Architecture of the Absurd: How “Genius” Disfigured a Practical Art, by John Silber (Quantuck Lane, 128 pp., $27.50)
The winning entry in a recent architectural competition came with this self-description: “Project Concept: In the contemporary world with its abundance of visual experience... an exposition piece of architecture will only be attractive insofar as it can offer perceptual sensations attainable only through direct, unmediated exposure to out-of-the-ordinary, singular stimuli.” If we translate that into plain English, it summarizes the central idea of today’s so-called starchitects: to attract attention, you have to do something that is different—and weird.
John Silber’s Architecture of the Absurd effectively criticizes the obvious flaws of today’s celebrity architecture. Silber takes us on guided tours of buildings that leading starchitects designed, exposing their pretensions and failures. He concludes by likening such works with the naked emperor in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale; his book may help some readers see that the starchitects have about as much credibility as that emperor did in the end.
The heart of Silber’s book is a tour of the works of Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gehry. Silber does an excellent job exposing Libeskind’s “theoryspeak” – his invention of outlandish conceptual justifications for his designs. For example, Libeskind claims that abstract patterns of slashes on the outside of his Jewish Museum in Berlin suggest the locations of Jewish communities in Berlin before the Holocaust. But he also claims that similar slashes in his Royal Ontario Museum represent “the primacy of participatory space and public choreography”—whatever that means. Libeskind is obviously talented at formulating these opaque explanations for buildings that do not work in human terms. Doubtless, the razzle-dazzle often intimidates his clients, so that they’re willing to do whatever this “genius” tells them.
Frank Gehry, Silber writes, has styled himself as an abstract sculptor rather than as an architect creating places for public use. Perhaps Gehry has good reason to hide behind such an artifice; Silber exposes his many practical errors, such as the blinding glare of Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and his tendency to ignore his clients’ needs, best shown in MIT’s Stata Center, where Gehry came up with exposed offices for people who need privacy to work.
It’s easy to ridicule such absurdity, but more difficult to provide the conceptual tools that show what is wrong with starchitecture and how we can do better. Silber says that this architecture is absurd because it cares only about novelty, about being outrageous and attracting attention. As an alternative, he calls for architecture that is “functional” and “harmonious.” Unfortunately, he never makes clear what these terms mean.
Silber calls Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building a “stunning masterpiece,” for instance. The building is the archetypal modernist high-rise steel-and-glass box, set back behind a sterile little plaza on New York’s Park Avenue. Silber also praises I.M. Pei’s John Hancock Building in Boston, another glass high rise with an even slicker, shinier skin than the Seagram Building. He calls it a “beautiful tower designed to be a mosaic of its surroundings as they were mirrored in its surface,” as if a wall of reflective glass were a revelation. He notes that, initially, the building’s six-by-twelve-foot glass panes sometimes fell to the ground in high winds—but excuses this problem by explaining that it wasn’t intentional, and was eventually corrected by replacing the originals with smaller window panes.
Yet elsewhere, Silber finds modernist buildings aesthetically appalling. He dislikes Pei’s glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre, saying that this modern structure is “inharmonious and intrusive” in the Louvre’s seventeenth-century courtyard. Such an intrusion, he writes, is an example of an architect “consciously practicing the architecture of the absurd.” Josep Lluis Sert, a modernist dean of Harvard’s School of Design who has designed many projects in Boston, is another target. Sert’s Holyoke Shopping Center and Peabody Terrace student housing are inharmonious, Silber tells us, because they “defy the tastes and traditions of a community he longs to reshape.” Silber also points out that Sert’s Harvard Law School, “despite its radically different function, is embarrassingly similar to the residential Peabody Terrace,” suggesting that the architect had discovered a universal design that he could apply to every project.
But don’t Silber’s criticisms of Sert apply equally to van der Rohe? Didn’t the Seagram building deliberately defy New York’s traditional urbanism? Park Avenue was defined by its consistent wall of buildings in traditional architectural styles. The Seagram building deliberately broke with these styles and disrupted the street wall with its little plaza. The 1950s and 1960s saw an endless series of modernist high rises with such windswept plazas, until enough people realized that they were destroying the definition of New York’s streets and public spaces. Likewise, Pei’s Hancock Building helped to destroy Boston’s skyline and the traditional scale of Copley Square. Silber considers the two buildings harmonious because he thinks of them in isolation; but when placed in the context of the traditional architecture and urbanism of Park Avenue and Copley Square, they clash with their surroundings just as strongly as Pei’s pyramid clashes with the Louvre courtyard, or as Sert’s shopping center and student housing clash with their surrounding neighborhoods.
Silber also tends to make sharp distinctions between like things. Le Corbusier is absurd; Mies is not. The money spent to correct the reflections from Gehry’s Disney Hall show that that building is absurd; the money spent to stop the windows from falling out of the Hancock Building show no such thing. Sert’s Holyoke Shopping Center is absurd because it deliberately defies the architectural traditions of its neighborhood; Mies’s Seagram building is not absurd, though it’s guilty of the same offense. Perhaps Silber is led to make such arbitrary distinctions because he focuses on such a narrow realm of modernist architecture. He doesn’t consider any buildings without the typical flaws of modernism.
In his conclusion, Silber offers some alternatives to the architecture of the absurd, such as the Sydney Opera House—it reminds him of a lovely sailing ship, but has put other critics in mind of a pile of copulating turtles—and a building by Moshe Safdie with curving sculptural rooflines. These buildings are just more moderate examples of today’s taste for novelty and for buildings designed as abstract sculptures. They do not go to the anti-human extremes of Libeskind and Gehry, true, but they do move in that direction. Silber argues that the architecture of the absurd fails precisely because it tries so hard to be novel, but he praises the Sydney Opera House as “an iconic structure” that is “imaginative and excitingly and enduringly novel.” Haven’t we heard exactly the same terms used about Gehry’s and Libeskind’s buildings? Silber praises Safdie’s building by writing that it’s “every bit as contemporary as those of Gehry, [Steven] Holl, and Libeskind.” But these buildings are less contemporary than they are unfortunate hangovers from mid-century modernism; they represent the final decadence of an approach that was exciting in the 1950s or 1960s, but that now strains for novelty because it no longer has anything meaningful to say.
It would have been welcome if Silber had discussed some of the neo-traditional contemporary architects trying to move away from modernism by designing buildings that are good places for people, rather than iconic novelties—architects such as Robert A.M. Stern, Quinlan Terry, Christopher Alexander, and Robert Adam. They offer a real alternative to modernist decadence. Silber helpfully demonstrates what’s wrong with architecture today, but he fails to point us in a better direction.