Thoughts, Ideas, Observations


The Pritzker Architecture Prize: The First Twenty Years. Martha Thorne, editor. Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1999.

Reviewed by John Bedell

I picked up this book down at Borders on my lunch hour a few weeks ago, and just leafing through it for a few minutes gave me a powerful sense of alienation. I spent all day thinking about it, unable to get the images out of my head, and I was so intrigued by my response that I tracked down a copy at my library and read the whole thing. Now I feel even worse.

So far as I can see, the Pritzker prize goes only to the designers of cold, inhuman buildings. Almost every glossy photograph in this celebratory volume fills me with woe. Some give me shudders of horror. Gottfried Boehm's WDR radio station in Cologne, which looks like the headquarters of the robotic dictator from some anti-utopian sci-fi thriller, is perhaps the worst; I can't imagine a less welcoming structure. Alvaro Siza's Galician Center for Contemporary Art isn't far behind, just a prison built of intersecting white planes. Why do architects have this obsession with white rectangles?  James Stirling's Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart is extolled by the editors as warm, and one of the essayists says it is contextual and recognizes history, but so far as one can tell from the photographs it is just another concatenation of abstract forms, exposed metal beams, and similar insults. Kenzo Tange's stadiums in Tokyo, praised by the editors for fusing modernism with traditional Japanese forms, look to me like pieces of machinery strewn across the concrete landscape of a nightmare.

Of course, I have not seen most of these buildings, and it is dangerous to judge from photographs.  Those I have seen, though, did not improve with closer inspection.  Kevin Roche's headquarters for the Knights of Columbus, which blighted my undergraduate years in New Haven, got uglier every time I looked at it.  Richard Meier's High Museum of Art in Atlanta struck me as one of the least attractive buildings I had ever been in, and the second worse museum.  Manhattan's newer skyscrapers all blend together for me, but certainly none of those cited here impressed me enough to remember it. 

I simply hate modern architecture. It looks and feels to me like totalitarianism in concrete and steel.  Whether built by dictators or tycoons, it exalts the power of its patron and the ego of its designer, dismissing with a cruel sneer the mere person who happens to walk by.  Those vast walls of concrete or white stone or glass and steel appeal to architects as sculptural elements, but to a person standing next to them they are simply ugly.  But then, to notice the average person who might live or work in one of these buildings seems beneath the notice of the kind of architects who win prizes. Even Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which I admit has a quite interesting form, is, when you get close to it, just a bunch of blank walls made of titanium and burnished stone.  Architects like Gehry are in pursuit of some artistic vision on a monumental scale, and there is no room in their schemes for the perspective of a single small person.

Post modernism in some of its guises is, to me, an improvement in that it moves away from completely undecorated planes. Certainly the office towers built in Washington and New York over the past 15 years are less ugly than those of the 30 years before that. The only featured building that really impressed me is Renzo Piano's Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center in New Caledonia, with its vast wooden roof combs that fuse Melanesian artistry with western technology. The improvement, though, is limited. None of Robert Venturi's buildings illustrated here appeals to me; they all look like modernist constructions with some stuff slapped on. The interior views of Piano's cultural center and the close-ups of those roof combs are completely undistinguished, so perhaps this is just another of those vast sculptures that pleases the eye from a distance but dismays the heart that has to live or work in it. I have still never seen a post-modernist structure with the sort of awesome beauty I find in my favorite buildings.

Beyond even the ugliness of these buildings, I am disturbed by the egoism they represent.  To adopt their personal styles to their surroundings is beneath these titans of architecture. To stick a squat modernist rectangle right next to an elegant Georgian mansion, as Philip Johnson did at Dumbarton Oaks, is an insult to anyone who honors the past.  It also seems not to have occurred to some of these architects that buildings have purposes, and that their functions ought to come first.  None of the office buildings cited here is described as a nice place to work; apparently it never occurred to the prize jury to ask the secretaries how it feels to sit in one of these masterpieces all day. I.M. Pei's East Wing to the National Gallery in Washington has a certain appeal as a work of sculpture, but it is an absolutely terrible place to look at art. Some much space was taken up by Pei's gigantic atrium that the galleries were crowded into dark spaces around the edges, deprived of natural light by the great, white, rectangular walls that were somehow necessary to Pei's vision of the building. To be fair, Pei is a mere amateur at designing bad museums compared to Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Guggenheim is the worst museum I've ever been in, but the praise heaped on the East Wing seems to me to completely miss the point of architecture. 

I am no knee-jerk admirer of old things.  I dislike Roman architecture and its 20th-century imitations, for the same reason I dislike modernism: it seems to me like an architecture of power, not of people. The grim gray temples built for our government agencies in the 1930s and 1940s repel me almost as much as concrete boxes of the 1970s. Monumental classicism employs vast stone surfaces and sequoia-sized columns to instill awe, and I am not impressed.  I am a soft-hearted citizen of a gentle age, not attracted to the austere cults of virtue promoted by emperors, dictators, and revolutionaries, or to the buildings that embody their harsh commands.

I was moved to write this essay, not from a sense of superiority or scorn, but from a feeling of isolation.  I claim no special merit for my own tastes.  I know, though, that they are shared by thousands of my contemporaries, and I wonder why no major architect in the world is designing for people like me. Among the general wasteland of painting, sculpture, and symphonic music of the past fifty years there are nonetheless many artists making things I find beautiful.  Why no architects?  I live in the richest society in human history, the most free, the most devoted to art and beauty for their own sakes.  Why is there no building of the whole modern era that moves me like Sainte Chapelle?  No dwelling I like as much as even the average Victorian suburban mansion?  No space I would rather work in than the old reading room of the Library of Congress?  No airport that gives me the feeling of excitement I get from almost any of America's great railroad stations?  No wall as lovely as a Byzantine mosaic or an Abbasid tilework?  Nothing, in fact, of this whole century that I can say that I love.

I don't ask much.  If there are really people out there who like modernism, by all means, let somebody design buildings that fill them with wonder.  But why is there nothing in my whole century for me? For some reason I am completely alienated from the only architectural tradition that matters in my own age.  I do not understand why this should be, but I feel it as a painful loss.

January 11, 2000

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