No Bauhaus in Ebert’s House?
July 15, 2010
Roger Ebert isn’t afraid to admit he likes lighter films Get Him to the Greek and Iron Man 2 (three stars) but is also smart enough to enjoy higher-brow fare like The White Ribbon and I Am Love (four stars). Maybe that’s why he’s trusted as America’s foremost film critic—he sees quality wherever it is, often resisting conventional wisdom. He even loved Air Bud, the tale of a basketball-playing dog — so democratic!
As seen in his review of Air Bud, Ebert may be a fan of tugged heartstrings: “The climactic scenes are not only absurd and goofy but also enormously entertaining.” Ebert says, “By the end of the film I was quietly amazed: not only could Buddy play basketball, but I actually cared how the game turned out.”
Many design fans wonder aloud, who will be the Roger Ebert of architecture, combining populism and artistic knowledge with just a smidgen of emotion. How about, say. . . Roger Ebert!
In a rant published online, Ebert proclaims his dual populist/intelligentsia views on this new subject in a convincing piece whose title is based on a Louis Sullivan quote, “Every building is the image…” Sullivan is a seminal figure in Chicago architectural history, and likewise revered by Ebert as the inspiration to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School of Architecture and the Arts and Crafts movement.
Ebert doesn’t revere Sullivan as much for his ability to find a new vocabulary for the skyscrapers, but for his ornamentation; as Sullivan once said, “a building’s identity resides in its ornament.” Turns out Ebert is a softie when it comes to architecture in his Chicago. Sullivan’s buildings, such as the Wainwright Tower in St. Louis, was amazing for its cornices, decorations and entrances—but Sullivan was a transitional figure to Mies van der Rohe’s “deliberate simplicity.”
Wainwright Building (Thumbs up!), St. Louis Photo by Matthew Black
Crown Hall, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago (Thumbs down!) via Art Net
Mies van der Rohe is Ebert’s foremost target: “He and his generation seem to have pointed us down the road to an architecture that is totalitarian in its severe economy.” It’s hard to refute that; in spite of whatever beauty Mies found in his proportions, the Farnsworth House, or Crown Hall on the Campus of IIT, he may also have lead the way to the mediocre glass towers we find in downtowns throughout the U.S. So why didn’t we stick with the Hogwart’s charm of Ebert’s ideal, the gothic University of Chicago?
Like Tom Wolfe’s entertaining From Bauhaus to Our House , Ebert has oversimplified modern architecture to a point in architectural history that was soon refuted by its own members. Even Le Corbusier moved on from the Villa Savoye to Ronchamp, a curving, mysterious shape that is immune to description. True, the damage was already done, but the rise of industry and population demanded cheap solutions fast, which had little to do with Mies’ Crown Hall.
But even if you give Ebert his anti-Mies point, on the same IIT Campus in Chicago is an example of more promising modern architecture built recently: the McCormick-Tribune Campus Center designed by the Office of Metropolitan Architecture headed by Rem Koolhaas. This is a glass and steel building, but filled with electrifying experiential cues: orange walls, bold and funny graphic design, a strange tunnel above that wraps the L tracks, interior gardens, sculptural stairways, and above all jagged forms that come from its location in the middle of campus. It does not have stone carvings. But it does warm this heart.
McCormick-Tribune Campus Center, Chicago
But if that doesn’t do it for you, there are still other examples of humanistic modern architecture — even in Chicago — created after Mies (Ebert should feel free to visit these and judge for himself). Looking through the Architizer database yields a few Chicago winners:
Brick Weave House, Chicago
Studio Gang’s Brick Weave House uses a porous screen to dapple sunlight. At night the house becomes a lantern. Its ornamentation is better than stone: light.
State Street Village, Chicago
Yet another example of heart-warming modern architecture on the IIT Campus, State Street Village by Murphy/Jahn uses large curving metal screens as both ornament and shield. The building is one of a kind, with its own unique identity.
Many people agree with Ebert’s love of gothic ornamentation: campuses are continuously being added to, not with modern architects, but Gothic facades. “Collegate Gothic Style” feels about as empty to me as Mies does to Ebert. At least Mies was being truthful to his time, as were his less than perfect followers.