Mayors and modernism

The Ara Pacis Museum, in Rome. (nytimes.com)

The Ara Pacis Museum, in Rome. (nytimes.com)

Here is a column I wrote back on May 22, 2008, just after Boris Johnson’s election as mayor of London. At the time there was good news coming from the mouths of mayors in Italy and Czechoslovakia as well. Rome and Italy have done a better job of protecting their historic character since 2008. In London, it hardly seems to matter.

Mayors shake modernists’ cage

MAYORS, at least foreign ones, are rattling the modernist cage. That’s good news for how tomorrow’s world might look. Maybe the future won’t look like Blade Runner after all.

Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece of 1982 depicted Los Angeles circa 2019 as a metropolis of sinister gated towers for the rich shooting into the sky far above the vaguely Hispano-Asiatic mob of proles jammed by the millions into shabby mid-20th Century urban crudscapes far below. Scott’s vision, followed shortly after by Terry Gilliam’s 1985 dystopic futurist comedy Brazil, was among the first to turn away from the streamlined sterility that long typified Hollywood’s vision of the future.

In George Lucas’s Star Wars films, those intergalactic species that needed rescuing – that is, the good guys – tend to live in communities of a vaguely organic, almost historicist architectural vernacular, whereas the bad guys always seem to rule from the sorts of places you’d expect – various architectural manifestations of Darth Vader.

Perhaps filmgoers by the millions have internalized this dichotomy. Perhaps this was a factor that fed into last year’s survey by the American Institute of Architects, which showed (no doubt to the horror of the AIA leadership) that the public likes traditional buildings more than modernist ones (“America’s favorite architecture,” March 1, 2007).

That’s one theory. Another theory is that people internalize a preference for traditional architecture less through the media than through their own eyes, since architecture is the only art form they see day in and day out their whole lives. That is, people are naturally astute critics of buildings. It’s not the fault of the public that the architects themselves have, in recent decades, gone totally nuts.

Anyway, some mayors seem to have internalized the taste of their constituents. In Rome, Prague and London, three European mayors have taken brave stands against modern architecture.

Rome’s new mayor, Gianni Alemanno, has said of the Ara Pacis Museum that it “will be removed.” [Not yet.] The new museum, by superannuated modernist Richard Meier, houses only one item, a 2,017-year-old sacrificial altar – the Ara Pacis, or altar of peace – that honored Emperor Augustus for pacifying Gaul and Spain. With its signature plate glass and rectangular white steel, the museum is the first major modernist building to vandalize central Rome since Mussolini.

When it opened two years ago, Meier’s museum was so predictable and so offensive to its surroundings that even New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff – whose good opinion of anything modern may be reliably assumed – panned it as “a flop.” His critique was penned more in sorrow than in anger. Perhaps if Meier had not designed the same building he has designed for decades, Ouroussoff would have slobbered over it.

Of its location Mayor Alemanno said: “There is a problem of compatibility. The structure is surrounded by Baroque buildings and, in that part of the city, any intervention must be in the same style.” He promised to move it to the suburbs, to which modernist buildings are mostly shunted. Later, he backed off a bit and said that a referendum would be held. [Not yet.] Meier, in a snit, said he would return to Rome to defend his monstrosity. (Not his choice of words.)

Possession being nine-tenths of the law, the survival of Meier’s museum is more likely than the construction of [now deceased] Czech architect Vaclav Kaplicky’s proposed Czech National Library. It is widely vilified in Prague as “The Blob” or “The Octopus.” Last year, I denounced its design (“sad joke on the Czech Republic,” March 29, 2007) after it was unveiled. I even called the Czech Embassy, in Washington, to make sure it was not a prank. Since then, Prague Mayor Pavel Bém has come out against the proposal, as has Czech President Vaclav Klaus. Today it seems very unlikely to be built as designed. Kaplicky is not amused. I enjoy his angst. His library would turn a beautiful city into the laughingstock of the world.

Boris Johnson, London’s new mayor, takes office in the new City Hall he calls the “Glass Testicle,” not far from the office tower that many Londoners call the “Gherkin” or the “Crystal Phallus.” In his campaign, he accused his opponent Kenneth “Red Ken” Livingstone of “wrecking London’s skyline.” The flamboyant Johnson lines up with the late Ian Fleming, who hated modern architecture so much that he named his most infamous James Bond villain after the Hungarian-born designer who built it, who specialized in residential high-rises in the Brutalist style.

His name? Goldfinger. Ernö Goldfinger. His Trellick Tower is a place only Darth Vader could love.

Unlike Rome and Prague, London’s already sunk deep in modern ugliness. But at least Johnson might halt as many as 14 new skyscraper proposals now in the works. He intends to consult with local councils that “Red Ken” was accustomed to override.

Let us hope that mayors on this side of the pond will start to poll their constituents’ taste, too.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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