August 2007

In the 18th century, Dr. Johnson asserted the critic’s role to skewer “delusive combinations, and distinguish that which may be praised from that which can only be excused.” Excuse me! In the linked-in, blog-bursting 21st century, aren’t we all critics? Thankfully, the distinctions of language, between “gourmet” and “gourmand,” hold fast, and some writing still warrants savoring, not merely devouring.

Photo © André Souroujon

Since the mid-1980s, Martin Filler has contributed a medley of long critical essays on architects and architecture to The New York Review of Books. A new book by that publisher released on July 17 collects and updates Filler’s essays in a single offering entitled Makers of Modern Architecture: From Frank Lloyd Wright to Frank Gehry. Arriving in time for the dog days, Filler provides something to sink our teeth into. Delicious!

Uniquely, his collection features the author’s textual critique (responding to the written matter of other critics, the architect him/herself, curators, or writers), and his reviews of exhibitions and their accompanying texts, as much as reflections on any one architectural project. Filler’s essays consist of a rich amalgam of biographical analyses, emphasizing each individual’s career trajectory, with some formal analysis of the architects’ built work. Refreshingly, he avoids too much of the latter, preferring to delve into matters often unexplored in the popular press. Along the way, we encounter quotable quotes, aperçus, digressions, obsessions, professional sympathies, categorizations, personal prejudices, pronouncements, analogies, refutations, as well as political and social observations, and a rich, fulsome exercise of the English language.

In our superficial era, when architectural criticism gasps for column inches in the newspapers, and blogs woefully lack erudition or research, Filler’s assessments in The New York Review stand apart, eschewing fashion and offering polished, carefully edited and backed-up, though highly personal, assertions. If his subjects seem more familiar than the architect du jour, comprising a selective roster of 20th-century masters, Filler’s razor-sharp mind and sharper tongue set him apart. We gobble up what he thinks, as well as how he serves it up.

For those seeking a point of view, he rarely disappoints: Strong opinions pepper almost every page. Filler’s admiration and approbation go to architects like Sullivan who search for, and occasionally attain, higher social and philosophical ideals. Wright was “the supreme master builder of the 20th century.” Mies gets a multicolored assessment, both revisionist and admiring, as a thwarted heroic figure, whose followers could not match the master’s own gifts. Aalto remains “the most underappreciated giant of the Modern Movement.” Filler’s insight on Louis Kahn, whom he declares with the assurance of Miss Jean Brodie extolling Giotto, “the world’s leading midcentury architect” (could you say that?), includes the historian Vincent Scully’s role in promoting Kahn’s work. He (Scully) “needed a present-day hero to fit his narrative.”

Sometimes the critic tilts too deeply into a specific conversation better answered elsewhere, and thereby illustrates one of the weaknesses of the book: Our expectations exceed the essays, which were originally conceived for another audience at the more temporal Review—an assertion particularly evident as we read Filler on Berlin’s Reichstag, here conflated into a discussion of the city and the architect Norman Foster. Never mind. We read on.

Gleefully, the critic relishes a genuine disembowelment—with an aim at eviscerating Samuel Johnson’s aforementioned “delusive combinations”—such as the excesses of Postmodernism, or the ersatz Modernism that occurred in the wake of the International Style. Like many social critics, Filler hates cronyism and sycophants of any stripe, particularly certain architects and fellow critics guilty of such venality. He gets the last word.

Philip Johnson sits squarely in his sights for some of those reasons. One chapter begins: “If, as the philosopher Francis Bacon wrote, ‘The monuments of wit survive the monuments of power,’ … then Philip Johnson might be remembered by future generations after all.”

Filler derides Johnson’s personal qualities (“born salesman” and “glib improviser,” as well as a Nazi sympathizer who got off light) as those of a man who changed his architectural styles as if changing a suit to match the moment. Johnson, his intimate circle, and the Museum of Modern Art, an institution in which Johnson held formidable power, form subtexts throughout the book, appearing in several essays, clearly a fascination, if not minor obsession, of this New York–based writer.

Whom does he list or leave out? In the course of 300 pages, he engages 17 architects, including the Eamseses (positive review) and Calatrava (less sanguine), but manages to omit Robert Stern, Peter Eisenman, and Michael Graves, all 1980s rock stars, as well as a shopping list of current galactic lights such as Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Jean Nouvel, and Thom Mayne. You might wish for a more complete overview, as gossipy and fact-filled, as anecdotal and opinionated as this book can be. Too idiosyncratic a taste? Too hot? Some will spit it out. Ultimately, Filler’s engaging book entertains and informs as it opines; then the language ceases, leaving us hungering for more of this piquant, yet savory intellectual dish.

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