I have not spared the architecture critic Witold Rybczynski my critique of his dithering on the greatest architectural questions of our time, but his latest piece, “The Concert Hall, Reimagined,” in Architect journal on the removal of concert halls from their urban contexts is excellent. I just wish he’d read the damned thing!
If he did, he might rediscover some plain truths, eternal verities and the like that still apply to architecture, however anathema to its establishment. Foremost is his apparent (and gratifying) disdain for the ugliness of the new iconic halls – and their abandonment of civic life. Both apply not just to modernist concert halls but to a damning degree of the broader swath of modern architecture. Were he to apply his thoughts in this article to the extent they are applicable to modern architecture generally, he would have to come to see that, regarding architecture’s style wars, it’s way past time for him to get off the fence.
Rybczynski speaks kindly of the Auditorium in Chicago designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler, completed in 1886, and he includes a longitudinal section (a drawing that lets you see through walls into the structure of a building) of the hall. It shows how so much of the Auditorium was part of the fabric of Congress Street and Michigan Boulevard. At the top of this post I have placed a similar longitudinal section of just the concert hall part of the building. It does not illustrate Rybczynski’s point as well as the section that he uses in his article (reprinted below) but it does a better job of showing off Sullivan’s love for incorporating artistic embellishment into the buildings structure. It also shows how the art of architectural illustration has fallen off since then.
The modernists that Rybczynski normally coddles kidnapped Sullivan long ago and placed him in a museum exhibit case whose label describes his legacy as a “precursor to modernism.” Don’t believe a word of it.
Kudos to Architect magazine for running the Rybczynski’s piece. Architect is the mouthpiece of the American Institute of Architects, a stronghold of modernist sentiment in the field, so the article must have caused unease among its editors and the institute’s apparatchiks. Their consciences would be clearer and their minds more at ease if the organization promoted the full range of styles in American architecture. Nowadays, the AIA is even airing TV ads hoping to mollify the public’s disdain for modernism. It will have to do a lot more than just run an occasional piece friendly to traditional design.
I have placed the longitudinal used by Rybczynski and an illustration of the broader city context below, both from a fine website about the Auditorium, auditoriumtheatre.org, that originates at Roosevelt University, in Chicago.