Let the establishment – in this case the New York Times – allow just a single peep against modern architecture, and its enforcers suffer total meltdown of equanimity. Aaron Betsky, the architecture critic for the journal of the American Institute of Architects, has gone ballistic in his reply, in Architect magazine, to the recent essay on the Times’s oped page by Steven Bingler and Martin Pedersen, headlined “How to Rebuild Architecture,” which merely opines that architects should try listening to the public, the ultimate users of architecture.
It is tempting to go through Betsky’s piece, “The New York Times Versus Architecture,” line by line to rebut all of his ridiculous assertions. But I will limit myself to his objections to what he seems to feel is Bingler and Pedersen’s most objectionable passage, which is this:
For millenniums, architects, artist and craftspeople — a surprisingly sophisticated set of collaborators, none of them conversant with architectural software — created buildings that resonated deeply across a wide spectrum of the population. They drew on myriad styles that had one thing in common: reliance on the physical laws and mathematical principles that undergird the fundamental elegance and practicality of the natural world. These creative resources transcend style. They not only have wide aesthetic appeal, but they’re also profoundly human, tied to our own DNA.
To which Betsky’s rebuttal is:
All I can say is: Wow. I do not know what fantasyland these authors live in that they imagine that for “millenniums” (“millennia?”) architects collaborated on making buildings that “resonated deeply.” In fact, the few pieces of architecture that we still treasure today, from the Pantheon to Palladio’s churches and villas to Chicago’s skyscrapers, were as startling, alien to their environment, and initially unpopular as most new monuments today. …
The rest of the paragraph is rendered largely incoherent by what I must assume is a succession of mental typos. But after that he continues:
The truth is that architecture is not made by or for “a wide spectrum of the population.” It is made for those who have the means to commission it, and reflects their values and priorities. If some architecture looks strange and is engaged in experimentation, it is because the only way architects have to make something that has a chance to escape from that affirmation of the social, economic, and political status quo is to make spaces that open up, forms that question or stretch our expectations, and buildings that build in delights, from amenities to visual pleasures, that the clients do not necessarily need — though they may desire them in the end. Beauty of a deep and satisfying kind is what good architects often have to sneak into commissions.
Bingler and Pedersen’s description of architecture through most of history is perfectly reasonable. Architects and builders collaborated with themselves, craftsmen and artists, and not least their own predecessors, to create a built environment that evolved according to stylistic and technological change, and was based on a vertical aesthetic that reflected human stature, and on proportions that (mathematically or intuitively) reflected an innate sense of the beautiful, a quality that was respected by almost all of mankind.
Betsky then states with consummate absurdity that “the few pieces of architecture that we still treasure today” – wow! – were “startling, alien to their environment, and initially unpopular.”
The few pieces of architecture we still treasure today!? Talk about fantasyland!
I think that assertion about the reaction to great traditional work (the Pantheon, Palladio, Chicago skyscrapers) is merely a lie that he assumes will not be contradicted anywhere his words are read. I doubt that anything on his short list was sufficiently “startling” or “alien” to cause the reactions he asserts. On the contrary, all of his examples suggest precisely how traditional architecture evolves, transcending style by embracing a longstanding set of classical principles that permitted architects and builders (using their genius or their pattern books) to produce work that, however creative, obeyed a sense of propriety that classicism was designed to promote, but which has been purposely jettisoned by the modernists.
In the continuation of Betsky’s response, he argues that architecture is not built for the public but for the clients of architects, and “reflects their values and priorities.” Given the result, as Bingler and Pedersen point out, the public has every reason to object. The more so if what he says about the values of clients is true. It may be argued that modern architecture does not reflect the values of clients but rather the values that architects imposed on clients decades ago. Or maybe modern architecture – sterile, wacky, foreboding, etc. – does reflect the values of clients. In that case it is clear that the values of clients have changed drastically since the ages when major buildings were put up by monarchs, captains of industry, the petit bourgeoisie, guildsmen, and the landlords of the small shopkeeper and the huddled masses living in tenements.
For no place in his crie de coeur does Betsky deny that modern architecture is disliked by much, indeed most, of the public – although he tries to suggest otherwise by focusing on the taste of 88-year-old grandmothers. Is it the oppressive vibes given off by so much modern architecture that offends? Or is it an intuitive suspicion by the public that the values of those who commission modern architecture are inimical to the public? Either way – and both interpretations can be valid, together or separately, in the mind of the individual or the mind of the public – supports Bingler and Pedersen’s contention that modern architecture does society a disservice by ignoring public taste.
Betsky continues, arguing that even if some modern architecture does look “strange” or “experimental,” that’s merely because only by pushing the envelope can architects design buildings that “escape” from the sin of affirming the “status quo.” Truly? And yet modern architecture is the “brand” of the status quo. Modern architecture bought into corporate gigantism back in the 1950s and has never looked back. Modernism is already decades into the program of latter-day colonialism that extends its reach around the world, crushing ancient cultures under the heel of modern architecture, no doubt to the enrichment of corrupt regimes and their toadies and the enragement of their downtrodden publics. Modern architecture is probably the most efficient recruiting poster for global terrorism in history.
Of his final notion that modern architects often must “sneak” beauty into their commissions, its risibility is beneath contempt.
I hope the New York Times understands that in running “How to Rebuild Architecture,” it has taken the first step in addressing an institutional prejudice (including its own) against traditional architecture that it would instinctively oppose were the perpetrators in any other field of human endeavor. Bravo! Let us see more such steps.
(I wrote a post called “Temper of the Times” on the Bingler/Pedersen piece the day after it appeared in the Times. It posited the sophistication of public taste.)