Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Dangers of Architectural Positivism

How tiresomely moralistic will the twentieth century's arts appear to our grandchildren's grandchildren! The first half of that strange era devoted its time exhaustively to erecting tediously "truthful" structures, while the second, discovering one could only go so far contemplating the bare reality of a building's skeleton, decided that there was no truth to begin with, and then spent the rest of its time sermonizing like a Puritan about the subject. On the one hand, this gave the profession enough self-doubt to allow some of its brighter sons to start noodling around with the past, and to discover it was a fine thing; on the other hand, it gave us Frank Gehry, that dealer in flashy junk heaps, a sort of superficial Dinocretes writ larger than Vitruvius could have ever imagined.

Dinocrates the Formalist was a flashy cove who, in the first instance of starchitect branding, wandered into Alexander the Great's camp dressed as Hercules and flourishing his plans to fashion Mount Athos into a gigantic recumbent sculpture of his would-be patron. A little city rested in the palm of the colossus's hand. When asked how he'd get water and amenities into the place, he said he had no idea. The ancient Roman architectural writer Vitruvius could be, at times, a bit of a gloomy Gus--or Augustus--whose back-to-basics canons don't always match up with the occasional, agreeable messiness of later Roman classicism, but in retelling this story he did have a point. Things have to work and be beautiful at the same time. In my own mind, the best architects always have a bit of both the practical, conservative Vitruvius and the extravagant dreamer Dinocrates. Unfortunately, we have spent the last century wobbling from one extreme to the other, while at the same time managing to have Vitruvian rigor without Vitruvian decorum, elegance and tradition, and Dinocritean extravagance without its attendant beauty, weirdness and wonder.

Of course, I'd take Gehry over Modernist bores like Corbusier and Mies any day, whose own purportedly practical aesthetic frequently didn't work very well, relying on fancy-pants technology to solve problems inherited common-sense could have fixed from the get-go. Flat roofs are certainly possible, for instance, in our brave new world, but they're going to leak a lot more than a pitched roof, especially in Michigan.

Our Postmodern malaise ultimately goes back to the shiny, happy future promised us by the Modernist movement more than a century ago, which turned out to be public housing. An item by R.R. Reno on a new--and apparently unsatisfactory--biography of the founding genius of Modernism, Le Corbusier, brings up some of these ghosts back out into the light, and brings to mind some of the core problems with this manner of building:

...with the structural beams of Le Corbusier’s egotistical vision exposed, the biography provides readers with the useful occasion to look back on modernism through the eyes of one of its high priests.

Modernism in art and literature is best understood as a drive to bring everything into the open. It reflected a broad rejection of manners and ornament, a determined effort to tear away what Edmund Burke called “the decent drapery of life” so that we could see life as it “really is.”
It is often wondered aloud why we cannot create a new "modern" Catholic style, a true expression of our own era. Partially it is because of this intellectual, positivistic bankruptcy at the root of the modernistic style. Continuity must be re-established first before any progress or development may be made.

Though I'd also say that the classical experiments of the last forty or so years are just as "modern," if not more so, than whatever bizarro koolade Rem Koolhouse is peddling. Perhaps something new and different, yet traditional, will spring from its roots, like Goodhue's Gothic sprung from the earlier work of Pugint, Scot and Bodley, or how Comper's unified eclecticism came from everything he saw, but we have to start somewhere, and there is still so much to learn, in terms of design and craftsmanship. The architects working today have the hardest job--which is bringing, effectively, a whole world back to life. And as this culture was brought down not by obsolescence but by willful cruelty, this is hardly archaeologism.

Perhaps the modernistic style might be baptized, but much that made it distinctive, would be washed away in the progress. One problem is its fixation, almost Gnostic, with disembodied ideas and concepts. A painting cannot be simply about paint, pace Rothko; and while a building must stand up, it need not solely be about standing up. Certainly the classical and Gothic traditions have that aspect, as far back as Vitruvius and as recently as Viollet-le-Duc, though at its best, such mechanics were stepping-stones to something better and wilder. Alberti considered the intellectual lineaments of a building something mediated by the structure and ornament of its exterior; and while Pugin--another gloomy Gus, if perhaps a necessary one--frequently railed against what he saw as dishonesty in buildings, he never hesitated to plaster his own designs with exuberant tilework and gilt. Whenever architecture has been reduced to simply being about architecture, it has suffered--whether under the dry-as-dust reforming classicist Abbé Laugier during the eighteenth century, or Mies and Corbu in the twentieth. But this positivism is a dead-end:
The same impulse of stripping away conceit characterized modern architecture. Le Corbusier famously said that a house ought to be “a machine for living.” The idea was not to make a living room into a miniature factory floor. Instead, Le Corbusier wanted to remove decoration and expose the “real purpose” of buildings. As the slogan of architectural modernism proclaims, “Form follows function.”

Le Corbusier’s work gives good examples. If a roof provides shelter, then we need to see it sheltering. Take a look at the Centre Le Corbusier in Zurich. It is a whimsical, charming building that is dominated by a roof that shouts, “I am a roof.” The same is true of his famous church, Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp. The structure is topped with a massively overhung roof that says, “I shelter and protect.”

[A very limited sort of truth this is, exclusively moral rather than philosophical or symbolic, with no room for anagogy whatsoever. Even a church is more than a machine for liturgy. --MGA].

The same holds for other features of buildings. If windows are for the sake of bringing in light, then let them be large-paned, industrial windows that make no excuses for their function. If steel girders hold the building up, then do not hide them. If concrete pillars provide structural support, then expose their roles.

Again and again, the basic principle of modernism is the same: strip and expose. It fit with a larger social desire: be done with inherited social mores and hierarchies. Indeed, encouraged by various forms of progressive political ideology, modernism presumed that the decent drapery of life serves only to disguise the deadening, authoritarian desire of the past to control our futures. If we strip and expose, the modernists promised, then our latent, universal humanity will burst forth and flourish in the shining light of pure, unadulterated reality.
Reno, on the other hand, reminds us people tend not to look very good with their clothes off. For that matter, to take the analogy further, the face of a building these days is a bit more like skin over muscle and bone. Skin conceals skeletons, and skeletons are not particularly beautiful, nor terribly honest, one way or the other. Structure may be dramatized in a certain way in design, but it is mediated, and often transcended or even occasionally inverted, by ornament, heraldry and symbol. A majestic door needs a surround not just because of some practical reason--though it may shield the rain as a nice side-effect--but because its decorum and purpose require it as the central entry into a building. Indeed, once the Modernists figured out it wasn't always possible to display actual structure on the skins of their buildings, they often retreated to depicting an iconographic or fictive structure reminiscent of some, though not all, subspecies of classicism. You cannot escape the past.

But there is much more to this debate than the relative limitations of structure, real or symbolic. Architecture is more than just about architecture, just as painting is not just about paint. The greatest buildings have often been those that deliberately stretch or defy our sense of dramatized structure--from the fairyland of Gothic to Borromini's own playful classicism, though such defiance always had a meaning and compositional purpose. Postmodernism lacks the order to throw such clever compositional subversions or shifts into high relief, while its puritanical ancestor Modernism, as we see, has no room for such necessary and unique departures. One is reminded of Chesterton:
Mr. McCabe thinks me a slave because I am not allowed to believe in determinism. I think Mr. McCabe a slave because he is not allowed to believe in fairies. But if we examine the two vetoes we shall see that his is really much more of a pure veto than mine. The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle. Poor Mr. McCabe is not allowed to retain even the tiniest imp, though it might be hiding in a pimpernel.
Set this description against Reno's own critique of Corbu and the Modernists, and the parallels are stunning:
Of course, it turns out that design is not like physics and physiology. You cannot make people free and natural and virtuous by forcing them into “machines for living,” as the great (and failed) urban projects of the 1950s and 1960s repeatedly showed.

But reality never inconvenienced Le Corbusier and his generation. He was attracted to the image of science: mastery and technological power, the promise of objective, indefeasible truth, men in white lab coats fiercely committed to stripping away illusions. Like the Marxists of the day, he needed the rhetoric of objectivity to sanctify his impulse toward destruction. In his own mind, Le Corbuser was not demolishing traditional views in order to satisfy personal needs. Quite the contrary. He was a noble scientist of construction, serving “the future” and obeying the “objective truths of urban planning,” devoted always to “the intrinsic principles of architecture.”

The self-deception was massive. Any reader of Le Corbusier: A Life will be struck by the atmosphere of violence, destruction, and desire for power that animated the architect. “What exists today is intolerable!” Le Corbusier writes to a friend. Again and again he attacks established “bourgeois taste.” He hates the “swine.” At age thirty, he writes, “You must forge your own weapons for the life you want to have. You must make yourself a superior being.”

Weber unfailingly provides letter after tedious letter in which Le Corbusier vents his spleen, often in close conjunction with fantasies of erotic abandonment. The past is sheer bondage and empty conformity. It produces nothing but the repression. Le Corbusier, therefore, assigns himself the role of moral aristocrat (someone had to). He alone is the architect who knows that what must be destroyed so that something new and humane can be built and experienced.

Of course, the ordinary man is in bondage to conventional views. But we cannot allow delay! The world must be made anew! Men must be forced to be free! Le Corbusier’s vision of the modern city provides the clearest example of his lust for destruction, always for the sake of millennial renewal. His most famous plan was for Paris. It involved bulldozing most of the city, and remaking it to accord with his principles. The result would have been horrifying: Co-op City on the Seine.
The other thing Reno notes, as he rounds out his article, is, whatever theories the Modernist spouted, their work is simply, brutally, unapologetically ugly, and for an architecture of the future, does not age well. I visited Corbu's house on the outskirts of Paris and found it surprisingly run-down for a building less than a century old. Its distant descendent, the United Nations Headquarters on New York's East Side, bright and shiny in its day, now resembles, from the inside, anyway, a heroic-scale interpretation of a Midwestern high-school circa 1964.

One is reminded of the old joke abou the French philosopher--“We know it works well in practice, but what about in theory?” The Burkean apothegm mentioned earlier in the article is very fitting here. Traditional architecture works because it has had centuries-worth of road-testing to hone it, and because while human taste does change, human nature doesn't.

Traditional architecture--whether classic or Gothic, Romanesque or Roman--has always had room for both Vitruvius and Dinocrates. Modernism and Postmodernism has often managed to bring the worst out of both of them in serial. We can do better.