Why the folks hate the mods

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Philip Johnson in front of his more famous glass house. (photo by David McLane)

Mark Lamster’s The Man in the Glass House continues to offer up examples of Philip Johnson’s dislikeability, many of which amount to reasons why people dislike modern architecture. The following passage comes after Lamster has described how Johnson struck out in his effort to join up with Huey Long, the governor and dictator of Louisiana. One of Long’s staffers urged Johnson (and his sidekick Alan Blackburn) to go back to Ohio and work for Long by organizing in Johnson’s home state. Johnson agreed, and moved to tiny New London, southwest of his hometown, Cleveland.

Upon arrival, Johnson’s first order of business was a renovation of his grandmother’s house, which sat in the center of town. The principle change entailed knocking out a large section of the front wall of the house and installing in its place a floor-to-ceiling plate-glass window looking out on the street – “the largest piece of glass anyone had ever seen in Ohio. …

Johnson and Blackburn quickly drew the suspicion of the town’s respectable citizens. Who were these bachelor interlopers, men of means from the big city [New York, not Cleveland], living together in a house with an unusual design of their own making?

I could not find a photo of the house. Why did Johnson inflict it on his neighbors? Maybe he was still sore at failing to latch on with or even meet Huey Long. Maybe he decided to take it out on the citizens of New London. That’s just my guess. Lamster makes no such suggestion. But he does look into why Johnson wanted to hook up with Long in the first place:

The idea that Long might serve as a model for Johnson and Blackburn was born of [fellow activist Lawrence] Dennis. “It will take a man like Long to lead the masses,” he said. “I think Long’s smarter than Hitler, but he needs a good brain trust. … He needs a Goebbels.”

Even more provocative are the recollections of Johnson’s former secretary:

Secretly, Johnson had grander ambitions. He was not interested in just being a member of Long’s “brain trust.” When interviewed in 1942, Johnson’s former secretary Ruth Merrill told the FBI that Johnson believed “the fate of the country” rested on his shoulders, and that “he wanted to be the ‘Hitler’ in the United States.” His desire to join Long as an adviser was a means to that end. “By joining with Huey Long he could eventually depose Huey Long from control of the country and gain control of it for himself,” Merrill told the FBI.” Whether that meant assassination or a bloodless coup was unstated.

And in 1935, Long, by then a U.S. senator, was assassinated in Louisiana.

These years when Johnson went into American politics to promote fascism are not as well known as the time he spent in Germany following the Nazis. Most of these efforts came after his role in curating the famous International Stye exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1932. His fascist period lasted at least a decade. Then he refocused on architecture, after which he covered up his fascist sympathies and went into deep denial – with the help of the U.S. architectural establishment, which continues – though Lamster’s book should put a dent in it.

On a personal note, I was intrigued to learn of where Johnson got his wish to meet Huey Long after he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Johnson had been kept at arms length by Long’s staff during Johnson and Blackburn’s stay in Baton Rouge and then, after the election, on the train to Washington to set up the new senator’s office:

The two tourists [Johnson and Blackburn] finally got to meet the tousle-haired Kingfish [Long’s nickname] in Washington [D.C.]. The hallowed event took place at the Broadmoor, the Connecticut Avenue hotel that was Long’s base of operations in the capital. He received the two in pajamas, as was his wont (he preferred purple silk), and the conversation was brief.

When I was a young teen I delivered the Daily News, an afternoon paper absorbed in 1972 by the Washington Star (an afternoon daily I also delivered; the Post was a morning paper – not for me! – and, in those days, too fat for my skinny arms). A couple dozen of my customers lived in the Broadmoor, an over-the-top beautiful pile in a hybrid style that was an apartment building by the time I slid papers down its carpeted hallways.

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The Broadmoor, originally a hotel and later apartments in D.C. (vintprint.com)

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Lessons of the Berlin Wall

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Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, prior to its physical demolition. (Wikipedia)

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many lessons have been learned, but this post will not, of course, comment on its geopolitical takeaways. Instead, and briefly, I hope a useful parallel can be drawn between the swift end of the Cold War and the possibility of such an end to the style wars of architecture. Modernism deserves a seat alongside communism on the ash heap of history.

The parallel has to do with timing. The Cold War came to an unexpected end at the end of the 1980s. Forty years of confrontation, then poof! – it was all over. The same might happen in architecture, with popular traditional styles suddenly coming out of nowhere to defeat officially dominant, intellectually vapid and arguably authoritarian styles of modernism.

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Reagan statue unveiled Friday. Note restoration of Brandenberg Gate. (dw.com)

Historians still argue over what brought an end to the Cold War. Many strands of history contributed. The magnificent collapse of Warsaw Pact dominoes probably would not have occurred, however, if President Reagan had not switched to offense. On Friday a statue was unveiled in Berlin to commemorate the 40th president. If he had not decided to replace three decades of “containment” policy with his hugely controversial hard line, the Cold War might still be with us.

Is there anything in architecture’s style wars that compares with the strategies Reagan used to win the Cold War?

Without the preservation movement, there would by now be little left of old buildings and neighborhoods on which to model a classical revival. Without the Congress of the New Urbanism, there might be no new towns, villages and city districts to teach the public that beauty remains a viable approach to our built environment. Without the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, the principles that had created successful cities and towns for thousands of years around the world would have no soapbox to speak truth to the power of the modernist establishment. And yet, after years of major victories in the fight, all three venerable institutions display evidence of being pooped.

I have spent the last two or three hours trying to keep to a reasonable space the many permutations a comparison of possibilities might take. I have cut out more paragraphs than the number remaining in this post. I gave up and put off the heavy lifting for another day. Surely, sudden victory in the Cold War must have been harder to win than sudden victory in the style wars of architecture. It can happen – most likely, perhaps, if no one expects it.

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Johnson’s risky functionalism

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Eddie Warburg’s Manhattan apartment designed by Philip Johnson. (USModern)

Philip Johnson, the modernist architect who tricked America into embracing modern architecture, was a nasty piece of work according to Mark Lamster’s book, The Man in the Glass House. But there are some humorous passages whose inclusion reflects Lamster’s ability to use modernist silliness to tickle the funny bone of his readers. Johnson’s first real commission as an architect, in 1933, was to design a Manhattan apartment for his wealthy friend, fellow libertine and son of a Jewish banker, Eddie Warburg. Of Johnson’s design for the small fourth-floor walkup on Beekman Place, Lamster writes:

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Risky desk chair at Warburg flat.

When he was done, the apartment was transformed into a statement of nearly clinical modern gravity, with whitewashed walls and an exposed radiator. The floor was linoleum, shiny and efficient, but the whole was not without luxury. A dividing wall of macassar ebony and space-defining floor-to-ceiling silk curtains brought a sense of material richness, borrowed directly from [Ludwig] Mies [van der Rohe]. Johnson designed much of the furniture, which was decidedly foursquare, as was his thinking. In the living room, two squared-off club chairs faced a squared-off sofa over a rectangular coffee table in black lacquer.

“The discipline was so violent,” Warburg recalled. “If you moved an object an inch it threw everything off kilter.” There was so little sound baffling that a dropped spoon sounded like a gunshot. Another problem surfaced when a dubious Felix Warburg climbed the four stories to inspect his son’s new digs. He sat himself at his son’s desk to make a phone call, and when he leaned forward his tubular chair clipped out from under him, slamming his chin into the desk. Eddie was mortified, but his father had a sense of humor. “That’s what I like about modern art,” he said. “It’s so functional.”

Speaking of functionality, Johnson had recently curated the famous exhibit on the so-called International Style at the Museum of Modern Art, and followed it up in 1934 with an exhibit at the MoMA on “Machine Art.” In its catalog, Johnson tried to persuade visitors to the exhibition that functional machinery shorn of decoration was inherently beautiful. Perhaps some of it is, but it must actually be, unlike the chair above, functional.

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“Machine Art” exhibition curated by Philip Johnson in 1934 at MoMA. (moma.org)

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Philip Johnson’s MoMA flub

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Exhibit at 1932 Museum of Modern Art. Model is of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. (moma.org)

In his recently published biography of modernist architect and impresario Philip Johnson, Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster has found so much to dislike in the man that I have been thoroughly enchanted – so far. But I want to quote a passage from The Man in the Glass House that threatened to soften me on Johnson. It is about how he muffed his speech proposing his and museum director (and close friend) Alfred Barr’s idea for an exhibit on the International Style to the board of the recently launched Museum of Modern Art. The trustees, it seems, were far more interested in modernist painting and sculpture than in modernist architecture, which was still very rare in America. Lamster writes:

Johnson had come before the trustees, at Alfred Barr’s request, to sell their planned exhibition of modern architecture. Barr expected his debonair protégé would charm with his wit and impress with his zeal for the subject that had been his veritable obsession over the past year. Johnson, he thought, would be a natural before the board. He was a product of the rarefied social world of the trustees, and he could speak to them in a suave but assured manner that would give them confidence.

But Johnson began fumbling the moment he was introduced. He had not prepared sufficiently, presuming that he could speak extemporaneously and that his knowledge and enthusiasm would carry the day. Instead he labored on, and as he did so he heard the sighs of board members who found their patience sorely tested. When he finished, there was silence. Then William T. Aldrich, [board treasurer] Mrs. [Abby Aldrich] Rockefeller’s priggish architect brother, a classicist of the old school, leaned over to advise her of his opinion: “It’s a lot of nonsense, my dear.”

Priggish or not, Aldrich was correct, uttering perhaps the understatement of the century. But Johnson soldiered onward, the famous exhibition was held in February 1932, and the rest is a very sad history for the world, much of it the fault of Johnson.

It must have pained the mod-symp Lamster to trash Johnson. His (Johnson’s) qualities as a first-class jackass shine through on every page, and I’ve only just reached the portion of the book that describes the opening of Johnson’s love affair with the Nazis. I’m sure those chapters will be a treasure chest of delicious passages. When the book begins to focus more on Johnson’s career as an architect, Lamster’s tone will surely become more forgiving. You can be sure I’ll let readers know if it doesn’t.

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Caretaker’s cottage is history

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Debris from demolition of the caretaker’s cottage at 315 Slater Ave. (Photo by author)

This photograph should shock you.

Shot this afternoon, it is what remains of the caretaker’s cottage (or carriage house) at the old Beresford-Nicholson estate on Blackstone Boulevard, in Providence. The address is 315 Slater Ave. It used to front on Slater, which curves round the rear of the grounds along a stone wall encased in ancient vines. Above the wall rises the cottage, which might have been the most romantic building in Providence – until last week, when it was razed.

Here is what the 1986 survey of Providence by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission says of the cottage:

315. William Beresford Carriage House (ca. 1909): Clarke, Howe & Homer, architects. A 1½-story, gable-and-hip-roof, stuccoed carriage house with servants’ quarters in the attic story. Designed in the English cottage mode of the early 20th century, it was later converted to a 1-family residence (see 288 Blackstone Boulevard).

The Beresford-Nicholson mansion was saved, and that was cheered as if Blackstone were somehow short of fancy mansions. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the purchase, without which the mansion would be history, too. Does the new owner recognize what is likely to go up cheek by jowl on the six or eight residential parcels carved from the subdivision of the estate? In 1999, I moved from Benefit Street into the newly renovated Smith Building downtown across from the rollicking Met Café next to Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in the newly renovated Peerless Building. I’d heard at the time that applicants to rent a unit in the Smith were told that the Met was a coffee shop. Huh? What did the real-estate agent tell the prospective owners of the Beresford-Nicholson mansion was going to happen in their back yard?

Go look at what’s become of the Bodell estate nearby, which was subdivided recently into five plasticky spec “homes” while retaining its mansion. Even the last-to-be-built modernist house – seemingly designed to make those who bought their houses early feel like idiots – has now been completed, along with its inevitable undertow on neighborhood house values. Nicholson-Beresford’s new owner, behold your fate!

The fate of the caretaker’s cottage suggests the fate of Providence under the development policies that have hobbled the city for decades: Ignore the municipal zoning that protects the historic character of neighborhoods. Encourage developers to build whatever is most likely to mar the beauty of Providence. Erode the city’s most powerful but (alas!) delicate competitive advantage in its contest with other American cities. Undertake any proposal, so long as it is likely to undermine the city’s brand of historic beauty, even though steps to strengthen that brand would be cheap, popular with the public, and easy to implement.

Then watch the city go downhill, as it has for decades. We got a brief reprieve in the 1990s when the Providence River was uncovered and lined with lovely bridges, parks and walking paths that fit into our historic character. Our civic leaders predictably learned absolutely nothing from that, and today we are back on the downhill slide. Before long, Providence will reach a tipping point of no return, and will become just another typical themeless pudding of a midsized city. We are almost there now.

This is what the demise of the caretaker’s cottage means.

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A “cauldron of perversions”

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Caption by Metropolis: “Marcel Breuer and his “harem” (from left to right: Marta Erps, Katt Both, and Ruth Hollós-Consemüller), c. 1927. Stephan Consemüller/Photo: Bauhaus-Museum.”

I did a double-take when I saw, in Metropolis, the article “Far From Being a Temple to Rationality, the Bauhaus Was a Cauldron of Perversions,” by Beatriz Colomina. Of course, I knew that already, having read “Making Dystopia,” James Stevens Curl’s recent book on modern architecture. Professor Curl recounted the troubling history of the Bauhaus school, and deplored its perversions, leading me (for some demented reason) to expect more condemnation from Colomina.

She writes: “Bauhauslers were engaged with everything that escapes rationality: sexuality, violence, esoteric philosophies, occultism, disease, the psyche, pharmacology, extraterrestrial life, artificial intelligence, chance, the primitive, the fetish, the animal, plants, etc.” She piles on some more about Le Corbusier, who though not a Bauhausler was “arguably the single most influential architect of the 20th century”:

He was deeply into the occult, esoteric philosophies, sexual complexities, cross-dressing, scatology; he was also obsessed with the toilet, disease, nudism, body building, the animal, and the other.

Not to mention (which she doesn’t) adultery, dishonesty and fascism. Who could suppose that Corbu’s personal idiosyncrasies would be systematized at the Bauhaus?

Not what you’d expect of a school that developed a new architecture that emphasized rationality, honesty, worker housing and other high-flying principles. Far from deploring this history, however, Colomina greets the “deeply transgressive ideas and pedagogies” of the Bauhaus with celebration.

No doubt her article was written largely to get ahead of the curve on bad news that is emerging about the Bauhaus during the centennial of its founding in 1919. How, she must have wondered, can I give all that creepy stuff a positive spin? Well, Colomina is not a professor of architecture at Princeton for nothing.

She writes– but wait, there’s just too much really strange material in the article to go right into discussing Colomina’s spin analytics. So, please be patient. One more example:

The leather of Luftwaffe jackets used by fighter pilots and Berlin’s S&M and lesbian clubs made its way into the Bauhaus as a symbol of cultural rebellion and sensuality in clothes, both male and female. Chairs bound like corsets and leather straps lying around inexplicably in photographs suggest something illicit.

Okay, so let’s consider how she spins the Bauhaus school’s perversions:

Modern architecture is usually understood as having a normalizing function, establishing patterns that are stable, predictable, and to some extent standardized. The idea of architecture is intimately associated with the idea of the normal—perhaps it even sees itself as the caretaker of the normal. But the normal is not normal. It is a construction. There is a hidden tradition in architecture of the transgressive, work that crosses the lines of the normal, complicating these lines, threatening the limit.

Ah! The old French deconstructionist philosophy trick!

But first: No sensible reader can avoid quarreling with Colomina’s notion that modern architecture has “a normalizing function, establishing patterns that are stable, predictable,” etc. That may reasonably be said of the traditional architecture that modernism had evicted by 1950. Modern architecture is the opposite of all that, and has been recognized as such by almost everyone except its purveyors since the foundation of the Bauhaus.

Turning the abnormal into the normal (“normalizing” x, y or z abnormality) might be deemed the intellectual work of our modern culture this past half century. Inversion as a rhetorical tactic that can easily defeat itself. Colomina appears to have engaged in a triple inversion: she falsely associates modern architecture with stability and normality, then announces that “the normal is not normal. It is a construction,” and finally asks her readers to consider the abnormal normal. Whew! Jacques Derrida call your office!

In From Our House to Bauhaus, Tom Wolfe wrote that Corbusier’s logic “flies higher and higher in ever-decreasing concentric circles until, with one last utterly inevitable induction, he disappears up his own fundamental aperture.” Colomina, whose logic brings that quote to mind, adds:

Perversion comes from the Latin pervertere, “to turn away,” that is, turning away from normality. There is a relationship between the personal, often extreme, pathologies of Modern architecture and the call for a new normal. … [The Bauhaus school] was like a laboratory for inventing and intensifying perversions as a kind of pedagogical strategy. I am reclaiming here the term “perversion” from its pejorative use to a positive one, in the same way that the label “queer” was reclaimed in the 1980s by gay activists. In fact, inspired by my students at Princeton, I would like to make a call for a queering not just of the Bauhaus but of architectural history, starting with the way we read Modern architecture—what we see or choose not to see.

Actually, the Bauhaus and modern architecture were “queered” long ago, and no amount of tomfoolery over whether what we see is what we think we see can make it any more queer. (I hasten to add that I have used the word in its archaic meaning.)

This sort of spin might work on Colomina’s students or even the broader world of architecture-school faculty, but for most of them it’s carrying coals to Newcastle – esoteric matter that they internalized as students. It probably zooms over the head of most modern architects – who do what they learned in school and don’t give much thought to its philosophical origins, which give them a headache. The general public, who already have headaches from the prevailing dystopia, will never hear a word of it.

Sadly, Colomina’s project of normalizing the abnormal was accomplished decades ago. Modern architecture remains the default style of our time. Her mental gymnastics won’t prevent most people from being shocked by what was really going on at the Bauhaus, any less than they are irked by its impact on the built environment. Her thinking may be really fun and emit an exotic or even an erotic thrill, but that can’t prevent it from disappearing up her fundamental aperture, not to mention those of anyone whose thoughts about architecture still need to be “normalized” (that is, abnormalized).

I’d better end this post before it follows Colomina up where the sun don’t shine.

(Wolfe aficionados will note my stopping short before the end of the “fundamental aperture” quote, which concludes: “… and emerges in the fourth dimension as a needle-thin umber bird.” That was for a similar reason. To me it seems to risk gilding the lily. At least that’s not as bad as gilding the turd – or, shall we say, putting lipstick on a pig, which appears to be the academic specialty of Professor Colomina.)

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Two fumbles in Providence

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The Homewood Suites Hotel, on Kennedy Plaza. (Photo by the author)

Among the eight or so new buildings erected in Providence with virtually zero opposition in the past two years are a pair that ought, by now, to have been reviewed here. And I will get to that. But first:

The Providence Journal last week ran an oped by local activist and bookman Ray Rickman titled “Say yes to new buildings.” His argument that Providence makes life difficult for developers drew a reply from Lew Dana (“Few oppose buildings that follow the rules“). Dana referred courteously to Rickman as “normally estimable”  but disputed his oped’s dubious claim. He wrote:

In the [Journal’s] latest damn-the-torpedoes, “build anything anywhere” blast, … the normally estimable Ray Rickman assures readers that opponents of new buildings are “disingenuous” and “vocal naysayers” with “inaccurate concerns.”

Look around at all the projects that have gone unopposed — because they follow the rules. They respect our city’s celebrated grace and human scale.

In fact, eight new buildings were completed in or near downtown since 2017. They are: the Wexford Innovation Center in the I-195 corridor, the River House apartments near the Point Street Bridge, the first of two proposed Edge College Hill residential towers on Canal Street, the low-rise Commons at Providence Station condos along the Moshassuck River in Capital Center, a Homewood Suites on Exchange Street, a Marriott Residence Inn on Fountain Street, a Woodspring Suites just outside of downtown on Corliss Street, and a large RISD dormitory near Prospect Street on College Hill. All eight of these had little or no opposition, let alone interference from city officials.

(Only the Fane tower, at a proposed six times the height originally passed into law for its parcel of land, has generated vigorous opposition.)

I would quarrel with Dana regarding the “grace” of these eight supposedly acceptable buildings and argue instead that all of them should have been opposed. All eight violate the city’s comprehensive plan and zoning, which require new buildings in downtown and in the Jewelry District to respect their historical character. That is a high bar and should be. It protects two entire districts, not just one parcel of land.

The two hotels that opened most recently are the best of the lot. They at least tried. They fumbled the ball: they did not betray the city by purposely running the ball in the wrong direction.

Both the Homewood Suites and the Marriott Residence Inn qualify as “bad trad” – that is, architecture that aspires to embrace Providence’s traditional character but fails. Neither hotel lives up to the standard set by an earlier but equally valid era. Both should have used more traditional features, including richer moldings on cornices and stringcourses, a deeper setting of windows into façades, piers or pilasters between ranks of windows to offer a greater sense of movement to façades, a gentler contrast in color between brickwork and precast stone, and the use of columns and statuary to animate exteriors and embellish entrances and other openings in the base of each hotel.

The Homewood hotel (top image) makes a better attempt than the Marriott (bottom) at living up to its pre-WWII neighbors, but both fall far short of the mark. Both look cheesy next to the old buildings that sit next to them: the Journal Building (1934) next to the Marriott; and, next to the Homewood, Union Station (1898) to its west and the Federal Annex (or Pastore) building (1940) to its south. More knowledge, not necessarily more money, could have served to fit both buildings more properly into their settings.

Providence has tried to market itself as different from other cities, even as it mimics other cities in creating the sort of architectural mish-mash that will never cohere into a legible urban character. Both advocates and opponents of new buildings in Providence fail to recognize the vitality of civic character. Buildings that build upon the city’s architectural heritage strengthen the city’s brand. Providence is losing its sense of place, which is its only genuine competitive advantage over almost every other city in America. Beauty is a key facet of the quality of life in a city with major problems that are much more difficult to solve than the architectural problems discussed here.

We may be thankful that the two “bad-trad” hotels tried to keep the city’s beauty in mind, and in so doing tried to leverage design to address larger crises. Their honorable attempt deserves applause, and a heartfelt program to increase developers’ and architects’ (and city officials’!) understanding of classical design principles and their validity even in our era.

***

I wrote this post assuming that Lew Dana’s fine letter would pre-empt the publication of my own letter or oped on the same topic (I submitted both a short and a long version). I just now [Monday evening] discovered that the oped was published online [and it was in the paper this morning]. Yay! It is called “Say no to ugly buildings.” A bit of this post cribs from the oped.

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The Marriott Suites Inn, next to the Providence Journal on site of old Fogarty Building.

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They fought to save London

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Caption from Simon Jenkins: “Angry local residents surround Michael Heseltine, then parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Transport, as he opens the Westway, a 2.5-mile-long road that runs from Marylebone to Shepherd’s Bush. Photograph: PA Media”

I wonder what inspired Simon Jenkins, one of the few sensible architecture critics in Britain, to pen his recent lengthy essay in The Guardian, “Concrete Bungle,” subtitled “How public fury stopped the 1970s plan to turn London into a motorway.” My guess: Jenkins must have happened upon a book, I’ll Fight You For It, by Brian Anson, published in 1981 after the public rallied to save the Covent Garden district. The book is not mentioned until well along in Jenkins’s piece. So maybe that was not his inspiration. Might it be that another modernist “icon” is on the verge of demolition in London? That would be under my radar but high on Jenkins’s list of news hooks.

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Jenkins’s title “Concrete Bungle” takes off on concrete jungle, which Merriam-Webster defines as “a modern city or urban area filled with large buildings and regarded especially as a harshly competitive, unwelcoming, or dangerous place.” That’s what much of London has become since 1973. Jenkins’s essay does not comment on that until near its conclusion, in reference to the city’s spate of “speculative luxury towers.” Maybe that’s what triggered him to write.

Sir Patrick Abercrombie, a leading postwar urbanist, inked his “District of London Plan” based on a 1963 report on traffic congestion. Its solution was, supposedly, “traffic separation” – or as Jenkins describes it, “[p]edestrians would be elevated on to decks above which would rise estates of towers and slabs.” The horrid Barbican, of 1965, was the first completed development in London based on such “traffic modernism,” as enthusiasts called it, and thankfully the last.

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The Barbican, 1965. (ArchDaily)

Why the last? Jenkins tracks the rise of public skepticism of the London Plan, which strikes me as rather sudden. Here is how he describes what the plan and its offshoots in other districts envisioned:

[A] London landscape entirely cleared of its existing districts, other than landmark monuments, such as the Houses of Parliament and the British Museum. The city would be one of rows of slabs and towers, similar to Corbusier’s plan [1925 Plan Voisin] for a new Paris of 60-storey towers.

Jenkins describes the most ambitious such plan, the inner-ring or Motorway Box, and the public’s reaction to it:

On one count it would demolish more houses than did the Luftwaffe, requiring the rehousing of 100,000 people. Public meetings along its route were chaotic, with officials often having to run for cover. When the roads minister, none other than a young Michael Heseltine, opened the Westway link to the box over Notting Hill in 1970, he encountered a riot of abuse from infuriated residents, who had his motorway passing just feet from their bedroom windows. [See top photo.]

The fight against London’s version of Corbusier’s Plan Voisin, which would have destroyed the Marais district of central Paris, came to a head in 1968 with the proposal to raze the Covent Garden district. Jenkins writes:

A militant community association sprang into action. Buildings were squatted, council meetings disrupted, streets occupied and councillors lobbied – or harassed. … The group was publicly supported by a then-radical Evening Standard, and by a wider awareness that a familiar London was being threatened by change more drastic than any inflicted by the blitz. … Despite continued protest through 1972, the Covent Garden plan pressed ahead. But trouble began when its custodian as GLC [Greater London Council] committee chairman, Lady Dartmouth (later Princess Diana’s stepmother, Lady Spencer), rebelled and joined the protesters. More critically, a sympathetic planning minister, Geoffrey Rippon, had his officials secretly list for preservation 250 “historic” buildings dotted across the entire plan area. When this became public, it sabotaged the entire proposal.

In the quote above, Jenkins identifies the nub of the issue in the minds of Londoners, who were justly concerned that “a familiar London was being threatened by change more drastic than any inflicted by the blitz.” Soon after the preservationist gambit described by Jenkins, the Covent Garden plan was withdrawn. Jenkins records a lengthy succession of such projects abandoned, including the Motorway Box, or put on indefinite hold, such as a plan to obliterate Whitehall and 10 Downing St. – the equivalent of the federal district in Washington, D.C. He adds:

Abercrombie was over. The GLC and the London boroughs switched the outlook of their planning policies. They actively promoted the new 1967 Civic Amenities Act, allowing for the designation of conservation areas across Britain’s inner cities. By 1975, 250 such areas of mostly Georgian and Victorian streets had been given protection, including most of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and much of inner Camden and Islington. The appearance of inner London we see today was largely determined in the immediate aftermath of 1973.

Jenkins adds:

The effect of the revolution was astonishing – and to the best of my knowledge never fully acknowledged.

And:

It is the architecture profession … that should be held responsible for what almost happened to London. We can blame elected politicians for decisions that govern our lives. But in complex decisions like this – as in matters of law, medicine or defence – they are at the mercy of professional experts. Architecture at the time had gone awry, seized by ideological gigantism, dubbed by some critics as an “edifice complex”. But I know of no effort by the profession to reflect on that period in its history, to set the record straight or show what lessons it has learned.

The rationale for the postwar reconfiguration of London and other British cities and towns was deeply flawed, and obviously so. But it was not obvious, apparently, to most “experts.” Since then, the dystopian sins of architecture have changed but have not improved, and the experts involved remain as stupendously oblivious today as in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Yet somehow, then as now, the public recognizes the truth in spite of all the propaganda of the planners. In a remark that may be extended to other targeted London districts, Jenkins declares:

What saved Covent Garden from its fate was that the potential victims had enough fire in their bellies to fight back.

Until reading Jenkins’s piece today, I was largely unaware of the extent to which plans of “modernisation” were so actively opposed by the public. It reminds me of a propaganda film on the plan to rebuild Plymouth after the war. The film, “How We Live Now,” favored the plan, but it was so clearly and obscenely ridiculous, and the public so widely skeptical, that the film’s producers had enormous trouble making the case. Their struggle to do so is hilarious. To view the film, see my post “Plymouth after World War II.”

I imagine that many such films were made to ram the London Plan and its bloody sisters down the throats of a war-weary public. The plan to rebuild Plymouth also came from Prof. Abercrombie’s playbook. The planners won in Plymouth, and that city, along with others, was largely ruined.

While older and richer in historic fabric, London boasted no more of it per square foot than American cities and towns prior to the threat posed by urban renewal. Many cities were gritty and in disrepair after decades of depression and war. Repairing and renovating them would have been the sensible urban policy. But instead, in London and in American cities and towns, citizens found they had ample reason to fear the threat posed by modernism, and on both sides of the pond the transformation of historic preservation from a niche interest to a mass movement was swift.

The unsuitability of modern design and planning to the quality of life in cities has been obvious from the start, and has been recognized as such by the public from the start.  In a democracy, the public’s will must eventually manifest itself. In recent times, the focus of professional preservationists on saving old buildings has waned (partly because of their success at that task). Without preservationists as allies, opposition to insensitive development has seemed so futile that the public has tuned out on architecture.

This could change, however, as the history of success in blocking projects that degrade the quality of life in cities and towns becomes better known. As Jenkins writes, again offering advice whose importance goes well beyond a single victory in the style wars:

The way to prevent future Covent Gardens can only be to remain alert and to empower local people, not believe that some ordained future is inevitable. They can decide these things for themselves. It is the very essence of democracy.

Hope has been well nourished by Simon Jenkins’s “Concrete Bungle.”

***

Tip of the hat for sending me the Jenkins article to Malcolm Millais, author of Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture (2009) and Le Corbusier: The Dishonest Architect (2017).

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Model of Professor Abercrombie’s plan for central Plymouth, largely realized. (plymhearts.org)

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Le Corbusier and his Plan Voisan. Image may be a collage. (fondationlecorbusier.fr)

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Good news from Big Apple

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111 West 57th St., designed by SHoP Architects.

The New York Times has published an article that, because it is in the New York Times, is sure to uplift the status of beauty on the architectural scene, in that city and elsewhere. “Bygone Romance Makes a Return” (“The Return of Golden Age Design” online), by Tim McKeough, ran on Page 1 of the Oct. 18 real-estate section subtitled: “With so many glass towers vying for attention in New York City, some developers are looking to the past for inspiration. The result: new buildings with Art Deco and neo-Georgian flourishes.”

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Rendering of Vandewater, in Morningside Heights. (Binyan Studios)

I doff my hat to Kristen Richards, editor of ArchNewsNow.com, the thrice-weekly free roundup of architectural news from around the world (in English). She warned me (heh-heh) by email that this article would be on her website. Most of her selections tend to validate her modernist disposition, but she is one of that extraordinarily rare breed, an honest and genuinely objective journalist. (Even I don’t claim to be the latter!)

Shortly after introducing readers to this remarkable turnabout in Big Apple projects, McKeough adds:

Rather than trying to develop buildings with contorted forms or monastic minimalism, they are aiming to evoke the romantic glow of New York’s past with new buildings that recall Art Deco, neo-Georgian and neo-Gothic style.

The comments at the end of the article include one by Arturo Eff. He writes, “I’d like to say bravo. I should love to see NYC in say 100 years. If the 20 year + trend of building tall mirrors in the sky is replaced by a new version of older more traditional designs, then hooray!” I’ll second that emotion!

There are plenty of passages and quotations that warm the cockles of your peripatetic classicist. Here’s another one, with McKeough quoting Akash Gupta, the recent purchaser of a condo in the Rose Hill, designed by CetraRuddy with Art Deco touches at 30 East 29th St.:

“There was a lot of supply in the area,” said Mr. Gupta, 47, who works in finance. But when he saw the Rose Hill sales gallery, “It was an easy decision,” he said. “It was a great building that jumped out as something differentiated. It felt special, like it was not just another building. Everything else was regular glass and steel.”

According to Beth Fisher, a senior managing director at Corcoran Sunshine Marketing Group, Mr. Gupta is far from alone in his opinions. “There has been a backlash against all-glass towers, particularly in neighborhoods or areas that are really seeking to have a highly residential character,” Ms. Fisher said. “And I think, fundamentally, people seek a sense of solidity for tumultuous times.”

All music to my ears, of course. But I looked down through the illustrations of these fine buildings, and visited the 21 images in the slideshow, without finding a single building that could possibly be confused with anything of the sort erected before World War II that many find enchanting today. Most of the buildings feature setbacks in their massing, vertical piers separating ranks of windows, and more overt decoration on the exterior façades (mostly at the entrance level) than in most modernist towers. But the setbacks are often minimal, and so is much of the decoration. The bulk of the Times’s examples seem to be takeoffs on Art Deco, which, if dumbed down, can almost be hard to distinguish from some of the more frisky modernist glass towers.

The website for 111 West 57th Street (top image) sort of lets the cat out of the bag. Text for an interior view reads: “All of [interior designer William] Sofield’s projects imbue a restrained luxury in design through choices in materials and craft as well as through a process of discovery where clients decipher their very own concept of luxury.”

That could mean anything, and imbibes of a sensibility that favors the anti-traditional theories of deconstructionism that are intended to degrade our ability to say things (and mean things) in a straightforward manner.

But if Tim McKeough and his editors at the Times want to try to fool us into thinking there’s a genuine revival of traditional work that is being applauded by the Times itself, then please, by all means, let the good times roll.

There are probably quite a number of buildings designed by architects such as Robert A.M. Stern (who is quoted), Peter Pennoyer and other classicists – more so, it may be, among the less dizzying examples of recent residential architecture. Maybe, if it really wants to cause a stir, the New York Times should feature some of them.

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Penthouse of Fifth Avenue triplex not pictured in NYT article. (Peter Pennoyer Architects)

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SOM stole kid’s WTC design?

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The kid, Jeehoon Park, was a student of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1999 when he designed for his senior thesis a building that looks like 1 World Trade Center, opened in 2014. It overtook Chicago’s Willis Tower as the tallest building in the U.S. It is 104 stories. Park’s tower was 122 stories. Park sued 1 WTC’s designer, the Chicago-based megafirm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), in 2017. A judge has ruled that the suit brought by the kid, born in Korea and now, I suppose, in his mid-40s, can proceed.

“Go, kid!” says the iconoclast in me. Knock the SOM scalawags off their pedestal.

On the other hand, the 1 WTC design is a simple matter of twisting a tall, rectangular shaft with a square base and a square roof a quarter-way round. A commenter on an original story of the lawsuit in Archinect wrote:

Does this guy really think that he is the first person to think of this? I myself have sketched that form a million times, and I’m sure most designers have at some point. It’s almost inevitable that at some point you will rotate a square above a square base and connect the corners. That’s like the first cool thing you figure out how to do in SU.

So it would be like Cheops suing I.M. Pei for copying the Great Pyramid at Giza. Or the first guy who ever designed a house suing the second guy who ever designed a house for copying the first guy’s roof, or his door. However, as intellectual property lawyer Phil Nicolosai told the Chicago Tribune about the federal Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act:

The law doesn’t say you can’t be inspired to create something similar. What the law says is you can’t copy plans directly. That’s copyright infringement.

Park charges that his design was swiped by his thesis adviser, who was an architect at SOM, and that another SOM architect was involved, and that his model of the design sat in an Illinois Institute lobby for six years, and sat in the lobby of SOM itself while it was filmed for several scenes of the movie The Lake House (2006), starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. It seems to be a stupid movie. Neither the Wikipedia nor the IMDb plot summaries of the movie mention anything about Park’s building design or model, which he called Cityfront ’99. Maybe it is in the background somewhere. But Reeves does play an architect who has built a glass house on a lake.

Oddly enough, however, the movie critic for USA Today wrote: “The Lake House is one of the more befuddling movies of recent years. The premise makes no sense, no matter how you turn it around in your head.”

That sounds a lot like what Park (or SOM) did to design 1 WTC. And in a lot of ways, almost all modern architecture is like one of those ridiculous movies that were popular, or at least frequently produced, in the 1970s. Their plot twists, flashbacks and time warps make it almost impossible to follow what’s going on, and more than anything else they resemble the sort of thinking that goes into contemporary architectural design – especially in recent decades, what with Gehry’s Bilbao, SOM’s 1 WTC, the absurd Career and Technical Academy, in Providence, R.I., and the like.

Park now runs a firm with four employees called Qube Architecture (weird corporate spellings are another virtually mandatory curiosity of modern architecture) in Suwanee, Ga, near Atlanta. It designs and constructs single-family houses, not 122-story glass towers, on or off lakes. Qube doesn’t have a website so it’s hard to tell what sorts of houses the firm designs.

There is a condo tower of 15 stories at 1333 West Georgia St. in Vancouver, B.C., called The Qube, built in 1969, long before Jee Park got his architecture degree. Perhaps The Qube has a case of copyright theft against the kid for purloining the name of the building in Vancouver for his firm in Georgia. Nah. Spelling cube qube doesn’t quite cut the infringement mustard.

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The Cube, at 1333 West Georgia St., in Vancouver, British Columbia. (residencity.com)

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