• I like short, opinionated books—when they’re smart. John Silber’s Architecture of the Absurd: How “Genius” Disfigured a Practical Art is all these things, and it’s also stimulatingly grumpy. The subtitle gives the game away, for Architecture of the Absurd is a slashing attack on those “starchitects” whom Silber believes to be indifferent to the needs of their clients, preferring instead to build interesting-looking structures that are impossible to live or work in: “Architects are now to consider themselves descendants of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, ‘geniuses’ who by right break all laws and conventions . . . . they behave as if they owe nothing to their clients or the public beyond the gift of their genius.”
Before reading Silber’s book, I wondered whether his dislike of the buildings of Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind would slop over into a broad-gauge attack on all modern art. The answer is that it does—and it doesn’t. On the one hand, Silber is identically dismissive of John Cage’s 4’33” and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, writing off both works as nonsensical exercises in aesthetic absurdity. (He’s half right.) Yet he is highly responsive to a fair amount of modern architecture, praising Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building as “stunning masterpieces.” It is postmodernism, not modernism, that draws most of his fire:
The basic problem is that Libeskind asserted the fallacy of the “iconic architects:” that a building is fundamentally like a book or sculpture or piece of music. By means of this conflation the architect is permitted to create like an author, painter, or sculptor without regard for the fact that, unlike books, sculpture, and music, which may be ignored or visited at one’s pleasure, a building is lived and worked in and must meet the needs of its users.
What gives Architecture of the Absurd its sharp edge is that Silber, who worked in his father’s architectural practice as a young man, later spent much of his adult life supervising the building program at Boston University, of which he was president from 1971 to 1996 and chancellor from 1996 to 2003. Thus he knows more than most laymen about the practical consequences of theory-driven architecture, and his indictment of its practitioners’ failings is both specific and damning. Even those who disagree with his jaundiced view of modern art will find it hard to ignore passages such as these:
Most absurdist architecture . . . has been built at the bidding of 501(c)3 corporations. CEOs and trustees of museums, symphony orchestras, and especially universities yearn to house their institutions in iconic buildings that Genius has wrought. In such institutions, decisions are made by persons who are not spending their own money, who take no personal financial risk, and who often lack the knowledge and experience in building necessary to ensure that the needs of the institution are met. They are thus often intimidated by smooth-talking, imperious architects and vulnerable to the pretentious jargon that is now the vernacular among both architects and critics.