2. UGLY AND ORDINARY
3. BEAUTIFUL AND FALSE
4. ETHICAL ARCHITECTURE
4.1. Chimney and foundation whose building had been blown away by... bombing
4.2. Example of etihcal architecture
7. APPENDIX: Professor Maxine Greene's Remarks
Brad McCormick, 18 November 1983. Transcribed from printed copy and revised, 02-26 March 2022. Note that I use grammatically male gender pronouns in a non-gender-specific sense: "he" , in the present document, refers to men, women, children beyond the "age of reason", and any other sapient beings there may be. I use the term "lay persons" to refer to anybody who uses a building but is not architecturally trained. I have made improvements and some substantive/substantial additions to the original document, but not disowned anything I originally wrote.
Time loses all things and often I realize that something is important only after it has passed, when it is too late to record it. Also, Between somewhere around 2005 and 15 June 2018 I had a computer programmer job which literally caused me to lose much of my mind (my memory), so some of what I originally wrote in 1983 I no longer remember and am relying on the accuracy of citations from that time for which I can no longer provide an audit trail in 2022. firstname.lastname@example.org
In this paper, I explore the current (1983) situation of architecture in America. I begin by adducing three quotes from Hermann Broch's essay "Notes on the Problem of Kitsch". I hope they may serve as a 'basis vector set' for the space in which this essay moves:
"In a jewish community in Poland, a miracle-working rabbi appeared with the gift of restoring sight to the blind. Ailing men and women came from far and wide to Chelowka --- this is the name of the community ---, and among them was one Leib Shekel, plodding along the dusty country road protecting his eyes with a green eye-shield and holding his blindman's stick. An acquaintance of his came along: 'Hey there, Leib Shekel, you are off to Chelowka" "Yes, I'm going to see Him in Chelowka.' 'And what's happened to your eyes?' 'Me eyes? What's the matter with me eyes?' 'If your eyes are still all right at your age, why on earth are you going to Chelowka with your stick?' Leib Shekel shakes his head: "Because a man who is still fit at a hundred can be short-sighted. Don't you see what I mean? When I am before Him, The Great and the True, I shall be blind and He will give me back my sight.'
"It is the same with the true work of art. It dazzles you until it blinds you and then gives you back your sight." (BROCH, p. 67)
"Kitsch is certainly not 'bad art'; it forms its own closed system, which is lodged like a foreign body in the overall system of art, or which if you prefer, appears alongside it. Its relationship to art can be compared --- and this is more than a mere metaphor --- to the system of the Anti-Christ and the system of the Christ.... Every system is dialectically capable of developing its own anti-system and is indeed compelled to do so. The danger is all the greater when at first glance the system and the anti-system appear to be identical and it is hard to see that the former is open and the latter closed. The Anti-Christ looks like the Christ, acts and speaks like Christ, but is all the same Lucifer. What then is the sign that enables one to see the difference? An open system... is an ethical system: it provides man with the necessary direction for him to act as a man. The hints given by a closed system, on the other hand, (even if they are covered with a veneer of ethics) are no more than simple rules of play; i.e., it transforms that part of human life which is in its control into a game that an no longer be valued as ethical but only as aesthetic." (BROCH, p. 62-3)
"The kitsch system requires its followers to 'work beautifully', while the art system issues the ethical order: 'work well'. Kitsch is the element of evil in he value system of art." (BROCH, p. 63)
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What a person values are things that have appealed to him. Nothing can force us to value it, for part of valuing something is to judge it valuable, and a judgment cannot be valid, i.e., be a judgment, unless freely rendered. If a thing tries to make us value it (by asserting we "ought" to value it, or that it is "necessary", etc.), it is 'trying to pull a fast one on us': it is trying to get inside the circle of things we value without subjecting itself to the test of free judgment and the risk that, if it fails to appeal to us,, we will, instead of valuing it, ignore it, or if it won't stop annoying us, try to dispatch it some place else where it will no longer be able to annoy us.
If nothing can coerce us to value it, things can inspire us to value them. If we are to have things we value, potential candidates for being valued (things that may appeal to us and inspire us) must offer themselves to us, and we must have the 'space' in which to judge them. If we want things to value, we need to seek out potentially valu-able things, and to maximize the 'openness' of the situation wherein we dwell, to facilitate the encounters and the judgments. The thesis of this paper is that the highest task of architecture (and all other human endeavors) in our time is to open up the space and help bring about the encounters.
I am primarily inspired by the transcendental event: reflection on inspiration itself (as opposed -- which seems to be the only alternative -- to being naively inspired by some particular inspiring thing or person). Beyond all particular inspiring things, what most appeals to me is to reflect on the structure of giving and receiving (inspiration, appeal) and thereby, I hope, to leap over the whole historical procession of inspirations (and eventual disappointment) by particular values (God, Country, Yale...), to a different ('transcendental') kind of 'value system' that is simultaneously both unsurpassable and always surpassing itself, or, more precisely: unsurpassable precisely because always surpassing itself. This is a vision that each experience may become not just inspiring, but also thematic reflection on and caring for the structure of inspiration and its, my own and others' relation thereto. I am inspired by the hope that even the most mundane experiences such as washing the dishes and brushing ones teeth may become informed by the problematic of the mystery of valuing. I call this: the transfiguration of the ordinary events of the daily life of every man.
This is what I see (my 'viewpoint' and my 'vision'). 'Somehow' (a 'how' I expect no one will ever understand but about which I think a lot) it gave itself to me in such a way that it appealed to me, and it continues to give itself to me in such a way that it continues to appeal to me. From this perspective, what is most valuable ('highest') is insight which thematizes ever anew the given conditions and presuppositions of one's current existence (including its own process of doing this...).
Insight comes in a gradation of kinds. Lowest is the kind which only shows how more things are included in the current categories. This kind of insight is characterized by 'novelty', and is even compatible with stagnation (e.g., previously unknown celebrities keep showing up on the television, more professional sports teams win and lose previously unplayed athletic contests, or an ad man keeps cooking up previously unthought of advertisements). Higher is insight which replaces current categories with more powerful ones. The leitmotiv here is revolution, scientific (Copernicus), religions (Mohammad), political (American, French, Russian...).... But, with time, the initial dazzlement degrades into a new complacency, stagnation, and, ultimately, crisis, as the promise of the once new but now grown old insight is exhausted. Highest is insight which reflectively [re]appropriates itself. Beyond both novelty and revolution, it witnesses (Husserl's late philosophy; perhaps communities like Findhorn?). It calls to an accounting all claims of previous knowledge (thus breaking the --- often invisible --- tyranny of 'the real'). This, what we might call: meta-insight (insight about insight) thematizes itself and thus adumbrates its own possible surpassing thru as yet unanticipatable insight. It opens at last a future that is not just the working out of the past (as repetition or completion of already given tasks). It is thus the gift of freedom.
Misfortunate, for me, is anything that, to lesser or greater degree, fails to nurture (human or other) transcendence to the utmost. When what fails to nurture transcendence is a production of (human or other) intelligent existence, it is evil. This may range from a mother answering "Nothing" when her child asks "What's this?", to Hitler's and Stalin's mass murders.
This is the point of view that motivates my living (albeit I usually fall far short of realizing what it hopes for, and often even act contrary to it). I offer it to you in the hope it may inspire you (and inspire you to work with me and offer your hope to inspire me, and...). It also had to be stated to help place the body of the present essay in perspective.
* * * * * * *
This essay explores the kinds of architecture that are possible in our place and time, and their relation to the above 'vision'. First, I wish to suggest an apology for architecture as an art, in a world where people go to bed hungry. There is a question whether many activities (e.g., writing novels, and professional athletics) can be ethical at all, in such a world, because the practice of them takes available labor time away from satisfying basic human needs.
For architects (and for some other persons: teachers, medical researchers, computer programmers...) this question is partly moot. The world -- any possible world in which a large segment of the present population can biologically continue --- needs their work. For them to work well, for them to 'have the time of their life' doing their work, in terms of maximizing insight and sharing of insight, may be useful, even to those who cannot fully share the experience, because one effect of their insight and delight can be better satisfaction of biological need (an architect's insight may lead to buildings that better shelter persons from 'the elements'). Of course the architect can build dream houses for the idle rich or monuments to "The Proletariat". If, on he other hand, he chooses socially responsible projects, this selection need not deny him opportunities for the highest level of creative endeavor. The concerns of the "modern movement" with workers' housing between the two World Wars showed that the most pragmatically prosaic architectural problems can provide occasions for radical design solutions (that, in this case, improve/enrich the workers' lives).
Granting that architecture can be ethical, when is it both ethical and an art? (Obviously an architect's labor can be ethical without being art, for example: designing rapid-deployment humanitarian mass facilities for refugees.) I find helpful Broch's definition of the ethical work of art, quoted above: "It dazzles you until it blinds you and then gives you back your sight" (just clearer than before...), because it describes what I have experienced. I think about the experience I had reading certain parts of Broch's novels, The Sleepwalkers and The Death of Virgil. There were times when I was transported out of myself by the words --- even though I did not fully understand them entirely ---, and then returned to myself, but changed --- with eyes that saw more, and more richly than before. Not only do I take this to be the true 'esthetic experience', and the true task of art (and all human endeavor), but I need it to live. For the life into which I was born and acculturated: to be 'manpower', 'headcount' and a consumer of consumer products, is chronic dull pain, empty of light and meaning; why bother? I found, thru experiences of some things that are called 'art works' and, also, 'craft pieces' (though not my experiences of all things so named) that my daily life could be transfigured to a meaningfulness, light, space, peace.... that inspired me to want to live, just as I had no motivation to live in that other thing: I was 'dazzled', my attention jolted away by the artwork, in such a way that nothing was clear any more, and even the artwork itself was not clearly visible in its 'blinding light' (which may have the 'candle power' of the darkness inside an ash-glazed jar). Then came peace, 'meaningfulness', a gentle radiance opening and suffusing space --- and I saw 'clearly' once more [i.e.: more clearly than before]. I also saw differently. I saw a few new things. More important (as new things are the exception, old things the rule), I saw 'the same old things' made new. In the artwork itself, I saw a few lines and colors, or a few words, that, the closer I looked, the more gently they smiled on me and gave me 'grace'. Elsewhere, as in Lawrence Welk's smile on the television or a box of Chicken McNuggets, I more clearly saw the horror.
* * * * * * *
The true work of art dazzles you and then gives you back your sight (and it keeps on giving...). It transfigures your life (and keeps on transfiguring it...). This structure can be negated in two ways: the putative 'work of art" may not dazzle, or it may dazzle but not give you back your sight. What does not dazzle remains part of the ambient order, and, if it is an 'artwork', is one in the same sense as Muzak is music when one is not paying attention to it (which latter is its proper mode of appropriation). It does not call attention to itself, does not establish authority, blends in with the background, and, apart from any pragmatic use it may have, it might just as well not be. What does not dazzle gives no light at all and no insight at all. A paradigmatic example here are el-cheapo oil paintings of land and sea scapes sometimes seen on small-time office building corridor walls.
What dazzles but does not give you back your sight takes your attention away from what you were doing, but only to distract you. It's fun. It's pretty. But, when it's over, you return to the same reality from which you were originally called away, with your way of seeing (and seeing it...) untransformed. You've spent your time and money on 'entertainment', and then it's back to where you came from, the poorer in both time and money. If this kind of art gives you any insight, it is the kind that shows how the given categories can subsume more things.
* * * * * * *
Contemporary architecture exhibits all three possibilities. (I am not asserting this enumeration is exhaustive.) In what follows, I consider each in turn. Work that 'does not dazzle' is represented by Robert Venturi, to be precise: by his foundational postmodernist manifesto: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, and his follow-on book: Learning from Las Vegas. Dazzling but not giving you back your sight: Philip Johnson. As an example of ethical architecture, I pick Louis Kahn, although my case study will be from Eero Saarinen because of my extensive personal experience with one of the latter's buildings. (The present essay is originally from 1983. To borrow the title of a book about Paul de Man (1991), "Signs of the times" have proceeded in the interim; things seem [to me] to have gotten worse.)
It is all too easy to misinterpret things and words, especially when a person is not "on the inside". If I am unfair to either of my two 'villains', I hope i will have the openness of spirit to be shown how I have erred. What matters are the principles not the principals. If I have praised my 'hero' -- now two heroes -- too unalloyedly, I would ask the reader not to 'throw the baby out with the bathwater' by reducing the goal to its faulty instantiations. My intent is not to 'put down' anybody or to establish a "cult of personality', but to raise up my own living and others' living. (I use the word "living" not "life" because I am concerned with gerundial first-personal observing: suffering and enjoying, not with the correlative nominal observable which is in each case merely an object in third persons' first-personal observing.) Inspired by the examples of Marshall McLuhan (communication theorist) and Masud Khan (psychoanalyst), I urge that large new ideas which expand our imaginative horizon but prove to be empirically inapplicable ("false") can be far more valuable than correct declarative sentences about minutiae.
Other than chance encounters
We can only encounter in reality
What we have previously encountered in fantasy.
(Gordon Hirshhorn, 1929-2012)
I begin with a consideration of something which calls itself 'ugly and ordinary' architecture. This section derives primarily from Robert Venuri's book Learning from Las Vegas; the phrase 'ugly and ordinary' is Mr. Venturi's own, repeated frequently throughout the book (he abbreviates it to: "U&O"). He uses the phrase, polemically, to describe what he considers to be the virtues of his own work. He distinguishes such architecture from the products of traditional 'modern architecture', as ordinarily understood, which he calls, sarcastically, 'heroic and original' ("H&O"), words which exponents of modern architecture also use --- though with different sentiment --- to describe themselves (as in the title of Allison and Peter Smithsons' book: The Heroic Period of Modern Architecture).
Mr. Venturi does a comparison in detail of two completed housing projects for the elderly: Crawford Manor, by Paul Rudolph, in New Haven, Connecticut, and his own Guild House, in Philadephia, Pennsylvania (above). Guild House looks --- at least at first sight --- ugly and ordinary: it looks like a normative mid-rise American 1950's public housing project, including the anchor fence around the site (inviting us to throw in empty beer cans?). It harmonizes with the stereotypical senior citizen's preconception of public housing in a then large contemporary American city. It does not jolt. It does not dazzle. It blends in, even to the extremity that:
"The inevitable plastic flowers at home in these windows are, rather, pretty and ordinary; and they do not make this architecture look silly as they would, we think, the heroic and original windows of Crawford Manor." (Venturi2, p. 70)
No, Guild House does not dazzle. And, yet, there is 'something else going on here'. The
"...windows are familiar, they look like as well as are windows, and in this respect their use is explicitly symbolic. But like all effective architectural images, they are intended to look famliar and unfamiliar. They are a conventional element used slightly unconventionally." (VENTURI2, P. 66)
If one looks closely, the details of Guild House are different from an ordinary housing project. The windows are bigger than usual, and there are some exaggeratedly wide but short windows. On the top floor is a very large semi-circular window (in the common room). Other than windows; There is the large (non-functional) marble column right in the middle of the entrance (a symbolic, if not physical, obstruction?). The name of the building ('GUILD HOUSE') appears in large letters over the entry. And, finally:
"The giant order is topped by a flourish, an unconnected, symmetrical antenna in gold and anodized aluminum, which is both an imitation of an abstract Lippold sculpture and a symbol for the elderly." (VENTURI2, p. 68)
"The antenna, with its anodized gold surface, can be interpreted two ways: abstractly, as sculpture in the manner of Lippold, and as a symbol of the aged, who spend so much time looking at T.V." (VENTURI1, p. 116)
Crawford Manor, in contrast, does not look like anything in the life of a stereotypical senior citizen. I have never seen Guild House in person, and it has been
fifteen fifty-four years since I saw Crawford Manor. Crawford Manor is probably not a masterpiece of modern architecture (see below). But neither is it one of the horrors from Peter Blake's Form Follows Fiasco. It rises crisply on its little plot of New Haven city urban grass (if there was any fence it was just a token to remind people to 'keep off the grass'). Crawford Manor is 'heroic and original" modern architecture: a raw concrete tower rising up with articulated balconies and jagged corners. Those who do not like modern architecture may find Crawford Manor ugly (many of the same people would probably find Guild House ugly also, although for different reasons -- Jane Jacobs and Bernard Rudofsky would surely like neither one, since neither building is to intimate street scale, like, say, a traditional small French or Japanese village), but nobody would find Crawford Manor ordinary. Crawford Manor stands out. In some measure, it dazzles.
Mr. Venturi condemns buildings whose functional program has been grossly vitiated to accommodate visual imagery: he calls them "ducks" (after a little food store, "The Long Island Duckling", that looks like a sitting duck, which one enters through the duck's breast, under its neck). He calls Crawford Manor a: duck. Beyond name calling, and saying that the windows (and the rest of the building) do not fit the residents' ideas of what a building should look like [Did he do interviews of the residents to verify this? And did he do interviews of the residents of Guild House to find out what they thought of it? I do not know.], Mr. Venturi makes no specific programmatic criticisms of Crawford Manor. He does say:
"Crawford Manor... tries to elevate clients value system and/or budget by reference to art and metaphysics." (VENTURI2, . 72)
Mr. Venturi does not indicate that, in Guild House, he tried to change the values of the client (or potential residents), including their putative predilection for placing plastic flowers in windows. He apparently saw this as a virtue, in contrast to modern architects' aspirations of changing people's values toward what the architect thinks are higher values by designing buildings that incorporate and, hopefully, inspire appropriation of those higher values by the persons who use them. It is possible that Professor Rudolph would have liked to see the residents of Crawford Manor live the 'Esprit Nouveau' (ref.: Le Corbusier). Whether he intended that or not, Crawford Manor looks like he intended it. Crawford Manor does make the 'plastic flower' lifestyle look bad. Mr. Venturi claims such meddling with people's values is wrong; apparently architecture should not try to raise persons' values (or cater to them if they are higher than stereotypical).
Before arguing the good and evil about Crawford Manor, lets look at the building. Is it a 'duck'? Has the functional program of 'housing for the elderly' been grossly vitiated in an attempt to make a statement, as would have been the case, for instance, if the building was literally shaped like an old person perhaps sitting on a park bench watching young people walk by (what else are structural engineers for than to make architects' drawings work in the world of Newtonian physics?)?
(1) In Crawford Manor, every apartment has a balcony where the tenant can go out, get fresh air and take in the view, put out a few[living] plants, put out a few pieces of laundry to dry.... A balcony does much to relieve the claustrophobia of a small apartment. Guild House has balccnies on only a few (not the smallest) apartments.
(2) Most kitchens (albeit, not all) in Crawford Manor have windows. A window in the kitchen is nice both for ventilation and also to to avert claustrophobia. No kitchens in Guild House have windows.
(3) The public corridors in Crawford Manor have windows. The public corridors in Guild house have no windows (are 'blind').
(4) The apartment layouts in Crawford Manor, even the smallest, are 'interesting', with alcoves and corners that give variety, encourage spatial differentiation, and help overcome the feeling of smallness. In Guild House, many apartments are, literally, '4 walls', with a single window on one end and a kitchenette on the other.
(5) Crawford Manor looks like a place where an upwardly mobile young professional would be relatively pleased to see his parents live. Guild House looks like a "project" (for welfare recipients, perhaps). Crawford Manor looks 'safe'. Guild House (behind its anchor fenced 'no man's land') conjures up images of teenage hooligans on the prowl and drug addicts wandering around. (This impression is based on pictures in Mr, Venturi's book, not first hand observation).
Crawford Manor is not my ideal dwelling, for senior citizens or for anyone (I did for a short time live in an apartment building that somewhat resembled it, in Baltimore Maryland; I would not have lived in a place that looked like Guild House except in extremis). We see that Crawford Manor's 'heroic and original' appearance resulted in no programmatic disasters, and it has amenities Guild House lacks. [+2022 aside, it appears Mr, Venturi may have had personal and/or ideological animosity to Professor Rudolph, but I know nothing about this. The two may have been at the Yale Architecture Department at the same time? This would be interesting to explore. If Mr. Venturi did dislike Professor Rudolph, he may have got some satisfaction out of the fact that Rudolph died long before himself, from lung cancer which may have been partly caused or exacerbated by asbestos insulation in the ceilings of Yale's Art and Architecture building which Rudolph designed. Again, I don't know.]
On to the philosophy: In Crawford Manor, the truth is 'up front'. One may dislike it, but there is no question what it is. If the windows contravene people's preconceptions ("I Love Lucy?"), they do so blatantly. In Guild House there is duplicity. To the residents, the windows look like ordinary windows, but the architecture cognoscenti know that is only an appearance, that these apparently conventional elements are really unconventional (Because the scale is unusual), and, in any case (to apply Danto-ish analysis), even if the windows were 100% indistinguishable from ordinary window used the ordinary way, they still would not be ordinary windows, because the architect consciously chose them to be "effective symbolic images" of ordinary windows.
The Guild House residents (perhaps while watching TV) think the building is one thing (presuming they think about anything at all), whereas the cognoscenti (perhaps at an AIA cocktail party at the Helmsley Palace) discuss among themselves how it is something else. Surely this is an elitism at least as objectionable as the modern architects' attempt to raise people's values by forcing them to live in places that are --- at least in the architects' opinions --- better than what they are used to. I feel it is worse, because the victims of modern architects' utopian designs are at least victims of utopian ideals (endeavors to raise the quality of their living) and they know something is being done to them (they can't miss the windows...); the beneficiaries of Mr. Venturi's 'ugly and ordinary' design are unaware that they are guinea pigs (everything looks 'normal', if you don't know what to look for), and that the experiment for which they have been volunteered is not one to raise their consciousness, but one to encourage them to persist in or even adapt banal values and expectations in living (or lack thereof), "plastic flowers" included, de rigueur.
It would be entirely reasonable and compassionate for an architect, after conducting in depth sociological study of some senior citizens, to conclude, in despair, that their minds were so ravaged that, while he would rather see them eating sushi and listening to Bach, any change from their present daily routine of TV dinners and Lawrence Welk would cause them painful and irreparable cognitive disorientation. Such an architect might, in sincere altruism, design a building he hated, hoping to relieve somewhat the pain of the residents' last days. That is not what Mr. Venturi appears to have done. He designed a building that was not a straightforward attempt to make the best of the residents' presumed preconeptions, but a parody of them:The TV antenna which is his "symbol for the elderly" is, he tells us, "unconnected". I ask: Are all aged Quakers -- a religion known for intellectual acuity --- amented TV zombies, who even so would not deserve to be made fools of behind their backs?
"Ugly and ordinary" architecture --- architecture that does not dazzle (not having blinded you, it never gets to the point of giving your sight back or not doing so) encourages people to not think, and thus perpetuates one of the worst things about the status quo, which is not simply what it is, but its implicit taken-for-grantedness, which cuts off the possibility for people gaining responsibiity over their lives far more effectively than any active measure could do (if one aovertly tries to make a person do something, they can say "No."). That Mr. Venturi's "U&O" uses deceitful means to a purposefully cynical end adds insult to iujury and more.
[+2022 Addendum: While this is not directly relevant to "ugly and ordinary", I want to note that Mr. Venturi's deployment of Mannerist art in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture appears to exhibit a superficial misunderstanding of the constructive essence of Mannerism as a long standing thread in Western art since the Hellenistic period. While Mr. Venturi is correct that Mannerist works of architecture have used what I call clownish imagery, such as a doorway which looks like a monster's open mouth which will digest you as you enter the building, this is not all there is to mannerism. I refer to Arnold Hauser's serious study of this subject: Mannerism: The Crisis of the Renaissance and the Origin of Modern Art (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965). I am aware that Dr. Hauser's book is controversial in the United States because marxists are not seriously engaged with by capitalist toadie academics. Dr. Hauser's basic idea is that the deep intellectual issue with which mannerism at its best engages is the inability of "classical" art to fully encompass and express the, if I might borrow a phrase, complex and contradictory nature of the human world. Kurt Godël's "Incompleteness theorem" is also tangentially relevant here. Mr. Venturi in no way seizes upon this problematic which could have led him to write a very different and seriously constructive book, not just a put-down of the bad, depersonalizing parts of modern architecture as if they were the whole of it, i.e., 'throwing the baby out with the bathwater'. I have even seen pictures of the facade of one of Adolf Loos's houses that, on first glance, reminded me of the facade of Guild House, but, of course, Mr. Loos's house was nothing like Vanna House with its stairway to a blank wall. To adduce Mr. Loos's thesis: Anybody in the 20th century who practices ornamentation is either a criminal or a degenerate who has not yet committed their crime. Mr. Venturi celebrates: "decorated sheds". Had Mr. Venturi engaged with the deep meaning of Mannerism and not just the superficial products of some mannerist architects, the contemporary world might have been spared the destructive [including some so-called: "deconstructive'] effects of the book he did write in encouraging architects to be "postmodern" instead of more fully modern, as per below, and, in philosophy, Edmund Husserl's 1935 "Vienna" lecture: "Philosophy and the Crisis of European humanity".]
"Ugly and ordinary" does not seem to be the architectural "wave of the future". Mr. Venturi himself apparently moved on to design buildings that to me, at least, appear not ordinary, but clownish; I cite specifically: "Abrams House", Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh PA, 1979. "U&O" is a self-contradiction, because it is not truly ugly and ordinary, like real Levittown houses, but "'ugly and ordinary'" (my quote marks around its proponents' quote marks indicating they, as we have seen above, mean something different by it than what the words straightforwardly mean in lay discourse.
It is not clear how really ugly and ordinary all of Mr Venturi's own buildings are, even before Squirrel Hill. His 1977 project for the Marlborough-Blenheim Casino Hotel is mainstream flashy post-modernism. On the other hand, his Western Plaza on Pannsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, is both cleverly reflexive and quietly elegant: The plaza takes the form of a map of Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House. (There were two tall billboards in the model that do not appear in the finished project, which could potentially change its character.)
* * * * * * *
It was important to consider "U&O" rchitecture for two reasons: First, architecture which cynically mocks people behind their backs has been proposed seriously as ethically good architecture, and used as a criterion to argue that architecture that attempts to raise persons' values is evil.
Second, there is a premise underlying 'ugly and ordinary' architecture that has wider applicabllity. We have mentioned above 'ducks'. Ducks, in "U&O" are bad. What is good? "Decorated sheds". A decorated shed is a building that implements a practical program in a reasonable way, and then, has some decoration added on to make it look better. In a 'duck', decoration 'interferes with the function; in a 'decorated shed', the building works functionally, but decoration hides the functional structure. At right is an example: a bank branch office which is a suburban single famiiy house with a Greek temple facade stuck on its front.
"When modern architects righteously abandoned ornament on buildings, they unconsciously designed buildings that were ornament.... They substituted for the innocent and inexpensive practice of applied decoration on a conventional shed the rather cynical and expensive distortion of program and structure to promote a duck.... It is all right to decorate construction, but never to construct decoration,: (VENTURI2, P. 109)
[Hagiographic monuments, such as the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC?] We have seen that not everything Mr. Venturi calls a duck is one. Let us now move from the critical to the constructive part of his argument: that applied decoration is good. When a Levittown resident decorates his tract house with applique kitsch, he is pathetically trying to put some individuated meaning into his anonymizedly alienated existence. When an architect decorates a building, he is creating the conditions of alienation people will later have to endure. For an architect to apply decoration is usually a lie and always a distration, The premise underlying the application of decoration is tha the undecorated truth is not good enough. The prospect of a ground beef patty on a bun does not bring people running. But decorate it with glitzy packaging: a Big Mac, does. One makes the functional building ('shed') look like something more appealing than what it is, and the people come more willingly. Motivation thru deception. Would Saks Fifth Avenue sell as much luxury merchandise in a relabeled old Salvation Army store?
Ornament can distract the customer by making the building promise things more wonderful than it holds. This is its most frequent use but not its only use. A sophisticated person knows the purpose of the decoration, and need not be taken in by it. He can be distracted in a different way: He can lose himself in the play of forms and allusions. Consider the following description of Philip Johnson, from an essay, "the Work of Philip Johnson", by Giorgio Ciucci, in the catalog accompanying am IAUS exhibit: "Philip Johnson Processes: The Glass House, 1949, and the AT&T Corporate Headquarters, 1978". (These are Mr. Johnson's two most outstanding works. The catalog, and Mr. Ciucci's essay, seems meant to be adulatory.)
"...what counts for Johnson is the sensation aroused.... Johnson's basic intent it.... that form should be determined solely in accordance with the subjectivity of taste and a set of gratuitous intellectual associations.... No value is attributed to architecture as such. As far as Johnson is concerned architecture no longer needs any 'crutches'. It can be reduced to being 'only art'. In this reassertion of art for art's sake, form becomes a limitless game unencumbered by false hopes." (IAUS, p. 23)
The architect (and here I am thinking about Mr. Venturi's, not Mr. Johnson's work) can even invent decorations that, taken literally, are discouraging, but, as references, are fascinating. The unconnected TV antenna atop Guild House symbolizes commercial television; its interest is not in the hope it (in fact, falsely) offers that one may find television reception in the building, but in the complex references it makes to abstract sculpture, geriatric sociology, the problematic of 'form and function'....
More often, the 'pieces' in the game are references to architectural elements from previous buildings, with (and here I return to Mr. Johnson) no putdown of anybody intended if detectable (irrelevance, yes; cynicism, no). History is the decorator's friend, not only because it is a place to find decorative elements (nostalgia), but also because, for the more sophisticated, it is also a treasury of meanings to be manipulated to achieve novel effects. The decorator (at least today, 1983) loves vestigal, rhetorical, double-reading, out-of-scale... elements, and is attracted by mannerism.(VENTURI1, passim) The Porta Pia and mannerist Palazzi are savored. In his book before Learning From Las Vegas, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Mr. Venturi admiringly cited Palazzo Tarugi, for its 'applique' of arches and pilasters, which "maintains itself against the sudden impositions of 'whimsical' windows and asymmetrical voids" (VENTURI1, p. 47). He distinguished contradiction adapted from contradiction juxtaposed, and relished both:
"In the Villa Pignatelli the mouldings, which dip, become string courses and window heads at once... In the Villa Palmoba the windows, which disregard the bay system and puncture the exterior panels, are positioned by internal needs." (VENTURI1, p. 57)
Mannerism, thus appropriated (but see above, also) is 'mannered'. It is an aesthetic game, not an ethical endeavor.. The architect who immerses himself in its play of images has distracted himself from consideration of 'real world' issues. He has turned his back on the ethical dimension of what he is doing.
Even 'ugly and ordinary' is a (very esoteric) kind of beautiful work. Most post-modern architecture is more obviously pretty. Freehand drawing skill is (1983) the most important prerequisite for admission to elite architecture schools.  It is a cliche (although i am not certain of the fact) that, in recent (1983) years, some of the 'important' post-modern architects have made more money selling color drawings of architectural designs than building buildings (that seems to be changing --- more of the drawings are getting built now). Many post-modern buildings are celebrations of colors and shapes that do dazzle. They sometimes (intentionally) recall the effects of Art Deco. They stand out. The ethical question is: Granted the building catches your attention, and even 'blinds' you, does it then give you back your sight? What happens after the dazzlement?
Let's consider a specific example of what I am calling "Beautiful and false": Philip Johnson's AT&T (later Sony) building: the "Chippendale skyscraper", now (1983) nearing completion on Madison Avenue at 56th Street in Midtown Manhattan. It is a paradigmatic 'post-modern' building (vide Mr. Johnson's picture on the cover of TIME magazine holding a model of it). As the building is not quite finished, my perceptions may require revision not just on account of my insensitivity and errors of judgment, but also because the object being judged may change.
The main impression of the AT&T building is htat is is very competently done. The craftsmanship --- every detail — seems excellent. Item: Over the service garage doors, the stone facing blocks, which I suspect are not 'structural', are cut at precise angles to make the faintest hint of an arch. Another item:The gold leaf cross vault ceiling or the lobby does not extend from wall to wall; each corner resting on a pilaster, the vault hovers an inch away from the walls (does this make it a baldahin?). (There is a refined visual sense according to which things that 'don't quite touch' are often more elegant than things that butt into each other.) This is clearly neither 'ugly and ordinary' nor 'modern architecture' minimalist functionalism.
The idea of a 40 story Chippendale dresser as an office building is probably an original insight (although there was Adolf Loos's entry into the Chicago Tribune competition (1922) of a skyscraper in the form of a Doric column, among other possible souces, such as maybe a dresser in Mr. Johnson's bedroom or a museum or antique shop). Mr. Johnson's building is impressive ('dazzling'). that it is 600 feet high by 200 feet wide helps here, but another building of the same size could be just drab, big and yawn.
Thereare many things I could say about the esthetics of this building but let me focus on just one: the windows. Many new skyscrapers do not have windows in the conventional sense; they are all glass (e.g., Trump Tower, on 5th Avenue between 57th and 56th Streets, or the Boston Prudential Building, made infamous for chunks of the glass facade falling off and crashing into the sidewalk below), or alternating glass and opaque panels . The all glass buildings work (or fail to work) as reflecting forms The AT&T building has traditional windows. and yet they are not traditional windows: no mullions (and, of course, they do not open) --- each window is a single sheet of dark glass. The windows are somewhat traditional and somewhat original. In the daytime, they are all dark, like the dark glasses blind people wear. I was reminded of the picture on the cover of the old Harvest paperback edition of Sophocles' Theban plays: a hollow mask with holes for eyes and the wind blowing thru it (below).
Mannerism is nothing new for Philip Johnson, vide the 'too small' pavilion he built in 1962 on an artificial lake at his New Canaan (Connecticut) estate. The 'chippendale skyscraper' is a mannerist building. It has 'good taste' (is neither "U&O" nor garish like some of Michael Graves' work), but it is nonetheless superficial (does not address the vital issues of persons' living: as far as the working lives of the employees are concerned, it could just as well be any cold 6th Avenue modern architecture "glass box"). I was struck by this in re-examining the lobby. The first time I saw the lobby, looked up to behold the golden, muscled figure of 'The Spirit of Electricity' looming over me, and I felt intimidated. Then, another day, I looked again, after having passed by Rockefeller Center. Rockefeller Center ha a giant male nude, too: Atlas holding up the heavens, is muscles straining about as convincingly as an Art Deco male nude's muscles can strain. Looking again at Mr. Spirit of Electricity, remembering the other giant from the other place, I saw that the AT&T giant was not straining: he was posing, and he was not posing as a straining giant, but as a narcissistic body builder, in a stereotypically mannerist, i.e., anti-functional position, scaled up, and with wings glued on. (A person I was with perceived homosexual overtones in the pose.)
Some aspects of the building's ground level are friendly. Much of it is mutely intimidating. Some of it is amusing. (We have not mentioned the famous cutout at the top, thru which the building may one day emit puffs of steam; Mr. Johnson notes that the 'hole' solved the problem of a 'too long' --- 200 foot facade, and that every skyscraper in Manhattan gives off steam --- touche!) The building does not all 'read' in a single way. It is 'complex and contradictory' (in the sense lauded by Mr. Venturi in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. It doesn't really invite you. On the other hand, it does give you more space to wander than many office buildings. It is a limitless game, unencumbered by false hopes.... You can play to the extent that you can play (I presume Mr. Johnson has the most fun, followed by his architect friends, then AT&T executives...).
One night, however, I saw the building from a distance, with all the windows lit up; it looked like a regular big office block. I saw the shed behind the decoration. Mr. Johnson's AT&T building, inside, is an ordinary office building, in terms of the clerks' job descriptions and the 'raison d'etre' of the corporation. After it dazzles you, it lets you down (unless you are a post-modern architect playing the 'allusion game'). Cultural accmplishments that are indifferent to people teach by example that culture is indifferent to people. If persons are sub-sets of culture.(being bundles of knowledge, beliefs, hopes, habits...), the message then becomes that their essence is indifferent to them.
* * * * * * *
In his essay "The Work of Philip Johnson", which we have briefly considered, above, Georgio Ciucci sees Philip Johnson a defining "a 'third way'... between the search for an absolute and the acceptance of the real" (*IAUS, p. 34). The architect in search of the absolute, for Mr. Cuicci, is Louis Kahn; the architect who accepts the real, Robert Venturi. "Between these extremes, Johnson sings a 'false' note." (IAUS, p. 35-7). ("False" here must have some esoteric meaning which I fail to perceive, because Mr. Ciucci's essay is a paean to Philip Johnson.)
But Mr. Ciucci says something more: He likens Philip Johnson, with his 'falsity' and contradictoriness: "...I am not consistent with myself" (IAUS, p. 30), to Robert Musil's 'the man without qualities'. 'The man without qualities' (Ulrich, in Musil's book of the same name) is unique. More than a renaissance man, he is a searcher for an immanent absolute in everyday experience, a searcher for salvation in the most rigorous, logical, scientific and technological processes. Ulrich rejects all forms of 'falsity', and seeks the 'mystical' in the very heart of precise scientific insight.
At one point in the novel, Ulrich goes to work in an engineering office (because that's where the precision is). He leaves in disgust when he discovers that the engineers do not consistently carry the rigor of their work into their daily living: they wear tieclips with horses' heads on them. I think that, if 'the man without qualities' went to either Robert Venturi's or Philip Johnson's office, he would soon leave, for he would not need the paycheck and would not wish to participate in the games.
That an apologist for a great decorator would assimilate him to 'the man without qualities' indicates the extent to which the 'Aint-Christ' has taken on the guise of the 'Christ'. In a world where 'falsity' is a commendation, it may be relevant to remember the 'showers' in Auschwitz.
A veneer of ethical content in the work produced is not precluded by the maker's having adopted a narrowly esthetic position. Peter Eisenman has proposed that Philip Johnson's glass house is a statement about the horrors of war, that its imagery --- the brick fireplace/bathroom cylinder rising from the brick floor --- derives from Johnson's experience of chimneys and foundations whose buildings had been blown away by the bombing in World War II." (JOHNSON, p. 23). I do not see any such relation but, pursuant to the principle of psychoanalytic "free association" anything can be associated with anything. As Sigmund Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, the inventor of subliminally manipulative advertising observed, for women, a cigarette is not just crushed tobacco rolled into piece of paper. But I do not see any war devastation associations in Mr. Johnson's Glass House, which seems to me closer to an empty office in a modernist glass wall office building. On the other hand, I have recently (2022) come to see it as looking like the Union ironclad Monitor with its revolutionary cylindrical gun turret and its flat deck just above the water line, sailing across Mr. Johnson's estate's lawn. But for me this is strictly a visual resemblance, not anything symbolic (below).
The question arises, however, whether such 'ethical content' is something ethical, i.e., engagement with shaping persons' trajectories through living, or only another instrument which Mr. Johnson has orchestrated, however magnificently, to help make the 'sensation' more exquisite, the esthetic standpoint appropriating the ethical as merely another object of esthetic delectation.
I transcribed the present document to the computer from hard copy which I originally submitted in Professor Greene's "Esthetics in Education" course at Teachers College, 1983. In typing up the previous paragraph, 'it hit me', and I cannot imagine how I missed this in my original course submission: A couple years before taking Professor Greene's course I had attended the Harvard summer Career Discovery program in Architecture as part of my personal, abortive, failed attempt to become an architect. My submission for one of the course projects was precisely a chimney and foundation for a building that had been blown away... Well, not exactly: a building that had been devastated in General William Tecumseh Sherman's famous (or if you were 'a Southerner', infamous) "march through Georgia"), which has been described as the origin of "total war" that has characterized the modern world through and including the present day (06 March 2022). Let me make the time line here entirely clear: I did my project long before I knew anything important about Philip Johnson's glass house, and, a fortiori, before I read Mr. Eisenman's thoughts about the war connection, and I wrote the present essay for Prof. Greene, long after I had done the said project. The project was not influenced by The Glass House and the essay should have cited the project.
"Thomas, Daniel says, was now to ravage Georgia, but Sherman, from all accounts, has done that work once for all. There will be no aftermath. They say no living thing is found in Sherman's track, only chimneys, like telegraph poles, to carry the news of Sherman's army backward." (Mary Chestnut, 26 Feb 1865. A Diary From Dixie: Electronic Edition. Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut, 1823-1886, Academic Affairs Library, UNC-CH University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1997)
The course assignment had been to design a building to house a single rare book, using only one each of each architectural element, an assignment which, taken literally, is absurd on its face: one door, OK; one floor, OK; one wall? Well, now that I think about it, maybe: a turret. OK, I missed it. But I was thinking about the door being required to have only one hinge, the hinge only one screw....
First things first: The assignment explained that the book to be housed in this building, whatever the building might be, was unreadable because its content was semantically obscure. This smelled possibly suspicious to me (I very much wanted to know the secret the book held!), so I went to the main Harvard library (Widener) and did some quick investigating. I discovered that the difficulty with the book was that it was execrably printed, not noetically difficult. I reported this to Chief program officer. He did not indicate pleasure in my discovery that he had made a mistake in the project statement. Obviously, I was not pleased with him, but I was in no position to tell him to shape up. When I was later to ask him how an application from myself to his institution's MArch program (from which as an aside, Philip Johnson graduated) might be received, he told me:
"When we admit people like you they leave after a year without having to be asked to."
But that bon mot was yet to come. The project lasted a week and for the first six days I got nowhere. It was fourth quarter and the clock was running out and I was down by six. I was about to end up with no project submission. Woe was me!
I was frustrated, and every other negative emotion. Somehow I remembered that General Curtis Lemay had bombed almost every major city in Japan to rubble during World War II, and I immediately saw my solution to the problem, albeit which entailed playing loose with the problem specification: The rubble left by General Sherman's army passing through a Georgia plantation, would leave one foundation, one porch, with one flight of stairs leading up to it, one column still standing on the porch, and one chimney left standing on the foundation. I added a very simple one room building (as close as feasible to having one of everything, atop the rubble to house the one book: a study room where a person could go to reflectively engage with the book. Exactly what Mr. Ciucci wrote about Mr. Johnson's elegant Glass House.:
The building is one simple room, with a large window, not visible here, facing West. In front of the window is a desk and chair, with the single rare book open on the desk. There, a person can study the book, looking out over the still standing chimney, to facilitate reflective thinking about The Decline of the West [Ger.: Abendland], especially: thinking about postmodernism, while watching the sun go down. If this does not fit Mr. Ciucci's description of Mr. Johnson's Glass House, what could? In class, when we students presented our projects, they went from one student after another to stand up and speak to the class on his or her project, I spoke about persons in my building reflecting on the decline of Western Civilization. Next student! There was not one single word from anybody about the destiny of Western Civilization or anything else such as maybe the meaning of architecture. Next student!
The above picture is the last scene from Michelangelo Antonioni's 1960 film L'Avventura, where Monica Vitti and her sometime lover share a moment of grace and forgiveness, or perhaps despair, in the anomie of their post World War II lives as part of the European cultural elite, looking out past what may be ruins of Roman building, at the setting sun. Next student!
* * * * * * *
As Broch said, a system is not made ethical by the inclusion of ethical themes, but by its providing man with the necessary direction for him to act as a man. My candidate for an ethical architect is Louis Kahn. (Kahn was not perfect; item: he had two mistresses.) His face was badly scarred from something that happened in his childhood (I do not know the details). He died like a stray dog from a heart attack in a stall in a public toilet in New York's Pennsylvania Railroad Station [read his New York Times Obituary for details]. Here's what Philip Johnson had to say about him:
"Welcome to our favorite man, Mr. Lou Khan; he is one of the bright stars in our firmament.... Kahn is one of the few really original revolutionaries against the classic type of modern architecture...." (JOHNSON, p. 91)
[I'm sorry, but I just cannot stop feeling that "our favorite man, Mr. Lou..." sounds like decadent snobbery worthy of my fellow but far more pedigreed Yalie, Mr. William F. Buckley, Jr.] Mr. Johnson speaks specifically about Kahn's Richards Medical Research Laboratory (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1960), characterizing it as:
"...really one of the most exciting buildings we have." (JOHNSON, p. 91)
He relates an incident that happened during the building's construction: There were some air-conditioning ducts that ran under the floors where nobody would see them. The contractor proposed running the ducts diagonally, because that was the cheapest way. The visible pattern of circulation thru the building, on the other hand, was all right angles.
"Lou said: 'No. if a man has to walk that way to go there, then the under-floor ducts should go that way even if you never see them.' That is the kind of esthetic logic that is expensive, but rather wonderful, because it shows his [Kahn's] absolute will." (JOHNSON, p. 91)
Mr. Johnson calls Kahn's way of doing things (well illustrated by the little story) 'neo-functionalism': form expresses function. To contrast Mr. Johnson's own attitude, consider:
"Goethe said the pilaster is a lie! One should answer him today --- yes, but what a delightfully useful one." )JOHNSON, p. 20)
Respectfully, Mr. Johnson, may I ask what that use is? Is the pilaster's use perhaps for decoration, i.e., a 'use' not in a functional but only in a teleological sense, esp., of use to an architect in prosecution of his esthetic agenda?
Mr. Johnson is, at least as far as I can tell from his writings and buildings, a 'large spirited' man, gracious and generous. He asks to be judged on the merits of his own work, not by invidious comparison with others (contrast: Robert Venturi versus Paul Rudolph, above). And yet he seems to 'miss the point'. All he can see in Khan is the esthetic. He admires Khan for Khan's consistency (an 'ethical' category that, like 'honor', is respected in the realm of the merely esthetic), combined with the fact that the results of Khan's work are 'exciting' (i.e., do arouse wonderful sensations).
Kahn would, I feel, interpret his commitment differently. The important thing for him about the Richards Lab (as Jacob Bronowski might have said) is not what it looks like, but what it works like --- how this building functions to support medical research, not just in terms of providing effective spaces in which to conduct the business of research, but also in terms of opening up space to inspire research. What matters for Khan is not his consistency or will per se, but that in the service of which they operate: a vision of the kind of activities that might go on in the living of persons who come in contact with the building; everything is accountable to that. Kahn's goal is to provide direction for persons to live as fully human and creative lives as possible.
I have never seen the Richards Labs. The only Kahn buildings I have actually been in are his two art galleries at Yale. I wish here to cite as an example of ethical architecture a building with which I have intimate acquaintance by having worked in it for over two years: Eero Saarinen's IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center (Yorktown Heights, New York). To make a riff on an old Packard Motor Company advertising slogan: "Ask the man who worked in one." I hope you, my reader, may be just a bit puzzled that a corporate edifice and not, say, an art museum or university educational building or a synagogue or a private home (or whatever) would be cited as an example of ethics. There is nothing ethical about a person being an employee which as Abraham Lincoln believed, differs from slavery primarily in being a temporary condition. Louis Kahn's building does not change capitalism into anarcho-syndicalism. He was designing a building for a bunch of employees, albeit, an elite group: persons whose labor was shaping the future of technology in the present technological world (ref. Jacques Ellul's writings, passim), and, often, the workers actually got human satisfaction from their work --- inventing things --, not just flipping ground beef patties or other corporations. Enough for the demurral; on to the evidence:
As said, I worked in the Watson Lab (1982-85?). Some years previously I had done work similar to what I did there in a converted warehouse in an industrial depot, so I had experienced uninspiring conditions for my partly inspiring and partly uninspiring mental labor. The Watson Lab was remarkable; it was a joy to be in. Every employee had a private office --- no cubicles. I could lock my office door and do anything inside, and one of the world's leading nuclear weapons scientists had indeed once shut his office door and had sex with his secretary there (somehow this was found out and he got a slap on the wrist for it; the closest I came was visiting tte lab one Sunday afternoon with a young lady who could have been a Soviet agent). But there was something very special about the offices: Nobody had a window, not even the Corporate Director of Research, at the time, Dr. Ralph Gomory, a to all appearances humble man who always walked around slightly stoop-shouldered as if, as indeed surely was the case, he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. His office differed from mine in being bigger and having 3 rooms (he held a lot of meetings and had a secretary), but no window. Well, what are you supposed to and what do you want to do in your office? IBM THINK. Thinking is primarily in your head, not in the scenery. And maybe you even wanted to doze off for a while?
All the offices were dark except when you turned on the lights, with one exception: One employee [ not of a very high rank] wanted a view, so the company put a video camera pointing out the window in a public area and gave the man a TV set in his office to look out that window, 24/7/325.25 --- that's what IBM was like then (the early 1980's) for researchers. However! As soon as you walked out your office door, you were in daylight; if there was an electric power failure (which, of course was rare with IBM's heavy duty power supply to the building) -- if there was an electric power failure and it was light out you would not need a flashlight in to get around or get out. The aisles were, with only a couple exceptions for scientific, not status reasons, open at both ends to the public corridors, and the corridors were 100% natural light suffused, with floor to ceiling glass. On the service side the corridor looked out on a garden; on the other side, where people would normally go for all higher purposes such as walking to visit someone in a different office or going to the lavatory or the cafeteria, or showing a visiting dignitary around, the view was a panorama of the Westchester County countryside. And if that was not enough for you, you could always go out a door and walk onto the lawn. The building maximized natural light (lux mentis lux orbis).
Every building has corridors. The Lab's corridors were architecturally ethical. Least considerations first: The building is very long, and if you took a corridor and set it out to show the two ends, it would be long enough for you to feel small, like going into an endless tunnel. Not good. But he building was a gentle arc, so that wherever you went in the long corridor which did go end to end, you could only see maybe a hundred feet(?) in front of you: long enough to convey the message that there was more of it and that you could keep going, but short enough that you felt gently enclosed. The corridors in the Lab were esthetically magnificent, especially snice the internal walls was solid (not veneer!) stone. Granite on one side and manicured nature on the other. The really humanistic / ethical aspect of the corridors was something else: spaced perhaps every 40 feet was a little alcove with a "white board", a low table and a couple chairs. If you wanted to sit and read and/or THINK and you wanted to get out of your windowless office, you could go sit there. If you wanted to have an impromptu "brainstorming" session (and what could researchers want more?), no room reservation was needed. You thought up some brilliant idea, either writing on that white board by yourself or in conversation / debate with a couple fellow employees? There was a little tag on the white board which you could turn to say "Do not erase". Not a good idea if you have just solve Fermat's last theorem, but the honor system worked for less mission critical purposes. This, in my estimation is the most ethical part of the whole building design and implementation: The building encouraged you to THINK by offering welcoming spaces for thinking.
There were other ethical / humanistic aspects to the building, some of them not architectural, such as the French Chef running the cafeteria where we had duck a l'orange for 75 cents (I took two) once every couple weeks, and risky offerings like scungili occasionally, too, but you could also get a hamburger. There was the library with its open stacks and subscriptions to many journals, not all of them directly business-related, such as UNESCO "Impact of science on society". And in the library you could sit at a little table and look out over the landscape, because the library split the second floor corridor around the building. The restrooms: They did not have windows, but they were spacious and they had showers. This may have been a legal requirement because some of the scientists handled corrosive chemicals, but also, if I went for a jog around the area at 2 in the afternoon, I could shower there, which several times I in fact did. Was the building pretty" Judge for yourself (below):
I could go on about this building, but hopefully I have conveyed what I mean when I say it is an example of ethical architecture, in diametrical contrast with, for example: Mr. Venturi's cynical joke on aged Quakers (above) and the kind of sterile 'modern architecture' that Messrs. Venturi, Johnson, Blake and others rightfully criticize, and I would do them one better, as: antihuman. But the place was not Dr. Fraoçois Rabelais Abbey of Theleme, and sic transit gloria mundi. By happenstance I one day met a retired cardiologist who told me a little story: He said one of his patients had been a man who worked at "The Lab". This person told him that when John Akers became CEO of IBM in the 1980's, a directive came down for everybody to take their little THINK sign accessories off their desks. "They complied and stopped thinking." The lab itself is now under security, no longer visible from the public road and I have no idea what has become of its innards. After 19 years of employment and having finished my dissertation on communication in education, I was fired from IBM for ineptness in coding the C++ computer programming language and difficulty in adapting to work which did not contribute to my further cultural self-formation nor, it turned out, to the company's business. My final manager treated me like Heinrich Himmler treated persons of inferior races.
* * * * * * *
Kahn defined things teleologically, in terms of what he perceived as their highest potential for bringing joy and insight to persons. This sounds unusual. But if all definitions are normative (e.g.: to call a certain box a 'telephone' is not just 'stating a fact about the world' but also stating something --- perhaps from some perspectives fairly trivial, but non-null --- about what the world should become, either globally interconnected or detechnologized or whatever), then the difference between Khan's definitions and the usual ones is not a difference in kind ('normative' vs 'descriptive'), but a difference in worth (more vs less inspiring). Consider, as one example, Kahn's definition of a city:
"The city is the place of availabilities. It is a place where a small boy, as he walks through it, may see something that will tell him what he wants to do his whole life."(LOBELL, p. 44)
After reading these words, I saw cities differently than before: they looked worse and I expected more from them. Instead of the alienation of wage labor, the satisfactions in accomplishment of master craftsmanship [Elizbeth Eisenstein's characterization of the form of life of early Renaissance master printers seems to me a good example].
Kahn speaks of 'the treasury of spaces'. Johnson seeks to make beautiful spaces. What is the difference? Broch writes:
"The artist who limits himself to a search for new areas of beauty creates sensations, not art." (BROCH, ref. lost)
Mr. Johnson admittedly aims to produce sensations and nothing more. Kahn's 'beautiful spaces' (I did find his 1953 Yale Art Gallery, especially the triangularly articulated ceilings of the exhibition spaces, beautiful) --- the places that constitute what he calls 'the treasury of spaces' ---, produce, beyond sensations, a form of life: they attempt to realize his ideal definitions of things. If one demurs: What is there to life beyond sensations?, perhaps the answer (if one understands the word 'sensations' in a sufficiently rich sense) is: Nothing. In that sense, one might say that Kahn's commitment is to nurture in each person's ("Everyman"s, ref.: the Medieval morality play by that name) living the sensations I imagine Philip Johnson has in his living. Not every person does, like Mr. Johnson, spend most of his hours of waking life as a generating armature of creative activity of world-historical import. Most people have hardly any creativity at all (except for "procreativity"). Mr. Johnson seems to ignore this: Kahn explicitly aims to change it. And even as one who dwells in the region of these high 'sensations', Mr. Johnson seems simply to have them, enjoy them, whereas Kahn not only presumably enjoyed them but also cared for them, both by building spaces which encourage their cultivation, and also by cultivating reflection. For Kahn, words were an important part of his art. Mr. Johnson said: "The word kills art." (JOHNSON, p. 11). Louis Kahn famously had a conversation with a brick.
In a decorated shed, the beauty is only skin deep; in an ethical building, the beauty penetrates deeply into the daily activities of persons' living. To repeat: I do not set Louis Kahn up as a leader to follow. I am inspired by his words: Instead of decorating unappealing functions (e.g., office work in the AT&T building), let us make functions more appealing.
* * * * * * *
I have seen little of Kahn's work (I adduced my example of ethical architecture, above), and the one building with which I as familiar — his 1953 Yale Art Gellery --- I have not seen in many years. From the outside, perhaps this building is a bit of a disappointment, a bit 'puny', as if not quite confident of itself? On the inside there are some wonderful things, especially the ceilings. They are triangulated concrete grids, above which, if one looks closely, one can see the ductwork and other infrastructure, but dimly, unobtrusively (unlike Pompidou Center in Paris, where the infrastructure is garishly made a spectacle). The spaces are gentle, quiet, and encourage gentleness and quiet in the visitor. The circular stairwell is softly skylit (I used to use it instead of the elevator, not only because it was quicker, but also because it was the more enjoyable way to go from floor to floor). The entry, with its little foyer and book/gift shop, is welcoming. All of it is to a human scale, without decoration or pretension. Muted tones of gray concrete and glazed brick --- perhaps a little cold (which tells the truth of the "don't touch" atmosphere of an art museum) ---, contrasting with the rich brown warmth of the hardwood floors (be careful not to slip on them because they are highly polished). It dazzled, not like a klieg light in the face, but rather like a 'rough' Japanese tea bowl --- not with bright electromagnetic radiation, but the 'light' of subtle details. To me it felt like a good building. (Recently (1983) the building has been much patched onto and does not look like it did when I was an undergraduate student at Yale, 1964-68.
The kind of things that stand out in Kahn's Yale Art Gallery encourage people to want to use the buiding and to grow in their living. (Contrast with the things that stand out in Mr. Johnson's AT&T headquarters, which are mostly irrelevant to people's living, and, a fortiori, the things that stand out in Mr.Venturi's Guild house, which are even degrading to people, or a stairway to a blank wall in the house he built for his mother --- don't bump your head into that wall on your way to heaven.
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I am not sure how 'good' an architect Kahn was. It may be that Philip Johnson is more 'intelligent' (or, a fortiori, the [arrogant...] genius, Frank Lloyd Wright). Kahn endeavored to build well; Mr. Johnson tries to build beautifully. The Venturis and the Johnsons operate within the closed circles of their, albeit profoundly differing, esthetic games (I myself far prefer Mr. Johnson's: Glass House in Arcadia to Guild House in Las Vegas). Kahn's continuing aspiration was, thru his work, to raise persons up, not by implementing a particular social plan, but by creating spaces that would nurture the best in them, and by speaking his vision.
On the subject of social responsibility, Kahn said:
"It is disgraceful not to supply needs.... But desire is infinitely more important than need." (LOBELL, p. 68) [Aside: Frank Lloyd Wright said, might we say?, 'hyperbolically': "Give me the luxuries in life and I will gladly do without the necessities." (ref. lost)]
Kahn attempted to build spaces that would both satisfy need and nurture desire, for, until need is satisfied, truly human life: creation and insight are intractable or impossible, a growling stomach interfering with a longing for the infinite. But, to borrow from Abraham Maslow's notion of the "hierarchy of needs", after a person's belly is full, if he doesn't have something he really wants to do, life will not be worth living and he may be bored to death or otherwise dysfunctional (the fragile opportunity for creativity and insight in living opened by the satisfactions of needs will be lost --- playing over reality (again, I advert to Donald Winnicott and Masud Khan, also, Edmund Husserl's prize student Eugen Fink's Play as symbol of the world (Indiana University Press, 2016)).
Kahn tried to build spaces that would help persons to see (lux mentis lux orbis). He also felt it important to teach his vision and hope. He had high respect for the true teacher, and hoped he was one. He believed the process, the product, and to speak of process, product and speech itself were all important:
"You cannot make a building unless you are joyfully engaged. If what I say somehow activates this feeling, I would, of course, be terribly pleased and honored." (LOBELL, p. 6)
The point is not how well Kahn succeeded in making the kind of spaces he hoped to make. He may have made some. There are others. (A friend writes (1983) to me about a garden of raked rocks in Kyoto, Japan. 2022 Addendum: In 1984 I got to visit Japan and experienced the dry gardens and other aspects of "the world of the Shining Prince Genji". There is a great book for Western architects: The Japanese House: A tradition for contemporary architecture (Tuttle, 1964).) And we should hope for more. My knowledge of architecture is far from encyclopedic, and, in any case, what 'turns me on' may not strongly affect another person. and vice verse. In the other arts, too, there are works that have been successful for me (especially, Hermann Broch's novels).
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I cannot read such words as these with which Arthur Drexler concludes his Preface to Five Architects (Oxford University Press, 1975) without feeling something is profoundly wrong:
"An alternative to political romance is to be an architect, for those who actually have the necessary talent for architecture. The young men represented here [Eisenman, Graves, Gwalthmey, Hadjuk, Meier] have the talent (along with a social conscience and a considerable awareness of what is going on around them) and their work makes a modest claim: it is only architecture, not the salvation of man and the redemption of the earth, For those who like architecture that is no mean thing." (FIVEA, p. 2)
It seems to me (how does it seem to you, my reader?) that the earth needs to be redeemed and man to be saved [including to be redeemed and saved from religious, political and other parochial belief systems which camouflage themslves behind redemption and salvation rhetoric, of course]. An architecture (or any endeavor) that ignores the alienation of modern man and the pollution of the environment --- in 2022 the latter is resulting in "global warming" --- is at best irrelevant (where disaster impends, irrelevance helps assure the disaster will occur, as in the old cliche about us "fiddling while Rome burns"). "The earth has become small, and on it hops the Last Man, who makes everything small." (Friedrich Nietzsche, citing from memory)
'Art for art's sake' is usually defended by invidious comparison with some form of 'art with a message' --- socialist realism, messianic modernism or whatever other propaganda ---, with the intent of leading us to choose the lesser evil. I propose that 'art for art's sake' and 'art with a message' do not exhaust the option space. Both start from the premise that we already know what to do. Art for art's sake is not interested in anything outside itself; it accepts the given socio-politico-psycho-economo-etceteral status quo and limits itself to decorating it. Art with a message is not interested in itself but only in preserving the status quo, or changing it into a different status quo the attributes of which are already known but which, for whatever reason(s) is not the present status quo. Suppose the problem is to discover what we should, and, a fortiori, what we might want to do? And suppose this is not a 'once for all' exercise, but an open-ended task, never to be completed no matter what we discover, because everything we already now is always finite and cannot take into account what we don't know and the unknown possible? An art whose 'message' is to question all things and search for what is good (cf: 1 Thess 5:21) would not be an aestheticism. On the other hand, it does not propagandize a given program, or consequently is not didacticism either. To borrow a phrase from Professor John Wild (1900-72): It is openness to otherness. Artworks its practitioners create would not have any message (unlike propaganda) but it would thematize a meta-message (unlike estheticism). To borrow the motto of the United States state of New York: Excelsior! When you are weary, rest wherever you are, but for the sake of rejuvenating yourself to climb higher than [i.e.: beyond] wherever you just happen to find yourself being.
This third alternative --- an art which knows (expresses!) that we do not already have 'the answers' (and never will have answers, but only ever more inclusive and nuanced hypotheses, and aims to discover not what any person or ideology says we should, but what we may want to do --- embraces both itself and the world. It does not subject itself to any part of he world, be it the status quo or any candidate for its replacement (although we may find that one or more of the latter are incremental improvements over the former, pro tem). It does not subordinate itself to anything which is part of the world, be it the status quo or any candidate for its replacement. It avoids both horns of the dilemma. Its one and constant task is always to strive to attain clarity of seeing, to perceive that what we have, whatever it is, is the result of past creative insights: the raw material for new creative insights, and that, more valuable than any specific content of the insights we have (no matter how valuable that content may be!) is having insights. (More important than what happens to appeal to us is for us to be open to being appealed to.) While any insight initially dazzles, as time goes on, whatever it disclosed becomes commonplace. Insights wear out; what does not wear out is the process of having (always [a]new...) insight, be it seeing something new, or seeing something old in a new way. Carl Sandberg wrote that the past is a bucket of ashes (I call it: a semiotic smörgåsbord for new creative play and accomplshment, which, parenthetically, is an educational function of it: the more we know, the more options we have).
When I speak of the function of ethical art as perpetual quest for brighter vision over an ever-darkening visible domain, I think I am restating something Louis Kahn said:
"All material in nature, the mountains and the streams and the air and we are made of light which has been spent, and this crumpled mass called material casts a shadow, and the shadow belongs to the light." (LOBELL, p. 6)
Everything that is is sediment of insight that once was new but now is old. Once there was no idea of 'mountain'. Somebody saw: 'Ah! Mountain!' For him it was an epiphany. It must have been an epiphany for his fellows when he shared it with them. Perhaps the insight gave all of them new power of geographic orientation. Mountains are 'old hat' to us. They, and everything else, are 'this crumpled mass called material'.
But the crumpled mass 'casts a shadow, and the shadow belongs to the light'. The shadow contains the adumbration of meanings --- easily overlooked most of the time, because they are usually faint and fragile --- that appear around the fringes and in the cracks within and between the things. The things appear at all (even in their levelled out 'crumpledness') only thru the light. Light produces the shadows. To see a shadow as shadow is to know the light. The light is insight and sharing of insight. New ideas are always ideas about something. The light must have a material on which to shine. The crumpled mass that is 'reality' is a consequence of the light that has forgotten its origin and its telos. It has become taken-for-granted ('obvious'). The world gets taken for granted, obvious. The shadows are unintended and unanticipated 'side effects' that, if attended to, can lead us to both the truth of the old --- generally how it is parochially perspectival --- and also to something new (a richer perspective). Whatever we have, we can see something in it (or see thru it...), and make something new out of it (all of which becomes yet the next --- 'new' --- 'whatever' on which to iterate this process). I would add: Even at best, every thing a person sees hides something else, and detracts attention from innumerable other things.
In another place, Kahn speaks more cryptically:
"Silence to light Light to silence / The threshold of their crossing / is the singularity / is inspiration / (where the desire to express meets the possible) / is the sanctuary of art / is the treasury of shadows / (material casts shadows / shadows belong to the light)" (KIMBEL, p. 11)
Kahn, famously, or perhaps for some, infamously, told a story of a conversation with a brick. Kahn asks: "What do you want, brick?" The brick answers: "I like an arch." Kahn (as 'advocatus diaboli') replies to the brick that arches are expensive and one can do the job another way: He tells the brick it can be used for infill in concrete. But the brick is stubborn. It repeats that it likes an arch, even if arches are expensive. Kahn concludes: "You can have the same conversation... with any material." (LOBELL, p. 40 --- I am partial to cobblestones) One doesn't have to make an arch. One can use the bricks as 'infill' in concrete. One can do the job 'somehow' (e.g.: the 'cost effective" way, as in Boeing 737-Max). But then the material will not shine. You will have only the 'crumpled mass' (though even that only by the dint of the light you have ignored). Personal story: I once ran a museum gift shop where I sold fine hand crafts, including fine ceramics. I once visited a supposedly highly respected potter whose work I was dubious about because, to get her pots to sit firmly on their feet she ground the bottoms down with abrasive. As I was examining one her small vases with its ground down foot, she said to me: "In the 20th century we do not have time to finish things the way you want." I immediately stopped dealing with her, but I have always remembered what she said.
Willa Cather (among others, of course) said: "The way is everything; The end is nothing." What has been done is never done with; it can become raw material to be re-worked: it is crumpled mass in which shadows dwell. Marcel Duchamp took Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and recycled her into: "L.H.O.O.Q." Today's solutions to yesterday's problems open up tomorrow's problems. This is obvious to physicists and astronomers (see Thomas Kuhn's The structure of scientific revolutions, passim), but not in religion, economics and politics. The work is (in Broch's words) 'open', our current beliefs are always what seem to us the best provisional hypotheses we've got today, to be questioned not accepted --- except provisionally. It is necessary to point out how one falls short, both in order that others who see the results are not misled into thinking they are more certain than they are (and, consequently, be duped about the hierarchical level of what today appears to be high) and also, for ourselves the searchers, to reap the harvest of shadows. The physicist Niels Bohr instructed his students:
"Take every statement I make as a question, not as an assertion."
(So too for architecture and art, and everything else, yes?)
In Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Mr. Venturi issues 'A Gentle Manifesto' for 'Nonstraightforward Architecture', in contrast with the supposed coldness --- inhumanity --- and, more than simplicity, oversimplification of 'modern architecture' [above I have offered specific evidence of an instance of modern architecture which does not oversimplify: Eero Saarinen's IBM Watson Lab]:
"I like complexity and contradiction in architecture.... But architecture is necessarily complex and contradictory.... By embracing contradictiion as well as complexity, I am for vitality as well as validity.... I like elements which are hybrid rather than 'pure', compromising rather than 'clean', distorted rather than 'straightforward', ...perverse as well as impersonal, boring as well as 'interesting', ...redundant rather than simple, vestigal as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear. I am for messy vitality over obvious unity.... I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning.... I prefer 'both-and' to 'either-or'.... A valid architecture evokes many levels of meaning and combinations of focus: its space and its elements become readable and workable in several ways at once. But an architecture of complexity and contradiction has a special obligation to the whole: Its truth must be in its totality.... More is not less." (VENTURI1, pp. 22-3)
De gustibus non disputandum est. Giving credit where credit is due, Mr. Venturi, up to the last 3 sentences, mostly frames these assertions as his personal predilections, not anything that might bindingly relate in any way to anyone else. Then in the last 3 sentences he shifts to the irresponsible dogmatic voice which tries to get away with binding everybody and forever (See footnote #3).
Of course, Mr. Venturi's polemic is aimed at Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who, in his turn, provocatively proclaimed: "Less is more." Isn't calling this a "gentle" manifesto existentially self-contradictory, since it seems to pointedly criticize modernists as being everything but gentle? Doesn't the final four monosyllable word sentence throw down the gauntlet for a duel? (Elsewhere, Mr. Venturi famously asserted, again, against the notorious modernist architect: "Less is a bore", ref. lost.)
Let us double down on the two battle cries. More is not less is a tautology which tells us nothing at all about the real world, only about relations among real numbers in arithmetic. So it must mean something else, what? It seems obvious to me that Mr. Venturi, in his passionate dislike for modernism, for whatever reasons or lack of same (e.g., being bored?), wants to keep modernist architects --- starting with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as a representative of an ideology (and Paul Rudolph as a person) --- from getting any more commissions. And what about: Less is more? That is an obvious self-contradiction, so it must mean something other that what it says, too, what? I think it means that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe abhored kitsch, lusted for perfect structural engineering --- which he failed to find in Philip Johnson's Glass House, for one item --- , and wanted people to like forms that expressed rational functions. What do the two have in common? Among other things, maybe both were trying to inspire young persons to be their students and/or work for them, and/or to drum up business. The medium is [a big part of...] the message (Marshall McLuhan).
Words, especially in philosophy and criticism, sometimes seem interpretable both as one thing and also as something else. Perhaps I misunderstand the Venturis and the Johnsons. If yes, may someone show me better how they are better and, perhaps also, how Louis Kahn is worse. It seems to me they have all avoided, again, what seems to me, a central issue for architecture in our time: to redesign the daily living of ordinary persons --- working, learning, eating... --- to increase opportunities for insight and reflection, i.e., to give persons increased opportunities to be extraordinary in the ordinary (granted, of course, after showing and making available to them all the options, they could still choose to be ordinary if that is what appeals to them), not just to design extraordinary-looking buildings to house daily life events in pre-supposed ordinariness, be the buildings of the crass Las Vegas kind or the refined Chippendale kind. Given the forced choice, I would choose Glass House over Guild House (or even Crawford Manor) every time, because I am admittedly an effete intellectual and connoisseur; I even think symphonic music and classical music public concerts are bad because of the law of large numbers: the more there are the less each is worth (see below). As for Mies quotes, I pick: "God is in the details." I have read (ref. lost, unfortunately) that when Mies visited Mr. Johnson's Glass House he was more than mildly displeased at the level of quality in the construction details. De disgustibus non disputandum est.
'Gentleness' can be a code word for sentimentality, overlooking faults, and mannerism in the bad sense of "good manners" (i.e., social hypocrisy): "Don't be so harsh on us!" Real gentleness --- as when I cuddle my pet cat --- is something deeply needed and often missing in all areas of living, not just architecture. (As a child in 1950's upscale split-level middle class suburban housing development America I found none of it: I was coerced each two weeks to get a haircut to help keep America beautiful Or else!. Being subjected to being haircutted was traumatic for me; passum sub iugum. Nobody was gentle; they didn't say: "Since we see this is so painful for you, child, of course, we won't make you do it do it. We don't want to hurt you.")
Authentic gentleness dwells in the new sight the true work of art gives you back. As I know it, this is experiencing space, freedom, quiet calm and significance, and its focus is less on what is experienced than that it is attenting to the experiencing of the content of the experiencing, to which the quality of that content is a contributing factor. In Heideggerean terminology: instead of thralldom with beings, awareness of [their] Being], i.e., awareness of being the event that what-is is; but, as I found out in Gund Hall in 1982, what do such things have to do with contemporary architecture's telos of decorating sheds? It is difficult not to anthromorphize, and say that real gentleness is the thanks a thing gives to us for caring for it and witnessing that it is, which it needs us to do --- but this can happen, of course, only if the thing is gentle to us.)
Oversimplification, which was a failing of some of what called itself 'modern architecture", such as big impersonal office tower megaliths like 666 Fifth Avenue in New York City, is obviously wrong, just like impersonal "public housing projects" (in which Guild House would look at home except for that fake column in the entrance and its semi-circular window in the common room on the top floor), and tract housing developments are bad. Any 'solution" which ignores part of the problem has not solved the problem. The full scope of the problem needs to be addressed, although sometimes it is necessary to not address the problem as stated, but to expose that the real problem is something else (an endeavor that sometimes might be mistaken for 'oversimplificaton'). (If he problem as posed is traffic jams, might the real problem be not speeding up the traffic flow but lessening society's dependence on private automobiles?) Were Mies, Oud and Corbu guilty of oversimplification if, in redesigning workers' housing, they also redesigned the pattern of life to be lived in it, i.e., into a much less cluttered and in that way simpler life? To quote the modernist architect Walter Gropius:
"The standardization of the practical machinery of life implies no robotization of the individual, but, on the contrary, the unburdening of his existence from much necessary dead-weight so as to leave him free to develop on a higher plane." (GROPIUS, p. 90)
Would a housewife with three screaming small children and no maid rather clean a Victorian or a Corbusian living room? To take a trivial but perhaps paradigmatic example: Why should any workers have to waste their labor time producing fake mullions to make the windows in today's suburban tract houses look like the windows in colonial houses? From Gunston Hall to Gund Hall? But aren't real Federalist homes such as Gunston Hall, where the windows have mullions because making large panes of glass was difficult and expensive in the 18th century, more "austere", more "abstract" architecturally than contemporary Robert A.M. Stern MacMansions?
The architect who works well will have no dearth of complexity and contradictiion, because real architectural problems --- such as designing a place where it is good to learn --- define tasks for supporting open-ended living, while every solution is a limited product composed of constrained elements. The 'unity' casts a shadow somewhere, whether it is in some detail such as the configuration of the public rest rooms for more privacy or more facilities (I for one, find urinals without full privacy partitions in a men's room degrading, and prefer to use a toilet stall with a lockable door on it, but in contrast some other males seem to enjoy exposing their genitals to each other even though they do not therewith engage in homosexual assignations and are even homophobes), or deeper issues that the policies of the institutions that generated the commissions are inimical, such as large open offices full of "cubicles".
But fascinaton with <producing extra complexities and contradictions, such as the stairway to a blank wall which Mr. Venturi designed into his home for his mother ("Vanna House"), as opposed to engagement with overcoming the unsolicited complexities and contradictions in reality seems to me a perversion of man's role to replace mindless Darwinian nature with wise empathy. 'The world' (reality)presents problems for man, including for architects, to solve. Kelly Johnson (storied lead engineer of Lockheed "Skunkworks", which designed the U-2 and SR-71) and the United States Navy (1960) have urged: KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid).
Distorted, vestigal, compromising... meanings are parasitic on clear,, clean meanings: If you've confused yourself, how do you know what you are doing? It's different, of course, if you are very clear what you are doing to play games with somebody else's head, like the windows in Guild House. Why didn't Mr. Venturi just give the people what they wanted, if it
was what they wanted (and how much research did he to do find that out?): public housing project windows for the plastic flowers he decided they liked to put in them? Mr. Venturi really should have provided an audit trail for us to appreciate where the design for Guild House came from. Was it Palazzo Tarugi? The Trump Organization?
Don't we need to strive for clarity, to try to keep from losing our way in the complexity of what-is and the contradictions in our limited understanding of it. Martin Heidegger has an image for our explorations of the world: "Holzwege" --- loggers paths in the forest. A logger knows where the endlessly confusing brachiations of the paths through the forest lead, but others easily lose their way. In German, apparently a cliché for being lost is: "to be on a Holzweg". Why not make road signs, especially on superhighway interchange spaghetti tangles complex and contradictory? It's often hopeless if you are unfamilar, to find your way through the complexities of highways in places like New York City's Long Island boroughs, even though presumably the highway engineers tried to make the signs helpful. Nor may it be irrelevant to recall that powerful ideas are often breathtakingly simple and straightforward; a computer programmer whose sharp insight eliminates a lot of lines of code has been more productive than all the people who wrote them all to smother the problem by adding more and more complex code to handle exception cases they did not really understand but had to patch somehow to get the product out the door.
Mr. Venturi's use of the word 'totality' may just be loose verbiage. Emmanuel Levinas, in his book Totality and Infinity, distinguishes between 'totality' as a closed system, and 'infinity' as (what Professor John Wild called:) openness to otherness. These are also Broch's categories. We cannot totalize 'the world', because we didn't create it but find ourselves always already somewhere in the midst of it. But we can arbitrarily create a false totality by drawing a boundary line and ignoring everything outside the perimeter, which latters can then come back from outside the totality to bite us ("Where the hell did that come from? It's not in the manual!"). It is not important to include everything including the kitchen sink in the building (unless people are going to cook in it). It is important that the building be open to what the architect never thought it might have to cope with, so maybe we should include a kitchen sink after all if the architect didn't think of it? RMS Titanic was un[-]sink[-]able and consequently did not need enough lifeboats for every soul on board..
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One of Louis Kahn's last works was the Kimbel Art Museum. Richard Brown, Director of the museum, dedicated a monograph, describing the process of the building's creation, to the architect, as:
"...an offering of thanks for his leading us, through his character and his art, to a fuller appreciation of why life is worth living." (KIMBEL, p.&nbsbp;7)
That seems to me a good reason to have done something. To make a riff on the title of Professor Heidegger's essay on arthitecture: Bauen Wohnen Denken Spielen (Build to dwell to think to [thoughtfully] play).
Hermann Broch, 'Notes on the Problem of Kitsch', in Gillo Dorfles, Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste, Universe Books, 1970 (BROCH)
Five Architects, Oxford University Press, 1978 (FIVEA)
Walter Gropius, The new architecture and the bauhaus, MIT Press, 1965 (GROPIUS)
Philip Johnson, Philip Johnson Writings, Oxford University Press, 1979 (JOHNSON)
Philip Johnson: Processes The Glass House, 1949 and the AT&T Corporate Headquarters, 1978, The Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, 1978 (IAUS)
Light Is The Theme, Kimbell Art Museum, 1975 (KIMBELL)
John Lobell, Between Silence and Light, Shambala, 1979 (LOBELL)
George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, Oxford University Press, 1975 (STEINER)
Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Museum of Modern Art, 1966 (VENTURI1)
———, Learning From Las Vegas, MIT Press, 1975 (VENTURI2)
I wrote this paper for a course in "Esthetics in Education", given by Professor Greene. At the start of the class, I asked her if I could write a paper on a topic tangentially related to the course INSTEAD, repeat: instead of doing the course assignments. She told me to go do it, and the original version of this paper is what I submitted to her.
This is brilliant, inspired, scholarly, and deeply moving—
It should, at least, give rise to a book—
I would feel privileged at any time to work with you --- perhaps to share some insights and puzzlements; but I am in so many ways behind you in accomplishment.
I'm going to continue to try to help you find the Brochian place where you can live your worthy life as you choose it to be.
Idea of transfiguration of the ordinary can be found in Hebrew practice and tradition.
Our "viewpoints", our "visions" are probably the source of a good deal of our freedom. The rest comes with the "insight" you so marvelously describe.
Your account of the "return" after reading Broch moved me with recognition.
The notion of an "ethical art" in your and Kahn's sense is probably worthy of a book.