BACK in 1981, Tom Wolfe published the archetypal work of reactionary architectural criticism, “From Bauhaus to Our House,” a happy-go-lucky evisceration of modern design and the men who brought it to America. Wolfe’s short romp through history struck a nerve, but one close to the funny bone. Reviewing it in the Nation, critic Michael Sorkin quipped, “What Tom Wolfe doesn’t know about modern architecture could fill a book. And so, indeed, it has, albeit a slim one.”
Now John Silber, former president of Boston University and failed Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate, has set himself the dubious task of assuming Wolfe’s cranky mantle. It’s a game effort: What Silber doesn’t know about modern architecture has also filled a book, although one 46 pages slimmer than Wolfe’s and absent the master’s wit. Indeed, “Architecture of the Absurd: How ‘Genius’ Disfigured a Practical Art” is so riddled with red herrings, half-truths and gratuitously provocative exaggerations that Colin Powell might try reading it at the United Nations.
Its central conceit is that a few shamelessly self-aggrandizing architects, most prominently Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gehry, have hijacked an otherwise pragmatic field and, out of naked self-interest, have fostered an “absurd” school of design that fails the functional, aesthetic and economic needs of those it is meant to serve. In his telling, the “Genius” architect is a kind of Svengali, manipulating clients with arcane “Theoryspeak” and grand visions until they “forfeit their dignity as persons and allow themselves, through vanity, gullibility, or timidity, to be seduced.” And so we have Libeskind repeatedly orchestrating a “barrage of intimidation” in order to transform his evil plans into glass and steel, and Gehry, with his “contempt for the interests of clients.”
Whatever distaste one might have for their architecture, these characterizations are misleading. Libeskind as intimidator? The man is about 5 feet tall, wears funny glasses and, in general, makes Woody Allen look like Dick Cheney. And Gehry -- never mind a recent lawsuit over his design for the Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (the building is pictured on the book jacket) -- has had no shortage of customers, many of them experienced developers who obviously feel he has their interests at heart.
The truth is that Libeskind, Gehry and architecture’s other so-called geniuses are giving their educated consumers precisely what they want -- elaborate works of design that command the public’s attention. It’s telling that Silber fails to grapple with Gehry’s 1997 Guggenheim outpost in Bilbao, the project that launched the current signature-museum phenomenon. That building doesn’t quite fit into his narrative, and not just because it has proved a popular and critical success. This was not a design foisted on some naive client; it was the product of a partnership between Gehry and Thomas Krens, the Guggenheim director who latched onto the idea that visionary architecture could be a means of brand extension.
That view may not be appealing, but it is today’s reality. Architecture is the lipstick on the pig of development; its practitioners are far more likely to be pawns of their clients than Svengalis controlling them. In lieu of a serious discussion of this situation, Silber arrogates to architects powers they largely lack, if only because this makes it easier to point a scolding finger at them.
Silber falls into the same intellectual trap as Wolfe, who found the architect a convenient villain for the debasement of the built environment. All those bland, modern boxes littering our byways? Blame the architect, even though those boxes were not just a reflection of our corporate culture but also what its custodians demanded. So it goes with Silber, but now the works of genius under assault aren’t bland boxes but kandy-kolored streamline babies.
How did we get here? "[B]urgeoning wealth and consequent materialism support an instant culture of insatiability, which in turn demands novelty,” writes Silber. It’s a compelling insight, but he doesn’t begin to explore it. (Though he does note, apropos of nothing, that the rise of “absurdism” has “accompanied a decline in standards of taste in popular music and movies and the prevalence of tattoos and body-piercing ornamentation.”)
That Silber sees the architect as inordinately powerful is not surprising. His father, the book’s dedicatee, had an architectural practice in Texas, for which Silber fils occasionally worked. Ever since, it seems, he has engaged in a kind of Oedipal drama, brazenly attacking the profession’s authority figures. He recalls an incident at a dinner in 1952 when, “much to the consternation” of his father, he attempted a battle of wits with Frank Lloyd Wright: “Wright was not impressed and quickly dismissed my impertinence.” Years later, we find Silber, now a professor at Yale, pestering Louis I. Kahn for not putting Plexiglas switch plates in the university’s art gallery. “There was no response.” Go figure.
Predictably, Silber is the hero of his story, a one-man bulwark against architectural folly. At Boston University, he claims to have overseen more than 13 million square feet of construction. Nearly all of it lacks intellectual ambition, and no wonder. Under his regime, architects were kept in line: “I dismissed their elaborate, high-flown aesthetic justifications of design features as gratuitous bloviation.” He would know about bloviation. In a book devoted to architectural indulgence, Silber sets a standard for arrogance far exceeding that of his subjects.