“In the Modern tradition …”

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Sixth Avenue. (The Real Deal)

Here is some more from High Rise, by Jerry Adler, a description of the process of erecting a skyscraper in Manhattan during the 1980s. Here Adler describes the design philosophy of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill – the modern era’s McKim, Mead & White, the architecture profession’s largest and most highly respected firm, as assertively modernist as MMW was assertively classical:

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, founded in Chicago in 1936, is the most distinguished firm of architects in the world. It is distinguished not only for the number and significance of the buildings it has built, but also for its dedication to an idea, the idea of Modernism. So strong was SOM’s commitment to the philosophy enunciated in post-World War I Germany by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and others that the firm was once nicknamed the Three Blind Mies.

Ah! I like that!

The philosophy was of an architecture that expresses the highest intellectual ideals of the twentieth century, an architecture as pure as a prime number, as beautiful as an I-beam in its perfect fit of form and function. It was an architecture for an era that had looked inside the atom, in light of which it seemed absurdly petty and even dishonest for architects to be fooling around with dentillations and flutes and fillets on columns whose original function – to support the roof – could now be done so much more efficiently and forthrightly with modern materials. In their lack of superficial ornamentation and the crisp angles of their sheer glass walls, Skidmore’s buildings expressed confidence, honesty, and unity of purpose.

It is refreshing, for a classicist, to read a sincere paean to modernist principles in light of how they’ve fallen to earth over time. Nobody really believes in the principles anymore – which makes it all the more frustrating, for a classicist, that they still retain the same old magnetism of a century ago, when Adolf Loos wrote Ornament and Crime, or half a century ago, when Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – the king of “honesty” in the modernist world – used bronze I-beams to decorate (or hide) the steel piers upholding his Seagram Building.

But to continue with Adler’s paean to modernism:

In the Modern tradition, the architects of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill do not acknowledge the existence of distinctive individual styles. Modernism was not a “style” of architecture, nor did it contain “styles” within it. It was revealed truth, and therefore the end of style; its disciples were anonymous laborers among the pure planes and angles of God’s parti.

The parti is the essential idea of a building project. The parti of the high-rise of High Rise is “a building with enough glitz to stand out at Times Square but not enough to scare off potential corporate tenants.” Adler goes on to describe the mindset of Audrey Matlock, the SOM associate who, working under David Childs (the SOM bigwig), designed the building after developer Bruce Eichner switched the parti from hotel to offices and sacked Helmut Jahn, who was still its architect when I wrote my post yesterday. So here is Adler on Audrey’s mindset:

… Audrey’s architectural beliefs ran to a fairly rigorous Modernism, compared to those of most of her contemporaries at Skidmore. After fighting it for years, she had finally begun to make peace with the fact that she actually liked Sixth Avenue. Not every one of the buildings on it, maybe, but the much-maligned streetscape of mighty slabs in a row, majestic in their uncompromising conformity. You wouldn’t want the whole city to look like that, but it was astonishing and awe-inspiring to come upon half a mile of it, developed not in response to some arbitrary plan but by the convergence of the esthetic and practical ideals of a dozen different corporations.

Do I detect a slight, perhaps subconscious degree of damnation by faint praise here? Adler continues:

Anyway she’d rather have that than a city filled with the despised baubles of the last century. She loathed office buildings with colonnades, turrets and gables and finials, the whole fussy vocabulary of Postmodernism. She liked polished steel, translucent glass, and cool, textured stone in slabs.

There’s that word slabs again! How can a style of – oops, excuse me, an avatar of architecture be praised in conjunction with the word slab? Well, go figure. By the way, Adler imputes to Matlock the reigning confusion between postmodern and classical architecture. Postmodernism was cartoon classical elements plopped onto a modernist box, a phenomenon of the ’70s and ’80s that has now largely disappeared but which opened a crack in a door through which architects genuinely interested in a revival of classical forms managed to sneak back into the profession. Today they are the last best hope for beauty in the future of the built environment around the world.

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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4 Responses to “In the Modern tradition …”

  1. Ron Thomas says:

    As a personal side note: I have bumped into SOM during my time in both DC and Chicago including interviewing Nat Owings when he was on the Pennsylvania Ave Development Corporation’s board (PADC) . I actually have the proposal program we did for David Childs when he was SOM director in DC for PADC’s redevelopment of the Market Square area that was a very appropriate contextural solution related to the more Richardsonian legacies on that north side of the avenue versus the New Deal neo-classicism on the south side (proposal was not the winning one – went neo-classic). All that for the punch line. During this project I come back to the office and my new assistant had taken a message that the client, “‘Skidrow,’ Owings and Merrill had called!” Had a laugh then thinking how appropriate some may think this malaprop was then and is still. With apologies to the “contextualists” and New Urbanists who are there.

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    • Ron, I grew up in D.C. and know the PADC area (and its workings) very, very well. It could be a great place – it almost is, if it were not for several total modernist botches (but I repeat myself). Good for Childs’s tip of the hat toward contextualism. It is far rarer than trad firms’ doffing the cap to modernism (RAMSA is of course the big sinner here!). Actually, most skid row architecture is far superior to the best modernism in the poshest places on the globe.

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  2. David: thank you for this sermon to a better world. When I see modernism in its true unfettered state, think the London pickle or (prickle ?) or the walkie talkie, or closer to home the conformist desert of architectural ideas that is the Boston Seaport district it seems to me that modernism is actually anti-architecture. Whether the sculptural anti-architecture of whats-is-name in LA or the blah conformism that is all energy wasting glass, flammable aluminum skins and sealant towerism, its all the same, cheap, cheap, cheap and some of them have the guts to call it “sustainable”.
    Lacking in ideas, its just bigism gone insane in the service of the almighty developer. The city, the tenant, the world it seems, worshiping at the insanely low standards set by the “marketplace”.
    So long as bankrupt developers and aluminum and glass merchants call the shots in urban design, the architect will be considered superfluous and we will continue to have buildings that are anti-architectural engineering with a fig leaf of a non-sequitor twist or color or shake here and there, so long as it doesn’t raise the cost of the building or impinge on the personal bank accounts of the investor/developer cabal.

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    • Ethan – I think you are dead on, and the only question is why the world puts up with it. I think part of the answer is that modrnism has succeeded in turning people off to architecture altogether – they’ve thrown up their hands and try to muddle through life by ignoring the built environment as best they can.

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