Letters to the Editor: Tom Clark
I read the article on page 73 of the July Record. As you know, it's an argument between academics, which, the headline would suggest is about the end of theory. It is written in an arcane language that about nineteen people understand. This doesn't bother me, because I've spent a lifetime in architecture reading the horse hockey of Eisenman, Tafuri and a few others, so I got most of the references. When I was really into this stuff, trying to see if I could find something to help me generate exciting and "relevant" forms, back in the middle 80's....when I realized I had been on the right track ten years earlier when I stumbled onto ideas that were eventually labeled as Post Modern, but that they were only relevant for an instant, I even went to the trouble of doing research into French philosophy, just to see if I was missing something. In light of this article, I share with you some thoughts generated or regurgitated as I read the article.
A. Eisenman could always design nifty-looking buildings. The early houses had goofy program qualities that no client I ever met would appreciate, but the forms were unquestionably exciting. His large scale work, post-Robertson, is also incredibly appealing visually in photos and drawings, but so esoteric and expensive, that the lessons learned from studying it are of virtually no value to 99 1/2% of U.S. practitioners.
In short, there's a huge disconnect between what he talks about, and it's practical value in real life, to most practicing architects, who may love his forms, but have no platform from which to practice those ideas.
B. Yeah....Marxism has been an underpinning philosophy behind some of the pie-in-the-sky ideas we absorbed in architecture school about the role of modern architecture. In hindsight, those ideas look so ridiculous that it's hard to believe we bought them, but we were young and eager to improve the world. At its core, as you know, Modernism in Architecture, was about doing architecture for the workers and the middle class, not the aristocracy...and so on.
We got a good dose of that from Rapson in the early 60's at Minnesota. Actually, for the most part, a great education that has served me and my clientele well. But while Rapson believed in social patterns that never emerged, and we students all tried to buy into that baloney about cities in the sky surrounded by green belts, those images seemed as out of sync with the real world to us, even as students, as Paulo Solari's beautiful, but irrelevant form-making was.
It seemed pretty obvious to at least some of my class, even as students, that planning ideas that tried to superimpose a master order over the desires of the individual were not going to fly well in our individualistic, capitalist society. And, while we loved some of the architectural forms generated by totalitarian governments, we valued the freedom we experience as Americans more, and so does the rest of the U.S. population. which includes our clients....most of the folks who have the money to build most of the buildings being built in this country.
Mies had the germ of the right idea, that industrialization would take over in the 20th century. But the forms he suggested were hot, but out to lunch, in terms of their predictive capacity for understanding the potential for emerging physical growth patterns in the last half of the 20th century. The U.S. landscape doesn't look like the IIT campus of the 60's. The idea that it ever could, was delusional. What were we thinking? Unbridled capitalism, for better or worse, generates environments that often tend to look, less like IIT, and more like the strip, as Venturi pointed out (to his own financial detriment.)
C. Theory. One doesn't have to listen to these guys like Speaks and Eisenman talking to themselves, to get the point that if we want to make interesting forms that have some relevance for the time in which they're being made, it requires a sensibility to what's going on in the culture, and an interest in expressing that notion in one's built forms. It's really just that simple.
The idea that there is only one theory, or that theory is dead, is just baloney. Theory, as we're using the term here, is just a set of ideas that one uses to underpin one's reasons for making form. And to be honest, much form-making is not reasoned, but simply intuitive, as you know. But as long as architects have a brain, they'll try to come up with ways to justify the forms they make, and theories that will allow them to extend their form-making and develop it. I have to admit that I do.
D. If I haven't put you to sleep by now, you might wonder what I think is happening to the profession. I think it's dying, as older architects think of it. It's certainly transforming in directions that I find scary, if only because I realize that for the first time in my life, my own form-making may not be able to be on the edge, anymore.
Modern architecture, as we learned how to practice it, shortly after the middle of the 20th century, has been based on the idea that each project would be unique....generated from scratch, supposedly based on a program (Thank you, Willy Pena and Bill Caudill).
This idea was under severe attack even at the time I got out of school in 1966. The magazines and the architectural press didn't recognize it at all, of course. And,it wasn't being discussed openly, but I could see firms with good designers doing nursing homes based on a napkin sketch and a cost, materials and systems model generated from a previously-built nursing home. It blew me away to realize that the need to accurately predict costs and schedules required essentially treating each new project as just a spin-off of a proto-type. Nevertheless, if for no other reason except to avoid boredom, I've spent my life trying to find opportunities to do one-of-a-kind projects, in a world where those opportunities have all but vanished. (Which is why we enjoy doing renovation /addition projects, so much.) And of course, fees today don't support doing projects from scratch, for most firms, so we are limited in the projects we can take on.
I think the architect as we know her, will go the way of the tailor. In the middle of the 19th century, a tailor could tell his son that because people are all different sizes and shapes, there will always be a need for tailors. Unfortunately for such a tailor, he misjudged the impact of the new technologies on what was essentially, a craft.
Industrialization reduced the complexities of human form to a known number of patterns and sizes that allow most clothing today to be mass-produced. The tailor was reduced to taking a few measurements to alter one's slacks from the standard. Of course, there are a few tailors who still make clothing from scratch, for wealthier individuals, but that's not how most people buy their clothing in the U.S. today. To survive, a few tailors found a niche, working as a servant of the wealthy.
All of which, is exactly what is happening, again, to the Architect. We're trying to practice architecture as if each project could be approached as a unique opportunity to make form, when actually, most projects are just a variation on a pattern. And the new technologies are making unique projects more and more irrelevant each day. So, what we now see in the architectural press, is the drift toward showing only the work of the niche architects, who are going back to where we were, prior to the Industrial Revolution, working for the wealthy and the powerful, while the vast majority of people look at what we do as unnecessary. (Note that on page 171 of RECORD in July, we see Harold Adams, retired from RTKL, and now advocating Design-Build.)
Of course, you know all this. You know RECORD is full of buildings most contractors couldn't build, even if we architects could sell a naive client on some of the forms. Frank Gehry might as well be from Mars as far as most clients are concerned.
Which, very simply put, says most of what we see in the magazines today, unlike 40 years ago, is so far beyond suggesting models to emulate, that it's depressing. Most of these forms being generated are so complex that not only do they have to be generated with very sophisticated software and modeling techniques that are beyond the reach of the small office, but more importantly, they are beyond the capabilities of our consultants to engineer, and beyond the capability of most of the builders to build, all of which makes them beyond the interest of any client who isn't purely doing the building as an intended piece of art, or as a statement of ego.
So, in essence, while I love to see pictures of nifty forms, and my interest in what is happening in Japan and France is always piqued, I find RECORD today to be mainly entertainment, fluff..sort of a course in dessert that I might get to at the end of the day, if I have the energy to read a bit more after being at a computer screen all day. But, in terms of looking to RECORD for inspiration, as I once did, it actually has the opposite effect. It frightens me. It raises my awareness of the changes rushing toward us. It's hard to realize that the world of architecture that I know and have loved, and in which I have spent my whole adult life, seems to be increasingly irrelevant and overly expensive to the people who are building the buildings in our society.
THOMAS CLARK ARCHITECTS
Incidentally. I grew up working in Chick Herbert's office in Des Moines...(AIA firm of the year a couple years ago...now Herbert, Lewis, Kruse, Blount.) I have taught at more than a half dozen schools over the years, and was a lead designer with RTKL in the early 80's before starting this firm. Our office has not sought much attention, but we have been published, here, and in Europe, and we have won a variety of design awards and placed respectably over the years in some competitions. A couple years ago, working with my partner, Rick Bermudez, we placed 4th among over 700 entries in the international competition for a new Arts Center for Palos Verdes, California.
So...while we're old fogies, we haven't completely given up trying to make interesting architecture. It just seems so much harder than it used to be.