The vapidity of the modern

Philip Johnson, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Phyllis Lambert with Seagram Building. (ArchDaily)

You know you are being targeted when your clickbait stories include video of a 2001 panel led by Charlie Rose (transcript included) discussing Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with Paul Goldberger, Phyllis Lambert (a liquor distributor’s daughter who hired Mies to design the Seagram Building in the 1950s) and Barry Bergdoll, a curator at MoMA. Yes, so even the internet is incompetent in its targeting. Here is a segment from that panel discussion that is fun because it reveals how vapid these people are. Well, no. They are intelligent people, I suppose, but they are being forced to discuss Mies, who was vapid himself, so perhaps you  can’t blame the panel for its vapidity. A better word may be incoherence. Enjoy!

15:56 Charlie Rose: Right. Right. Right.

16:00 Phyllis Lambert:  – and he said, he said, ”Yes, but it’s too mechanistic.” He said, ”We have to have our feet on the ground and our head in the clouds.”

16:04 Charlie Rose: Yeah. But can you define this philosophy – we’ve talked around it – that comes from him?

16:08 Phyllis Lambert: A philosophy?

16:10 Charlie Rose: Of – yeah. Did Mies have a philosophy? Did he have –

16:16 Phyllis Lambert: He talked freely about – I think under – it’s, it’s the internal thing. He didn’t talk about it much.

16:21 Charlie Rose: Right.

16:24 Phyllis Lambert: When he describes his buildings, it’s always fairly much a description of how they, what the pieces are. And in the office in Chicago – I mean, all of this – I was speaking to Gene Summers, who was his right-hand man for 17 years. And I said, ”Mies – did Mies ever talk about,” you know, ”his philosophical intent?” And he said no. He was interested in making things clear. He was interested in structural architecture.

16:45 Charlie Rose: Yeah. Clarity.

16:48 Phyllis Lambert: So that there was these two – yes. Absolutely. (crosstalk) There are these two levels that he was – he was on, you know, and, and—

16:56 Paul Goldberger: But they had qualities that he never talked about, but he could convey in the work, that nobody else could. And there’s a serenity to a Mies building that is not present in most sort of imitation Mies buildings, most—

17:10 Charlie Rose: But he wouldn’t talk about it.

17:13 Paul Goldberger: He wouldn’t talk about it, particularly.

17:17 Charlie Rose: He wouldn’t talk about the achievement of—

17:18 Paul Goldberger: Although, although I think when Phyllis—

17:20 Charlie Rose: —Serenity.

17:21 Paul Goldberger:  —talked about his dislike of mechanistic things, he was sort of – that was as far as he could go, to say that. It’s very interesting that the images you showed at the beginning [of the panel] all had figures in them, which is right because, in fact, people feel right inside a Miesian space. They don’t feel that it excludes them the way so many modern spaces do. There’s something about the way the human figure is in that space that feels as perfect as the presence of the human figure in any kind of architecture throughout history. It is as natural and right.

17:48 Barry Bergdoll: Well, I think there’s a connection there. I think the big – if one could say I want to put my figure on a Miesian philosophy, it is the hard one where he takes on this – there’s a kind of crisis of confidence in this issue of the technological, but it doesn’t lead to a retreat from the technological because he emphatically says this, the 20th century, is the moment of a technological transformation of society. It cannot be denied. It cannot be undone. But we need to both struggle with it, transform it and transcend it. And so there’s a kind of – there’s a realism in the sense of wanting to deal with what he will over and over again call the facts of the epic, with this desire towards spirituality, towards a restoration of something that might be either lost or endangered but without nostalgia. And I think that that is one of the reasons why he suddenly seems to be of such contemporary relevance in—

18:40 Charlie Rose: Express that again because I want to make sure I understand.

Well, that’s as good an end point as we are likely to get in this rambling conversation about Mies. But let’s be clear on the need to exclude nostalgia in referring to the restoration of something that might be either lost or endangered.

The passage just concluded was preceded by conversation equally vapid, and followed by the same. It’s hard to criticize because it’s hard to find any assertion within all the goo that one can grab onto, examine and assess. It’s the same thing that enables the Pritzker prize and its winners to float in a cloud of rhetorical gauze – how, one can only wonder, did the jury decide that this whirly-gig of a building was superior to that loopy-doopy building? If you had locked Rose, Goldberger, Lambert and Bergdoll in a room and forced them to discuss the work of McKim, Mead & White without using the word “nostalgia,” would the level of incoherence be identical? I imagine we will never know for sure.

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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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12 Responses to The vapidity of the modern

  1. John the First says:

    Humans are imitative beings…, you learn the language, you read some stuff, you memorize it, you wear a nice suit and a tie, you reproduce some stuff, get yourself an impressive office. And so you impress the incompetent, the dumb public, and you pull the other pretentious and ambitious parrots in. Most people won’t see the difference between the real and the imitator, the parrots and the whole circuit of fashionable academic and institutional parrots who talk the talk. This is not at all exclusive to the sector of architecture.

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    • Anonymous says:

      “Most people won’t see the difference between the real and the imitator.” This is so true! You see it all the time with people who will lump all modernist architecture together as bad because they can’t tell who’s spouting nonsense and who is actually good. So you’ve got to learn the language instead of assuming everyone’s just bullshitting you.

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  2. TBH says:

    I remember in architecture school this kind of vapidity was common. Students, professors, jurors, you name it. Sad to admit I was also privy to that nonsense, although I never really realized it at the time. Looking back, I begin to understand why: everything we designed was regulated and directed towards the auspices of fashionable modernism. Talking about concepts such as beauty, proportion, humanity, and local context were all generally disregarded. And with only nothing but hyper-functionality and bland abstractions left over, there was never really anything worthwhile or impressive about any of the hundreds of projects that were pinned up come end of the semester. Mind you this was no more than six years ago; Hardly close to Mies’ generation.

    Mies was obsessed with structure, so it doesn’t surprise me that he had little to say in the way of buildings outside of their practicality. In that absence, it seems like Lambert and Bergdoll et al. had no choice but to impose some unintelligible nonsense in his name. That’s really what architecture has become, though: ugly buildings wrapped up with an archi-babble bow.

    I suppose when you are spending millions on a project, you need to hear something, however empty and stupid, to make you feel better about wasting your money.

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  3. Anonymous says:

    Mies was a classicist though, David. I don’t think you can fully understand classical architecture without appreciating Mies’s place in it.

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    • Mies may have had classical training in his background, and may have considered himself a classicist and used classical numerology to figure his proportions and other aspects of his modernist work, but he was not a classicist. He rejected classicism thoroughly in his architecture. I once heard in person Allan Greenberg discussing the classicism of Corbusier. Greenberg sounded perfectly ridiculous.

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      • Anonymous says:

        All the classical architects I know like Mies! Even the most “rah-rah Classicism” architecture students I’ve met from Notre Dame and Catholic University’s architecture programs have confessed admiration for his work (and also for Corbusier’s now that you mention it). I’m pretty sure they know what they’re talking about!

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        • Ha ha! And they all know which side their bread is buttered on. Money talks, bullshit walks, and if these classical architects you know just open their eyes, they will see that the idea of Mies as a classicist is valid in theory only, vapid in fact.

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          • Anonymous says:

            Nah, they always seem to get very excited on the rare-ish occasion that someone asks them to design or renovate a modernist building. If the Miesian style were truly vapid, no classicist would ever defend it, and yet it continues to be rightly celebrated for its tremendous beauty! There’s way less of a conflict between the classicists and modernists in real life than you’d think.

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  4. Ron Thomas, FAICP says:

    David – Facts. Phyllis Lambert is the daughter not wife of Edgar Bronfman who was the distiller/producer of Segrams not just a distributor. She was married for a short time to Jean Lamber (1949-1954) who was French-German economic consultant. In 1975, she founded the heritage preservation group Heritage Montreal. In 1979, she founded the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), an influential museum and research centre in Montreal’s Shaughnessy Village neighbourhood, and donated 750,000 shares of Seagram to help fund the Centre. It houses extensive collections of architectural drawings, books, photographs, and archival materials. The centre’s utmost priority is the preservation of architectural heritage.

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