Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Reactionary Avant Garde Once Again

I am working diligently at getting my book ready for publication.  I have changed the title to The Humanists versus the Reactionary Avant Garde: Clashing Visions for Today's Architecture.  Here is another excerpt, which is funny as well as being revealing.

It would be monotonous to keep describing the foibles of our celebrity avant-gardist architects. They all have the same goal—being new and different, even if the building is uncomfortable and disorienting to its users. They all design buildings as abstract sculptural objects and as intellectual games, rather than designing good places for people. 
Instead of making these same points about each of the avant gardists, we can sum up their approach by looking at the story of one of Peter Eisenman’s early commissions. 
In the late 1960s, Eisenman was known for his fiercely polemical and hard-to-read architectural manifestos, but he had only built one project, an addition to a house in Princeton that he called House I. He met Richard and Florence Falk at a cocktail party in Princeton, and they were so fascinated by his dense architectural theorizing that they hired him to design a house on a farm that they had purchased in Vermont, which he called House II. Richard Falk recalled in a later interview that, when he heard Eisenman’s theorizing at this party, “I don’t know what it meant, but it sounded good.”
When the Falks returned to their Vermont farm after a sabbatical, they found a house that was not yet complete but that would obviously be totally unusable. It had a flat roof, which would not hold up under Vermont’s heavy snow. It had a series of openings in the upper floors, which were meant to let light penetrate but which were also very dangerous for the Falk’s one-year-old son. It had hardly any interior walls: there were just half walls between the bedrooms. Because there were not complete walls, even a whisper could be heard through the entire house, and the Falk’s son was not able to play inside during his entire childhood because his parents needed quiet to work. 
The Falks were able to make the house barely usable by doing a major remodeling a year later. Ms. Falk commented that Eisenman’s design “was all about space, the eye moving with nothing to stop it”—which meant, she added, that it impressed their visitors but was very difficult to live in. 
Three decades later, Eisenman was still bristling at the Falk’s criticisms of his house: “I don’t design houses with the nuclear family idea because I don’t believe in it as a concept. I was interested in doing architecture, not in solving the Falks’ privacy problems.” When Eisenman talks about “doing architecture,” he obviously means designing buildings for the cognoscenti who are interested in abstract art and obscure theoretical issues. He does not mean designing buildings that are good places for the people who use them. 
A parable can help us understand Eisenman and the other starchitects. Once upon a time, there was a tailor who became famous by writing hard-to-read essays about sartorial theory, though he had never actually made any clothing except one suit for himself. Finally, his fame attracted a customer, and the tailor created a suit that was in keeping with his decontructivist theory of clothing design. When the customer put on the suit, he found that it had an arm where the left leg should be, which made it painful to walk; it had a leg where the right arm should be, which made it difficult to use his right hand; and it had two arms coming out of random locations in the back of the suit jacket. The avant-gardist critics all said the design was brilliantly subversive of conventional ideas about what a suit should be. When the customer had the suit altered so he could walk around without pain, the tailor was furious and said, “I was interested in doing clothing design, not in solving his mobility problems.” 
At the end of the parable, we learn that this tailor obviously attracted very few customers and could not support himself designing such of uncomfortable clothing. He was forced to change his occupation, and he ended up doing honest work by getting a job as a taxi driver. 
The difference is that tailors sell suits to the people who wear them, while architects often sell buildings to people who rarely use them. In particular, the trustees of museums and other cultural institutions enter the buildings only on occasion, and they do not have to live with the buildings’ avant-gardist designs. Museum trustees also tend to have more money than knowledge, so they are easily impressed by the obscure theories of avant-gardist critics. The staffs of these cultural institutions do have to live with the buildings, but they tend to be so artsy that they are among the few who are eager to suffer in a building acclaimed by the critics. This is why so many of our famous avant-gardist buildings are museums and other institutions dedicated to what now passes as high culture.