Letter from Minneapolis: In Praise of Architecture...or Understanding the complex world of architectural theory and its influence on the appearance and function of buildings.
‘What do you think of the new Guthrie?’ someone will ask.
‘What new Guthrie/"
‘Well you know the one down on the river next to the new ‘Grain Museum.’
‘You mean the new IKEA store?’
‘No, silly, that’s not IKEA, that’s the new Guthrie.’
This scenario happens to us architects all the time. Non-architects, people like you, would like to know what we as architects think of this often puzzling proliferation of seemingly arbitrary structures whose design origins are a complete mystery. Who thinks this stuff up, and why?
This may surprise you but, it’s all based on complex architectural theories, or what the philosopher Carl Popper would call Architectural Opinions. To properly understand and/or to criticize the architecture of this new modern era, as contrasted with old modern era, you will need a basic understanding of the theoretical constructs and deep philosophical intentions underlying the work of architects. It may also help if you can tapdance backwards in the manner of Ginger Rogers...while managing to juggle more than one intellectual concept.
In the old modern era there were a limited number of opinions and they were mostly shared by a limited number of groups or homogenous populations. This all changed with the advent of high speed international travel and cross pollination of a rapidly expanding population. With this expansion came cultural diversity and a corresponding explosion of different opinions in all quarters of public life. This rampant democracy of opinions, has produced a new quazi educated class who can be talked into believing almost anything, while claiming to believe in nothing.
Architecture has not escaped this explosion of opinion. Where there were once the Greek orders, structural integrity and complimentary colors, we now have a multiplicity of contradictory opinions that drive the appearance and function of buildings in unexpected directions.
To assist you, the lay public, in understanding what is called architectural theory, I have summarized a few of the more popular opinions, or schools or architecture, which buttress the design of recent buildings.
The Modernism Without Context School. We see these hard edged buildings everywhere, with acres of glass and rigid geometric forms; somewhat modified in recent years by the re-discovery of the ubiquitous rounded corner. These buildings are knock-offs of the Heroic Period of Architecture, but without the Heroes and without the social context. Architects love these simple boxes because they remind us of the early 20th Century when our heroes, Perret, Loos, Rietveld, Gropius, LeCorbusier, et all, were going to change the world, with better buildings, better clothes, better ideas about living, better art, and better cities.
These bygone utopian dreams were shattered by the likes of the evil Robert Moses, who ruined a good part of New York City and almost single handedly invented the neighborhood protest movement. Great big ideas were replaced by small-minded politicos, historists, zoning officials, planning commissions, neighborhood groups and community college educated social critics. Modern architecture became the decorated camel designed by a committee. Enjoy a refreshing look at this "future of the past" in "The Heroic Period of Modern Architecture" by Alison and Peter Smithson, and The Architecture of Red Vienna 1919-1934, by Eve Blau.
The Olga Corbet Olympic Gymnastics School. The recently completed, and widely praised, Guthrie Theater is a wonderful piece of architecture and an instructive example of architectural theory in action. Everything about Her, says triple front with a full twist and she sticks the landing. A perfectly stunning solo performance, was there a client? Did they attend design meetings?
The architect is French so it’s no surprise that the building design represents his youthful influences. Growing up in France he would have learned two things about America. The magnificence of the Mississippi River, and the importance of Jerry Lewis as a significant cultural symbol.
Imagine the fun Jerry would have spastically cavorting on those wacky, seemingly endless escalators. Contrast this image with the architects reverence for the Mississippi River. His viewing bridge projects out into the valley addressing the river’s edge; or is that Jerry’s tongue waging an "I got ya" at the historic preservationists guarding the Mill District.
On a more functional note, the dark brooding and complicated circulation within the building may owe more to Jean Paul Sarte than architectural theory. The single mindedness of the Guthrie design reminds us to read Tom Wolfe’s "From Bauhaus to our House"; not for the period described but for the arrogance it represents. The question is, can a cold Omaha profit from the "Bilbo" effect?
Catholics Without Guilt School. Yet to reach us here in the Mississippi Valley, but surely coming, are the enormous hulking, energy sucking, high rise office, condo, apartment, shopping and entertainment complexes built to the latest LEED standards, flaunting an environmentally correct carbon footprint...a footprint purchased with carbon off-sets. These off-sets being the modern secular version of Catholic Papal indulgences.
This is the same old entertainment architecture with a feel good face, Kermit the Frog was wrong, "it’s easy to be green." You simply buy it. Have you seen the New Yorker cartoon of the fellow at the freeway entrance with a cardboard sign. "Will trade carbon credits for food." (Al, stop complaining, you’re scaring the children.)
The Wet Box School. Two wonderful examples of this crumpled structural derring-do are here in the city for us to enjoy. The Walker and MacPhail centers. These buildings, like all great buildings, are born of great ideas. The great idea here is to throw out the dated concept of structural integrity and let the walls of the building sag off in unpredictable, often threatening, directions, representing a tour-de-force of structural non-logic, although quite beautiful if you understand the philosophical underpinnings. All you need is a computer capable of calculating obtuse angels, and the thickness of gusset plates ...oops.
Our first example, the Walker, comes to us from Switzerland; where a good sized block of cheese setting to long in the sun may have influenced the architects. Our second example, the MacPhail, while only a weak imitation; does have the look of a UPS box left on the porch in the rain. Both set a standard that young architects will find far to easy to copy while causing fits of anxiety among their structural engineers.
Don’t be fooled by the totally incomprehensible floor plan at the Walker, there is theory here too. Finding your way around while getting lost and passing the same piece of art multiple times, we are told, is a calculated integral part of the architects intentions; and please don’t ask about the location of the front door, the Walker people are quite tired of explaining it. For my first visit a friend suggested I bring a bag of bread crumbs and leave a trail so we could find our way back to the parking garage. Which by the way is the best part of the building. Hang some art in it!
A rumor persists that the pattern of the filagree air vents at the Walker was copied from the silk panties of one of the architects...surely a myth to build a career on. If your head is spinning from all this architectural complexity give it an extra twist by reading John Silber’s recent book, the "Architecture of the Absurd: How "Genius" Disfigured A Practical Art.
The Interior Decorators Sample Board School. There was a joke going around town a few years ago about a local architect, let’s call him Ed, who did lots of downtown commercial buildings. It was said that Ed had one very strict rule of design. "He always limited himself to no more than thirteen different materials or patterns on any one side of his buildings."
Well, from the looks of the current crop of condos and apartment buildings this is no longer a joke. Ed was a minimalist by comparison. The sides of these new buildings have become interior decorator display boards for an endless variety of fake materials, manufactured by companies who can fake each others fakes; and don’t ask where all those fake arches came from.? Or what they hold up. The only explanation for this unwholesome theory is the appearance within our profession of the computer trained, never criticized, rarely challenged and applauded for breathing, children of the boomers, or is it the boomers themselves, anxious, fretful, fearful of making decisions; "We have all dined with these people, they order either the surf and turf or the combo platter; or no I changed my mind, "I’ll take one of each." Required reading for young architects working for these, Trump like, developers should include ‘Ornament and Crime’ 1920 ‘La Esprit Nouveau’ by Adolf Loos. They will also need a short course on how to collect fees from these modern day real estate barons (you need to know that they never pay your last invoice.)
The McMansion, Tract Mansion, McCastle School; this is not a school nor is it accredited by any reputable institution of post-secondary architectural education. The sooner these behemoths are sub-divided into affordable housing, the better.
The Cadillac Chrome Bumper School. The U of M Weisman Museum is our one and only example of this school and only one architect can do it, Frank Gehry. He is a genius of sculptural form and a master of this stylistic interpretation of fifty’s free-form. He learned his craft doing shopping centers, and darned good ones at that, so his buildings actually function. Then one day his friend Clas Oldenberg gave him permission to follow his heart, Voila! Visit his glass Carp at the Walker Sculpture Garden to experience the power of his incredible talent.
The caveat with Gehry is that he can’t be copied, and shouldn’t be...so don’t try. The world is already over populated with too many Frank Lloyd Wrongs’ so please leave the Cadillac Bumper school to Frank; and for sure don’t miss the Sidney Pollack film "Sketches of Frank Gehry", it is wonderfully inspirational and the guy who plays his psychiatrist is right out of Freud’s Vienna by way of central casting.
Neo-functionalism. I won’t leave this subject of architectural theory without offering my own opinion...bias, beliefs, uncertainties, theory.
I am a failed minimalist and a fan of the Goodman brothers; and like most professionals, I get up early and go to the office every morning with the expectation that I will do some purposeful work...and some days I do, and some days, I just lower my expectations. Much like the poet who must write a poem everyday knowing they can’t all be good.
My design objectives are quite simple, to serve our clients, their purpose, and their needs all in the context of the world around us. This involves balancing their intentions and my aspirations. I do this by listening, watching, and applying what I have learned to the task in front of me....neo-functionalism, if it needs a name.
For inspiration read "Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life", Percival Goodman and Paul Goodman. And to open your heart to beauty read "The Architecture of Happiness" by Alain de Bottom. He writes: "The notion of buildings that speak helps us to place at the very center of our architectural conundrums the question of the values we want to live by - rather than merely of how we want things to look."
Peter Kramer, Architect
Credit the Guthrie joke to Bob Roscoe