Thoughts on Architecture, No Need To Begin the World Again

Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.
Daniel Burnham, Chicago architect. (1864-1912)

Arcade Interior, Cleveland
Arcade Interior, Cleveland

In a scene in the 1949 movie adaptation of the famous architecture novel The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, a tall, sleek modern high-rise is “adapted” by adding a Greek-column portico at the base. Not many architects would attempt to argue the merits of such a design.

The present day wouldn’t find many designing in either of the opposing styles individually.

The modern architect, if successful, will make his buildings into a signature of sorts as easily recognizable as a painting by Andy Warhol or a song by Cher. That recognizable appeal will be the facilitator of buildings that almost without fail will come to if only temporarily, lose their appeal as times, styles and tastes change. They could age to gain the status of Wright’s Guggenheim, or more likely meet the wrecking ball after the passage of a few short decades.

It’s hard to recognize greatness when we are so close to it. We readily accept the timeless qualities of certain styles of the past, yet rarely build in those styles. We look for signatures of our own time and space instead of seeking out the timeless qualities that connect us as well as define us.

The notion of the architect as an artist who must continuously create on a “tabula rasa” or blank slate is perhaps ideally suited to the modern United States and a disposable culture where few strive for a sense of permanence. Greatness, in modern times, is in the continual remaking, redesigning and reinventing. Even for a renowned building, an architect can hold out little hope that their building will be treasured by their grandchildren and subsequent generations. The value in longevity and permanence is ignored.

Architecture has been minimized into two camps, those large signatures we read about in the New Yorker and those smaller residential or commercial buildings that are as similar in Dallas as in Detroit.

Ours is a throw-away culture. With the exception of skyscrapers, the last decade that saw much striving for permanence in architecture was the 1930s. Today strip malls are replaced with shopping malls which are replaced by shopping centers before any style can be refined to the point of approaching possession of the timeless quality we call style. In the residential world, a building is lucky to approach half a century before it is too small, too large, too odd or ugly or simply outdated and replaced with a bigger, better, mega-mansion or condo high-rise. Even major architectural feats, many of which are major monuments by signature architects are replaced.

Guaranty Building, Buffalo, Louis Sullivan
Guaranty Building, Buffalo, Louis Sullivan

“Architecture,” John Wellborn Root wrote in 1888, “devotes itself to sensation making. Renaissance follows Renaissance so fast that the new birth never gets past the teething age, and dies before we know the color of its eyes or what its form and complexion would have been.”

In cities, some buildings that may have once have followed one fashion or another have fallen into disrepair are simply ignored. Few passers-by notice them except for the occasional architecture aficionado who wonders what architects and their financiers may have been thinking. Meanwhile, vacant lots, underutilized land, and other buildings wore away by use and time are left as such while buildings not thirty years in existence, enjoying a productive and profitable life and in good repair are replaced by a new idea for a better way–fashion. Repair is seen as inferior to replacement.

Thomas Paine said some centuries ago that we have it in our power to begin the world anew and beginning sometime shortly before World War II we as Americans decided to take full advantage of that power and continue to do so.

Evidence of this is seen in twisted aluminum structures of Frank Gehry. If Louis Sullivan made his mark by designing form around function, then Gehry would begin by disjoining form from function. There’s the art on one hand and the other the occupants that strain to find a way to fit into the small bit of function it can offer. In fact, the sloping curves of metal may even be independent of its function as a building as it has facilitated the acceleration of ice sheets into blades sliding toward pedestrians. *

Of course, only historical perspective will allow architects like Gehry to be judged fairly. His buildings and oddities like them may in time come to be treasured or despised. There may be a time when they can’t be demolished fast enough or remain continuously as significant parts of the cities they occupy. It does not seem they will ever be loved as practical buildings and any time in which the tightening of purse strings is required may lead to their demise.

Frank Ghery building at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland
Frank Gehry building at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland

His buildings may be loved as art, sculpture and significant parts of a landscape, but create a void yearning to be filled by practicality and economy. A curve may be the most interesting path between two points, but at some point we may ask who has time for that?

Having lived long enough to see pieces of several trends in architecture, I began to ask myself why is it necessary to continuously begin the world anew with a completely new style that would seem to get “better” only by further removing itself from the popular notion of what we think of as a building.

Can architecture have merit gained from building on the past? Can a successful building be one that is complimentary to the space it occupies? I don’t mean complimentary in the sense of Frank Lloyd Wrights “Fallingwater,” but complementary when it is in the midst of work by countless other architects as most buildings are. Most people do not have the luxury of living on several acres in a forested setting. Most buildings will not be built there.

Moreover, as we are now beginning to recognize, our disposable culture of which such architecture is a part of is placing us in a situation of great environmental danger. Buildings may become green, yet we must ask if a building designed to be replaced really so green. Certainly one architectural style can be as green as the next and pose no greater danger than the next, but now recognizing how limited some resources are and how far the bounds of our place in the ecology of the planet has been stretched it would seem that at some point we might want to begin again building with the intent of permanence.

Even beyond that, always striving for the new and unique, and recognizing the artist who starts with the blank slate as the achiever seems to remove the artist from the discipline in ways that would not be possible in other fields such as philosophy or literature. Literature may be divided into formats including poetry, novels and biographies yet unlike authors, architects are expected to work almost outside of all known categories, deconstructing, reconstructing and continually redefining the very basics and basis of what architecture is.

The Schermerhorn, Nashville, David M. Schwarz
The Schermerhorn, Nashville, David M. Schwarz

Certainly in fields that stand outside of the realm of art such as medicine or chemistry the work of preceding practitioners could never be ignored. Why then should many previous centuries of achievement and refinement of style be ignored in art, architecture or music?

To be certain, when Daniel Burnham tried to persuade Frank Lloyd Wright to promote a revival of Renaissance architecture, Wright refused. We can’t expect to eliminate the signatures created by Frank Lloyd Wright or Frank Gehry. We can’t take the architect out of the architect. Some who design and finance buildings will want this one-of-a-kind result. Just as the tradition of landscape painting continues to the present day, we have to recognize the value of tradition and the value of an architect working from tradition. The bulk of the buildings built will not be the Guggenheim (New York) and far fewer should try to be. That is not the only way to measure success in architecture. If Andrew Mellon had pursued an art-deco design for the National Gallery of Art, it is perceivable it would have been demolished and replaced long ago.

From the notion of each new building being a completely new addition to the planet, its time to start again.

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