Julie Iovine, the Wall Street Journal’s post-Huxtable architecture critic, has written “The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Dan Kiley.” Her piece on an exhibition of the work of the late Kiley, who died in 2004, earns a place in my collection of pieces whose authors, though sympathetic to modern architecture, feel they must criticize it in order to establish their credibility. Iovine begins her essay this way:
The movement to preserve modern architecture can be a hard sell, especially when the structures are geometric abstractions and the materials colorless concrete.
Forget about the movement to preserve modern architecture. It’s the movement to build modern architecture that’s a hard sell, or should be. Aren’t the structures always “geometric abstractions and the materials colorless concrete,” or some such iteration of the ugly, the stupid and the useless?
Thankfully, landscape architecture covers a multitude of sins. In the case of the Miller House and Garden in Columbus, Ind. (photographed in black and white, of course), a superior landscape design might have been an elegantly woven network of trees, shrubbery and vines rising up in organized chaos to create a dark cave within which the house can persist without frightening the horses. (Lighting optional.)
Of course, Columbus and its community leaders – mainly one rich guy – have made a fetish of hiring famous modernists, in this case Eero Saarinen, to design buildings for their fair city. Maybe nowadays the citizenry has fought back and that’s not Columbus’s schtick anymore. I doubt it. But Dan Kiley certainly did yoeman’s work in toning down and, to a degree, covering up for the essential tedium of the Miller House.
The problem he had to address, and has addressed not just at private homes but in a multitude of city centers botched by urban renewal, is that modern architecture denies itself the tools of its own profession. It has no aesthetic strategy by which to tone down the brutality of hardscape. Stone and even concrete graced by traditional ornament and sculpture can survive without the intervention of nature’s embellishment, but modern architecture must have it. And landscape architects such as Kiley have stepped forward to do the job. No doubt he was a talented artist, but it doesn’t take much artistic virtuosity to improve upon architecture that refuses to improve upon itself.
Here is another passage in which Iovine makes that point in a manner that I must assume forced her to suppress a cringe:
Time works for and against landscapes. And landscape architects can only forecast what a full-grown garden is supposed to look like, sometimes never living to see the day. Maintenance is an even greater challenge. Modern urban landscapes have taken the hardest hit in part because they favor man-made structure over organic form. Concrete sunken plazas and basins are marvels to behold when pumping with jets of water, frothing cascades and dimpled pools. But they become dank and depressing symbols of blight in winter, with the water turned off and rotting leaves and trash clogging them.
Kiley can hardly take much credit for the Miller House tree that plays such a major role in the success of the landscape surrounding the boorish Saarinenian concoction. Kiley planted it but cannot claim responsibility for its pleasing outreach of branches.
And yet landscape architects may be thankful for working largely in a medium that puts man’s poor hand to shame. The more regrettable the architecture, the more beautiful is the part played by nature, orchestrated in some degree by a designer. The landscape architect mutes pain inflicted upon the eye. Bless them all, for wherever they work they make things better. Often, as is no doubt the case in Columbus, Ind., that is saying an awful lot.
An exhibition of 29 other examples of Dan Kiley’s work is at the Center for Architecture, in New York City, runs until June 20. It is sponsored by AIANY.
A doff of the ol’ topper to Lee Juskalian, former Providencian, now Californian, who sent me the Iovine review. (I wonder how she pronounces her lovely last name. I prefer to hear it in my heart’s ear as ee-O-vih-nee. Not exactly Ionic, but nice.)