, but most of modern architecture has brutalism with a small b as a component, IMO. Even Gaudi, though he makes up for it in the playfulness.

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