Identities—What Are They Good For?   /   Summer 2018   /    Essays

The Flasher of the Arts

Witold Rybczynski

The Oculus, World Trade Center transportation hub, designed by Santiago Calatrava, Lower Manhattan; trav- elpix/Alamy Stock Photo.

Investigating architecture’s wrong turn.

In the past, most buildings, unless they were beach pavilions or garden follies, were designed to convey a sense of dignity and permanence. That is no longer the case. A recent apartment building appears to have been cleaved asunder by a seismic shift; a skyscraper twists and turns like a giant corkscrew, while another resembles a Jenga game in midplay. A boxy museum teeters precariously—whatever holds it up? A crystalline glass addition collides with an old building to the benefit of neither.11xReaders may recognize the buildings: David Adjaye’s Sugar Hill apartment building in Harlem; Santiago Calatrava’s Twisting Torso in Malmö, Sweden; Herzog & de Meuron’s 56 Leonard in Tribeca; Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston; and Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Architecture, once the staid Mother of the Arts, has become a lurid exhibitionist, the Flasher of the Arts.

To understand how this happened, it’s necessary to go back to the Europe of the 1920s. Architects, like other creative persons, had been shattered by the experience of the Great War; business as usual was out of the question. Change was in the air, most dramatically in the newly formed Soviet Union. Writers, playwrights, composers, and painters had already radically pushed the boundaries of their arts. Now it was the architects’ turn.

The main rationale for an architectural overhaul was that the Modern Age—always capitalized—demanded a modern way of building, “an image of its accelerated grimace,” as Ezra Pound put it. In truth, many of the defining characteristics of modern life, such as electrification, mass production, and mass communications, were products of the previous century. So were glass and reinforced-concrete buildings, prefabrication, and steel-framed skyscrapers.22xSheet glass was developed in 1832 and used to cover London’s Crystal Palace in 1851. François Coignet, a French industrialist, built an iron-reinforced concrete house in 1853; the first patent for steel-reinforced concrete was granted in 1877. In the 1870s, Gustave Eiffel built prefabricated metal buildings—houses, schools, and markets—in Africa and Latin America. The first steel-framed skyscraper was the Home Insurance Building in Chicago, designed by William Le Baron Jenney in 1884. Moreover, most of the new machines that avant-garde architects admired, such as dirigibles, ocean liners, flying boats, steam locomotives, and luxury touring cars, would be extinct in a few decades. Never mind. As Ludwig Mies van der Rohe proclaimed, “Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space.”33xQuoted in Alden Whitman, Mies van der Rohe obituary, New York Times, August, 19, 1969; Also, Philip C. Johnson, Mies van der Rohe (New York, NY: Museum of Modern Art, 1947). And what the epoch demanded, according to Mies and the other architectural tyros, was nothing less than a revolution.

Historically the most conservative of the arts, architecture was an unlikely candidate to carry the red banner of insurrection. Buildings cost a lot of money, and they were traditionally built by the establishment: the church, the aristocracy, the moneyed merchant class, and, most recently, industrialists—hardly a revolutionary group. Nor was the architectural profession generally marked by radicalism. A painter could test ideas in the studio, a writer could fill a notebook with new prose, but an architect experimented in public, and one failure could scuttle a career. As a result, the profession tended to be cautious: creative when the occasion demanded, but generally leaning toward the tried and true.

Architects used technology, but architecture was not a science. As that early Modernist gadfly, the Viennese architect Josef Frank, put it, “The formal rules of art have been preserved through tradition, even though their validity cannot be proven. For that reason, there can be no art without recourse to tradition.”44xJosef Frank, “Accidentism” (1958), trans. Christopher Long, Places (blog), February 2018, Since buildings lasted a long time, architects were surrounded by the achievements of their forebears, which meant that new buildings tended to derive from what came before. Of course, from time to time something novel and unexpected appeared. When the Abbot Suger introduced exotic pointed arches in the Basilica of Saint-Denis in the early twelfth century, the style that came to be known as Gothic swept ecclesiastical architecture across Europe. But such innovations were never total. Gothic cathedrals, for example, retained many of their Romanesque features: the nave-and-aisle transept invoking the Christian cross, bundles of columns supporting a stone ceiling, ribbed construction, stained glass. The Renaissance was another upheaval, with architects turning away from Gothic and, taking a cue from the other arts, looking to ancient Rome. Again, the change was not total; old forms did not disappear. Brunelleschi was the first architect to make a clear reference to classical antiquity, in the loggia of the Foundling Hospital in Florence, but when he built the great dome of Florence Cathedral, he gave it ribs and a medieval profile. In cities like Venice, buildings with pointed arches continued to be built, and “Venetian Gothic” remained a popular style until well into the fifteenth century.

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