Tag Archives: PHILIP JOHNSON

THOSE WERE THE DAYS: POST MODERNISM AND ROBERT A.M. STERN ARCHITECTS

October 12, 2018

Arata Isozaki’s iconic rendering that inspired an entire movement of architectural representation. Created for MOCA, Los Angeles, California

At the simple age of 24, I was employed by the world-famous Post Modern architect Robert A.M. Stern in New York City. Post Modernism, the architectural movement of the 1960s to the 1980s, may not be the most beloved style of design today and even many despise it. But Post Modernism does at times stutter a comeback in different forms.

Roy E. Disney Animation Building, Burbank, California, by Robert A.M. Stern Architects (photo by Xurble)

In my undergraduate years of the 1980’s at UC Berkeley, we enthusiastically studied and exhaustively examined Post Modernism. It was the significant philosophy of art and architecture. This style, in the most elemental explanation, posits the notion that good architecture should provide human scale, harmony and beauty. Sounds obvious? Not always so.

Provincial Capitol Building, Toulouse, France, by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc. (photo by Matt Wargo)

Post Modernism, often called “Po-Mo,” reacted strongly against the many buildings of Modernism that preceded Post Modernism. Cold white boxes lacking life and a sense of place–these minimal Modern buildings of steel and glass appeared inhumane to some architects and most day to day users.

Post Modern architects connected their designs to visitors by offering the sense of feeling grounded—offering a building that was simply warm and inviting. The iconography of classical architecture, such as a Greek column or a Renaissance arch, created this grounding. Such traditional features captured what people thought buildings should look like.

Denver Public Library, Michael Graves, (photo from michaelgraves.com)

Establishing the Po Mo movement as a 180-degree reversal from the evils of ice-y abstract Modernism, Post Modernists also added wit and charm. They did so through the use of vibrant colors, by making columns extra tall or extra fat, or by abstracting traditional forms into simple geometry, such as a triangle in lieu of a classical pediment. Though appearing to be merely a campy game of the visual arts, the movement added intellectual irony, rigorous research of historical precedence and proportions, and academic strategies of references.

A battle of history and precedence vs. looking forward to fresh ideas, currently occurring at the AT&T Corporate Headquarters, New York, New York, by Philip Johnson (photo by Kevin Lafontaine-durand); Inspired by a Chippendale highboy chest (photo from 1stdibs.com)
Perhaps taking the concepts of color, geometry and irony too far, the famous Memphis design room by Dennis Zanone (photo by Dennis Zanone)

In my early twenties, I was a smug, obnoxious young designer, which is a trait of plenty of new and naive architects. We believed even at our young age, that we had talents bestowed upon us that would certainly deliver world peace, or something idealistic and absurd like that.

Within Stern’s office of 100 of the best and brightest, I worked with defiance and sometimes too much confidence. Senior architects rolled their eyes in discomfort every time I made a statement of delusion and self-aggrandizing. I don’t know if it is our industry’s competitive style that causes this kind of behavior, or me just being an ill-advised juvenile architect. Maybe it was the Post Modern education that made me brash. After all, the Post Modernists boldly tossed aside the accomplishments of a previous generation, and replaced the old philosophies with new ideas that were forged through poking fun and having fun.

Collage illustrating some of the most well-known Post Modernist designs (photo from dezeen.com)
Robert A.M. Stern (photo by Witold Rybczynski)

On my last day at the office in 1988, Robert Stern gave me words of advice as I was leaving to Cambridge to start my graduate studies. Bob, as he liked to be called, wished me luck with a grin, “Harvard won’t teach you anything about architecture, but they will teach a Californian like you how to dress appropriately.”

(Other essays on Post Modernism: Humor, Tribute to Michael Graves and Lecture on Love. )

SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE ARCHITECTS

June 24, 2016

1940’s architects (public domain, photo from wikipedia.com)

Why do some people like having architects around as conversation pieces, while simultaneously accuse us of unbearable pretentiousness?

Arguably impressive and both cultured and irksome, architects have the ability to speak about almost anything, to pontificate, to provide diatribes on nearly any topic—from why Apple will fail or succeed, to the specs of a car vs. the specs of an espresso machine, to the latest documentary on documentaries.

Rem Koolhaas looking fashionable on the cover of Vogue
Rem Koolhaas looking fashionable on the cover of Vogue

Though most architects can provide “constructive criticism” on many topics, ask an architect about the last three Super Bowl championships. Or ask for a review of a Tom Cruise blockbuster. Rather than being a casual conversationalist, the architect might deliver a righteous discourse on the downfall of Western Civilization.

At times, there is the better-than kind of reaction to a situation that would typically draw an authentic human response, such as laughter to a good joke, or complacency at a family gathering. Many architects are skilled at displaying boredom as they try to appear as though their creative minds are preoccupied with the next big idea that will deliver world peace.

Architects try to be cool, want to be cool—and yes, some are. But many are just trying too hard. They are no better or worse than anyone else. The problem is that only architects seem unaware of this fact.

We possess our own absurd lexicon. (See, I just used the word “lexicon.”) A sentence almost makes sense as the architect speaks it, particularly when the client witnesses the conviction in an architect’s voice along with the poetic glaze in the eyes.

The sometimes impenetrable text of the Harvard Design Magazine (photo from vazio.com)
The sometimes impenetrable text of the Harvard Design Magazine (photo from vazio.com)

In a review of a new building, the Harvard Design Magazine actually spewed, “Unlike architecture that seeks to articulate understandings about the nature of things through expressive or metaphoric mimings, this remarkable building yields us actionable space.” Or, “Digital design finds its certainty in a parametric computation of infinite, noncritical formal variability, with its simultaneous assurance of all possibility and no particularity.”

Huh?

Architect Barbie (photo from bldgdreams.tumblr.com)
Architect Barbie (photo from bldgdreams.tumblr.com)

Maybe this convoluted speaking is pseudo-intellectualism, but in truth, it is ridiculous when you hear an architect (me included) present in full egomaniacal glory. Do we really need to use words like tectonic, datum, aperture, and gestalt all in one sentence? Do architects need to use the common tags “-ality,” “-ology,” and “-ity” to make words sound fancy? Words that gush out of the architect’s mouth too easily: actuality, phenomenology, specificity, and homogeneity.

How about the name of an architect’s company? There are the invented names that might sound like words you know, Morphosis and Architectonica, for example. There are abbreviations that are sort of the founder’s name, SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates), or MAD architects (Ma and Dang). And there is the use of the generic—such as OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture), or FOA (Foreign Office Architects).

Also, my favorites are company names with unique spellings, punctuations, capitalizations, such as Office dA, SHoP, SPF:a, wHY, No.mad, or Coop Himmelb(l)au. How does the receptionist answer the phone? How does she spell the name when asked? “Capital this then that, no, lower case, now get rid of the space, yes, add an open parenthesis, no, it is actually spelled wrong, I mean, that is correct . . .”

Starchitects, generally in black, all with stylish flair: upper left: Jean Nouvel (photo by Tom Dyckhoff); upper right: Jeanne Gang (photo from architecturaldigest.com); lower left: Frank Gehry (photo by Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images); lower right: Daniel Libeskind (photo by Matt Thomas)
Starchitects, generally in black, all with stylish flair: upper left: Jean Nouvel (photo by Tom Dyckhoff); upper right: Jeanne Gang (photo from architecturaldigest.com); lower left: Frank Gehry (photo by Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images); lower right: Daniel Libeskind (photo by Matt Thomas)

Then there’s our appearance. Most architects are well-groomed, decently dressed (predictably black), and generally put together in some conscious way. When I say, ‘decently dressed,’ I don’t mean an overdressed fashionista. We do have a very conscious sense of our day-to-day uniform. The way we wrap an old scarf to appear blasé—this apparent indifference is rehearsed. When I say “well groomed,” architects may not broadcast their attention to personal hygiene, but you will not find too many architect’s looking like the absent minded professor/engineer with three-day unwashed hair and an overlooked belt loop.

Zaha Hadid looking stylish on the cover of DAC & Life
Zaha Hadid looking stylish on the cover of DAC & Life

For female architects, traditional conceptions of pretty femininity are ignored. I believe most female architects prefer to leave the cute outfits, glittery clanging jewelry, obvious make up, and high heels to fellow interior decorators. For male architects, impressions of metrosexuality are common: the neatness, a decent haircut, and clothes that just seem to work together, even if it is a simple crisp shirt and artfully distressed jeans.

Accessories are rare for any architect, but the carefully considered accent item might be present, such as the locally created wristband, a French fountain pen, or a custom designed wedding band. This approach to the personalized feature item might come from some famous predecessors. Le Corbusier (1887-1965) had his famous black shell, round rimmed glasses, of which Philip Johnson had Cartier make a replica in 1934—a trend which I.M. Pei continues today. Fortunately, Frank Lloyd Wright’s cape never caught on.

left to right : Le Corbusier (photo by Girard-Perregaud Vintage) ; Philip Johnson (photo by Getty Images) ; I.M. Pei (photo from architizer.com)
left to right : Le Corbusier (photo by Girard-Perregaud Vintage) ; Philip Johnson (photo by Getty Images) ; I.M. Pei (photo from architizer.com)

EPILOGUE: I confess that these characterizations are not all architects. But where is the fun if I can’t generalize, if we take ourselves too seriously?

Popular TV actor Josh Radnor playing ten seasons of the beloved architect Ted Mosby, from How I Met Your Mother
Popular TV actor Josh Radnor playing ten seasons of the beloved architect Ted Mosby, from How I Met Your Mother
© Poon Design Inc.