Sunday, August 26, 2007
A Lyrical Poet / A Blinded Critic
UPDATE: It seems that previous articles by Ouroussoff have given me similar thoughts.
Pierre Chareau's Maison de Verre (Glass House) is a great house. Chareau designed it in the early 1930s, a time in Paris when Modernism was mainly in the future and its promise was great. By Modernism, I don't mean stylistic elements like flat roofs and glass block, but the promise of technology and even democracy.
When I first went to France 35 years later, it was still, along with many great things, the land of smelly Turkish toilets and unpotable water. But Chareau's bathroom in his first residential design was lyrical, with magical exposed pipes and tubs on display in the middle of the room like great works of art.
I was moved by Chareau's eloquence when I got to visit the house in 1977 as an architecture student. On the same day we saw the ham-fisted poetry of Richard Rogers at the Pompidou Center, still under construction. Rogers gave us a tour, and described a massive indent in a cavernous floor as "the poet's corner." Only a decade or two later, his giant and clumsy exposed pipes on the outside of the Pompidou had to be replaced at great expense. Putting them out in the rain had been a silly idea.
At the Maison de Verre, plumbing and technology were new, and Chareau's design was responsive and inspired. Forty-five years later, Richard Rogers rehash of the same ideas at the Pompidou Center sometimes descended into the insensitive and clichéd. Modernism was a tired ideology.
The New York Times architecture critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff, doesn't get this. He is single-minded propagandist for Modernism and the Avant Garde. Worst of all, he thinks these are new ideas.
In today's Times, he writes about the Maison de Verre, calling it "the best house in Paris." What nonsense. He's so blinded by ideology that he writes off two millennia of better houses. Why does the Times put up with this architectural Babbittry?
PS: It's interesting that one of America's architectural masterpieces was also called the "Glass House." Following Philip Johnson's death at 98, it's now open to the public, and the Maison de Verre soon will be, following its restoration by its new American owner.
So why are architects today acting like glass is a "new" material? In a recent review of Bob Stern's apartment house at 15 Central Park West in Manhattan, Paul Goldberger (a former architecture critic for the Times), called glass "the new white brick." He was referring to the period in the 1960s when New York architects essentially abandoned stone and red brick in the design of Manhattan apartment houses, using glazed white brick instead.
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Applause for your comments on Nicolai Ouroussoff's piece on the Maison de Verre. Modernism quickly degenerated from a cause to a style. Ouroussoff doesn't know there's a difference.
The Times not only indulges its critics' Babbitry, it also panders to their confusing architectural criticism with sex. Herbert Muschamp did it regularly. Today we have Ouroussoff describing himself and his nameless girlfriend bathing behind translucent panels in the bathroom of the Maison de Verre.
Posted by: MCG at Aug 26, 2007 3:22:02 PM
I thought The Times article was pretty good. I was surprised when I saw it was by Ouroussoff.
Because it is a very interesting house, I'll blog on it at my own site but one fact I thought noteworthy: Philip Johnson killed an exhibit of Chareau's work at MOMA in 1950. Whether it was simple jealousy or anti-semitism I wouldn't venture to guess.
Posted by: David Sucher at Aug 26, 2007 4:31:22 PM
You're right, David. I wrote the first few paragraphs on the basis of the headline, "The Best House in Paris," and then went back and read the first two pages. Interesting that Ouroussoff and I both used the words "lyrical" and "magical." That what the house is like.
After reading your comment I realized I hadn't I handn't finished the article, so I went back and finished and saw the comment about Johnson. Also interesting.
Posted by: john at Aug 26, 2007 5:16:25 PM
I'll try to avoid commenting on the house itself as I have a rule to never discuss a building I haven't been inside (or close by on the outside.) So I'll only mention what I can learn from the pictures.
What strikes me about the house --and maybe another reason why Johnson couldn't get it -- is that it seems to have so much _texture_...so very rich in pattern and detail. It may be modern but it looks so "traditional" in that it doesn't simply present a blank -- "clean" as they like to say -- presence.
The weird thing about the article, and maybe this shows how Ourossoff thinks, is that while he mentions the truly striking fact that the house was built _under_ an existing apartment, he shows us no photo of that relationship. Like very other thing he reviews, this house has no context.
Posted by: David Sucher at Aug 26, 2007 8:52:58 PM
Pardon the interruption, but the comments bring up one of my hot points. The failure to deliver on the promises of modernism 'the cause'. It's disappointing so many proponents of modernism 'the style' have no idea of the underlying theory. They parrot the outdated arguments in search of form, but coming from them it's devolved into sophistry. They are looking for excuses for their fetishes.
Posted by: KenH at Aug 27, 2007 5:37:35 PM
why is the architect's solution to everything to make it glass? this is common everywhere but taken to the extreme in vancouver where i have just recently spent some time. i believe i read in new urban news recently that bob stern while consulting on the olympic village in vancouver thought that vancouver needed more variety and less glass towers on its skyline... he was promptly shown the door and his design ideas for the olympic village were derided as a "fishing village." i actually think the vancouverism towers are quite nice and are one of the few places i've seen modernism particularly modernist towers be fabric buildings, but clearly the city could use some variety in its skyline if nothing more than to contrast against the coldness on the skyline from the endless white panel and turquoise glass of these towers.
Posted by: jacob at Aug 28, 2007 1:01:51 PM
I too am reluctant to say much about the house based on a few photos, but it appears to have few windows one can see out of, let alone open. Is it so?
Posted by: Gizler at Aug 29, 2007 11:31:56 AM