Shortsighted Polemics

The ideological catfights over housing threaten to marginalize all of architecture.

I wasn’t at some do-gooder Harvard symposium when I realized that housing was back on the architectural radar screen—and generating enough heat to prompt catfights. I was at, of all places, the Isle of Capri hotel-casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, the absolute antithesis of tasteful Boston redbrick, its gaudy green and purple walls redolent of the Redneck Riviera. There last October, John Norquist—the former three-term mayor of Milwaukee, and president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism—started waving the bloody shirt.

In this case the shirt didn’t have real blood on it. It was a Washington Post story, gleaned from the Internet, about the New Urbanists’ charrette for the hurricane-ravaged Mississippi coastline. Here were the poor New Urbanists staying up all hours of the night, gulping all the coffee and Red Bull they could take, and planning an entire region in seven days. And what did they get in response? They got a kick in the keister from Eric Owen Moss, director of SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture). He told the Post’s Linda Hales that the New Urbanists’ traditional town planning “would appeal to a kind of anachronistic Mississippi that yearns for the good old days of the Old South as slow and balanced and pleasing and breezy, and each person knew his or her role.” Moss didn’t say that Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk wanted to bring back the Jim Crow laws, but he might as well have.

“How does he know? What does he know?” replied an infuriated James Barksdale, former Netscape CEO and head of Mississippi’s rebuilding effort, when I asked him about Moss’s volley from afar. “I thought it was a mean-spirited thing for him to say that we all want to go back and own slaves.” Actually I thought Barksdale was being charitable when he characterized Moss’s remarks: “arrogant” would have fit the bill—or “blindly ideological.” But at least Moss was engaged enough by what was going on in Mississippi, and the stakes were high enough, that he felt compelled to say something.

For decades—reflecting the narrow formalistic worldview of architecture’s late godfather Philip Johnson—housing and community-building issues have been shoved off center stage. Architects were barely debating them, pretty much leaving the field to the New Urbanists. But now it’s impossible to ignore housing, and not just because of the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast. In city after city across America tall towers are being proposed or built, and they are not office buildings, but places to live. Santiago Calatrava’s planned 2,000-foot Fordham Spire on Chicago’s lakefront is the most visible example of the trend, and prompted this wry Los Angeles Times headline: “Home Is Where the Height Is.” There’s also the Dwell magazine phenomenon to reckon with, but that’s boutique Modernism. I mean something more widespread.

Here’s my question: Now that architects are taking shots at one another over housing, can we do better than we did in the last century, which gave us sprawl for the middle class and Cabrini-Green for the poorest of the poor? Can we close the great divide between fetishistic formalism and social responsibility? Or are we doomed to a world in which architecture’s leading practitioners use their work merely to comment on social tumult rather than actually trying to do something about it?

When Modern Architecture: International Exhibition opened at MoMA in 1932, Lewis Mumford wrote earnestly, “The building of houses constitutes the major architectural work of any civilization. …It is only during the last generation that we have begun to conceive of a new domestic environment which will utilize our technical and scientific achievements for the benefit of human living.” Mumford’s emphasis reflected the broad-based outlook of the pioneers of Modernism, who were deeply concerned with houses and housing. Exhibit A (which really was an exhibit): the 1927 Weissenhof housing colony in Stuttgart, a hillside collection of 21 buildings with, as Mies biographer Franz Schulze described them, “white rectilinear facades, flat roofs, and ship’s railing balconies.” These low-cost experimental designs by Mies, Le Corbusier, Gropius, and other leading Modernists represented, according to Schulze, “the fullest communal realization of the new art of building in concert with progressive politics.”

To Johnson, on the other hand, Modernism was simply a style, a phenomenon of art history, something that might reflect the human condition but wouldn’t really deal with the condition of humans. His cockeyed worldview is still with us. Today the stars come together to design different floors of a single hotel—like the Hotel Puerta América in Madrid, where you get the fluid spaces and explosive lines of Zaha Hadid on one floor, the cool high-tech aesthetic of Lord Norman Foster on another, and so on. Vivre les starchitectes! Just let me know when the revolution begins. Nothing could be further from the handsome sobriety of Mies’s white-walled apartment house in Weissenhof or the transcendent thoughts behind it: “More important than the demand for material quality is that for spiritual quality.”

All this is to say that the leading avant-garde Modernists of our time, unlike their predecessors, are pretty much without a program for housing. Frank Gehry likes to call himself a “liberal do-gooder,” and he does the occasional socially conscious design, but let’s face it: his lefty-ness is really about progressive aesthetics, not progressive politics. And yet a world without an intelligent debate about housing is not a world you want to live in—trust me. Here in Chicago during the mid-twentieth century, the politics of race and class, along with bureaucratic cost-cutting, produced the ultimate perversion of Weissenhof—the endless anonymous, crime-ridden high-rises of the Chicago Housing Authority, which proved of so little lasting public value that many of them have been torn down.

But as they fall, other monsters are rising, spiritless concrete slabs heaped atop hulking parking garage podiums where yuppies and empty nesters deposit their Saabs and Beemers. This is what Sam Hall Kaplan might call “plop architecture,” or public housing for the rich. Even when the podiums get tarted up with traditional decoration, they deaden the streetscape like neutron bombs. As much as I’m excited by the prospect of Calatrava’s “drill bit” corkscrewing into the sky, it’s just another one-off. I’d much prefer it if someone could develop a typology that would allow lesser talents to craft downtown living quarters that are civilized if less spectacular than the Fordham Spire.

There are dangers too along the Gulf Coast, although I found the New Urbanists’ plans for Mississippi persuasive, at least in their attempt to diagram pedestrian- and transit-oriented cities and towns. The dipped-in-aspic nostalgic vocabulary I can do without, however, especially if it proves unaffordable to all but the rich and the haute bourgeoisie. If the New Urbanists produce something in Mississippi that resembles the River Garden mixed-income housing development in New Orleans—where faux French Quarter buildings, faux shotgun houses, and faux classical revival homes form one bland suburban blob—then the rebuilding will be a cultural catastrophe, substituting fake versions as the real ones are being demolished.

Forget the rampant aestheticism and architectural blinders of the twentieth century. We live in a pluralistic age, and it demands a new pragmatism. We are beyond “either/or”—we live in a world of “both/and.” The issues are quality, habitability, and sustainability, not style du jour. The issue is real urbanism, not some polite, politically palatable “lite” version thereof. I’ll take good New Urbanism, just like I’ll take good Modernism. But it’s not about the starchitects and their ideologies anymore. Can’t the catfighting parties on the different ends of the aesthetic spectrum just grow up and get along? °

Despite its ideals, the intersection of Modernism and mass housing has been a series of disappointments.

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