Saturday, July 17, 2010

Earlier this week, the film critic Roger Ebert posted an article on his blog, detailing what he perceived as the sad state of modern architecture. The bulk of his text focuses on the minimalism of Mies, which he sees as "soulless," and the use of industrial materials (introduced in the modern era) for the construction of cheap and commercial architecture. today His article then turns to the style of Gothic architecture as an exemplar of architecture with soul and material craftsmanship - the supposed antidote to our contemporary architectural ills.

Architects see this kind of thing every so often, where those with prominent voices leave the borders of their own discipline and speak out against the current state of architecture. Naturally, I took issue with Ebert's article and wrote him a letter explaining why. He sent a brief reply., and here's how it went:

I appreciate your post, however I have a few critical objections. I should state that I am an architect, and therefore I have a biased appreciation for the work of American modernists. I also feel that you're not giving the style it's fair shake. In fact, I think your argument corners a very limited view of what the modern movement was in architecture, avoiding other readings in which I think you might find some appreciation.

It seems that your main points are: 1) modern architecture lacks a soul (or, that it lacks the image of the man behind it), and 2) that modern architecture embodies the commercial and material perils of global capitalism. To the first point, you avoid acknowledging a broad range of modernists who produced buildings with incredible soul and expression - Eames, Saarinen, Utzon, Pei, Wright, just to name a few. And each of these have had a significant effect on architecture's evolution beyond modernism. Look at the work of today's emerging avant-garde practitioners and you will see things that are almost baroque with effect, but still tied to the lessons learned from modernism. But to associate all of modernism with the pure and minimalist canon of Mies is as much a violation as associating all of modern film with a single  Hollywood director. Mies had a particular agenda, identified particular challenges within that agenda, and solved them with incredible grace - so much so that, in his architectural details, some see incredible passion, expression, and dare I say it: ornament. To that end, you forgot a critical Mies quote in which he declared "God is in the detail," a belief that architecture's capacity extended far beyond that of a single man's soul.

As for the second point, which locates the failures of global capitalism as a trait in architecture, I think you short change the profession yet again by assuming that architects are willingly complicit in the drab storefronts you describe. To make this assertion without examining the bigger picture of architectural practice, you place the entire burden of urban junk on the shoulders of architects, absolving the responsibilities of developers, city planners and politicians. Unfortunately, the profession is mostly reliant on these parties for defining architecture's potentials and limits, and often these are far less than ideal. Again, I could turn to Hollywood as a metaphor. In either case, architecture or movies, heroes are rare, and even if they do take shape they're usually the product of a higher (and not so innocent) power. The next time you pass a boring storefront bank, I'm not saying that you should pity the architect, but you might consider writing a post with a slightly different slant, yielding perhaps a more effective response.

Lastly, I'd like to end with a question. I'm curious to know why you gravitate towards the affect of Gothic architecture (i.e. the photos of Justin Kern) and not towards the systems (both logical and aesthetic) that defined its style. My feeling is that the tradition of problem-solving and the belief in aesthetic form that we see in the Gothic style was very much alive and well in the modern era, and certainly lives on today. I think you're missing so much of a city if you confine yourself only to the old. While you might not like the surface treatment of the new (or the modern), I hope you can find it in you to look deeper and to appreciate the intelligent minds that gave it order, logic and some semblance of joy. Sometimes, you have to look at these things abstractly. But given your tenure, I'm confident that you won't find this too difficult.


Ebert: I basically agree with you. I admire modernism but not most of the way it is now translated into the cheapest building strategies. Bank branches for me are a perversion. Mies would have designed lovely ones.
I'm very grateful for his personal reply, and I think he's right about Mies (not about his architecture lacking soul, but about banks). I'm still very curious to know why he finds comfort in Gothic architecture, especially the "Gothic" buildings he mentions in Chicago. Surely this is a strange sentiment to have in America's capitol of architectural modernism, but one which is nevertheless a reality, even for America's most prominent modern movie critic.


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