New Architecture, Sanity or Timidity?

In Slate, the architect and critic Witold Rybczysnki celebrates the end of the architecture bubble's literally over-the-top design:

Anything that could be imagined was built. Architecture is highly competitive, and it was common practice for clients to invite several leading architects to submit designs before awarding the commission. The pressure to outdo one's rivals pushed designers to propose increasingly outlandish buildings. Because originality was rewarded by media coverage, clients encouraged this tendency.

I love well-executed rationalism -- it isn't so easy to do well -- as much as the next person, but I think Mr. Rybczysnki may be oversimplifying the architect-patron relationship. Consider the independent American architects who are now building in China. It's sad that there seems to be more aesthetic sophistication among developers in a state still ruled by a Communist Party than in the American economy that generations of European intellectuals and critics at the height of rationalism loved or hated for its boldness. Lawrence Cheek reports in the New York Times:

As Americans take on Chinese clients, they are adapting to some fresh nuances in the architect-client relationship. It's a swirl of patient relationship-building, fast-track decision-making and lyrical moments that, they say, would be unusual in American business dealings.

Chris McVoy, senior partner at Steven Holl Architects in New York, says a developer in Beijing gave the firm three months to develop a concept for a high-rise housing project that replaced a Mao-era factory in the heart of the city. The firm injected into the project Mr. Holl's long-simmering ideas about urbanism, tapping the earth underneath for geothermal energy, and fixing everything it saw wrong with the dreary Soviet-inspired high-rises in Chinese cities.

"We thought they'd say, 'You're crazy, forget it,' and we'd walk away," Mr. McVoy says. "We presented to about 20 people, and when we were finished, of course they all looked to their president to respond first. He said: 'Anybody can build buildings. Few can build poetry.' ". . . ..

"There's no way a U.S. developer would let us do these," Mr. McVoy says, adding that the American mentality is, "if it hasn't been done before, then you shouldn't do it. It's all about risk, risk, risk. The Chinese have a kind of fearlessness to build things."

He says there may be more involved than just an intrepid spirit. "There's another dimension to it," he muses. "There's an appreciation of nonmaterialist ideas, a connection to history and culture and especially, meaning. They drive toward a solution, but there's also a metaphysical dimension."

An architect at another firm reports no hassles about the quality of materials:

"They don't establish a construction budget in the same way we do," says the firm's president, James Goettsch. "I don't think we've ever had a project slowed down or held up over the budget."

And the president of the American Institute of Architects, Clark Manus, praises China's technocratic policy making:

"The U.S. political establishment is mostly attorneys and other people who are involved with political science," he says. "In China, the highest-ranking officials tend to be engineers. They see a problem, they allocate money and effort toward a solution."

The world is getting weirder all the time. A repressive state encourages aesthetic freedom, a market economy is run by the politically minded. The officially materialist nation prizes poetry and the "metaphysical dimension." Its new national pride is enhanced by the work of foreign architects, products of a supposedly mediocre educational system.

America had its own great Depression era structures, not only those conceived in the late boom, like the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, but Rockefeller Center, Hoover Dam, New York's public swimming pools, Airstream trailers, and Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, which is considered the finest American residence since Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.

One challenge for American architecture is that so many of America's great patrons have been private, and occasionally government, rather than corporate. That applies to the self-made former railroad mechanic Walter Chrysler, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Fallingwater's Kaufmanns, the Johnsons of Racine, WI, and J. Irwin Miller (Cummins Diesel), who made Columbus, IN a pilgrimage site.

Will any of today's ultra-rich be added to this list of great patrons? Read this, watch the slide show, and decide for yourself. Whatever you think about working in a building by Frank Gehry -- I use his Princeton science library, named for his patron-donor, Peter Lewis, and have no complaints  -- I hope that not every patron becomes one of Mr. Rybczynski's admired "chastened clients who demand discipline, restraint, and common sense."

Presented by

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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