Wolf von Eckardt’s critique

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Sketch from essay by Wolf von Eckardt, Harper’s, May 1966

Yesterday, into my email inbox, there came a 1966 Harper’s critique of the original World Trade Center by Wolf von Eckardt, the first architecture critic at the Washington Post. I was age 10 in 1963 when he was hired. In 1981, when he moved on to Time magazine, I moved out of D.C. to my first writing job in newspapers, at the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle. So basically Wolf von Eckardt was at my breakfast table for 18 years of my existence as a young man. Yet I don’t ever remember actually reading any of his stuff. Hmm.

“New York’s Trade Center: World’s Tallest Fiasco,” sent to me by Ron Thomas, is behind the Harper’s paywall, but here are a few passages that thrilled me:

The project appears much like one of those Buck Rogers schemes of “the city of the future” we’ve seen in the comics for years and which have more amused than frightened us. We have never taken them seriously. But the lonely superstructures, superhighways and surrealist wastelands of these visions are now creeping up on us.

Remember, this was in 1966. Von Eckardt not only saw the barbarians storming the gates but the antidote – he was big on Jane Jacobs, whom he mentions. In suggesting an alternative for the WTC site, he writes:

New buildings would be carefully scaled in size and character to their environment. There might, to be sure, be a new skyscraper or two. But they could so easily be handsome and fitting additions to the skyline rather than its ruination.

The mid-’60s were a time of considerable introspection and argument in professional architectural circles. Were there other architecture critics like von Eckardt who challenged modern architecture? For that matter, how long did von Eckardt hold out? Did he eventually drink the modernist Kool Aid? Well, if he did, it was not until after 1977, when he wrote an amazing essay for The New Republic called “The Death of the Moderns.” He writes:

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Photos of the demolition in 1972 of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St. Louis, Mo. (The New Republic, 1977)

While Palladio was busy designing exquisite country houses for the Italian nobility, the peasants were quite capable of building their own habitat, using the accumulat- ed skill and wisdom of centuries as their blueprint. Architecture without architects, as we all know, adds up to lovely villages and towns and can be as delightful as the architecture of great masters — and is frequently more commodious.

Von Eckardt on Corbusier and Mies:

[The chapel at Ronchamp] was a work of abstract sculpture, “not a building, but a monu- ment,” as Le Corbusier put it. It was not so much a building to worship in, as a shrine to be worshipped.

And worshipped it was by the critics, curators, experts, cogniscenti, connoisseurs and teachers of architecture — as devoutly worship- ped as the Miesean glass box on the other end of that total, man- made environment. The common folk still seemed confused. It seems doubtful that the breathless and panting human animal experienced any sense of liberation or comfort. But then, nobody asked.

The marriage of art and technology was never consummated. To this day, building remains the industry tbe industrial revolution has overlooked. We still have a chronic and desperate shortage of decent housing, although there never seems to be a shortage of automobiles. Try as they would, the Modernists could never get houses to roll off the assembly line.

He continues his critique of architecture, the only field in human history that has stressed the importance of rejecting precedent, while at the same time expecting the result to be mass-produced. But no. The only thing mass-pro- duced is the hype. The hypocrisy involved is breathtaking, and yet those who misled the world have held it in modern architecture’s thrall to this day.

Being frustrated in evolving its own, new building technology — as the Gothic style had done — the Moderns substituted a machine esthetic that was mostly symbolic. Mies’s glossy, machine-precise, modular buildings are painstakingly and expensively handcrafted to look mechanical and machine-made; Mies insisted on designing different steel beams for practically every one of his buildings. The romantic wing of the Modern movement, led by Le Corbusier, soon tired even of machine-made materials, such as glass and metal components, and sculpted its bizarre forms mostly in rough, “organic”-looking concrete.

You will have to read the entire article to believe it. It would not be publishable today in any major “legacy” newspaper or magazine. The modernists are too well cemented into the broader establishment by now. I wonder why von Eckardt really left the Post in 1981. Revelations from his 1995 obituary in that paper suggest some possible answers:

On returning to this country [after World War II], he worked for the U.S. Information Agency and then the American Federation of Labor. His family recalled that his career there ended abruptly when he found the recorded music piped into the elevators intolerable and quit. …

After leaving The Post in 1981, he joined the staff of Time. He left Time after the term brownstones was inserted into one of his pieces as a substitute for the town houses he was writing about, according to his wife.

He obviously did not suffer fools gladly. But that does not answer the question of how I could possibly have spent 18 formative years in my youth, with von Eckardt’s opinions of modern architecture sitting before me on the breakfast table at home, without ever imbibing his spirit. I guess that’s a question that must remain unanswered.

By the way, the two illustrations with this post, the Pruitt-Igoe public housing and the Twin Towers, from Harper’s and from The New Republic respectively, both depict buildings designed by Minoru Yamasaki.  Wolf von Eckardt, who noted that in his TNR piece, would surely chuckle at the massive irony that eventually both would be knocked down.

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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7 Responses to Wolf von Eckardt’s critique

  1. Excellent essay, but the first line is stolen.

    “Modern architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972, at 3.32pm (or thereabouts).”
    Charles Jencks, _The Language of Postmodern Architecture_, published (according to amazon) in January, 1977.

    “Modern architecture died on April 21, 1972.”
    Wolf von Eckardt, _The New Republic_, published in August 1977.
    (Incidentally, von Eckardt rather than Jencks, seems to be write about the date. According to wikipedia, the demolition started in April, 1972.)

    These were common ideas in the 1970s. Wolf von Eckardt was a good writer but not an original thinker. He wrote a book in 1964 named _The Challenge of Megalopolis_, which was cribbed from Jean Gottmann’s book _Megalopolis_, and which went along with the “big is beautiful” spirit of the 1960s, just as this _New Republic_ essay goes along with the “small is beautiful” spirit of the 1970s.

    At the time, this sort of rejection of modernism was so influential that I and many others hoped it would make modernism obsolete. Unfortunately, new versions of modernism are dominant again, while the 1970s call for a more humanistic architecture is largely forgotten – and is overdue to be rediscovered. As David knows, I wrote a history of it in my book _The Humanists versus the Reactionary Avant Garde_.

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    • I don’t think I’d say, Charles, that the line was stolen. It replicates a common thought in common words. It may have been stolen but it probably is better to call it borrowed. It looks to me as if modern architecture, as a practice and as the establishment in its field, had a relatively easy time dodging the postmodernist critique of modern architecture. Today modern architecture focuses less on purity of line than it did, more on increasingly ridiculous challenges to nature and science cloaked in increasingly ridiculous forms. The humanistic sensibility that rolls its eyes at all this has never been forgotten by the public, only by the practitioners and the theorists of architecture, and their hangers-on. The new classicists have the truth dead on. It is indeed time for its rediscovery by those who are most responsible for our built environment.

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      • You are right that it was a common idea at the time. The rhetorical trick of saying that “modern architecture died” on the exact date that Pruitt-Igoe was demolished is what was “borrowed.”

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  2. Daniel Morales says:

    This is a great find, thanks for bringing it to light. His observations could be written today.

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    • Yes, Dan. I think the public has the same subconscious skepticism for modernism. Von Eckardt wrote books and magazine articles for the elite but I wonder how many other columnists in newspapers wrote likewise against establishment modernism. What he wrote could be written today but published only with a great deal more difficulty, and certainly that’s the case in newspapers and magazines.

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  3. A Subscriber says:

    You didn’t notice or pay attention to Von Eckardt in 1963 because you weren’t ready for him – and wouldn’t be until a ‘trigger’ event brought him to your attention, even though he was right there, all those years, in front of your cereal bowl. I believe that this is also true for just about anything in life, e.g.,people, places, things, ideas, architecture blogs, etc. As I told you in a previous comment Dave, I’ve learned a lot from you – and now I’m aware of Mr. Von Eckardt, as well. Thank you.

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    • Well, it remains a mystery to me, though what you say about lacking a trigger event at that point in my life is certainly true – even if I did read WVE as a youth. I would still not be thinking about architecture for decades. Many thanks for your kind words!

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