Modernism, Minimalism, Fundamentalism
What to read this month
Glenn Murcutt, an Australian architect who in 2002 won his field’s highest honor, the Pritzker Prize, is probably the most atypical of the great living architects. Most “starchitects” design buildings for an international clientele; although Murcutt has been deeply influenced by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the Finnish designer Alvar Aalto, he refuses to work outside Australia, insisting that extraordinary architecture emerges only from a profound grasp of climate, culture, and environment. Most elite architects head large firms housed in slick offices; Murcutt, though, is a sole practitioner who works in a cramped, messy office in a semi-detached house. And whereas most virtuoso architects win and sustain their reputations by erecting major civic buildings, Murcutt has built only a few modest public edifices, including a mining and minerals museum in the outback (!) and a visitors’ center for a remote national park; his stature rests almost entirely on the more than 500 clean-lined, ecologically sound houses he’s designed for the Aussie haute and high-minded bourgeoisie. These crisp, light-filled, marvelously airy, typically long, lean, and low-slung rectangular homes—built largely of steel, aluminum, glass, and corrugated, galvanized iron (his signature material)—are, with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, probably the most environmentally sensitive modernist masterpieces ever built, belying the notion, as critic Anne Whiston Spirn put it, “that ecological architecture must be rustic architecture with sinuous forms, half-buried in the ground, or nostalgic imitation of vernacular building forms.” Murcutt has made it his mission to “touch the earth lightly,” as he says (borrowing an aboriginal saying), and these limpid structures fairly float upon their sites, as they respond exquisitely to the topography, flora, temperatures, sunlight, views, winds, and rainfalls of their settings and also manage to be jaunty, relaxed, and remarkably livable. Because all his buildings are on the world’s second-most-remote continent, and because most of them are private dwellings, they’ve been seen by fewer people than the work of any other renowned architect, a fact that makes a comprehensive, accessible, well-documented, and amply photographed study of his oeuvre especially crucial. Luckily, this book is among the stellar works of contemporary architectural publishing. Just released in an especially durable and attractive paperback edition, at a far more approachable price (an entirely justifiable $49.95) than that of the hardcover, this work, whose original, French edition won the French Architecture Academy’s 2004 Architecture Book Prize, happily marries beautiful but always comprehensible photography (which conveys the unusually complex context in which Murcutt places his structures) with detailed, sometimes witty, consistently precise text (Fromonot, a Parisian architect and a co-editor of the architectural review Le Visiteur, shuns the grandiloquence that infects her profession; her translator, Charlotte Ellis, has done a superb job). Containing two lengthy and perceptive critical essays and chapters on nearly forty of Murcutt’s buildings (along with a good number of their plans, sections, and elevations), this book illuminates both Murcutt’s work and the art of architecture generally.
Those in the mood for some modernist eye candy will be sated by Hariri & Hariri Houses (Rizzoli). The architectural team of the Iranian-born sisters Gisue and Mojgan Hariri heroically eschewed the postmodernist juggernaut of the mid-1980s in favor of the sleek Miesian modernism that’s always been their hallmark (their Sagaponac House, completed last year, has already acquired the status of a neo-modernist icon). But as the gorgeous photographs in this gorgeous book make clear, theirs is a sumptuous minimalism, owing to the high level of craft and finish they bring to their projects and the luxurious materials they employ. Looks, though, are all this book’s got. The pro forma foreword by Richard Meier; the equally imprecise, phoned-in introduction by the usually penetrating critic Paul Goldberger; the sweet but jejune essay by the Hariris’ friend, the poet John Brehm (it’s so gaseous that you’d swear it was written by an architecture critic); and the very short text on each house all fail to elucidate the contributions of this very talented if sometimes over-intellectualized team. Those in search of a more considered (if equally poorly written and somewhat dated) appraisal should read instead Hariri & Hariri: Work in Progress, by the Hariris and Kenneth Frampton and Steven Holl.
The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, by Amy Hempel (Scribner). Few fiction writers are as intensely admired by their peers as is Hempel, though she’s never published a novel. Her reputation rests solely on the four landmark collections of short fiction gathered here, including the long-out-of-print Atthe Gates of the Animal Kingdom (used copies of which are both rare and expensive). She will forever be tagged a minimalist, which is accurate enough if largely unrevealing, since there’s both great and execrable minimalist fiction. True, a ruthless economy characterizes her writing, but it’s owing not to a studied lack of affect (an attribute that marks the most predictable and lazy minimalism) but rather to a lapidary precision and a severe, poetic aesthetic. Often she startlingly punctuates that aesthetic with a wit, reminiscent of Deborah Eisenberg’s, that has evolved from the sly and often loopy to the dark and mordant (Hempel has a gift for the off-kilter one-liner; in a story in her most recent collection, the narrator deploys one on a man who’s raping her). Dogs are Hempel’s career-long obsession, and no one has written of them and their relationship to human beings with more exquisite sensitivity and clear-eyed affection. Another constant is loss: nearly all her stories, written in a perfectly modulated voice, circle around broken people and the dissolutions, disillusionments, and bereavements they endure. Although leavened by a wry rue, Hempel’s is a hard-boiled sensibility, and each of her stories—many only a few pages long, and one of which consists of a single sentence—will leave the reader shaken, for they’re all spot-on exemplars of V. S. Pritchett’s 1982 description of the genre as “the glancing form of fiction that seems to be right for the nervousness and restlessness of modern life.”
Fundamentalism and American Culture, by George M. Marsden (Oxford). Although de Tocqueville (yes, him again) recognized that “there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America,” evangelical Protestantism—America’s quintessential religious expression—has traditionally been relegated to the backwaters of American historical and literary studies. But over the last four decades, a number of the most innovative works of American history—including John Boles’s Great Revival; Rhys Isaac’s Transformation of Virginia, 1740–1790; William McLoughlin’s Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform; Nathan O. Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity; Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith; Mark Noll’s America’s God; and David L. Chappell’s Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow—have brought evangelicalism to the center in the study of our cultural and political life.
In many ways the most influential such work is this book, first published in 1980 but now reissued with a lengthy new chapter. Marsden elegantly synthesizes theological, social, cultural, and intellectual history to elucidate the roots and development of Christian fundamentalism—a movement, contrary to the stereotype, that is largely northern in its origins and that Marsden, with characteristic concision, defines as “militantly anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism”—from the last quarter of the nineteenth century through the 1920s. An almost impossibly rich work, it explicates a host of thorny theological, philosophical, and epistemological controversies and positions (Marsden, for instance, insightfully draws the connection between, on the one hand, the intellectual appeal of dispensational premillennialism and the opposition to Darwinism and, on the other, the peculiarly American “non-developmental” understanding of history). Primarily, though, it reveals fundamentalism’s central cultural contradictions: its sense of custodial responsibility for the United States as a “Christian nation” (a sense that grew out of a broader evangelical heritage that embraced such evangelical reformers as the abolitionists) together with its conviction that the “end times” are close at hand (a belief that militates against any political involvement) and its intensely separatist impulse to (as Romans 12:2 would have it) “be not conformed to this world” (Marsden shows how fundamentalists were a truly countercultural force in an America that was increasingly embracing self-fulfillment and the consumerist ethos). This is the one book every American who wants to understand fundamentalism should read. It’s also among the best assessments of the cultural transformations that convulsed America from the late nineteenth century to the years immediately following the First World War (transformations this country is still assimilating) and, in its masterly new chapter, of the peculiar and far-from-inevitable political turn that fundamentalism has taken since the 1970s.
And while you’re at it, read what is essentially this book’s sequel: Joel A. Carpenter’s almost equally masterly Revive Us Again (published in 1998), which chronicles fundamentalism’s “lost years”—the period from its nadir following the Scopes trial, in 1925, when it seemed to have lost all influence and prestige in the culture at large, to 1949, when, after Billy Graham’s triumphant Los Angeles revival, it was poised to transform the religious landscape of postwar America. Following Marsden, Carpenter incisively reveals the contradiction posed when fundamentalism—a movement that was at once anti-modernist and populist—eagerly, subtly, and brilliantly assimilated the latest promotional techniques of mass communication and the style and idiom of popular entertainment to propagate the old-time religion.
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