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A R T L E S S A History of Criticism (In Architecture)

by Kiel Bryant Hosier

Authenticity has, as never before, become the luxury of the few. LEBBEUS WOODS

There is no such thing as the complete, final, or perfect response to any challenge, even when the challenge is specific and detailed. PAOLO SOLERI


Education is arrogant. It has every right to be: no matter how one phrases the following, the quantity two (2) combined to an equivalent quantity (2) will never amount to anything but four (4) except when the entire language of mathematics is revised, and then the quantities will not have changed, only their semantic expressions. That George Washington was the first president of the United States is a non-controversial statement; save certain micro-minutia of his life, the story we all know is unlikely to change. Likewise it cannot be argued that water doesnt boil at 212 degrees Fahrenheit; try it at any temperature lower than 212 to find out. Nor is it much doubted that human beings are creatures of symbolic thought. The common, convergent abilities of our species were recognized long before archaeology threw full light onto our past and showed how deep the connections go. Therefore, as curators of fact, educators are right in proclaiming the virtue of their craft. I take issue when the same self-righteous surety, deserved in the arena of fact, involves itself with the teaching of correct expression, the recognition of fine art, or as the theme of this essay the erection of acceptable architecture. Regretfully, education is more and more overwhelmed by this latter phenomenon Arbitration of the Consensus Good. It is a model built half by accident, half by design, and I intend here to trace its construction from the beginnings of education, specifically architectural education, so that we may raise our awareness of it and I hope commence with its demolishment.

Kiel Bryant Hosier

INVENTING THE CAVE 200,000 BCE Of old stone. Thats what the word Paleolithic literally means a fitting appellation for our people even today, old stuff recombined. Who were our ancestors at the dawn of human memory? What were they like? How did they live? Because they existed ahead of recorded historys beginnings whenever that was we can never read a directly verbal account of their lives, yet the graves and tools and artworks they left instead comprise a story in many ways more poignant. Unlike common portrayal, Paleolithic cave people were well-acquainted with freestanding shelter. True, theirs were not of finely cut dimension stone or quartersawn lumber, but they served their makers well: huts, modeled on nests and animal barrows, stoutly constructed of tree limbs, animal bones, glued with a mud mortar and flocked in rushes and reeds. These were the seasonal swellings out from caverns ritual centers where mysteries were venerated, winters outlasted and carnal rewards (Mumford, 8) of the hunters harvest shared. Life was lean. Without preservation, without true agriculture, the need to food- and fuelgather was constant. Thus innovation came slowly, driven entirely by necessity and the

communitys ever-enlarging needs. The perfectly adapted blinds and shelters erected for seasonal hunting required commensurate enlargements: sturdier bases to support more weight at their roofs, more capacious storage to admit more meat and more hunters. These conditions-based architectures worked beautifully for millennia. Up with the

hunting season, down with the rains and back up again with gradual variation according to the communitys immediate requirements. Paleolithic peoples were too busy nurturing an architecture that worked to spare a thought for its abstract criticism. Education continued as it always had by the example of elders, if such were to be found, and by the undying exemplar of Mother Nature

herself, her panoply of creatures ceaselessly constructing their own homes by no intelligence greater than instinct. At the caves, successes were celebrated as painted depictions, outlined hands, iron oxide affirmations of, We were here! While, very slowly, nearer the sources of sustenance, the boundaries of individual habitats gradually blurred and coalesced into humankinds first camps and villages. THE BIRTH OF BOREDOM 2,000 BCE Cities are a late event in human civilization. Early examples date to well before 2,000 years ago the Near Eastern champion, Jericho, apparently enjoyed a thriving metropolitan culture as long as 9,000 years ago, practically within spitting distance of the last Ice Age (12-15,000 BCE). But Jericho is rare. It wasnt until at least the second millennium BCE that cities began to be an expected ambition for aspiring peoples, especially those peoples rimming the Mediterranean. Desert enclaves led the pack Sumer, Babylonia and Egypt most impressively of all. The natural wonders and mysteries of the world once sung about on cave walls had re-emerged as the primary emphasis of life; in the wake of agriculture, domestication, and abundance, religion not survival was the new raison detre. Artists let their imaginations fly. The citys great coeval, mercantilism, allowed this to occur as permanent dwellings were now a well-mastered feat, affluences surpluses enabled the contemplation of designs well beyond the basic, needs-governed arts of the past. The city plan itself could be considered and revised. Schools were founded to advance the growth of this new crop called knowledge. Enrollment was private; teaching methods were left to the founder the most common being a

healthy exposure to nearly every science and its frontier. Records for earlier civilizations and their scholastic models are less complete than Greeces, so were basing our analysis on hers specifically her two most famous, the Athenian Lyceum and the Platonic Academy. These strove toward twin ideals: paideia and the arte. Paideia translates as instruction but signified a great deal more than we typically associate with the term. To embody paideia was to in all matters reach perfection (Vitruvius, 11), saturating ones life completely in the comprehension of all that life contains. Achieving such, one became an arte a somewhat catchall term for superlative. One quickly recognizes the value of this system: an architect fully versed in the arts and the sciences, each understood in equivalent significance and thoroughness. His buildings would be comprehensive works, thought-invested in a way no specialist could reach. His examples are many. The shores of the Mediterranean are a living treasure house temples to gods, governments, people and ideals. Architectural radicals came more slowly than in later ages, though they did come their kind were seen less frequently not for a culture of criticism suppressing innovation, rather because the frictions which form them were seldom manifest. The trigger for this flowering of art and architecture is civilizations greatest calling card: the birth of boredom. Prior to cities, human beings led short, hard and generally miserable lives. While the misery component has never dissipated away completely, it has been greatly relieved. Trade meant not every person had to live so near deaths waiting maw. Some found themselves with leisure time. Therein the fine arts were conceived.

IT MUST BE TALL 1890s CHICAGO The institutional structure established in ancient antiquity lasted essentially unquestioned until the Industrial Age, dying out in practice like nearly every other virtuous human activity when Theodosius inaugurated the Dark Ages in the fifth century CE. When the Renaissance sought to continue and refine! classical technique in art and architecture, the schooling systems arrived at in Greeces Golden Age were resurrected. There were breaks from antiquity slight ones but every gesture was firmly rooted in an understanding of the classical doctrines of proportion and symmetry. Columns twisted and writhed, departing from yet never abandoning their Grecian base-forms. All was a delirious spirit of play, to an often baroque degree, the results garish enough to make Caligula blush. Nevertheless it was a necessary experimental phase. The Renaissance, while profoundly nuanced and varied, generally follows a simple arc from its early gropings extremely deferential to an adolescent mastery (wildly brash and whimsical) and back to a respect for the grandeur of archetypes and their monumental elegance, typified by architects like Andrea Palladio. His style continued to be the vogue (in some ways, still is) until the Industrial Revolution began to enlighten the world to the new architectural possibilities of materials like iron and steel. The new schools refused to incorporate such artless wonders into their curricula. Such, to them, were not architecture. Late in the 19th century, a fire ravaged Chicago. Its rebuilding is perhaps the single most fertile moment in architectural history. Initially too timid to throw off the trappings of their neoclassical training, architects erected soaring testaments to mankinds victory over tragedy: edifices on a scale hitherto seldom imagined outside the rare science fiction story or magazine. Sky-seeking man-made bluffs,

handsome yet constrained by the confectioners lace still clinging to their tops, embellishing their windowsills, demarcating their facades. The classical motif, adapted to skyscrapers, was called tripartite consisting of a heavy, well-defined base, relatively little-elaborated middle, and the crown. One young architecture firm, though churning out tripartite work, continually re-appraised the idea acknowledging that while classical models might have served for structures below ten stories, Vitruvius nor any other ancient architect had to contend with the likes of the skyscraper: it was time to dispense with the old language and develop something novel. During this period the principal of said firm, Louis Sullivan, wrote in rhapsody: It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line. (Sullivan, 2) Pursuing his own creed, the works that flowed thence from his firm were nothing short of revolutionary. Masonry reduced to a decorative finisher glass taking center stage. The buildings he poured out from there on were monuments to their materials, scandalously flouting the traditions which continued to be promulgated at the old schools. The same schools from which one recent recruit had recently dropped. His name was Wright, and he had even more to say. The eloquent criticisms embodied in Sullivan and Wrights buildings were the valid sloughing off of profoundly antique architectural habits. An entire new technological world had emerged, one that might even trump the ancients didnt it deserve an aesthetic voice all its own?

TORCH BEARERS 1920s GERMANY Following the crisis of World War I, the establishment of the liberal Weimar Republic and the consummation of the Industrial Age (attended by the automobile), an architect named Walter Gropius founded an art school in 1919 what has become the worlds most famous. Called The Bauhaus, or Building School, initially it boasted no architecture program, though today its architectural influence can hardly be escaped. The first mark of the Bauhaus difference: it taught absolutely no architectural history. Its sights were dead set on the future courses were concerned with uncorking students imaginations, seeing with new eyes. Using the newest materials, students were encouraged to think as though they had no forebears. How can steel be made to sit on for mass fabrication? How can craft be reconciled to industrial automation? The zeitgeist included an assumption that the pre-existing orders were dead. An

alternative had to exist and the Bauhaus set out to define it. One of Walter Gropius colleagues, a young masons son named Mies van der Rohe, impacted this new definition more than any other and it seemed to emerge from his mind fully formed. As a part time architect of quaint, traditional fachwerk homes common to the German hinterlands, Mies learnt of a competition to redevelop the famed Friedrichstrasse corner in Berlin. The competition presented an opportunity for Mies to unveil the architectural convictions that had slowly been incubating in his head. Taking the projects dimensions, he sealed himself off and set to work constructing models. From the models he drafted a series of elevations. The most famous of these appears in the endpapers. Needless to say, the architectural community took notice.

Unfortunately Adolf Hitler was among those negatively affected and by the establishment of his Nazi Party in 1933 had the Bauhaus disbanded. Its constituent luminaries immigrated mostly to the United States, creating for themselves positions of pre-eminence in architecture and the arts. THE POVERTY OF CRITICISM 1920s PRESENT A vicious trend has taken root since the heady days of Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. As Ive tried to explore, the arrival of modernism like a phoenix from ashes was a natural, cumulative response to the conditions silting down from architectures most distant origins. It was a credentialed criticism, to invent a term. New materials, new methods a simple linear conversion to new aesthetic paradigm. Another ripple in the modernism pond came with the advent of computer-aided design. It suddenly became far easier to model complex, previously infeasible orchestrations of space and light. And yet while possibilities exploded, another tendency solidified, establishing prominent footholds especially at architecture academies which cant necessarily be blamed (as weve seen, theyre not typically engines of design-innovation). Mies van der Rohes students and apprentices became extraordinarily diverse architects Philip Johnson, with his celebrated postmodernism; Paul Rudolph and his essays in Brutalism; the un-pin-downable stylizations of I.M. Pei. The same can be said of Frank Lloyd Wrights alumni Paolo Soleri, designing entire cities; John Lautner, establishing the Los Angeles bachelor palace aesthetic; Bruce Goff and his wonderfully insane Mars-ready living modules. Nothing either of these giants ever said can fully illustrate why it turned out this way but Im convinced it is because they cultivated a conviction in their students, perhaps by their very existence, that greatness could be attained. And, more importantly, that there was no right answer. Admiration may be its own curse. I fear it has ossified into an unquestioning ennoblement of these rightly respected figures to the extent that their works (and the works of others like them)

are regarded as holy writ. Theyve become the barometers conscious or not of academic criticism, which is now the primary emphasis of architectural training. The development is in some ways understandable. Sure, we have computers now, and theyve been a boon to creativity yet the forms implied by computers had to be made evident by architects who threw out their academic training. To paraphrase Frank Gehry, once a very oldfashioned postmodernist, I realized the rules were bullshit. Weve also not had a physical shakeup like World War thank goodness or an Industrial Revolution to give us an obvious course for new materials (a la steel). Instead, our Information Age has wrought an unbridled entitlement to information itself. To make architecture an enjoyable field again, academies must shift away from interrogation (the actual term for point-bypoint criticism!) toward comment and collaboration. Perhaps then attention will return to

cultivating the individual and buildings may once more speak for themselves.

Works Cited Mumford, Lewis. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1961. 8. Print. Sullivan, Louis H. "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered." Lippincott's Magazine, March 1896. 2. MIT OpenCourseWare. Web. 20 Mar. 2010. Vitruvius, Pollio, and M. H. Morgan. Vitruvius: the Ten Books on Architecture. New York: Dover Publications, 1960. 11. Print. Woods, Lebbeus. "Authenticity." Web Log post. Lebbeus Woods. 6 Feb. 2010. Web. 19 Mar. 2010.