Posts tagged with "Tom Wolfe":

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Architects can still learn from Tom Wolfe

You probably know that author Tom Wolfe died last week at the age of 88. Wolfe was illustrious for his acerbic, lyrical, ever-insightful commentary, and for pioneering the so-called “New Journalism.” He penned numerous best-selling books, from the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff to Bonfire of the Vanities, and A Man in Full. But you may be unaware that Wolfe, also famed for his flamboyant personality and attire, was an unrepentant hater of Modernist architecture, with its pared down, detached, ever-functional ethos. His most notorious rant on the subject was From Bauhaus to Our House, published in 1981, inciting immediate backlash in the architecture establishment. In just the first few pages, the essay took mighty, sweeping swings at a movement that he dismissed as boring, unsophisticated and oh-so utilitarian. A few pithy examples of his boiling prose are below:
Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement parts wholesale distribution warehouse.” Every new $900,000 summer house in the north woods of Michigan or on the shore of Long Island has so many pipe railings, ramps, hob-tread metal spiral stairways, sheets of industrial plate glass, banks of tungsten-halogen lamps, and white cylindrical shapes, it looks like an insecticide refinery. I once saw the owners of such a place driven to the edge of sensory deprivation by the whiteness & lightness & leanness & cleanness & bareness & sparseness of it all.”
“Every great law firm in New York moves without a sputter of protest into a glass-box office building with concrete slab floors and seven-foot-ten-inch-high concrete slab ceilings and plasterboard walls and pygmy corridors.”
Architecture’s defenders immediately swung back. While critic Paul Goldberger agreed that the glut of “puritanical” glass and steel skyscrapers and “wild” and often kitschy structures replacing the city’s historic fabric needed a rethink, he did not care for Wolfe’s bombastic, indiscriminate criticisms and prescriptions. Wrote Goldberger in the New York Times Book Review: “The problem, I think - and here we get to the essence of what is wrong with this book–is that Tom Wolfe has no eye... He does not see, to take but one of so many examples, that Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building is a lush and extraordinarily beautiful object. He understands Seagram only as part of Mies van der Rohe's theorizing, which means he understands it only as a prototype for a universal architectural style, and not as a unique and even profound work of art.” In other words, Wolfe, obsessed with Modernism’s doctrines, lumps Seagram with the rest of the Modernist pile, and misses so many of its finer points. Goldberger, while acknowledging architecture’s need to be comprehensible to most, hated Wolfe's black and white view of buildings. “The obligation architecture does have, as a practical art, to embrace certain conventions, to be readable in some fashion by anyone who uses it, in no way means that it must be understood in every way, on every level, by all who come in contact with it. There is such a thing as levels of meaning, but Mr. Wolfe seems not to accept this.” Virtually all of Goldberger’s contemporaries published similarly scathing rejections, and Wolfe’s reputation in the architecture community remains poor at best, particularly after Wolfe’s more recent crusade against Brad Cloepfil’s pared-down restructuring of Edward Durell Stone’s gaudy, cheerily anti-International Style 2 Columbus Circle, AKA, the “Lollipop Building.” Goldberger is right that Wolfe had a better ear than eye, calling it "acute and finely tuned."  Yes, Wolfe accurately predicted the (at least temporary) demise of the Modernist movement, which by the time he published the book had reigned almost unchallenged for decades and was in many ways, as he put it, “exhausted.” But through the benefit of hindsight it appears that not only was Wolfe’s argument lacking a great deal of architectural nuance and history, but it also failed to anticipate Modernism’s resurgence. The movement needed reinvention—through greater sensitivity to site and occupant, through a reignited embrace of imagination and technology, for example— not a wholesale tear down. It needed to soften its dogma and recommit to its abstract artistry and formal skill. Wolfe was wrong to mock Modernism as purely utilitarian, and to let its worst abuses speak for the entire genre. And it was unfair for him to blindly abhor any style that eschewed ornament. His attack on Louis Kahn’s Yale Art Gallery as resembling an “underground parking garage,” and yet another form of “worker housing” is just one of Wolfe’s many lyrical but crude misrepresentations of the movement’s deep art and soul. Still, Wolfe’s ear should not be underestimated, especially his still-timely attacks of the profession’s often unrepentant elitism. What Wolfe got right—and it’s a criticism that still rings true today—is his skewering of what can be an insular, snotty, tone-deaf culture, from the almost religious zealotry of the early days of Modernism to now. He ceaselessly mocked the “theoryspeak of contemporary architecture,” which still renders the profession opaque to most outsiders. Equally repulsed by most of postmodernism, Wolfe especially disdained archibabble from the likes of Meier, Gwathmey, Eisenman and Graves. He singled out Graves’ talk of “the multiple meanings inherent in codes of abstraction” and “a level of participation that involves the reciprocal act of ourselves with the figure of the building.” In other words, he nailed the circular, incomprehensible beginnings of an academic speak (and echo chamber mentality) that still haunts the field today. Many of his contemporaries agreed. Reyner Banham, writing about Bauhaus to Our House in the London Review of Books, noted of Modernist architecture: “Not only is it a closed sub-culture, it is also by now a very well-entrenched academic establishment. “ Hence, he adds, the unwillingness to let it evolve. And James McCown, writing in Architecture Boston, noted a few years later that Wolfe’s writing “singles out architects as having more than a whiff of cultural superiority about them. If you doubt that, sit in on a critique at the Harvard Graduate School of Design or MIT’s School of Architecture+ Planning.” Agree or disagree with Wolfe’s architectural taste, it’s important to recognize how his keen cultural antenna—his amazing ear— can still contribute to the current debates about our profession. Wolfe’s cultural commentary, more than anything, was his greatest gift. Wouldn’t it be great if it could help us clean up shop in a culture that badly needs it?
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Wines, Gang, Sorkin Among Honorees at 2013 National Design Awards

When an artist begins,      they try to bury him with neglect. When he gains a small foothold,      they try to bury him with criticism. When he becomes more established,      they try to bury him with covetous disdain. When he becomes exceptionally successful,      they try to bury him with dismissals as irrelevant. And finally, all else failing      they try to bury him with honors! This is how James Wines of SITE, quoting Jean Cocteau, accepted his 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum at their National Design Awards. Wines joined a 'Lifetime Achievement' group that includes Richard Saul Wurman, Bill Moggridge, Paolo Solari, the Vignelli's, Dan Kiley, and Frank Gehry. Last night's awards program was a special one as the Museum—led by its new director, Caroline Baumann, and an indefatigable team—worked throughout the government shutdown of the least two weeks to put on a spatular gala that gave awards to designers that included Janette Sadik-Khan, Michael Sorkin, Studio Gang Architects, Paula Scher, Aidlin Darling Design, and Margie Ruddick. These figures each asked a special commentator to introduce them. Theaster Gates presented Jeanne Gang from Chicago and Michael Kimmelman said that Michael Sorkin was the first person he spoke to when he decided to be the New York Times architecture critic. Sorkin accepted his award for "Design Mind" with a powerful tribute—as only he can—to his late friends and intellectual mentors, Lebbeus Woods and Marshall Berman. Al Gore presented the TED Talks with an award and finally it was left to Tom Wolfe to introduce James Wines, who he said had created the "first really new architecture after modernism" in his famous Best Stores which "added nothing to the architecture" only re-arranged what was already" as in his Best 'Notch' project in suburban Sacramento, California. Wolfe claimed that Wines wanted to replace "plop art" like formal plaza sculptures by Henry Moore and Isamu Noguchi with a new form that put the art onto the architecture. Its about time that Sorkin, who is our greatest living architecture critic to not have been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, and Wines, who is not a registered architect, to be given an award as a great architect.  
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Postmodernism Post-Denial

Postmodernism, the exuberant, eclectic, and ironic style born out of the death of the modernist dream in the 1960s and 70s, was the subject of the two-day-long "Reconsidering Postmodernism" conference last weekend, presented by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. The two marathon days of lectures, panels, and videos was filled with the original rock stars of the postmodernist world, including architects Robert A. M. Stern and Michael Graves, theorists Charles Jencks and Tom Wolfe, urbanists Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and a small but passionate younger crowd who couldn’t help but revel in the rambunctiousness of their vaunted forebearers. The beginning of postmodernism, an active topic at the conference, was assigned multiple dates. It was either with the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe low-income houses in 1972, which Charles Jencks defines as “the day modernism died,” with the publication of Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture in 1966, perhaps with the opening of Morris Lapidus’ first bodacious beach resort in 1949, or it even could have been at the beginnings of modernism itself, when hairline cracks in the modernist utopian vision had already begun to form. There were even Italian precedents: in the 1950s Torre Velasca, designed by Ernesto Rogers in Milan, and the Venice Architectural Biennale of 1980. Something about the conference compelled people’s interest in the big, chronically under-discussed themes of architecture. Andres Duany championed a broader classical canon, through his 175 (and counting…) orders of classicism. A discussion of stylistic evolution was continually present, causing architectural writer Witold Rybczynski to come to the conclusion at one point that taste is more important than style. “This is something we don’t discuss, but should” was a phrase uttered by many over both days. The conference showed that postmodernism is still controversial, but also that it is extremely alive today, proving to be a resilient and long lasting force in architecture. Reasons for this were debated. Barry Bergdoll, the Phillip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA, asked if postmodernism was an attitude or a movement, suggesting the possible eternality of the mode, and that PoMo is not only analogous with the Mannerist or Hellenistic phases of architectural history, but actually the same thing. If modernism discarded everything that came before it, and began from “level zero,” as Gropius said it did, then postmodernism is letting everything flood back in, picking up where the world left off, and making a joke of it to lighten the mood. The “joke” of postmodernism was an important conference theme and recurred frequently. Humor mitigates the promotion of dogma, which was seen as a cause of modernism’s failure, and forces postmodernism to embrace its own flaws. Jokes also accept the world for what it is. As one conference-goer said, “The world isn’t as black and white as it used to be.” Humor was fantastically present over those two days. ICAA president Paul Gunther’s opening remarks on the morning of day one called postmodernism “A case of multiple personality disorders” before becoming a bit more serious and stating, correctly, that the purpose of the next two days was to “overcome the denial of postmodernism.” If not completely embraced by all in attendance, the conference at least succeeded in doing that. At the end of day two, with everything having been said, the final panel was oddly mellow and subdued. Perhaps nobody wanted to leave the reunion, or perhaps the gauntlet was being handed to the young people in the room, like Sam Jacob of the U.K. architecture firm F.A.T., architect and writer Jimmy Stamp, or any others of the wacky new generation of postmodernists.