Barcelona Pavilion, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Well, the reconstructed Barcelona Pavilion. The original was a temporary construction to serve as the German Pavilion for an International Exhibition and was taken down in 1930. Barcelona recreated it in the 1980s. It’s a beautiful building – Modernism before Less became a Bore.

Another Paul Rudolph dodges the wrecking ball

Paul Rudolph buildings come under a lot of pressure from people who want to replace them. Accepting the name “Brutalist” for the substyle of Modernism doesn’t help the cause any.

This country government center in the Hudson Valley (Orange Country) may end up changing its use, but it won’t be destroyed. It certainly expresses a useful point to its users about government, even local government!

Mussolini’s Fascist Mosaics

Making a Monumental Sculpture

One of the panels from the Foro Italico showing trades or crafts (or maybe we should think of them as everyday activities in the Fascist Syndicalist state?) – this one with artists making a monumental figure like one of these.

The black and white mosaics in the Foro Italico (formerly the Foro Mussolini – and only the street signs changed) show all kinds of things — Black-shirt Squadristi rolling in trucks through Italy shouting battle cries as they battle Socialism, hard-working peasants tilling the soil, grateful Ethiopians (and lions!) giving the fascist salute, and the above. There are lots of idealized athletes doing ideal, athletic things.
I’ve mentioned that one of the things that’s going on with the style is an explicit imitation of Roman black and white mosaics. Here’s an angry looking bull from the Baths of Caracalla (circa AD 215). See? One of the major excavations prosecuted during the 1930s was extending the archeological area at Ostia Antica, where they were turning up lots of this stuff. Unfortunately, the only picture I’ve posted of athletes from Ostia is a little artistic, but if you blow up the image from the Caupona of Alexander you may see more of what I mean.
Fascism elevates violence and hypermasculinity to an unreal level. There is a weird tension, though, between the glorification of the athletic body, something clearly represented as participating in individual activities in these mosaics (I’m trying to think if there are any team sports – surely there’s soccer!) and their lack of individuation in the art. They’re all as ideally grim and unrevealing as the monumental nude sculptures surrounding the stadium next door.
We tried to explain this tension as somehow characteristic of Mussolini’s state. I think the eclecticism in architecture styles — there was never a decision on a single Official Fascist Style in Italy the way there was in Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany — is as good a way to see that as any, but this works, too.

Forlì – what the Hell?




Forli – what the Hell?

Originally uploaded by Michael Tinkler.

All the statues (50-odd) are hypermasculinized males. Most are nude (but check out Ice Hockey further downstream for an exception). Most do something either connected with a modern sport or a classical sport. Forlì, Mussolini’s home province, is neither nude nor doing something athletic. Forlì wears shorts and WHAT THE HELL IS HE CARRYING IN HIS RIGHT HAND?

Click on the picture to go to the photostream of weird fascist nudes – and learn in passing that manscaping is not a 21st century concept. The Stadio dei Marmi is as good an example as you’re going to find of the idea that early-20th-Century-Totalitarian-Movements fetishized the hypermasculine. Please note that I am too lazy to provide links and too lazy to sort out the superficial differences between the visual culture of National Socialism, Socialist Realism, Fascism, and the WPA . . . they all run together for me. But then, I’m a medievalist. This exaltation of the male physical body to the exclusion of the female body and the spirit makes me suspicious.

Enrico del Debbio, one of Mussolini’s favorite architects, built the Stadio dei Marmi as part of the complex for celebrating the Deccenale, or 10 Year Anniversary of the Fascist Era (1932, dated from October 22, 1922, the March on Rome). The complex is still used today by the Italian Olympic Committee and other athletic organizations. One of the great wonders of the Italian Republic is that it never purged Mussolini as thoroughly as Germany removed Hitler from public visibility.

For a modern political reuse of the Fascist monument, see this political poster from 2008. They’re still arguing about the degree to which they ought to preserve, conserve, and restore this site, given its political past.

The whole HWS group came up here today to launch our unit on Fascist Architecture and City Planning, though my photos are from 2 separate visits. Click to see the sunny blue Hercules, too.

Interacting with Modernism

One of the problems of having a big, famous Modern building is there’s no way to add to it – you end up making everyone angry that you’ve messed up the earlier architecture. The S.C. Johnson Company had two buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright – now they have a building by Norman Foster that sits near them and comments on them. Here’s a review from the Chicago Tribune with several good photos.

“Charming” in a new context.

I don’t think “charming” means what Christopher Gray is trying to say in this New York Times article about preserving a particularly anonymous Modernist building in New York City. Here are some bits from the article.

The new Donnell had a facade of Spartan simplicity, about as warm as a jail cell. Above a high ground floor of plate glass and square granite columns rise three stories of plain square limestone panels interrupted only by rectangular windows without frames, divisions or other detailing; they might have been cut out with a keyhole saw. The front could be one of those strange walls with empty windows in the paintings of de Chirico or Dalí.
Writing in his column in The New Yorker in 1956, Lewis Mumford likened it to the careful, ordered facade of a high Renaissance palazzo, but one “cleansed of ornament.” For Mumford that was not necessarily a negative, but he found the “cheerless” Donnell a design of “assiduous anonymity.” The library, he wrote, “has very little to say, and is content with not saying it.”
[Now there’s an epigram for Modernism! Or perhaps an epitaph.]
For decades the Donnell has otherwise escaped commentary,
[Web searches did nothing for him – and I don’t have a detailed NYC architecture guide at home to check any print myself] an architectural black hole opposite the lively modernism of MoMA’s marble facade.
. . .
The Landmarks Preservation Commission is not interested in designating the Donnell Library, and only a micro-community of preservationists
[I like that!] seems to care. Among them are Michael Gotkin and John Jurayj, co-chairmen of the Modern Architecture Working Group, which is active in preservation matters.
. . .
Indeed, examined through that lens
[by making some comparisons to surviving examples of similarly blank Scandinavian façades] the enigmatic Donnell seems much more comprehensible, even charming — a Renaissance palace reimagined, instead of just a leftover packing box. The second-floor windows are extra-large, just like those on the piano nobile of a building in Renaissance Florence. It’s a neat trick. [The big windows on the piano nobile were big because those were the public rooms for the family, by the way. What was going on here? Unless there’s a functional reason for the window-scaling I think that should automatically disqualify it as an example of Modernism, then!]

You’ll have to click to see the pictures – truly banal. In the tradition of architectural historians and architectural commentators everywhere, he includes a unbuilt version of the building – which is so little different you may have to look twice, but merely including it proves that this is serious. Everyone knows the UNBUILT version would have been more interesting!
Telling point – the article is from the Real Estate section, not the Arts and Design. This was never more than a branch building for a public library system – knocked out by in-house architects. Tear it down.

An antidote for the Burden of History

Sometimes walking around Rome can get to be a little much. I find that modern music helps – in 2003 I listened to a lot of Verve: Remixed as an antidote. This year I haven’t been in much of a music mood – and my walk has been really short – the joy of living close to what one needs to look at.

Thursday, though, I kind of snapped. I woke up, walked to Termini, and checked departure times for Latina and Orvieto. An InterCity train stopping in Latina left 30 minutes sooner than anything to Orvieto (and I think that was a Regionale and hence criminally slow when you’re taking a mental health day and paying less than €10) so there I went!

I had driven past (or maybe even through?) Latina a couple of times when my sister and family lived in Gaeta – the via Appia runs past – but I had never been there.

Latina was founded in 1932 by Mussolini as Littoria, capital of the newly-drained Pontine Marshes. The Agro Pontino is an enormous area of Central Italy that was swampy and malarial since time out of mind. So Latina is thoroughly planned. Click here for the Italian Wikipedia article – look for the plans. Latina is one of the great examples of Rationalist (i.e., dirigiste Moderne, i.e., Fascist) architecture. There’s a street named after Corbusier for a reason.

Once he drained the Pontine Marshes, Mussolini moved a bunch of peasants from Friuli and the Veneto (North east italy) to the new agricultural territory. They were not particularly grateful, from what I’ve read. But Mussolini was dead set on Italy becoming self-sufficient agriculturally – hence the Wheat-fountain.

I wandered around and took lots of photos – here are some of them on Flickr.

The city is a little much in its type, but it looks pretty liveble. It has the second largest population in the region of Lazio (after Rome), which may or may not tell us anything. It was certainly an antidote to the burden of the past – I came back feeling much better, ready to dive back into the 9th century.

Corbusier Chair from above – less comfortable version

We had an optional field trip to visit one of the great shrines of Modernist Architecture today – and was I going to pass that up?

We went to the Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart (about 2 hours away). The housing complex was built as a demonstration of Modernist housing for varying income levels. The museum is in a duplex built by Corbusier – the concrete version of his LC2 arm chair, more usually executed in steel and leather, is out in the garden. There are also buildings by van der Rohe, Ouds, and a bunch of lesser known Modernists.

I really found the Corbusier house spatially interesting, but I don’t think I want to live with a kitchen that is “pedagogical,” to quote our guide.

Historic Preservation for 50s buildings

The American Embassy in London is moving – and there’s open discussion about the current Eero Saarinen building. Here’s an article from the Wall Street Journal. There are lots of issues – from plunging prices to the Grosvenor Estate; this is the only Embassy that America doesn’t own – we built it with a 999-year ground lease.

Rome to tear down part of the Ara Pacis Shell




Back from Break

Originally uploaded by Michael Tinkler.

The new Richard Meier setting for the Altar of Peace of Augustus has been controversial from the beginning, but the new government of Rome is going to tear down a travertine wall that is blocking the view of two churches from the Lungotevere. Hmm. Click on the picture and you can see two walls – I think it’s one of these: either the long horizontal (which carries water to the pool below) or the vertical flanking the door.
The article, from Bloomberg/Muse, is pretty stubby. I’ll try to find out some more from Corriere della sera online.

Today it’s I.M. Pei’s turn

A building I must’ve driven past a million times, 131 Ponce de Leon in Atlanta, turns out to be by I.M. Pei. They’re talking about doing one of those shave-the-facade-off-and-reapply jobs! I love it. So now the same preservationist mockery done to so many old buildings is happening to Modernism.

[The building is] also believed to be the first solo effort of Pei’s career, and experts say it is an important example of midcentury modernism.
Now, developers want to bring a large mixed-use complex to the site, complete with two midrise towers and ground-level retail, raising concerns about the Pei building’s future.
Those involved with the project say they intend to save the historic structure by either building around it or on top of it, though they acknowledge it’s possible only the façade will survive.

Why save it? It’s early work – “first solo effort” means “all he could get at that stage.”
I would like to know if the Georgia Tech architecture professor quoted meant to be clever when he said “We’re too quick to dismiss minimal architecture as not having much content.”
I find this kind of story so amusing that I’m making a new category of it – Preserving Modernism. I could call it something snippy like “Piously Modernistic,” but I’m not in a snippy mood.

Marcel Breuer, meet Mies van der Rohe




Ugly Library

Originally uploaded by Eye Captain.

Today the Christian Science Monitor tells us that a Mies van der Rohe’s only building in Washington, DC, is threatened with replacement – and it’s quite a good article – it even has pictures. A new endangered species: Modern architecture.


The building, a victim of years of disrepair, is situated on prime real estate in downtown Washington, D.C. Preservationists worry that if the building is sold to a private developer, it may face demolition. A proposal to sell the library and build a new one elsewhere failed last year by a single vote in the city council.
Now three historic preservation advocacy groups have come together to protect the library from the wrecking ball. With support from local officials and architects around the country, they nominated the 35-year-old building for historic landmark status, saying it is an icon of the Modern style of design.
“We will go in with a united front” to push for landmark status, says Ginnie Cooper, executive director of the D.C. public library system. The D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board will make its decision June 28.
The King library’s situation is not unique. Nearly 50 years after the peak of Modern influence in the United States, historic preservationists and architects say Modern architecture is too frequently torn down or renovated beyond recognition without consideration of its place in architectural history. A report released this month by advocacy group World Monuments Fund (WMF) lists Modern architecture as an “endangered” species.
No exact numbers exist, but WMF program manager Marty Hylton estimates that nearly 60 percent of US buildings built in the mid-20th century were influenced by the Modern style. A Modern building facing “inappropriate” renovation or demolition can be found today in almost every city in the United States, Mr. Hylton says.
Part of the social and political movement of the same name, Modernism emphasizes transparency (big windows are a key component), practicality, and a break with the past, most visibly through the rejection of ornamentation and an embrace of technology and materials considered innovative in the mid-20th century – steel, aluminum, and plastics.

I love and hate the idea of a World Monument Fund modeled on the World Wildlife Fund. How better to stir guilt! Building style as species is so very, very stupid. I intensely dislike the application of the language of evolution to art and architecture. Art doesn’t evolve – art is inanimate. But hey – it’s great marketing!
Zoe Tillman, the author of the piece, seems to understand the irony of Modernism’s ‘break with the past,’ as she puts it, and the fetishization of the past on the part of many preservationists. She quotes an archivist who works in the building – someone who professionally preserves the past, after all: Semmes says that he would like to see a new library built. “I understand the need for preserving works by certain architects, but sometimes I’m afraid [the preservationists] don’t see the overall plan of Mies van der Rohe that … things can change.”
Here’re my posts on Marcel Breuer buildings under threat:
Saving a Modernist box
Marcel Breuer, unloved architect
Marcel Breuer makes the New York Times

Marcel Breuer makes the NYTimes

The New York Times covers the Marcel Breuer tower story in Cleveland – which you may have read about here first. The best new thing in their story is this:

County leaders and preservationists agree on the tower’s shortcomings. By modern standards, its layout and ceiling heights are cramped. Its mechanical systems, designed for a building twice its size, are outdated and overly large. Its porthole windows provide terrible insulation.
Some government officials have grown tired of pointing all this out.
“We represent the philistine position, those people who are too stupid to realize the architectural significance of this building,” David Lambert, assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor, said dryly at a recent meeting of the Cleveland Planning Commission.