Banish the Bland
The Glass Box Is So Last Century
By ERIC FELTEN
Dec. 4, 2009
This week saw a building by famed modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe succumb to the wrecking ball, making room at the Illinois Institute of Technology for a commuter rail station. A few fevered bloggers complained, but the preservationists yawned. Perhaps that's because the building was a dumpy brick shed devoid of interest or import. Or perhaps it's because the Mies style doesn't seem endangered at the moment.
We're seeing a resurgence of mid-century modernism, from "Mad Men" fashions to sparse interiors displaying Le Corbusier sofas. But the trademark glass- and-steel boxes of modern architecture didn't need a comeback. They've never left: Cities continue to toss them up in all their stark, anonymous severity.
Will architects ever give us something new? Sure, we get some wild edifice- expressions, whether the crumpled-paper shapes of Frank Gehry or the off-kilter polyhedra of Rem Koolhaas. But even when today's architects escape the old box-on-stilts of the International Style, they stick to the one unwritten law of modern architecture: Thou Shalt Not Ornament.
Sleek surfaces of glass, metal, concrete or stone can be broken up by structural geometry—Mies himself was in the habit of welding steel I-beams to the exterior of his buildings to delineate the framework underneath. But there's no room in the International Style or its many cookie-cutter cousins for the integrated decorations that, for countless years, and in countless cultures, were thought to be an essential part of buildings. No carved-stone swags or florid ironwork; no fussy moldings or extraneous curlicues; no bas-relief motifs or scrolls; no anthemion or acanthus. Homebuyers may look for the "period detail" that makes a house pleasing to the eye and spirit—it's a prime selling point in real-estate listings—but the glass-and-steel boys who dominate urban design remain devoted to a dogma that denounces such things as corrupt and impure.
It is only natural for styles to swing from one extreme to another, and after the riotous ticky-tack of high Victorian style you can't blame anyone for having wanted some clean, straight lines. Novelist and arbiter of taste Edith Wharton called for clearing away bric-à-brac on the sound principle that "a small quantity of ornament, properly applied, will produce far more effect than ten times its amount used in the wrong way." The inventor of the skyscraper, Louis Sullivan, suggested in 1892 that it would be a good idea to take a break from ornament for a while in order to remember how to make "buildings well formed and comely in the nude." But Sullivan didn't want to eliminate ornament altogether; he just wanted to get it under control and showed how to do it with the iron foliation around the first floors of Chicago's Carson Pirie Scott department store. By contrast, the radical modernists wanted to scrape structures clean of ornament altogether, like a landscaper who tames a wild, overgrown garden by paving it over.
And that's where we still are today. The postmodernists tried to reintroduce ornament of a sort—in the case of Philip Johnson's AT&T building, by sticking a Chippendale top on a midtown Manhattan skyscraper. But these were half-hearted, ironic gestures, too feeble to dislodge the anti-ornament aesthetic. It's hard to get the pendulum swinging back when it's stuck under all that raw concrete.
Say what you will about the modernists, they've had a long run. The purist aesthetic got going in earnest with "Ornament and Crime," a 1908 essay by Austrian architect Adolf Loos denouncing decoration as the nasty habit of savages and cannibals, who "tattoo themselves, decorate their boats, their oars, everything they can get their hands on." A "modern man who tattoos himself is either a criminal or a degenerate," Loos proclaimed before applying that judgment to the skin of buildings: "The evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects." Thanks to this ascetic aesthetic, we've seen decades of buildings impoverished by plainness.
There are a few lonely champions fighting to restore ornamentation, among them Kent Bloomer, an architecture professor at Yale and an ornamentalist with his own design studio. He says the obsession with stripping buildings down to their essential, functional elements ignores the fact that ornament is functional: It "provides information and experience," as well as beauty that taps into our memory and emotions. He laments that a fixation on architecture for architecture's sake doesn't leave much room for worrying about how people will actually interact with the structures they inhabit or just stroll by.
Steven Semes is academic director of the University of Notre Dame's Rome Studies Program, where he teaches the classical language of architecture. "There's a head-heart problem" in modern design, he says. "In their hearts, most architects love old buildings for the same reasons everyone else does—they are welcoming and have ornamentation that rewards the attention you give to them." But their heads are stuffed with "all those lectures from architecture school telling them these things are bad." Who knew it was the modernists who were repressed?
Brent Brolin, author of "Architectural Ornament: Banishment & Return," says architecture's abandonment of ornament has parallels: "In poetry we got rid of rhyme. In novels we got rid of plot. In painting and sculpture we got rid of figural representation." In each case, he says, there was an insistence that the artist cast off the past and be entirely original. The great irony is that, in their fierce commitment to originality, modern architects continue to knock off endless copies of classic modernist designs, such as the Glass Palace built in the Netherlands in the mid-1930s, or Mies's own 1921 drawing for a proposed glass skyscraper on Berlin's Friedrichstrasse. It's a funny sort of modernism that is stuck in a style more than three-quarters of a century old.