Monday, April 22, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Reintroducing the Wolfe by John Elwyn Kimber

Reintroducing the Wolfe:
Why Modern Houses are Good for the Soul
John Elwyn Kimber
Schindler's Wolfe House
ILLUSTRATION: Steve Ferchaud

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Empirical

The year is 1931, and on an improbably steep hillside overlooking the harbor of Avalon, on Catalina Island, California, one of the most remarkable modernist houses of the 20th century has just been completed. It cascades down the slope like a frozen waterfall in an intricate interlocking rhythm of overlapping planes, cantilevered balconies, and carefully judged windows and voids. Every inch of this astonishing building is carefully thought through from the inside out, and the result is one of the most architecturally-distinguished holiday cottages ever devised. The architect is Rudolph Schindler, and his house, the Wolfe House, out-does even his own most famous creation, the Lovell beach house, in spatial drama and ingenuity. Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Fallingwater’ is still several years away; in 1931, the Wolfe house is probably the most dramatic response to a steep site yet realized by any modern architect. To look at the photographs newly taken on completion of this audacious structure is to assume that here is an instant modern classic, destined surely for architectural fame and careful conservation.

Or maybe we knew already? The Wolfe House was demolished ten years ago….

It should not be news to anybody that America is losing her architectural heritage at a frightening speed. But it is a national scandal that more is not being done to stop it. So the question I want to ask is: why not?

Wright's Fallingwater
PHOTO: Ester Westerveld

I’m British. I live in a country where planning-controls are strict and opportunities to demolish and rebuild are limited, particularly where a structure is deemed to have even moderate historic or architectural value. Now Europeans, and Britons in particular, may well be accused by Americans of being in love more with the past than the future, and I’d not deny that this is often a fair comment. But the point of progress is to replace old mediocrity with new excellence, rather than the reverse, so I have to say that I am aghast at how easy it is for new American owners to demolish sometimes world-renowned buildings more or less at will. American states have their planning-controls, their lists of historic buildings, and their preservation societies in abundance, and yet none of this worthy activity seems to prevent the loss of crucial cultural landmarks.

Despite a recent revival of interest in all things mid-century-modern, there is still a mental image of the modernist as a puritanical aesthetic fascist forcing everybody into grey concrete and glass cubes while thundering ‘we know what’s good for you.’ This kind of arrogance breeds resentment, and resentment encourages iconoclasm. But if it is being belatedly realized that this is a caricature of modernist aesthetics, and that the geniuses who pioneered the style may not be to blame for the excesses of mediocre architectural dogmatists who turned their work into rigid, socially-oppressive formulae, the realization has come too late to save a lengthening list of distinguished buildings, some of them internationally acknowledged masterpieces.

Wright's Fallingwater
PHOTO: Ester Westerveld
To take only a few world-class examples of what has been lost.

To start at the top, even the Grand Old Man himself is not immune. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Carr House in Grand Beach, Michigan, 1916, was demolished as recently as 2004, and it took a determined effort to save the remarkable Kraus Residence [1951] in Kirkwood, Missouri, from teardown. Others have fallen into disrepair and required serious efforts at renovation. They have been lucky to attract sympathetic new owners: important recent examples include the John C. Pew house near Madison, Wisconsin (1938) and the Lloyd Lewis house, Libertyville, Illinois (1940), both among the most famous of Wright’s ‘Usonian’ houses. At time of writing the latest news is that his David Wright house in Phoenix, Arizona, may be under threat of demolition, as a new owner has filed for permission to split the lot. This particular Wright is a unique round-house designed for his son. It is already too late to save a house by another of Wright’s sons, Lloyd Wright’s Moore House in Palos Verdes [1959], widely regarded as his masterpiece and demolished by an indifferent new owner in April this year.

So what chance have lesser architects got?

Richard Neutra’s Von Sternberg house (1936), was once the home of Ayn Rand and reputedly the inspiration for The Fountainhead. Whatever one may think of Ayn Rand, that made it both architecturally and historically significant. Razed as early as 1971, for the sake of a housing-development, it was iconic enough for architectural historian Josh Gorrell, who is also restoring Rudolph Schindler’s Van Dekker House near the Von Sternberg’s original site, to propose building a replica in a new location, but most of these lost masterpieces are not so lucky.

John Lautner's Segel House in Malibu
PHOTO: Podnox

The turn of the century turned out to be a particularly apocalyptic for modernist masterpieces. Eduardo Catalano’s pioneering and world-famous hyperbolic paraboloid house in Raleigh, North Carolina, built 1956 and praised even by Wright, was torn down in 2001 despite efforts to save it or agree to build a replica nearer to the University, a project still unrealized at the time of Catalano’s death in 2010. Schindler’s spectacular Wolfe House was allowed to degenerate to a near-derelict state before demolition in 2002, the same year as Neutra’s Maslon House in Palm Springs (1962), obliterated without public review despite a national outcry. This was only the most newsworthy of numerous Neutra teardowns, very few of which have been lucky enough to be saved by re-erection on new sites.

What is most valuable about Richard Neutra is that his later work in particular bridges the gap between the Euro-Minimalism of Mies van der Rohe and the organic aesthetic of Frank Lloyd Wright. This is why he is viewed today, perhaps uniquely, as both an organic architect and a master of the International Style. We can’t afford to keep losing his buildings. One of Neutra’s largest, the 1955 Kronish House in Hollywood Hills, was saved recently after a determined campaign, but it seems to have taken the shocking demolition of John Lautner’s nearby Shusett House [1951] to get the line drawn in the sand. How many more have to be obliterated before federal and state governments wake up and start taking their role as preservationists more seriously?

Neutra's Lovell Beach House
PHOTO: IK Koskinen

And since the twenty-first century century has commenced, the onslaught upon the architecture of the twentieth has intensified. Which is unfortunate for America, home to the best collection of first-rate twentieth-century architecture in the world. But for how much longer?

The architectural quality of the above examples was not in any doubt. With more ‘brutalist’ figures the onslaught becomes a positive hate-campaign. Since his death in 1997, Paul Rudolph’s buildings have been targeted with what seems like coordinated spite. There was an international outcry over the proposal to demolish his pioneering Riverview High School in Sarasota, Florida, which was not in a brutalist style and incorporated some simple but effective passive-solar features to minimize the need for air-conditioning, but these ‘green’ credentials were not enough to prevent teardown in 2009. It is undoubtedly true that Rudolph came up with some bizarrely mannerist buildings, but he hardly deserves such irrational hatred. The Micheels house at Westport, built 1973, demolished 2006, was a relatively orthodox modern design and one of no less than seven Rudolph houses demolished between 2002 and 2008.

Schindler's Lovell Beach House
PHOTO: IK Koskinen
And no one seems to know whether his most striking house, the Herbert Green residence at Holmdale, Pennsylvania [1968], an extraordinary cluster of beaky, bird-like passive-solar pavilions perched on a big A-frame glasshouse, still exists or not. If not, it is to be hoped that Josh Gorrell or someone like him feels moved to recreate this extraordinary building on a different site. Rudolph was something of an American Le Corbusier and took a lot of aesthetic risks with the help of adventurous clients. These are structures which are highly noticeable and thus particularly vulnerable to changes in aesthetic fashion. Some are more successful than others but no more should come down without proper public review.

Wherever there is a modest modernist house on a large lot, we may be sure that new prospective owners are on the prowl, seeking to replace it with a McMansion or a housing-scheme, regardless of architectural merit. And why should we care? My answer would be that even once we’ve parked all the more dogmatic modernist shibboleths and taboos in the junkyard, there really is an enduring spiritual point and purpose to those minimalist values that the modernists inherited from the arts-and-crafts movement, epitomized by those supposedly ‘puritanical’ buildings. And although the imitators of Mies van der Rohe may have led modernism into something of an aesthetic impasse, to which the excesses of brutalist mannerism may have been an abreaction, ‘post-modernism’ was yet another: with few exceptions, it turned down-home folksiness and familiar historic forms into a collection of unhomely self-conscious gestures and vaguely surreal visual jokes, which were not very entertaining even as follies; and the result was no improvement upon what had gone before it. So it looks like modernism is coming up smiling, and there are good reasons why. Modernism emerged from the Arts-and-Crafts movement, as practical and idealistic architects realized that despite the admirably creative and unpretentious aims of Arts-and-Crafts it was not adequate to the challenge of an urbanized machine age. 

Neutra's Kronish House
ILLUSTRATION: Steve Ferchaud

So the problem became how to provide surroundings which would help to humanize and civilize an entirely new, potentially technologically barbarous situation for humanity as a whole. For me, the wonder is not that many notions of functionalist architects now seem to be over-prescriptive, narrow-minded, and naïve, but that so much work of lasting merit was nevertheless produced in the course of a few decades. We have not yet caught up with this fact. Modernism is still more unfashionable than not, and its best architectural expressions are still undervalued, or at best valued for superficial reasons as designer-chic fashion accessories.

Now even if we were never post-Modernists, we may somehow think that square buildings are for squares, and that real modern architecture started with Douglas Cardinal’s first computer and now lives on in the offices of Bart Prince or Frank Gehry. But this is to forget that there are such things as design-classics, which come in a variety of forms. The 1949 Oldsmobile Club Sedan or the 1962 Studebaker Avanti are both subtle, understated car-designs which are far more elegant than most of their successors, one curvy, one razor-edged. Good design and up-to-date design are two very different things.

Schindler's Lovell Beach House
PHOTO: IK Koskinen

It is relatively easy for talented designers to recreate the semblance of any style, but individual works of genius are works of genius because what makes them so is a haunting and elusive quality which cannot be reduced to a formula. And we are allowing numerous works of genius to be consigned to the bulldozer. These will be far less easy to reproduce. In the words of veteran organic architect Matt Taylor of Palo Alto, originator of the superb website Return to the Usonian House:

Let us say that an individual had several million dollars of rare and un-replaceable art. Let’s do a mind experiment: this individual decides to hold a party and burn the art on the front lawn. Why not? S/he owns the art. Just to make it more fun why not burn the several large redwood trees that happen to be there. They can grow back in a few hundred years–maybe a thousand. After all this is just property. How could this have anything to do with the idea of commonwealth? Or, the notion of stewardship. Na. While we are at it let’s throw in some rare books. Everybody can come over and roast marshmallows! Art, I understand-along with some good redwoods–makes a great campfire. I suppose that no one would complain. Or wonder. I wonder. Have you ever been a little bit curious about what was in the library of Alexandria? I suppose not. What did they know? After all we are the modern ones and no doubt the epitome of civilization. I bet they could not even do a net present value calculation. Silly of me to wonder. It must have been a hell of a fire. Crowd pleaser I bet. Lucky for us that those people could not possibly have anything to teach us. Why is Architecture the most vulnerable of the arts?

Great architecture is an art form. Not even the most populist and anti-intellectual government could expect to get away with burning books or trashing works of art, and yet time and again important works of architecture are treated as nothing more than mere quantities of glazing, wood, and masonry. So far, the federal and state governments of the Union seem insufficiently conscious of the harm that this does to America’s reputation. I am writing this in England: the buildings mentioned in this article are internationally admired. Those who authorize or carry out their thoughtless destruction need not expect to escape being condemned as vandals and imbeciles. Vandalism is a sin against civilization: is this how the destroyers of these houses wish to be remembered?

A renewal of modernism reaffirms the truth that gracious living does not become more gracious with late Romanesque extravagance; that understated elegance is a far more civilized virtue than over-indulged opulence; that you need not fight beyond success, and that there is a point in the acquisition of wealth where enough is enough. An important example to set, and the spiritual health of America has always depended upon those wise Americans who have practiced such essentially frugal and philanthropic virtues. Architecture matters, being the most visible expression of the core values of any society. So these buildings matter, and it is an ageold mistake to assume that because they are unfashionable they are obsolete. This has been thought in the past about many gothic or classical ‘monstrosities’ which are now lovingly-preserved. And it is a nasty fact of architectural history that it is often the more outstanding examples of any unfashionable style that attract the bulldozers, and their loss is regretted all too late.

The issue is not a trivial one, and the need for a national debate in the US to discuss how to protect its built heritage is overdue, despite the best efforts of all those architect’s foundations and preservation societies. Western society is in crisis, but this is not an excuse to do nothing but crisis management. Civilization matters; civilization is expressed in its best buildings. Those buildings matter, so they need care and protection just like other exemplary works of art. They are a reminder of what civilized values ought to be, so they are not irrelevant, either spiritually or politically. In short, exemplary modern buildings need more friends, and they need them now.

Claytor Lake State Park, Virginia
PHOTO: Virginia State Parks Staff

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