- From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture’s Encounter with the American City
It would be impossible for someone in the world of architecture or planning to write a book on these subjects without including a single image or map. But Nathan Glazer, a sociologist by training, has done just that—compiling nearly three hundred pages of text with nary an illustration. One thinks of a comparable literary feat achieved by the late Jane Jacobs nearly five decades ago. Like Jacobs’s seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Glazer’s From a Cause to a Style addresses the perceived failure of modernist architecture and planning, and the decline from an ambitious agenda for utopian urban reform to a mere design idiom. The text is organized into three parts: The Public Face of Architecture, The New York Case, and The Professions: From Social Visions to Postmodernism. Much was previously published in some other form and now revised. Ultimately, however, Glazer is unable to tie together all the loose ends and contradictions that remain in his book’s eleven chapters, each written in differing contexts and for separate purposes.
Glazer’s aim is to begin to explore the question of how modern architecture seemed to lose its promise and utility in responding to the needs of the common man and woman. Whereas reformers such as Ebenezer Howard and Le Corbusier once provided utopian visions of humane, economically robust, and healthy environments, the leading contemporary figures in architecture such as Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid are identified with signature buildings for elite institutions rather than with urban reform. Using as a device the Prince of Wales, who was notorious for his traditional architectural tastes, Glazer asks of modernism in the book’s introduction, “[w]hat, then, had happened, that a prince could better represent the people, their interests and tastes, than the architects?” (p. 2).
Assuredly, public tastes have changed, largely turning against the machine aesthetic and settling on historicist architecture and the buildings and neighborhoods protected (albeit imperfectly) by the postwar preservation movement. But Glazer frequently goes beyond discussion of public taste and designers’ unresponsiveness to it, venturing into territory that recounts the political stance he has taken in his writings for nearly half a century [End Page 798] In a telling chapter, he contrasts the urban vision of Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park, to that of Richard Serra, whose Tilted Arc sculpture sparked controversy when it was installed in the Federal Plaza in New York. Where Olmsted’s ambition was to beautify, to create space for repose, Serra’s aim was to subvert the context of his sculpture, to oppose the aesthetics and functionality of the surrounding space by blocking views and obstructing circulation, all this to much public consternation. Even though Glazer’s critique of Tilted Arc is spot on, he belabors his criticism of Serra, whose work “ends in the furthest reaches of elitism, rejected by those for whom it was originally designed” (p. 88), whose critiques of capitalism Glazer finds meaningless, and whose Marxist defenders miss the real desire of the working class, which seems to be a place to sit down in the shade.
Because he has not conducted systematic research on architects or architecture, Glazer must be forgiven for significant gaps in his knowledge. A particular injustice is done to Harry Weese, the virtuoso designer of the Washington, D.C., Metro system. While Glazer acknowledges the beautiful designs of the subway stations, he gives no attention to the broader urban transportation project that Weese created—in brutalist concrete with coffered ceilings, no less. Surely this project, opening new land to development and decentralizing the congested national capital, fulfills the utopian ambitions of men like Lewis Mumford.
Glazer is at his best when he stays on familiar ground, emulating the sociological methods of William H. Whyte and discussing his own experiences and encounters with contemporary design and planning. For those moments, the book is worth a read...