Thursday, March 18, 2004
"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
"Everything changed in December 1910," Virginia Woolf famously wrote, and there are tipping points and turning points like that we sometimes recognize. In 1848, democracy swept across the European continent (often forcefully beaten back by authoritarian governments). In 1989, every Communist government in Europe fell within two months after the first breach of the Berlin Wall.
I’m old enough to remember when the civil rights movement turned a decisive corner in the early 1960s to become an idea supported by the majority of Americans. In The Best and the Brightest David Halberstam wrote that the turning point for opposition to the Vietnam war came when Walter Cronkite first criticized the conflict on the CBS nightly news. And I can point to the exact minute when peace, love and long hair arrived at my high school later in the 60s, radically transforming it overnight.
Woolf was talking about full-blown Modernism arriving in her upper-middle-class circles. The most evident sign was an emphasis on individual freedom. For many, this meant an emphasis on greater social and economic mobility that foreshadowed a broadening of democracy. For Virginia and her friends, it meant becoming proto-Modernists of the worst sort: depressed, self-involved, sexually ambiguous and willfully promiscuous. And nominally-Socialist but obnoxiously-superior upper-middle class intellectuals.
Funny, that sounds like the late Modernists a hundred years later.
Non-architects might wonder why there are so many references to Modernism in Veritas et Venustas (Truth and Beauty).
This is an important question, because a) normal people (that is, non-architects) usually don't recognize the problem, and b) I’m not anti-Modern, as one might reasonably conclude. I’m an architect educated in the 20th century who's made more than my share of loving pilgrimages to masterworks like Bilbao and Fallingwater, and I once wrote an article on how to visit the buildings of Le Corbusier scattered all over Europe. With details such as how to stay in the hotel in the Corb-designed Unité d’Habitations in Marseille.
The answer to the question is two-fold. 1) At the beginning of the 21st Century we are at a new tipping point, which 2) the entrenched interests of Modernism are fighting tooth and nail. Having argued for a hundred years that Modernism is the only appropriate expression of the time, they can’t accept that the culture has moved on to become eclectic and diverse.
For me, a Classical architect and a New Urbanist, this is restraint of trade. Representatives of my union, the American Institute of Architects, frequently work against my interests. The architecture critic of my hometown paper, the New York Times, constantly argues against everything my colleagues and I do (and he’s joined in that by virtually every architecture critic in the country.) My students tell me I’m a very good teacher, but almost no university wants to hire me, because most architecture schools are rabidly dogmatic Modernists. Somehow, they claim to do this in the cause of pluralism.
BUT, and this is an important "but," their position is increasingly an esoteric, unpopular one. There’s no question that society in general has turned a corner.
Modernism was the cultural expression of a good deal of the second half of the 20th century, but we’re in the 21st century now, and for most Americans Modernism is just a style – not a lifestyle or an ideology. It’s normal today to work in a high-tech office and go home at night to a new Traditional Neighborhood. On the way home, one might have dinner at a chic new place with Minimal design, and the next night go to a new French bistro with hundred year old tiles imported from Paris, complete with Gauloise stains. This particularly applies to Richard Florida’s "Creative Class" and David Brooks’s "BoBos."
In a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the paper’s architecture critic talked about a new survey of the hipper than hip twenty-somethings in Silicon Valley. “People love gadgets,” said the sociologist who made the study.
”They all want their own computer and a plasma television, but at the same time they also love the traditional look.... I pressed them for reasons and they explained, ‘We’re working in high-tech impersonal settings all day; we want to go home to Grandma’s house.’ That was the exact phrase one used.”Princeton surveyed its students and found that the overwhelming majority of its students wanted to live in Gothic colleges while at the university. Since Princeton had already built in the preceding decades what therefore amounted to a two-century supply of Modernist dormitories for a handful of students, they created a new policy for future building.
The center of the campus, which includes all the undergraduate housing, will be a Gothic zone: new colleges there will be Gothic. (Brief clarification: Princeton is switching from a dormitory system to an undergraduate college system in which each "college" will have a dining hall, a library, and other common facilities. The student survey showed that’s what the undergrads wanted.)
The rest of the campus – with classrooms, laboratory buildings, athletic buildings, parking garages and the like – will be the “anything goes” zone. Construction has started on Whitman College, a new Gothic quadrangle designed by the second winner of the Driehaus Prize for Classical Architecture, Demetri Porphyrios. At the same time, the university announced a gift of an increasingly ubiquitous Gehry-designed building on the edge of the campus.
Much of the money for Whitman College was donated by Meg Whitman, the young Chairman of eBay (a BoBo). While the Gehry building was donated by the octogenarian Princeton alumnus Peter Lewis, Gehry’s biggest patron. For ideological reasons, Whitman is more likely to appreciate Gehry’s design than Lewis is to like the new Gothic building. Gehry himself ungraciously and publicly criticized Whitman College, as did Robert Venturi, who has designed several important buildings at Princeton.
I say “ungraciously” not only because they are biting the hand that feeds them: why does Gehry feel that it is his role to lecture the students and tell them they must like what he likes? He went so far as saying that an institution of higher learning should not build a traditional building today. (How tolerant and pluralistic is that?)
In fact, with Whitman College, Princeton, which a decade or two ago usually considered only important Modernists such as I.M. Pei, Minoru Yamasaki or Charlie Gwathmey for new commissions, has decided for the first time in five decades to build a genuinely Traditional building. In that decision, they are joined by colleges and universities all around the country, some of whom are also tearing down or recladding their Modernist buildings. Some are doing that for aesthetic reasons, some because their Modernist buildings require too much maintenance, and some for both reasons.
A recent article in the Harvard Crimson said,
“The decades-long debate over whether Mather House or the Leverett House towers holds the dubious distinction of being the ugliest residence on campus may have just been settled once and for all—thanks to the opening of One Western Avenue, Harvard’s newest, and perhaps most hideous, graduate school housing unit.”The title of the article was, Snap, Yo’ Momma’s Uglier than One Western Avenue.
The architect of One Western Avenue is also the chair of the urban design department at the Harvard School of Design (HSD). It’s believed this is one of several actions by the HSD faculty and administration that led Harvard President Lawrence Summers to recently snub the school while deciding what to do about the enormous campus expansion he’s planning on the other side of the Charles River from the main campus.
The new section of the campus will eventually be as big as the old campus is now. To the consternation of the HSD, it seems that every Harvard department except the HSD is represented on the committees studying the expansion. Naturally, the school’s architects, landscape architects and urban designers think they are the faculty whose advice is most needed, and they publicly complained in the Boston Globe. (To see the article, click here.)
What has brought us to the situation in which the President of Harvard University avoids his own design faculty (rated number one in America) when he wants design advice? Plain and simple, it’s the result of too many bad new places made and endorsed by the faculty, accompanied by an ideological stance among the architectural establishment and its educators that is simply out of step with the culture at large.
President Summers doesn’t want a polemical statement: he wants an open-minded examination of how to best expand Harvard. He wants to know what will lead to the best result, and evidently feels he won’t get that from his own faculty.
This ideological rift between the leaders of the architectural profession and the rest of society is a new phenomenon. When Harvard brought Walter Gropius from Germany to run the architecture school before World War II, he was embraced by Harvard, Boston and much of the American establishment. Gropius set up a seminar program for Fortune 500 leaders that led to built results such as Lever House and the Seagram Building on Park Avenue and the Prudential Tower in the Back Bay. The New York Times, the Boston Globe, Time and Fortune lauded them. Harvard itself hired Gropius to build on its campus, and his firm The Architects Collaborative became the largest and most important firm in New England.
Architects like Gropius were in the vanguard of that significant cultural change. Architects now, while saying that they are promoting the new and the different, are actually fighting for things to remain the same.
New and different were the buzzwords of Virginia Woolf in 1910, and Gropius in 1940. They are essential words in the philosophy of Modernism, which quintessentially sees itself as a force for change in a Traditional world. What is obviously different now is that Modernism is more than a hundred years old, and the dominant philosophy for the last fifty of those, if not longer. New and different today should mean something other than a Modernist monoculture. As expressed by the leaders of the HSD, it's the same old thing.
Almost a hundred years after the change described by Woolf, we are beginning to change just as radically again. This is not a rejection of Modernism, but it is as different from Modernism as Modernism was from the culture of our great-grandparents in the early 20th century.
This is exactly what most of society wants. Who opposes the change? Professional Modernists.
It is they who are afraid of the sort of evolution and change described by Virginia Woolf.
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» Is there anyhing there with which to disagree? from City Comforts Blog
John Massengale (with "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?") prompted Michael Blowhard to write about Massengale on Modernism which -- following a series of lengthy comments -- prompts me to visit (to start my re-investigation) the web site of the "Genius [Read More]
Tracked on Mar 21, 2004 9:21:53 PM
» From the TradArch list from Veritas et Venustas
On the TradArch list, an internet "forum for the discussion of the theory and practice of traditional architecture," I wrote the following:This all relates to the larger culture, not just architecture. Western culture is inchoately, and often unconscio... [Read More]
Tracked on Jul 14, 2004 5:47:03 PM
I completely agree with your thought on curriculum and the Princeton campus. I worked in Princeton for a year and walked through the "gothic zone" daily to catch the "dinky" train. This are is wonderful,however,once you go to the perimeter ("anything goes" area)of the campus , you start seeing modern buildings that are not pleasing at all and sharply contrasting to the surrounding environment. For a campus rich in tradition and history, I can't understand why this form of architecture is preached and practiced.
Posted by: Scott Morton at Mar 18, 2004 4:56:39 PM
One of the best bloggers, Michael Blowhard at 2Blowhards.com, has joined the discussion.
Posted by: John Massengale at Mar 19, 2004 2:05:53 PM
Interesting post. My first reaction --- to get my bearings --- is to ask something like "Does Rem Koolhaas consider himself a Modernist? Do you consider Rem Koolhaas is a modernist?"
I ask to try to get some sense of perspective on what the term "Modernism" means to people. Your post does not appear (even at a second reading) to offer such a definition; perhaps you think it is self-evident. I do believe that I know what you, John Massengale, mean. I sorta think I do, anyway.
But some people, for example, use "Modernist" as if it fundamentally means anti-religious and they thus turn to buildings with columns as some sort of talisman to ward off evil spirits.
Posted by: David Sucher at Mar 19, 2004 2:14:20 PM
The flip answer is that Modernism is like pornography at the Supreme Court: you know it when you see it.
But that gives the idea that I don't like it, which really isn't true.
The fact is, in most people's minds, Modernism is in a style, and they DO know it when they see it. It's various combinations of flat roofs, lots of glass and metal, and an absence of traditional moldings and ornament.
Rem says Modernism is over, but show people buildings by Rem, and 99 out of 100 architects, and 999 out of a 1,000 non-architects, will tell you it's Modern.
I call it Modernism, rather than Modern, to distinguish it from modern (i.e., contemporary) and note that it is a style.
Does that answer the question?
Posted by: John Massengale at Mar 19, 2004 3:12:42 PM
It may be that as concerns architecture we are at a tipping point. However, the desire for the upper middle class, or leisure class, to find something more rustic, read genuine, has fairly long roots. Speaking of Princeton, think of Fitzgerald characters foolishly trying to live a "simple life" in the country of upstate New York. David Brooks' BoBo's are simply a more recent incarnation. Brooks somehow mistakenly sees these BoBo's as a sort of politically center vangard, a mistake that Paul Fussell, more humorous by far on the topic, would never make. I would note that my own experience in much poorer parts of this planet suggests that the desire for the "genuine" is often no more than a simple nostalgia, that would be derisively dismissed by those whose greatest desire is for the new.
As for architecture, however, please let there be diversity, even if it is only a somewhat enlightened nostalgia.
Posted by: dog1 at Mar 21, 2004 1:11:12 AM
I guess my problem is that "modernism" is NOT dominant outside cultural and overnment/corporate circles. Look at what is actually being built on the ground in American metropolitan areas: a kind of bizarre, cheapened traditionalism. Traditional "styles" already rule the country, so why is our built environment so bad? For every Pritzker Prize winner, there are 10,000 builders of "Georgian Colonials" or (out here) "Spanish arts and craft" houses. Even the commercial, outside the realm of the industrial big boxes, is generally "traditional" in a weak form.
I enjoy your essays a lot, but I really think the bigger threats to the American built environment include: 1. site planning/urban planning issues somewhat independent of "style" (David's Three Simple Rules) and 2. The horrible bastardization of traditional architecture and construction by the very people who build such architecture. For every Poundbury, there are thousands of ersatz designs that cater to people's nostalgia without really creating a very interesting or attractive place.
Just a few thoughts. :) Enjoy your posts a lot!
Posted by: Brian Miller at Mar 22, 2004 4:29:00 PM
Perhaps traditional architecture is so bad because there arent any schools really teaching it. Apart from ND and Miami, really where else can you go to learn classical and traditional architecture well? That and the fact that the architecture students dont demand it, they think they'll be the next Corbu, so demand "modern" education. They dont take traditional architecture seriously, dont study it hard, dont learn its intricacies and rules, and then when out in the real market looking for work, dont know how to build it at all.
So we are left with a traditional architecture that is either built by architects that havent a lick of classical training, or by builders who havent any training at all. So there's no suprise that we have classical pediments so bastardized, so poorly detailed and executed in almost every instance that the common man comes to see traditionalism as so poor and ugly that modernism looks good.
Posted by: Boots at Mar 23, 2004 11:18:37 AM
"So there's no suprise that we have classical pediments so bastardized, so poorly detailed and executed in almost every instance that the common man comes to see traditionalism as so poor and ugly that modernism looks good."
Of course, as bad as this is, modernism depends even more on "excellence" to work at all-even for object buildings in space (where I like modernism-a good Meier villa on a rural lot is a beautiful thing :) )
I see the problem especially being the loss of traditional craftsmanship and materials. In a country of 300 million "consumers" I'm not sure there are enough resources or enough patience for such values. Cheap manufactured buildings can meet the "needs" of our society even if those needs are unsatisfactory and destructive.
We can only hope that education can lead to more interest in "quality." Observing what local elites build in California's outer suburbs and rural counties, though, I'm not sure this is occurring. (You know the situation is dire when wealthy people's custom homes are WORSE than the tract builder designs. Poorly proportioned, bad workmanship, poor use of materials. Ugh.)
Posted by: Brian Miller at Mar 23, 2004 12:36:30 PM
...dashed through your blog while googling and must say I think I share your feelings.
To this native the new Seattle library has no grace or beauty -- why would anyone want it -- impulsively? instinctively?
Probably group think, les moutons, but these sheep need to see real meadows
mosey to Europe and git some education.
Although an agnostic, I go to church in France -- for the architecture.
Re: movies, I didn't see My Father's Glory, (Ives Roberts redux of Pagnol)
It's so beyond Citizen Kane et all the techno spectaculars of the last ten years.
Best of luck, folks, storming the huge machines of modernity.
Little of it has appeal, but I do think Gehry is exceptional, having the ability to institutionalize flights of fancy.
In America you can find individual examples of beautiful structures, but has anyone found a beautiful city?
I haven't for 40 years.
Posted by: thom gunn at Oct 13, 2005 12:50:44 PM
2) Beautiful cities?
You can start with these three: New York, Charleston and Savannah.
And there are many beautiful towns.
Posted by: john massengale at Oct 13, 2005 11:39:33 PM
Look at photographs from any list of the 20 ugliest American colleges, and you find a compendium of the style known as Collegiate Modernist. Look at any list of the 20 most beautiful campuses, and you find Collegiate Gothic and Georgian. The public has spoken. If only more architects would heed, and realize that great architecture (based on logic, geometry and proportions) is just as possible within traditional idioms as within the increasingly played-out Modernist. Ironically, doesn't Princeton's Whitman College seem more daring and unorthodox today than Harvard's One Western Avenue, despite Frank Gehry's self-serving curse?
Posted by: Nathaniel Foye at Feb 2, 2009 1:24:34 PM
I stumbled into your blog and find myself totally agreeing with you.
You are quite sane!
I am sick of the orthodoxy prevalent now and nostalgia for modernist dogma that was proven as failed 30+ years ago.
If it's so formulaic and "easy" to design traditional architecture, how come most current attempts are abysmal disasters?
Posted by: Jack Franzen at Jan 4, 2010 8:51:43 PM
I like this blog post. A lot of interesting points, and I'd like to read more about Whitman College, but... "sexually ambiguous"?
Posted by: Kristian Hoff-Andersen at Nov 1, 2010 1:00:29 PM
If you read the writings of Woolf and her circle, I think you'll agree.
Posted by: John Massengale at Nov 1, 2010 1:29:23 PM