What aspect of the life of the late Norman Mailer last week has not been examined, from his revolting pattern of violence against women, to his boxing and penchant for speaking in comic accents, to the strange décor of his Brooklyn apartment, with its apparatus of “ship’s rigging and nets”?
There is one: a brief but explosive public campaign against modern architecture in 1963 and 1964. The story is told by Neil Levine in Modern Architecture and Other Essays, an anthology of writings by Vincent Scully, the celebrated Yale professor who inadvertently became Mailer’s foil in that campaign.
Modern architecture was still at its summit of prestige and cultural authority in 1963, although the grumbling over Frank Lloyd Wright’s recent Guggenheim Museum and Walter Gropius’s Pan Am Building, which closed off Park Avenue’s long vista, was an indication of latent but unfocused public unhappiness. Mailer used his monthly column, “The Big Bite,” in Esquire magazine to rail against these and other buildings. His prose was characteristically bombastic: modern architecture was “totalitarian” and thrust us alone into “the empty landscapes of psychosis, precisely that inner landscape of voice and dread which we flee by turning to totalitarian styles of life.”
When the Quai Branly Museum in Paris opened last June, it was greeted with both acclaim and outrage. For the New York Times, it was nothing less than “an act of dissent that forces us to feel the world again.” Not since Herbert Muschamp called the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao “a shimmering, Looney tunes, post-industrial, post-everything burst of American optimism wrapped in titanium” has the Times been so effusive in its praise. For others, however, the Quai Branly was offensively patronizing, presenting its ethnographic collection as a kind of fictitious Dark Continent hidden within a “mock jungle.” Recently I was able to inspect it for myself.
The Quai Branly originated in 1995, when it was decided to consolidate several anthropological and ethnographic collections in Paris, including that of the recently-defunct Museum of African and Oceanic Arts. These collections had become controversial and were perceived as the spoils and trophies of colonialism. The project was given to the architect Jean Nouvel and endorsed by President Jacques Chirac, who, like so many French rulers, sought to leave his mark on Paris.
The architecture of California, to the chagrin of the Los Angeles Times, is uninspiring. Or so one might conclude from a poll of America’s 150 favorite buildings, put together by the American Institute of Architects to mark its 150th anniversary. It shows that the country’s most beloved buildings are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Northeast, including the Empire State Building (1), the White House (2), the U.S. Capitol (6), the Chrysler Building (9), and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (10). In fact, of the top twenty, a full sixteen are in either New York or Washington, D.C. And California’s most impressive showing is not for a building at all but for an engineering marvel, the Golden Gate Bridge (5).
Of particular distress to the Times were the lackluster ratings given those much-acclaimed Los Angeles gems, the Getty Museum (95) and the Disney Concert Hall (99). The paper offers no explanation for these low rankings, but it may be on to something. How is it that the center of the entertainment industry, which creates the imagery that comprises American popular culture, has been so lackluster in creating memorable architecture? The relative newness of the West Coast is only a partial answer, since the public clearly feels deep affection for a recent monument like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (10).
The Yale Art Gallery, which reopened last month after a three-year renovation, eminently warrants a visit, but not only for its collection. That collection, to be sure, is splendid, highlighted by Vincent van Gogh’s Night Café (1888), his deeply disconcerting interior “with an atmosphere like the devil’s furnace.” But the building itself is a major work of Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974) and a visit reminds us why he was as important an architect in the second half of the 20th century as Frank Lloyd Wright was in the first.
Kahn was a late bloomer who came right down to the wire, creating no works of distinction or originality until he was fifty. This was the dilemma of his entire generation, which was steeped in the academic classicism of the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Their aesthetic was rendered obsolete almost overnight after 1929, first with the Depression and then with the arrival of European modernists fleeing Nazi Germany. Kahn embraced the flowing space and the abstract volumetric play of modernism, but he never quite jettisoned his classical roots.
Now disencumbered of its later accretions, the Yale Art Gallery depicts Kahn just as he was struggling to reconcile modernism with the lessons of architectural history. All of the devices of high modernism appear in it: the flat roof, the flowing interior space, the laconic expression of wall planes, even the innovative space frame that demonstratively carries the ceiling (or rather rhetorically carries it, since Kahn’s proposed system was too progressive for local building laws). And yet the building also has about it a sense of profound weight and solemnity that recalls the great monuments of the ancient world.
In a certain sense, the building is a failure, for Kahn could not integrate his ideas. The austere masonry cylinders in which the stairs are threaded speak a different architectural language than the all-glass wall facing the building’s courtyard. A decade would pass before his personal architectural language would emerge in such masterpieces as the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California.
Our academic institutions do not always do right by their historic architecture, yet Yale has done so here. Even better, across the street from the gallery is Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art, his last building. I know of no other place in America where you can take the whole measure of an architect’s career so poignantly.