Lucky (Architectural) Stars

Elite architects seem to go on and on. If The Washington Post's Philip Kennicott is right, Frank Gehry's Eisenhower Memorial in Washington will be another hit, if possibly a controversial one. A new Ike Age appears to be dawning. Gehry's admiration shines through in a way that a much younger architect probably could not express:

Gehry, 81, said he does not often enter the sort of design competition that led to his selection for the project, which is estimated to cost between $90 million and $110 million and tentatively scheduled to open in 2015. But he was moved by the figure of Eisenhower and his often overlooked contributions. It "made me very tearful to realize that this great man was not recognized," Gehry said.

Gehry is not the first great octogenarian of his profession. Listen to Philip Johnson in the early 1990sI.M. Pei is still going strong at 83, Oscar Niemeyer (maybe a bit slower) at 102. And think of Frank Lloyd Wright (whom I discussed in an earlier post on retirement) and Buckminster Fuller. Another superstar, Viktor Schreckengost, who created the first academic industrial design program in the 1930s and was celebrated for everything from ceramics to bicycles, lived to 102.

In fact, there's a big list of articles and books on creativity in the old. And while architecture is an especially difficult profession to enter during a real estate collapse, intrepid young architects have always had unconventional alternatives. Responding to the Depression and sex discrimination, Tatiana Proskouriakoff became one of the world's greatest Mayanists, reconstructing ruins with breathtaking renderings.

On the other hand, maybe the old are not the main victims of ageism after all. Psychologists have found that the forties are the pits for human happiness today. And there are good historical reasons. As one of my undergraduate teachers, the historian Lawrence Stone (still Princeton's Dodge Professor of History at 78), wrote in The Past and the Present Revisited (2nd ed., 1987), the "real victims" of social change have been the "mature, sober" men and women whose experience was once admired, facing "the demotion of the middle-aged and the elevation of the adolescent and the youth." And it is part of the plight of middle age that any special provision for it -- unlike a "youth program" or a "senior center" -- would on its face seem ridiculous. No wonder protest movements now have an older, but not elderly, center of gravity.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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