In an October 2 op-ed in the Hartford Courant, architect and chair of the University of Hartford department of architecture Michael J. Crosbie gets modernism seriously wrong. Continue reading for the full breakdown.
The piece, which focuses on the architect Stanley Tigerman and a new exhibit on his work at Yale, has issues right off the bat:
One of the bedrock beliefs in the theology of modern architecture was that architects had to be original. They were to create a new world separate from the past, from classical architecture and its decoration, and invent brand new, innovative buildings. In many ways, it was more important to be original than to be good.
There are certainly instances of modernism forcing contrived originality, but as a movement, modernism did not do that at all. Rather, it introduced the fundamental principle that great architecture must be original and should not bow down to the past. Good and original are not really such separate things.
A refreshing reminder that this doesn’t have to be the case is architect Stanley Tigerman’s work on exhibit at the Yale School of Architecture’s Paul Rudolph Hall (through Nov. 5). Tigerman studied architecture at Yale, graduating in 1961. This was just about the time that things starting going badly for modern architecture. Modern rhetoric was tired, and architectural theorists such as Robert Venturi started to explore what kind of architecture might come after modernism.
The great irony here is that Paul Rudolph Hall, named for its architect, the great brutalist designer, was completed in 1963 and stands to this day as a testament to the power of modern architecture post-1960 (see this post). Robert Venturi, whose postmodern theories certainly did transform architecture, would be the first to admit the power of Rudolph’s great building. Venturi’s postmodernism, unlike the far weaker postmodernism of many of his peers, was still largely based in the modern principles of effective and powerful urban form and originality. He simply added to that a layer of nuance and wit in his designs.
So Venturi would not agree that good and original are entirely separate in architecture.
A few paragraphs later, we come across this:
There’s a short film in the exhibit by Karen Carter about Tigerman, In it he defines architecture’s purpose as “to make what is useful, artful.” When you study Tigerman’s drawings, especially his plans, you are struck by how classically symmetrical many of them are. Symmetry, balance, learning from the past, precedents found in the work of other architects — all of these qualities we associate with Beaux-Arts architects who were designing just before the arrival of modernism in the early years of the 20th century. These also were strong architectural themes in Chicago, where Tigerman grew up and has practiced for nearly a half-century. He isn’t afraid to pick up ideas and play with them.
“To make what is useful, artful” — no. That implies that form is somehow applied to function to smooth it over and pretty it up, which is not the case at all. It also makes architecture out to be a passive art in the service of functionality, which is similarly inaccurate. It would be far more accurate to define architecture’s purpose as “to explore the interaction between form and function in order to serve needs and express ideas.”
I fundamentally disagree with Tigerman’s definition of the purpose of architecture, but I do respect his contributions to the field. The bigger issue I have here is with Crosbie, whose approach to modernism and to Tigerman is all wrong. One could certainly appreciate Tigerman’s refocusing architecture on some common-sense principles without disparaging modernism or treating postmodernism as if it magically solved the problems of modernism. (It did not. The few good buildings and lasting principles it produced are far outweighed by the number of faux-Georgian-colonial-Victorian-Greek McMansions that have gone up in its name.)
The other thing that makes Tigerman worth noting is the colorful, imaginative originality of many of his drawings and designs. He was no mere decorator. His buildings had a vibrant originality to them. Too bad that seems to go entirely ignored by Crosbie.
You can also read a review of the exhibit in the Yale Daily News, which by comparison makes Crosbie look like some sort of genius.