Ebert on Architecture: Two Thumbs Down

It’s unfortunate that Roger Ebert displays so much
discernment and knowledge in the realm of cinema, yet so little in
architecture.  On July 12th, Ebert took to his Sun-Times blog to vent
about modern architecture in a confused rant that conflates design with
architecture, multiple movements of architecture, historical periods, and
original masters with their imitators.  More disappointing are the openly
contradictory points that Ebert tries to make.  But perhaps most
disheartening is that Ebert doesn’t really increase understanding of
architecture, I’d say he actually increased the misunderstanding of
architecture.  This kind of
contradictory, half-knowledge that Ebert passed on to his massive audience
deserves a response.

Before I go on, let me state that unlike Ebert I don’t have a bias towards a
certain kind of architecture. I like historic architecture and I like modern
architecture, as long as it’s good I don’t have any bias for one over the
other, each has its merits and its failings.  However, Ebert is open about
his bias: “In architecture I am a reactionary.”

Ebert’s article begins with this seemingly simple but completely problematic
introduction: “[Modern architecture] seems drawn from mathematical axioms
rather than those learned for centuries from the earth, the organic origins of
building materials, the reach of hands and arms, and that which is pleasing to
the eye.” The issue is that all architecture is drawn from mathematical
axioms, modern architecture just makes them visible. 

Consider Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect of the Duomo in
  He used his considerable skill in mathematics to design and
build the largest dome since antiquity, having to invent new machines to help
him build it along the way.  Brunelleschi also is credited with the
invention of linear perspective, an artistic achievement that distinctly
utilizes mathematical axioms.  If the Duomo is pleasing to the eye, its
graceful form is solely the result of those mathematical axioms which enabled
its construction, and the inherent grace and beauty within those axioms. 
Mathematical axioms underscore and enable any building, in any century, whether
or not the builder was explicitly using them.  I’m not sure what Ebert has
in mind by calling for the return of building methods “learned for
centuries from the earth.” Personally, I have a vision of Tolkien’s Shire.
It’s not that I disagree with everything Ebert wrote, but he seems to group
everything that’s wrong or unattractive on the street in with modern
architecture.  Ebert laments that “I walk outside again and see the
street defaced by the cruel storefronts of bank branches and mall chains,
scornful of beauty.”  But storefront design isn’t architecture and no
one anywhere is going to defend mall architecture, modern as it may be.  Mall architecture is almost uniformly DOA, a fact that photographer Brian Ulrich explores in his work (see slideshow).

At about the middle of his post Ebert launches into his love of Louis Henri
Sullivan, and rightly so, who doesn’t love Sullivan’s buildings?  But what
Ebert seems not to recognize is that Sullivan was himself a modern architect,
widely considered to be the first.

Ebert’s beef with Mies van der Rohe is clearer when he brings up
ornament.  Ebert loves Sullivan’s ornament, and again, who doesn’t? 
Sullivan’s geometric designs, the base of which are the annoying
“mathematical axioms,”
are also laced with organic motifs interweaving the
natural and humanmade into results that are truly stunning.  The Art
and the Chicago Cultural Center both have exhibits on Sullivan that
display his designs and ornaments. 

On the other hand, Ebert claims that if you look at Mies van
der Rohe’s “IBM Plaza in Chicago and you will see a building with no
ornament at all.”  That’s simply not true, though it is granted that
Mies doesn’t give us the swirls and arabesques of Sullivan.  I’ve long
enjoyed the I-beams that Mies van der Rohe placed vertically on the very outer
edge of his building, and at the time I noted that The Chicago Architecture
Foundation had recently commented on the subtle ornamentation too.  Not
load bearing at all, these I-beams are industrial ornaments (see slideshow). 

The lobby of IBM Plaza is very nice too, though in usual
Miesian style it doesn’t try to overwhelm you with ornament.  It lets the
scenic Chicago River and the surrounding buildings be the decoration, by
enclosing the lobby with a simple, double height glass wall.  The elevator
shafts are clad in attractive stone and this simple decoration makes up the
lobby.  Look at images of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, it’s a
guide to the qualities he instills into the IBM building lobby: the beauty of
the materials is undeniable and he uses their inherent qualities raw, so no
ornamentation is needed on such stone.  Mies van der Rohe isn’t
necessarily giving you less; it just needs to be looked at on different terms.

In a completely befuddling claim, Ebert says that “When Philip Johnson
designed the AT&T building, when Frank Gehry designs a public place, people
like us are grateful but the establishment scoffs.”  While Johnson’s
AT&T building may have been controversial at the time, Johnson was firmly
part of “the establishment,” he had a position with the Museum of
Modern Art early on that he used to promote the International Style of modern
architecture that Ebert detests so much.  Likewise, Gehry is totally
embraced by “the establishment.”  The only people I can think
who would have been scoffing at those architects are reactionary architecture
critics, like Ebert.  Did I mention that Johnson’s mentor was Mies van der
Rohe, and Johnson’s work is not that dissimilar?  Check out Johnson’s
Glass House in the slideshow.

Ebert goes on to reminisce about a deli he once revisited, bemoaning that its
idiosyncrasies have been replaced by the generic appearance of Border’s
Bookstore and the like.  Well no argument here, but corporate interior
design isn’t architecture, and neither is the street level appearance in the
way he talks about it.  These are issues of preservation and business practice.


Ebert’s conclusion is the most confounding of all, as he sums up a gripe
with modern construction by saying “The rigid, hostile forms of many
modern buildings say, I cost as little as I could, and can be reproduced
anywhere.” This statement has several things wrong with it.  First,
reproduction anywhere was actually a measure of success for the International
Style, the kind of architecture Mies van der Rohe was involved in.  The
International Style aimed to be a universal architecture that could be used
anywhere, so that there would be, for the first time ever in human history, a
common architectural language.  Yes, this did eventually end up trumping
local styles and character, that synthesis is architecture’s challenge, but as
the International Style was largely born in Chicago, it is also our local style
and character.

A second problem with Ebert’s conclusion is that he uses the University of
Chicago campus buildings as a counterexample to the International Style’s
failing of being “reproduced anywhere.”  But contradictorily
Ebert notes that the U of C buildings are in fact reproductions in themselves,
“inspired by Oxford” and “two of the buildings are
deliberate copies of Magdalen Tower and Christ Church Hall.” It’s this
fact that is precisely why the U of C buildings are pretty but a bit boring;
they’ve been done elsewhere first, and better. 

Ebert had previously lamented that with new buildings
“money is indeed the impelling cause, forbidding the slightest concession
to visual pleasure or gratuitous beauty.” Well I would say that with the
gothic U of C buildings money is an “impelling cause” too, but in
this case the purpose is to show it off.  The buildings are an overt
display of costly craftsmanship, an attempt to buy the status that seems to
accompany gothic architecture. Is it coincidental that Harvard and Yale adopted
the style too?  Yale even took it further, pouring acid down the stone
walls of buildings to make them appear more aged and the university,
presumably, more dignified.  Ebert says he “felt Elevation [sic]
while simply walking through the space.” As a counterpoint, I’ll offer my
feelings of the space: exclusivity, wealth, classism and conservativism.  

The stakes of this debate coincidentally turned out to be the main story of
July 20th’s issue of NewCity, with an article by Ella Christoph bearing the
headline “Architecture Capital? What we’ll lose if we lose our mid-century
modern buildings” Christoph contemplates the fates of quirky modern
buildings like Bertrand Goldberg’s Northwestern Prentice Women’s Hospital and
coolly modernist buildings like the Prairie Shores Apartments that Walter
Gropius was involved in designing.  If, like Ebert, we don’t bother to
understand these buildings, we’re likely to destroy them just as Chicago
destroyed so many of Louis Sullivan’s buildings, which we now see as mistakes
that we’ll never be able to undo.  Richard Nickel, the preservationist and
architectural photographer of historic and modern buildings, said, “Great
architecture has only two
natural enemies: water, and stupid
men.”  It’s unfortunate that Ebert
is not water, though his words have the reach of a flood.

Post script: There are some HTML formatting issues with this post that I do not have time to correct, apologies for that.

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