September 11, 2005

From Our House

Another of these Why Haven't I Read This Before? books: From Bauhaus to Our House: dated, wrong-headed, right-hearted, deeply unfair, very funny, right in its broad ideas and observations, usually wrong in the details (he picks Edward Durrell Stone as an exemplar of the decent apostates he wants to champion, but Stone's buildings -- especially the Kennedy Center and the Columbus Circle building -- seem mostly banal to me (particularly in the flesh), ordinary, uninspired, not really comparable to (say) the Seagram or Lever Buildings, at least to my taste). And stained concrete surely transcends the imperial Modernism he complains about (just look at Saarinen's Dulles).... In any case, it's rarely a building's style that's the issue; it's the use or abuse of the building, and that use's suitability to the surrounding context and society that matters; style may be a symptom or a distraction here. To me, the Seagram building looks pretty damn good in context, and who can complain about its use there? And the vast majority of the really depressing stained concrete tower blocks had no real (Capital "A") Architect, just a bunch of developers or bureaucratic committees trying hard to solve one social, financial, or political problem after another. But to be fair to Wolfe, his target is more subtle and obvious than that: imperial European Modernism, and the changed and more autocratic (promethean?) role of the architect in US culture and business. He's right, but not usefully so.

(c.f. Rykwert's "Questions of style and ornament, which may seem harmless, become dangerously misleading when they stop at the surface and consequently mask problems of social structure and context." -- The Seduction of Place).

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