Posts tagged with "Modernism":
César Pelli, the world-renowned architect who passed away in July, will likely be remembered for his largest and most recognizable commissions: the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, the National Museum of Art in Osaka, and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, among others. But unlike many buildings designed by "starchitects" these days, some of Pelli's most compelling and controversial work has fallen by the wayside of mainstream industry discourse.
In 1968, municipal leaders in the architectural Mecca of Columbus, Indiana commissioned Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) to devise a masterplan that would reverse the deterioration of the city’s downtown area. Among other recommendations, SOM highlighted the need for a new shopping complex in the central part of the city—a project that would help to enliven streets and reduce consumers’ reliance on less centralized malls in the suburbs and exurbs. The city set aside two square blocks for the project, along with three additional blocks for parking, and waited for investors to take on the venture.
No bites came. After waiting in vain for property developers to take over the project, the Irwin Management Company, controlled by local businessman and head of the Columbus-based Cummins Engine Company, J. Irwin Miller, bought the lot. In order to build a state-of-the-art shopping center, Miller hired an architect still in the incipient stages of his career, a young Argentine-born man with six completed projects under his belt. César Pelli soon arrived in Indiana and made several suggestions regarding the composition of the center, including that a significant portion of the site be designed as a community gathering space.
Between 1972 and 1973, Pelli built a complex consisting of two main buildings. The first building, the Courthouse Center, named for its proximity to the historic Columbus Courthouse, housed conventional shopping mall. The other building, called “The Commons,” was connected to the first by a single glass envelope and housed a 63,000-square-foot, multi-level public space. Under 38-foot-tall ceilings, Pelli designed a 2-acre park that he compared to Italian piazzas, complete with benches, planters, and playgrounds for children. The bronze-tinted glass reflected enough light to prevent passive heat gain but also allowed for sweeping views of the street from inside. The atrial space became a popular venue for public events, with enormous structural elements and sloping roofs that towered above visitors. As locals increasingly frequented The Commons, the adjacent mall assumed “The Commons Mall” as a colloquial nickname.
The Commons represented Pelli’s first contribution to Columbus’ built landscape. The building stood alongside great modernist masterpieces by the likes of I.M. Pei, Harry Weese, and Robert Venturi—all of whom were commissioned through an altruistic program established by Miller’s foundation. The industrialist persuaded city officials to hire architects from a list of five blue-chip designers that he had assembled, agreeing to pay their top-dollar fees himself. Miller believed that high-quality buildings would help attract investment and talented engineers to the town, both of which would bolster the Cummins Engine Company’s business prospects.
César Pelli, in fact, had first visited Columbus in 1956 to tour the Eero Saarinen-designed Miller House, which was still under construction. Completed at a time when much of his portfolio consisted of buildings in coastal states, The Commons was also Pelli’s first project in the Midwest. He would go on to accept several commissions in the region during the following decades, primarily for institutional or corporate projects in urban centers and college towns. The Commons was the architect’s only built structure in the state of Indiana until 2011, when he finished the Advanced Manufacturing Center of Excellence, also in Columbus.
With its bulky, monolithic facades and expansive glass curtain walls, The Commons was viewed by some as a precursor to Pelli’s Pacific Design Center, which he finished in Los Angeles in 1975. The latter achieved far greater renown than the former, but their shared design cues are unmistakable. As Pelli’s career advanced and he reached the upper tiers of architectural prominence, his affinity for seamless glass designs gave way to a material approach that often included both glass and stonework—a stylistic choice more characteristic of the postmodern era. Many of his 21st-century commissions signaled a return to the glass curtain wall, a medium that has achieved greater flexibility and versatility since the 1970s. The architectural significance of The Commons weathered many of these fluctuations, so much so that it played host to the Pritzker Prize ceremony in 1994.
Eventually, in the first years of the 21st century, it became clear that The Commons and its adjacent mall were facing an upward battle against deteriorating physical conditions and increasing maintenance costs. The Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation bought the property in 2005 and began to mull over strategies for redevelopment, ultimately concluding that the retail space would have to be torn down. As part of the plan, The Commons was also almost entirely demolished in 2008, leaving only its steel skeleton and Chaos 1, a site-specific kinetic installation by sculptor Jean Tinguely. The building that replaced it, still called The Commons, was designed by the Boston-based firm Koetter Kim.
In a city where architectural heritage is both a huge point of pride for residents and the lifeblood of a burgeoning local tourist economy, Pelli’s building is one of few major structures ever to be dismantled. Much like César Pelli himself, it lives on today not only through photographs, drawings, and individual memories, but through an architectural legacy that extends well beyond walls.
“The construction of this extraordinary work of architecture will support IU’s growth in one of IU’s newest schools,” said IU president Michael A. McRobbie in a statement, “and will serve as an enduring symbol of the legacy of generosity of Sidney and Lois Eskenazi, and an enduring symbol of the very founding of architectural modernism.” Established in 2016, the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design combines 14 areas of study in IU’s art, architecture, design, and merchandising programs. The new building is slated for completion in June 2021.
Here's another view. 👀 pic.twitter.com/uVXzDg3opH— Indiana University Bloomington (@IUBloomington) August 9, 2019
Was it an ironic coincidence or part of the modern movement’s DNA that the heroic architectural avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s was accompanied, promoted, and memorialized by historians even as protagonists like Walter Gropius vaunted breaking the shackles of history? Despite protests to the contrary, the key 19th-century concept of historicism—the idea of the spirit of the age as form-giver—was inherited by a generation of historians and polemicists. Gropius found the first of his genealogically inclined historian champions in the German art historian Nikolaus Pevsner, who published Pioneers of the Modern Movement: From William Morris to Walter Gropius in English in 1936 with the Museum of Modern Art.
By then, Le Corbusier had already found his James Boswell in art historian Sigfried Giedion, a fellow Swiss. Giedion collaged Le Corbusier’s work in the form of both images and paraphrased slogans into his first historical manifesto in 1928 with Bauen in Frankreich, Bauen in Eisen, Bauen in Eisenbeton. The book took the tradition of Wöfflinian art history into a millenarian manifesto mode with its use of startling transhistorical photographic juxtapositions.
For decades, Giedion would serve as secretary and scribe of CIAM, the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne, founded the same year that Bauen in Frankreich was published—even as he continued to lecture, publish, and compose novel illustrated volumes in which he inscribed the present in an ever lengthening historical trajectory that ultimately took him back to the prehistoric. It has always been held, however, that his most lasting and influential work, Space, Time, and Architecture, published in 1941, derived as the concrete result of the first of his many trips to the United States to give public lectures at Harvard between 1938 and 1939, the very years the Bauhaus masters were settling into teaching positions in Cambridge and Chicago. Like Pevsner’s Pioneers, Giedion’s book, which was also originally published in English, has remained continuously in print for over 75 years, exerting an enormous influence even as it has transitioned from being read as a source for the history of modern architecture to being analyzed over and over again as an artifact of the modern movement in the historiographic turn in architectural history of the last 20 years. But Reto Geiser’s book demands that we take a longer look at the historian himself.
Giedion has indeed now found his own historians. In 1989, soon after his papers were organized and opened to researchers in Zurich, a first intellectual biography—simply titled Sigfried Giedion—was published by the collection’s then-curator, Sokratis Georgiadis. Now Reto Geiser’s Giedion in America is both an homage to a fellow Swiss historian’s mastery of integrating images and text and a subtle reflection on the important role that America—as a place, idea, and culture—played in the formation of one of the most influential intellectual projects in 20th-century architectural history.
Geiser organizes his analysis less in a strict chronological fashion than as a series of four extended essays on different interpretations on the theme of Geidion as a figure “in between” countries and cultures. In the process, he weaves together cultural influences that go far beyond any previous analyses of Giedion’s involvement with American intellectual life, while also underscoring a number of paradoxes and ironies of his career. The first of these is language, since Giedion’s less than perfect command of spoken English contributed to the innovations of his visual layouts, first in slide lectures and then in the meticulous care with which he worked on the mock-ups of his page layouts—many of which are illustrated in Geiser’s book—in collaboration with book designers like Herbert Bayer and Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, the handmaiden to the readability of his text.
No less does it set the stage for the chapter “In Between Approaches,” which analyzes Giedion’s engagement with the published works of established figures of American thought such as philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and cultural historian Lewis Mumford. Indeed, the dialogue between Mumford and Giedion in establishing the American contribution to the development of modern architecture is the subject of some of the most consequential passages in a book that zigzags between a rich orchestration of information about this “art historian’s central role in a global network of modern architects” and astute analysis of his evolution as a historical thinker. This is one of the chief contributions of Geiser’s study.
On the Swiss side, the most interesting revelations concern Giedion’s frustration with failing to ever find a position in the academic establishment in Zurich, despite the prestige he held at Harvard. This plagued Giedion throughout his career.
Geiser is the first biographer of Giedion to give full attention to the genesis and impact of his fascination with the art and architectural expressions of prehistoric and pre-Hellenic cultures, from the cave paintings discovered at Lascaux in 1940 to Sumerian ziggurats and Egyptian pyramids. These fascinations were first honed and presented for the general audience attending his 1957 Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and then expanded into The Eternal Present: The Beginnings of Art, a two-volume work. But Giedion scarcely lost himself in the dawn of time—even if his ever-patient art historian wife Carola Giedion-Welcker claimed that it took him for a time away from “all architectural problems.”
One of the most fascinating relationships that Geiser takes up is Giedion’s relationship to Marshall McLuhan, an earlier admirer of the historian, who understood from the outset the relationship of the medium of the book (or the slide lecture) to a message about the historical dimension of even the present moment. Appropriately enough, Giedion’s relationship to McLuhan, to György Kepes and the early years of the MIT Media Lab, and the creation of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard—for which Le Corbusier would supply his only building on American soil—come together in Geiser’s final chapter, “In Between Disciplines.” Not only does this expand our understanding of Giedion’s role into the postwar period, but equally of Giedion as a historian protagonist as important to the evolution of media studies as he was to modern architecture and its history. Despite the numerous chronological backtrackings and the repetition of salient quotes that mar the text, Geiser has shed light on facets of Giedion’s long trajectory that recast a figure whose books were perhaps too long ago moved to an upper shelf with other college texts.
Barry Bergdoll is a professor of art history at Columbia University and recipient of the 2019 Cattedra Borromini professorship at the Accademia di Architettura in Mendrisio, Switzerland.