Primer Suspects

A lumpy yet worthy essay collection sets the record about master builders straight.

MAKERS OF MODERN ARCHITECTURE:
FROM FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT TO FRANK GEHRY
By Martin Filler
New York Review of Books
353 pp., $28 (hardcover)

You can count on one hand the architectural critics worth following with any kind of regularity, and even then have enough free digits to argue the merits of string theory in sign language. Martin Filler, who once described Daniel Libeskind as “a human yahrzeit candle,” is a member of this small but distinguished group. By all rights, his new collection of essays should be a pleasure. It is, though it does not quite meet the lofty expectations one might have for it.

Perhaps we can blame Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, where Filler has been a critic for more than two decades and in whose pages the material in the book first appeared, at least in some form. Silvers, Filler tells us in his introduction, envisioned an “informal, open-ended series on the giants of Modern architecture,” and this, lo these many years later, has become Makers of Modern Architecture: From Frank Lloyd Wright to Frank Gehry.

That title is a bit of a misnomer—the book actually opens with an essay on Louis Sullivan—and in any case, the author seems, at best, ambivalent about the project’s format, given what he describes as an inherent distaste for “the Great Man Theory.” Nevertheless, the book is divided into a series of essays on putatively great men (and the occasional woman). The list of subjects is fairly conventional, at least for the first half of the book. Randomness sets in, however, when the narrative reaches the later stages of the 20th century. Here, the elected are overshadowed by the figure who is most conspicuously absent. It’s hard to fathom a book on masters of 20th-century architecture that features a chapter on Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti but not one on Rem Koolhaas.

In fairness, Filler was constrained by the subjects he had taken up for the New York Review. The part about Machado and Silvetti, for instance, is not so much a study of their practice as a repurposed examination of their work renovating the Getty Museum in Malibu, California, a piece originally tied to the publication of a monograph on that project. But here we come to another rub. Filler has not been satisfied to leave well enough alone with his generally compelling reviews. Had he simply republished them, perhaps giving each a brief introduction describing their provenance, we would have a valuable record of a critic developing his voice in historical context. Instead, they have been reworked and revised, and the result is that they are largely mutts, neither useful as historical documents nor particularly timely as critical works.

And yet there is something to be said for mutts, and perhaps Filler, who justifiably excoriates Alvar Aalto, Mies van der Rohe, and—especially—Philip Johnson for their respective romances with Nazi fascism, might appreciate the association. As a critic, Filler couples the knowledge of a first-rate architectural scholar—he is married to one of the best, Rosemarie Haag Bletter—with a critic’s sense of moral purpose and a wit’s facility with the bon mot.

It is Johnson, more than anyone, who stands as the villain of this polemical book. “His buildings,” Filler writes, “will be recalled, if at all, as symptomatic of the poverty of American culture in the late 20th century.” Fair enough. On the other hand, he has chosen an unlikely pair of champions in Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. “Few present-day architects can equal the formidable array of skills they bring to their partnership,” Filler writes, an assertion that might be challenged by anyone who has confronted their work on the ground and not on the page.

For the most part, however, Filler provides a bracing and much needed alternative to mainstream coverage of the architectural field. Santiago Calatrava’s outrageously priced architectural extravaganzas are here derided as “mechanical flummery.” Of the politicization of Ground Zero and the Freedom Tower he is particularly dismissive: “Just another New York shlock job.” New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger has “a tin ear as well as a tin eye.” Ouch.

In his introduction, Filler laments those modern architects who, in the interests of expedience, wealth, and fame, have flouted the Vitruvian command for “firmness, commodity, and delight.” Whatever its shortcomings, his book does remain true to those values.

Mark Lamster reviewed Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness for I.D.’s Jan/Feb 2007 issue. He is at work on a political biography of the artist Peter Paul Rubens.

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