February 07, 2010

Common Sense

Malcolm Millais "Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture": a book aimed at the general public that oscillates uncomfortably between an empathic socially-engaged engineer's response to architectural blight, and the sort of bluff prejudices-masquerading-as-common-sense more at home in the Daily Mail. He's not half as much fun as Tom Wolfe, and probably not nearly as effective, either.

He aims at all the usual suspects — Mies, Corb, the Bauhaus, Norman Foster, council flats, etc. — but also at Calatrava, Saarinen, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building, the Pompidou Centre, Paul Goldberger, Frank Gehry, Bucky, Frank Lloyd Wright, and even poor old J√łern Utzon (with varying levels of venom or disdain). But there's really nothing that unites these architects or their architecture much beyond the fact that they lived sometime after 1920 or so, or that the buildings were built in the same period; he often seems to confuse or conflate "new", "modern", and "Modern", so while he's quite explicit that the enemy is the Modern Movement (a phrase he uses a lot — capitalised — in the book), it's not really Modernist architecture as such that's the target here, but the direct and indirect effects its ideology and founding concepts are supposed to have had on architects, architecture, and architectural criticism over the years. Which would cover a huge amount of contradictory ground, at least in my estimation: basically just about everything from pure Modernism, through movements and architecture merely influenced by the Modern Movement, to architecture (like the various Postmodernisms) quite explicitly reacting against the Moderns.

He's most concerned about the usability and (social, environmental) suitability of much architecture, and it's difficult not to agree with a lot of what he says, but… The Seagram Building actually looks pretty damn good from the street; he goes for the Opera House in all sorts of ways but misses the sheer banality of everything about it except the sails. The Calatrava bridge I know at first hand is so popular, so appropriate to its placing and intended use, such a pleasant piece of architecture, that it has kids running around touching it and playing on it, it has people (like me) visiting from all over the place. The Saarinens I know best — the old TWA terminal at JFK, and the main terminal at Dulles — are or were pleasnt (fun, even, in the case of the JFK terminal) pieces of work to look at and pass through (it was hardly Saarinen's fault that technology rendered them obsolete over the decades). I know at second hand how annoying the Lloyds building could be to work in (my uncle was a Lloyds underwriter), but it was a bracing sight from the street, one I visited many times just to take it all in. The Pompidou Centre's rightly one of the most visited buildings in Paris, a joy to behold; it may be a failure as an art palace or not, but it's a much-visited and much-enjoyed public building.

But the real crime of Modernist architecture wasn't the failure of Utzon to get a working opera house on Bennelong Point or the unsuitability for workers of various capital-A Architecture projects like the LLoyds building, but the destruction of community and the effect on domestic architecture of things like council flats and inner city projects. The most depressing bits of London in the 1980's were never the stupid Modernist office blocks or monuments, they were the tall grey instantly- and permanently-stained concrete council towers dishearteningly visible almost everywhere you looked. That's not so much a failure of Modern architecture as vast multiple failures of city planning, empathy, and imagination.

But what does he actually like? What's his vision of a good architecture? He plays this way too close to his chest, and you finish the book wondering if he has anything much in mind beyond Prince Charles's earnest quaintness or a sort of vague resurrection of earlier eras in new tech guise.

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