Saturday, February 28, 2009

Less is More. Less is a Bore.

The difference between Modernism and Postmodernism has always perplexed me. Isn’t anything created today “modern?” And how could anything be postmodern? It would seem to me that everything that has yet to be created would be postmodern and therefore nothing would be postmodern. Is it not just another word for futuristic? Maybe I’m being too literal, and any architectural historian would probably tell me that these words describe styles and are not to be taken at face value. Fair enough, but I still think the guys that coined the term Modernism were being a little shortsighted and even a bit selfish in their use of the word.

To give you a little background, the architects Hitchcock and Johnson coined the term in their book for a 1932 MOMA exhibit on the International Style. The International Style, which has become synonymous with Modernism, was codified throughout the 1920s and 1930s and was reflective of post First World War thoughts and attitudes. Postmodernism was a direct reaction to Modernism and the Second World War. It evolved throughout the 1950s. Not exactly a “futuristic” style for those of us living in the 21st century.

So what is the difference? I think the simplest way to describe Modernism as it applies to architecture is practical. Modernists believed that form followed function. They completely rejected ornamentation and decadence in favor of the “machine aesthetic.” They believed that a building should be honest in its intentions and transparent in its structure. Modern architects also emphasized volume over mass and adopted “essential” materials, such as concrete and steel, as their materials of choice. The style is best exemplified by such works as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (France), Walter Gropius’ Bauhuas School (Germany), and Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building (NY). In a perfect summation of the style, Van der Rohe once said, “Less is more.”

My favorite Modernist building is Philip Johnson’s aptly named Glass House. I said before that Modernism is best described as “practical,” and although you probably wouldn’t want your home to be made of transparent glass, Johnson’s house was constructed on a privately owned 47 acre plot of land, so privacy wasn’t an issue. The house is really just a glass box. It is perfectly symmetrical with black steel pillars supporting the glass walls. It contains a living area, a sleeping area, some walnut cabinets for storage, and a central brick cylinder for the bathroom (even the best examples of Modernism couldn’t be completely transparent). The lucidity and minimalism “add” volume to the structure. (A smart man once asked, “which weighs more, a pound of bricks or a pound of feathers?”). They make the building appear weightless. Above all, this building is honest in its intentions. No tricks. No gimmicks. It’s all out there for us to see, and once we get past the idea that this house makes secrets hard to keep, it is actually pretty liberating.

Postmodernism was a direct response to the formalized structures of modernism. The movement brought ornamentation and color back to architecture. It unashamedly included form for form’s sake. Function was not a requisite. Styles of the past were humorously referenced and classical rules were disregarded. No materials were off limits, and no design was too outlandish. Postmodernism was playful, quirky, ironic, and just a wee bit rebellious. None of this is surprising considering the world had just emerged from one of the most violent and dispiriting wars in its history. This style is best seen in such works as Michael Graves’ Portland Public Service Building (Oregon), Johnson and Burgee’s Sony Tower (formerly the AT&T Building in NY), Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall (LA), and Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum (Spain). In a perfect summation of this style and a play on Van der Rohe’s comments, Robert Venturi said, “Less is a bore.”

Disney World and the Las Vegas strip present two of the more interesting manifestations of Postmodernism. They are filled with color, ornamentation, and eccentric designs. They are anything but minimalist and decadent is a blatant understatement. They cause us to get lost in ideal worlds with only subtle references to reality and to the past. EPCOT itself stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Where else can you travel from China to Italy to Mexico in less than 30 minutes? The experience does not feel genuine, but it is this inauthentic simulation that is part of the charm. The genuine part of Postmodernism is that it makes no attempt to be genuine. Las Vegas, too, represents an authentically inauthentic experience. With such hotels as Treasure Island, Caesar’s Palace, the Venetian, and New York New York, Las Vegas overwhelms visitors with its over the top references to people and places past and present. Casinos, with their timelessness (no clocks), energy (extra oxygen), and excitement (never ending jackpots), are the prototypes for architectural hyperbole. In this way, maybe there is something to the literal definition of Postmodernism as a futuristic utopia. Either way, anyone that has been to Vegas knows that less is definitely not more.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


For the vast majority of us, the general public does not have intimate relationships with our professional “outputs.” Even for doctors and teachers, whose work is deeply important to the well-being of our society, their day to day efforts have a tangible effect on a limited audience. Architecture is different. It is far bigger than the people that “use” the building on a daily basis. Without getting too literal, architecture is permanent. A building is there to stay. It imposes its will on the surrounding area. As a result, I question to what degree the architectural profession has a responsibility to the rest of us. Is the architect free to design exactly how he pleases or must he take into consideration its effect on society long after he is gone? Is architecture a gift for society or is it a statement to society? Is the architect the ultimate benefactor or the ultimate egoist?

In any discussion of creative liberties, I tend to scribe to the more is better philosophy. I have noted that architecture has a unique ability to break with convention and take the viewer out of a certain comfort zone. It has the ability to perturb, to provoke, to puzzle. It is not as simple as this, however. For me, it is a matter of intention. An architect should not confound nor discomfit his audience for his own sake. He should not derive pleasure nor beguilement from his viewer’s befuddlement. He must have the viewer's welfare in mind, and if in doing so, he confounds the viewer, then this is a small price to pay. Machiavelli has gotten a bad rap over the years, but his philosophy resonates here. If the end justifies the means, I am all for the means. Intention is what distinguishes the ultimate benefactor from the ultimate egoist.

I present you with two case studies.

The first is Frank Gehry’s newly constructed IAC building on the West Side Highway in Manhattan. Its undulating and fluid form make it a welcome break from the ubiquitous glass box office towers of New York, but still, it somehow feels contrived. It suggests selfish intentions. It is as if he knows people are going to walk by and say “cool” and “wow?” But where is the substance? Where is the original thought? What challenge is he presenting? I am a huge fan of Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, but the IAC Building seems like a lukewarm attempt to replicate this previous brilliance. It feels as if it is built for his own amusement, and in doing so, he shows irreverence and a lack of concern for his viewer.

In contrast are the works of Antoni Gaudi that can be found all over the city of Barcelona. Gaudi, from the very beginning, broke with the neo-classical and romantic architecture of his contemporaries in favor of a style that was uniquely his own. He eschewed the inorganic and monotonous for the natural and the vibrant. Take La Sagrada Famigilia or Casa Battlo as examples. These buildings have hallucinatory and magical qualities that leave us bewildered, confused, and inspired. He is telling us to put everything we thought we knew on the side because we aren’t going to need it for awhile. Only then is it possible to start fresh, open our minds, look around. His intentions do not feel selfish. They do not feel contrived. When I look up at one of his buildings, I feel fortunate. I feel like he gets that proverbial “it” and that architecture is his chosen method of dissemination. There is a fine line between the natural and the factitious, and he challenges us to decide to which category his architecture belongs. Benefactor, maybe. Egoist, hard to tell. But brilliant, hard to argue with.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


As I sit looking up at the bright lights of New York populate what once must have been a dark sky, I can’t help but wonder why these buildings elicit such strong emotions within me. I have a personal relationship with many of them. A very personal relationship. Dare I say intimate even? They evoke emotions within me much the same way other people do. These are potent emotions. Potent, yet transient. Cogent, yet fleeting.

What is the source of such emotion?

Maybe it is the architect himself. Maybe I am interpreting, reacting to, and experiencing the building in just the way he intended me to. This answer, if true, is discouraging for me. Omnipotence, especially someone else’s omnipotence, does not sit right. It renders us helpless and leaves us open to manipulation.

Maybe it is the function and form of the building that elicits such emotions. We react to say “glass box” office buildings in one way, sleek luxury apartment buildings in another, and old brick warehouses in yet another. This response, however, does not do the details justice and again renders the viewer impotent. Creative individuality and interpretation is the foundation of the architectural profession. They say don’t sweat the small stuff. Whoever said this probably didn’t have much of an interest in architecture.

The answer, for me, is more empowering for the individual. In fact, it is completely empowering. We need to recognize that we are the sole source of our emotions. Buildings do not exist outside of our minds. They are neither independent nor separate from us. Instead, they are interdependent.

This may be hard to accept at first, but let me try to illustrate my point with an example provided to me by a Buddhist teacher. Consider a rainbow. What is a rainbow? There is no easy answer to this question. We might begin by describing why one sees a rainbow. “When drops of moisture in the Earth’s atmosphere refract light in such a way that the viewer…” Ah hah. The viewer. The viewer is a key ingredient in the “existence” of a rainbow. A rainbow does not actually exist in a particular location in the sky. It does not exist independent of the viewer. When asked for a location, the viewer will likely say “over there,” but he is amiss. The rainbow is only “over there” in his mind. It is not independent of his mind. It is interdependent.

Buildings are no different. Like rainbows, which require physical objects such as a light and moisture for their existence, buildings require physical objects such as brick and steel. But they do not exist independent of our minds. Our perception is completely dependent on us. I did not always find this easy to accept. In fact, I met it with great resistance at first. Once I was able to accept this, however, I found it to be one of the most liberating feelings I have had in a long time. We are truly free to use our experiences, philosophies, states of mind, and values to interpret buildings (and most anything in life for that matter) in any way we choose. Or any way our mind chooses. This is, after all, what makes our emotions so simultaneously potent and ephemeral. Each of these things make us who we are, but they (like we) are never the same moment to moment.