October 9, 2019

PUSHING BACK AGAINST THE WHITE GODS: In Search of a Sacred Order: Belief and Cultic Temptation in the Architectural Profession.

Beaux Arts wisdom, derived from a long tradition of comprehensive treatises and essays, gave way to dry and distilled manifestoes that relied on bold critiques of the status quo and a call to action to implement dramatic social change. Reform became urgent after the destruction of war, and past solutions no longer applied to new problems. Innovation was needed, and a reliance on individual genius would become its main source. With the German Bauhaus school, a new educational model arose that tapped into this call, eliminating references to the past and encouraging exploration through experimentation and self-reflection.

However, the public spirit of the Bauhaus, as well as all other architecture schools that it subsequently influenced, masked an essentially individualistic perspective to problem-solving. It elevated the person to the status of a hero whose sweeping vision promised a universal solution to all problems. A new pantheon of architectural gods emerged, with a sort of religious worship for individuals such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Louis Kahn. Pretty soon, architectural education devolved into producing designers who treated a set program as merely a vehicle to project the prevailing aesthetic styles championed by their preferred god.

Students now believed that it wasn’t enough to reveal God’s transcendent order through buildings, but instead it was better to become a god creating designs inspired by the gods they studied. A modernist canon formed to justify the new truths; it served not necessarily to enlighten students but to enforce a strict social order over them. The teacher-student, or master-apprentice relationship, always harbors the potential to turn into cultic one, particularly in a studio environment. Duo Dickinson, FAIA, a widely read architect and educator from Connecticut, expands on this further: “Inside baseball cults of personality, defensive manifestations of common fear avoidance make lemmings of the young that become social movements. Those movements become cults when the aesthetics of their origins become polemic and holistic canon. Architecture is said, by many, to have a canon that is easy to describe as ‘modernism’ but in truth is more about the narcissistic ego as manifest in elitist vision: that ‘my way or the highway’ basis of our present canon means the ossification of diversity to the status quo, where the various cults of personality like Wright, Soleri, and Gropius have been subsumed into a stultifying Canon of the Now: Modern, Correct, and Unquestioned. Diversity has become a uniform cultural good, but it has largely vanished from the Canon of Architecture.”

Long before the phrase “political correctness,” after Hitler’s Germany caused the founders of the Bauhaus to arrive in America to teach, and were welcomed, as Tom Wolfe so memorably wrote in From Bauhaus to Our House, as “The White Gods! Come from the skies at last!”, corporate and government architecture became one of the most blinkered professions around. Sure, there were plenty of successes (such as Mies’s Seagram Building and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum) but acres and acres of stillborn clones of steel and glass Mies boxes, the outright disasters of public housing (inspired by Corbusier’s theories) and the underground nightmare of Penn Station. Read the whole thing, which is by Dallas-area architect Julien Meyrat, the co-author of the Architecture+Morality blog from the pre-Twitter/Facebook golden era of the Blogosphere.

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