"Architects had better find out what their act really is, and then get it together," says Reyner Banham, a British architecture critic who is now teaching in California.
Banham predicts that American architecture and the general public are likely to drift even farther apart in the foreseeable future than they are now.
Perhaps. Most architects are still obsessive about making absurd "personal statements," no matter how silly, as long as they conform to current architectural fashion. A good, sober architect I know insisted on punching a round window hole into the facade of an otherwise delightful house he recently designed. He finally consented to square it only after months of wrangling with his client, who by that time was ready to put that hole into the architect's head.
But there are some good new buildings around. Well, a few.
A number of them are presented in superb color photographs in the third annual review of new American architecture, a special issue of the Journal of the American Institute of Architects.
I was most delighted by the pictures and description of the United Methodist Church in Loachapoka, Ala. It is made of rough-sawn cedar, as humble as a barn and as artfully composed as a cathedral, a work of devotion.
Loachapoka's old Greek revival church, it seems, was struck by lightning and fired-damaged. The community of some 200 scattered dwellings asked architect Nicholas D. Davis to design a new one. It is neither modern nor post-modern. Nor is it some pastiche revival. If it reminds you of anything other than worship, it is of early Frank Lloyd Wright. In all its handsome details, the little building conspires to bring a small congregation of 120 persons together and focus them on a large, carved Jerusalem cross. The entire job cost $70,000.
It is rare that an architectural magazine finds excellence among the ordinary. But that, along with a strong sense for good layout and good writing, is AIA Journal editor Donald Canty's strength. He has a scent for the noteworthy, for quality regardless of style. Asked about his criteria for selection, he says, "I try to see as much as I can. I pick what feels like real architecture."
Not many buildings do.
Canty's third annual review also features the merely sensational -- one of those tricky mirror jobs, grand architectural acrobatics, post-modernist eccentricity and a house shown under the appropriate heading "Of Art, Self-Revelation and Iconoclasm."
The tricky mirror job is a telephone switching center in Columbus, Ind., the town that industrialist J. Irwin Miller turned into the world's foremost outdoor museum of living, breathing 20th-century architecture.
The architects of this particular trick are Caudill Rowlett Scott, and the building is a big box of mirror glass, housing, or rather hiding, an agglomeration of old and new electronic equipment. In front of the mirrors is a giant steel and wire trellis that now gives people future shock but will later give wisteria a support to climb on.
The acrobatics are those of Roche/Dinkeloo, the architects of United Nations Plaza and other wonderous architectural stunts, as well as the superb recent additions to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Shown in the review is the Helen Bonfils Theater, the newest attraction of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Its all curved concrete and angled glass, twisting and turning, rising and falling every which way and providing, in the words of AIA Journal writer Stanley Abercrombie, "near-perfect facilities for a night at the theater."
The post-modern entry is by the most esoteric of the esoteric post-modernists, Richard Meier, and, on the color photographs, resembles nothing so much as a decadent sheik's private battleship minus lifeboats. This appearance seems to me all the more incongruous because the shiny white porcelain and pipes structure floats on a meadow in New Harmony, Ind., along the banks of the Wabash River.
New Harmony is the utopian community originally founded by a Lutheran sect and, in 1825, dedicated by reformer Robert Owen to unceasing practice of "good sense." It claims to have launched the first kindergarten, the first trade school, the first free public school system and the first free library. In 1960, Philip Johnson added the first "roofless church," a shrine that marks Johnson's first radical break with International Style architecture.
Richard Meier's contribution is the "Atheneum," a sort of visitors' center where people learn about New Harmony by climbing miles of white stairs with miles of white railings to miles of white decks. The top deck reveals a view of the town, with "the fascinating play of the Atheneum's geometry and its immaculate porcelain surfaces always close at hand," according to the review.
The "Art, Self-Revelation and Iconoclasm" is that of Frank Gehry.It also serves as Gehry's house in Santa Monica. It is disliked by its neighbors, says John Pastier, who describes it for us, adding that "trying to convey its substance through photographs and words is an act of high futility on par with an alchemists' efforts to transmute lead into gold." Which is what they also said about the emperor's clothes.
I remain unenlightened. I can therefore tell you only that the thing looks like a well-stocked lumberyard viewed through a telescope. Ready-made "Colonial" window units, set into corrugated sheet metal walls, are wrapped in wire mesh fencing and supported by sundry pieces of lumber. All of which is supposed to prove, says Pastier, "that Gehry has discovered something about the inner mind," and that in stripping away the plaster, "he has also laid bare part of his soul, and part of ours as well."
The Gehry house, in short, is "a manifestation on nonlinear logic, visual symbolism and the Jungian collective unconscious." They did this sort of thing some 65 years ago in Zurich and called it "Dada."
But never mind. I am grateful to Canty for acquainting us with all this variety and experimentation. It does feel like architecture -- in parts, anyway -- and it is interesting. The official AIA Honor Awards, also included in the annual review edition of the AIA Journal, are not.
The AIA has this year honored only the extremes of both the slick high-tech and the nostalgic historic restoration, 13 projects in all. The former is best represented by the traumatic and gigantic Detroit medical center. The latter by the overwrought kitsch of the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel, originally built in 1923. In between is the restoration of the Smithsonian Institution's Art and Industries building on the Mall in Washington. The architect is local boy Hugh Newell Jacobsen, who made good long ago and is collecting honor awards the way lesser mortals collect postage stamps. His work, says the review rightly, is "a rare combination of historical precision and the evocation of the spirit of a time and its architecture."
The honor awards emphasize the value of Canty's rather personal survey. It gives us a more balanced view of what is going on. It gives the iconoclasts a chance to show whatever it is they want to show. Time was when the AIA Journal did not so much as mention contemporary work, let alone mention it critically. The official club publication would not risk offending its dues-paying members. Much to its credit, AIA no longer publishes a eunuch, but what may be the world's most interesting architectural magazine.
The annual review includes a variety of views on the prospects for architecture. Reyner Banham's pessimistic prophesy is one of them. Architectural historian Brent C. Brolin, in contrast, believes that architects will tire of their ego trips and "consider the broader problem of relating each building to the streetscape in which it will be seen."
California architect Sim Van der Ryn believes that "we are confronted by an architectural intermission, the stage between the death of one paradigm and the birth of another." He thinks most of what is built is "vacuous and decadent sophistry."
Thomas R. Vreeland Jr., another California architect, is filled with hope for "a return to good craftsmanship in building. There must be an end to gyp-board, built-up roofing, cracked concrete and stucco, cyclone fencing and extruded aluminum and a revival of good brick and timber work, of the use of slate and tile, cut stone and good plaster work." Amen.
Fred Bassetti, a leading Northwest architect, says that "the new facadism, unrelated to plan or structure or climate, is like a cake made entirely of icing."
And Sarah P. Harkness, a partner in The Architects Collaborative, the firm that Walter Gropius founded, expresses my views, God bless her. "I'd like to see an architecture that makes sense, she says.
"To make sense could be by far the most exciting thing to do."