In the last few weeks, a number of reactionary architectural commentators have come out of the woodwork to denounce what they see as the currently negative direction of contemporary architecture. They claim that architecture needs to be “rebuilt” or that it is “imploding.” From their indications, architecture is on life-support, taking its last breath. The critique they offer is that contemporary architecture has become (or always was?) insensitive to users, to site conditions, to history—hardly a novel view. Every few years, this kind of frontal assault on the value of contemporary architecture is launched, but the criticisms this time seem especially shallow and misplaced. Surveying the contemporary global architecture scene, I actually feel that we’re in a surprisingly healthy place, if you look beyond the obvious showpieces. We’ve escaped from the overt dogmas of the past, we’ve renewed our focus on issues of the environment and social agency, we’re more concerned than ever with tectonics and how to build with quality. But the perennial critics of contemporary architecture appear not to have examined that deeply, nor that thoughtfully either. And unfortunately the various rebuttals to their critiques, ostensibly in support of modern and experimental architecture, have been ham-handed and poorly argued.
To my mind, the spiritual precursor to this debate was Frank Gehry’s middle finger. At a Spanish press conference on October 24th of last year, in response to a reporter who accused him of practicing “showy” architecture, Gehry silently flipped the reporter the bird. After a few seconds of glowering, Gehry then said “98 percent of what gets built and designed today is pure shit.” Though some read Gehry’s middle finger (and his comment) as a defensive stand for his own work vis-à-vis public opinion and a lashing-out at his fellow architects, I saw it in a more generous way: Gehry was in some sense defending contemporary architecture against its typical detractors.
Sure enough, a few weeks later, on December 15th, Steven Bingler and Martin Pederson published a reactive piece in the New York Times titled “How To Rebuild Architecture.” In it, they argue that modern architecture has lost its way and needs to return to a pre-modern ideal of “universal forms and natural design principles.” Notwithstanding the meaninglessness of that phrase, the central absurdity of the piece is that it uses only a single example (the Make It Right houses) to indict the whole of contemporary architecture. In the piece, Bingler’s layperson mother acts as the ultimate arbiter of good versus bad design. The debate continued on the 20th of December, with Prince Charles’ dogmatic “10 Geometric Rules for Architecture”; peaked with Aaron Betsky's caustic but ultimately flawed response, “The New York Times Versus Architecture”; and was piled on by Justin Shubow in a New Urbanist screed for Forbes titled “Architecture Continues to Implode.”
The critics of modern architecture here (Prince Charles, Bingler and Pederson, and Shubow) lean heavily on the example of Make It Right, as well as a handful of one-off monsterpieces by celebrity architects, in order to indict all of modern design. The debate, as always, is framed between the opposite poles of screw-you avant-garde Modernism and neo-luddite Traditionalism (Frank Gehry's middle finger versus Andres Duany's white picket fence.) What these polarized arguments perpetually seem to miss is that the discipline of architecture is plural, diverse. The space between these poles is filled with firms producing quality work but who don’t have the stature of either Gehry or Duany, nor their dyspeptic attitude. I’d argue that these practitioners represent a third way, and a more nuanced critique of both sides—by creating innovative architecture that is perhaps more subtle, well-planned, and sustainable than the formally radical work of so-called superstars. For this reason, Bingler and Pedersen’s argument appears misplaced. The real object of their critique seems not to be modern architecture at all but rather three interlinked elements:
- poor planning
- a loaded cultural context that sets architects up for failure
- certain tendencies among a few architects (but far from all) to create architecture without regard to context or scale
This last point occurs fundamentally as a result of the failures created by the first two conditions, and it is hardly true of all modern architects. In fact, the majority of practitioners of modern architecture are sensitive to the same issues as traditionalists: respect for users; context; scale; quality; materials; pedestrians; density; and flexibility. (In other words, at least seven of Prince Charles’ 10 Geometric Principles for Architecture.)
Let me explain the first two points by way of the Make It Right houses, since this is the albatross hung around modern architecture’s neck by Bingler and Pedersen. In the US, architecture frequently finds itself at the mercy of bad planning. In case after case, even though the initial urban design (siting, layout, density, etc.) of a project may be flawed, architecture ends up taking the blame. The Make It Right development was destined to fail before any architects set pen to paper, because it was at base a failure of master-planning. The real mistake in this case was to try to replicate a semi-suburban development of single-family homes rather than asking up front how to reinvent the community and neighborhood aspects of the Lower Ninth Ward. Bingler’s “context sensitive” house for the development is no better (or worse) than Morphosis’, Adjaye’s, or MVRDV’s. The Make It Right development remains a collection of weird, detached, signature statements, which was the mission given to the architects a priori by the planners. Architects here were not asked to design a cohesive collection of buildings in collaboration with the other architects on the list. Instead, the planning entities involved asked Thom Mayne, Winy Maas, David Adjaye, Steven Bingler, et al. to design “signature” pieces. The result is a petting zoo of exotic species. A better strategy would have been to plan the Lower Ninth Ward for density: multi-family buildings, townhomes, duplexes.
By way of contrast, some of the most successful, walkable, pleasant new neighborhoods in Europe make heavy use of modern architecture. The style of building has very little to do with these projects’ success, but good planning is vital. Look, for instance, at the Borneo Sporenburg development on the northeastern harbor of Amsterdam. The planners, West 8, gave twenty-odd architects the same townhome envelope but allowed each to design with minimal constraints. The result is a streetscape of diverse, integrated modern facades. Each is unique, but they form a coherent whole. Strange but beautiful object buildings such as De Architekten Cie’s Whale punctuate the overall project. Borneo Sporenburg was a masterpiece of planning. One wishes that in New Orleans, the organizers of Make It Right had been similarly thoughtful at the beginning.
Or take Copenhagen’s Ørestad development, a densely-populated, well-functioning collection of modern blocks by BIG, 3XN, Henning Larsen, and other Danish firms. I visited Ørestad last summer, and the place was bustling with students, families, children. Residents made heavy use of their (modern) balconies and streetscapes. It felt as vital as any community I’ve ever walked through in the US or elsewhere. BIG’s formally radical 8 House turned out to be socially radical as well, having used input from future residents in order to wrap a twisting public street through the whole project. Other examples of good modern planning abound in Europe: Malmo’s Bo01 (Live01) masterplan, Copenhagen Harbor and Islands Brygge, Barcelona’s Besós waterfront. These developments provide a platform upon which strong, interesting architecture can be built.
Closer to home, another positive example is the recent redevelopment of the Pearl District in Portland, Oregon. Modern buildings and parks coexist happily with semi-traditional or historic variants. Lever Architecture’s Arthouse or Holst’s Ziba Headquarters and 937 Condominiums fit right in alongside the Armory renovation or the Brewery Blocks. The knee-jerk traditionalism seen in developments like Prince Charles’ Poundbury would feel not only foreign here, but almost insulting. And in fact Poundbury—an ultratraditional pet project in England planned by Prince Charles and architect Leon Krier—has been heavily criticized for being moribund, boring, soulless. Give me a flawed but exciting modern project over a bland faux-traditional one any day.
This leads to my second point, which is that a loaded cultural context in the US has set architects up for failure. Though housing trends may suggest that more people are moving back into cities, many Americans still ultimately yearn for a single-family home on a sprawling turf-filled lot. Community after community is being built using a 10,000 square foot parcel as the guide, with stylistic mandates requiring a traditional stucco or brick house—arches, round windows, fake stone, and all the rest. In my own city of Houston, suburbs like Pearland, Sugarland, or Katy are constructed around vast, meandering developments of 4,000-plus square foot houses on large lots, all stylistically prescribed. Artificial lakes and waterways pump chemically-treated blue water through ornamental fountains. The commercial architecture that services these developments is a collection of strip malls with treeless parking lots in front. Quickly planned, quickly executed.
This is a planning model into which modern architecture fits poorly, or not at all. Yet when architects in the US attempt to produce alternatives—innovative, sustainable, or otherwise—they are faced with the reality of a built environment overwhelmingly engineered for faux-traditionalist sprawl. The majority of the public seems content with this unsustainable, unsightly reality, perhaps because successful alternatives are rarely offered. Developers are incentivized by the prevailing culture against modern architecture and often, frankly, against quality. Cheapness unfortunately appears to be the central value in much American development. I’d argue that modern architecture is, at its core, far more sustainable and integrative than this all-too-prevalent model for development in the US, but it has been overtaken by a bottom-line development strategy, with building codes engineered to support it. This, I believe, was the source of Gehry’s comment that “98% of what gets built today is pure shit”: the endless beige sprawl of the modern American metropolis. Yet rather than leveling their aim at the non-descript development threatening to eat the American city, Bingler/Pedersen and Shubow have instead narrowed their sights on modern architecture alone: that tiny cadre of people struggling to do something different and, hopefully, better. In the process of attacking architecture’s rare excesses, these critics end up undermining its best talent, by generalizing “modern architecture” as the problem. In mainland Europe, far less vitriol is directed toward architecture, because the underlying planning mechanisms and cultural context allow for great design to happen more frequently, regardless of style.
My last point is that most modernist architects care centrally about issues of the built environment, sustainability, and context in addition to form. But a few do not. This is one place where I’d agree with the authors: our system has tended to promote showy, trite, formal design over architecture of substance. It has often privileged the wrong modernist architects. As a result, architecture is held accountable for its worst excesses, but not always praised for its more subtle successes. We’ve allowed amoral, formally bombastic practices to define our discipline to the public—and to become straw-men standing in for architecture as a whole—rather than promoting those much more sustainable practices who experiment with context, program, materials, tectonics, and social agency simultaneously. Many of the architects rushing to build in the constraint-free, laissez-faire environments of China or Dubai end up producing a one-dimensional architecture. The results are vacuous, because the planning and underlying context are vacuous. Invariably, projects designed for these places become the public face for contemporary architecture, despite the fact that many in our profession are deeply skeptical of that kind of work. We cannot continue to excuse one-dimensional architecture from its broader responsibility to the built environment.
Unfortunately, Aaron Betsky was the wrong critic to take this particular point up, because he only ends up reinforcing the arguments of Bingler and Pedersen. Betsky underscores their claim that modernist architects are arrogant and detached by saying—effectively—"yes, roofs in modern architecture leak, but so what; we're experimenting!" and "good architecture is really for its rich clients; who cares about everyone else's opinion." Betsky is off base here. The best modern architecture is well planned, doesn’t (or shouldn’t) leak, and considers the opinions of both clients and the community at large. Take the recent example of two side-by-side buildings in Denver. The first, Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum, is arguably overscaled and formally aggressive. A year after it was built, it required several million dollars in repairs to prevent leaking, as well as a reconfiguration of the interior so that curators could more adequately install shows inside it. Immediately next door is a much quieter and more effective building (though also radical in its way): Allied Works’ Clyfford Still Museum. James Russell writing for Bloomberg praised the building’s “elegant gravitas,” its “shimmering daylight,” its pacing, its “Zen calm.” But when modern architecture writ large is critiqued by the public, it is almost always on the basis of excessive works such as Libeskind’s project, and rarely on more successful but subtle examples such as the Still Museum. And which of these projects do you think appears on the City of Denver’s official homepage? (Full disclosure: I worked for Allied Works for several years, but not on the Still Museum, and I was also taught by Daniel Libeskind as well as Zaha Hadid.)
This is only to suggest that the authors (and the public) need to look deeper and see the amazing architecture being created globally that also relates to its context, without falling into the twin traps of either traditionalism or empty formalism. For every gestural formalist like Hadid, Libeskind et al, there are a hundred context-sensitive, socially-motivated architects out there. Just in Seattle and Portland alone, scores of great modern firms practice more or less under the radar. Allied Works, Olson Kundig, Holst, Skylab, Mahlum, Suyama Peterson Deguchi, Works Partnership, Lever Architecture—not to mention larger offices such as LMN or Zimmer Gunsul Frasca. Or pick another city: in New Orleans, Eskew Dumez Ripple or Studio WTA. In Minneapolis, Vincent James or Snow Kreilich. In Austin, Baldridge Architects, Bercy Chen, Michael Hsu or Alterstudio. In New York and Los Angeles, too many to list. Every large city has great practices working with great constraints. These are firms struggling to produce fantastic work in a climate engineered not only for mediocre beige boxes and stucco McMansions, but against a straw-man called modern architecture. Prince Charles, Bingler, Pedersen, and Shubow have raised a non-existent specter and easy target. In the process, they’re bashing the shins of those of us who are trying to propose positive, sustainable alternatives to the prevalent model for development. We’re fighting an uphill battle. Until our planning entities, developers, and critics become more visionary—and help to provide platforms upon which better architecture can be built—architecture will always take the blame. My hope is that we can continue to develop an innovative third way, and escape from having to choose between either a raised middle finger or a white picket fence.
Matthew Johnson is a partner at LOJO: Logan and Johnson Architecture and an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Houston. He attended Stanford and Yale, and has worked for both Steven Holl and Allied Works.