Sunday, June 28, 2009
My latest response to the architecture critic of the London Times
THE ARCHITECTURE CRITIC OF THE LONDON TIMES commented on the Battle of Chelsea Barracks in the Wall Street Journal, and in response I've written three (count them, 3) posts in the comments section. The article is here, and the comments here. My first comment is also here.
Photograph © Robert A.M. Stern Architects
"The market deciding what it preferred"? Being American I don't know all the nuances of the British situation, but I do know there was much more involved than just the market.
Let's start with the architects. Architecture schools aggressively promote ideological pedagogies. There are over 30 architecture schools in Britain, but when Prince Charles said there should be one in the country that taught traditional architecture and urbanism, the architectural establishment successfully campaigned to put his school out of business. Part of the campaign included personal smears in the newspapers (Mr. Pearman, you still haven't commented on why it's appropriate to include Camillagate transcripts in your blog post on Chelsea Barracks).
When I was in architecture school in America in the late 1970s, the atmosphere was more open-minded. My teachers included Michael Graves, Kenneth Frampton, Robert Stern, Leon Krier, a number of Lou Kahn proteges and Norman Foster, who taught one of the most popular studios in the school (he was known as "the architect's architect"). But there was a backlash among young Modernists like Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid and Bernard Tschumi (all graduates of the AA, I think), who successfully set out to banish diversity of thought and promote an esoteric, elitist program that we see today at places like Harvard, Columbia and Princeton. The "autonomous architecture" and "culture of architecture" enforced at these schools has no place for traditional architecture and urbanism, which are systematically and aggressively opposed.
Combine that with the fact that Modernism did indeed express Western culture for a few decades in the second half of the 20th century, and you have a combination of old paradigms, inertia and active promotion of ideology within the architectural establishment producing the situation of the last few decades.
When Charles spoke up for traditional design, the majority of people other than architects and architecture critics agreed with him. But we have to remember that Modernist buildings made a great deal of money for developers, who tend to operate by fomula, and that modern corporations wanted buildings with very large "floorplates." And that governments, even the governments of people like Red Ken, listen to business leaders and their professional advisors like Barons Rogers and Foster. In these circles, the now-outdated ideas that Modernism is "progressive" and "creative" are particularly popular. That all adds up to more going on than just "the market."
Here in New York, developers made a great deal of money with glass towers, both residential and office towers. Apartments above the 10th floor cost significantly more than lower apartments (and therefore make more money for the builder). But these glass towers often diminished the character and quality of the streets they stood on, and there was a strong public backlash against them. In other words, yes there was a strong market for residential towers built by Starchitects, but the larger market, the citizenry, often opposed these buildings, even in Manhattan (see Foster's current design for Madison Avenue). In the current market, traditional buildings have held their value much better. According to the New Yorker magazine, Bob Stern's traditional luxury building at 15 Central Park West is "the most financially successful building in the history of New York," raising doubts about the financial wisdom of the developers who built towers by Charlie Gwathmey and Richard Meier (the latter's building facing the Hudson River also leaked like a sieve).
A story in the Property section of today's Times says, "Modernism - it's so last year." http://tinyurl.com/mde9hb Despite what you say about the market, I know that doesn't mean that cosmopolitan architecture critics will suddenly praise traditionalism. You, Rogers and Riba will continue to promote Modernism, but the public is less ideological. It will be eclectic, sometimes liking tradition and sometimes liking Modernism. It even likes some of the godawful towers that I think have changed London for the worse. But on the whole, it will reject the ideological attitude that the architectural establishment has successfully promoted the last few decades, an attitude that says Modernism is the only way to build and that tradition is antiquated and conservative.
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Excellent work, John.
Posted by: MCG at Jun 28, 2009 9:50:23 PM