Arguing about architecture; Nathan Glazer on Modernist buildings and their discontents
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 1 May 2007)

In the 1980s, British architects were horrified to realize that the Prince of Wales, of all people, had become Britain's most influential critic of architecture. Gracing with his presence the 150th anniversary celebrations of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1984, he unexpectedly broke through the cloud of banality that normally obscures his family's speeches. He attacked the profession he was honouring by condemning it for defacing Britain with an appalling collection of hideous buildings, "giant glass stumps."

He talked about this issue for years, to much public applause. When he condemned a Modernist plan for expanding the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, it was replaced by a design more sensitive to the style of the square. He encouraged the creation of housing in traditional forms and, in 1989, brought out a book-length manifesto, A Vision of Britain. Land developers began asking his advice before proceeding with their plans. He became a kind of national minister of architecture, except that he had no appointment and no portfolio, just magnificent inherited status: king in waiting.

Until he moved on to other interests, Prince Charles was by a long way my favourite royal, more useful to society than any Windsor in generations. No one agreed with all his views (though he was dead right on the National Gallery) but almost everyone was glad to see the quality of architecture called into question.

Much of what he said was familiar to readers of the late Jane Jacobs' profound critique, published in 1961, or the biting satire of Tom Wolfe, published in 1981. Those two non-architects, writing with entirely different credentials, helped build an anti-Modernist case.

But similar ideas, when uttered by Prince Charles, carried a fresh charge of energy. I say "almost everyone" was pleased. Architects and sycophantic architectural critics were appalled. They regarded his criticism as insolent and ignorant, and they attacked without mercy. The Architectural Review in London compared the Prince's tastes to those of the Nazis. In Washington, a critic in the New Republic noted his liking for classical elements in modern buildings and suggested that this proved his affinity for colonialism, racism and imperialism.

Nathan Glazer, the eminent American sociologist, discusses the conflict between Prince Charles and the architects in his remarkable new book, From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture's Encounter with the American City (Princeton University Press).

Why were the architects so enraged? As Glazer says, Prince Charles implicitly charged them with betraying their professional heritage. Modernist architecture began as a social movement with the goal of better housing for the workers. Architects broke into the 20th century like revolutionaries, determined to erase the past and replace it with their own humane and progressive ideas.

In Glazer's words, "visionary architects and planners were, in their minds, leagued with the people against what they saw as archaic, overblown, extravagant and inefficient architecture and design, the taste of princes." So, in the 1980s, their successors were shocked to discover that it was easy "to portray them as distant from the people and their interests." The architects found themselves being called elitists -- and by a prince!

Architects are now tired of this story, understandably. Many heard it from their teachers 20 or 30 years ago. Worse, they still can't think of a way to give it a happy ending.

Glazer, who began adult life as a socialist, chronicles his slow but relentless disenchantment. As he acknowledges, 2007 may not be the perfect year to develop his view, when the works of major architects "seem to herald a new age of architectural creativity and achievement." Frank Gehry breathed new life into a rather tired art form at Bilbao in 1997, and architecture has ever since been celebrated as a success story.

But the successes are mostly iconic public buildings. In the background, still mainly undiscussed, are thousands of Modernist failures. Today, the handeddown and degraded ideas of the early masters march across China, for instance, like an invading army. The failure of Modernist architecture now looks like the greatest cultural disappointment of modern times.

At this moment, daring new forms attract wide public interest and excitement, but Glazer suspects that they will fascinate us only a little longer than the buildings at a World's Fair. They can create a sensation, but they cannot create a city. "Whatever the character of any one of the greatly admired buildings of the last decade, we would not want another like it to be put up right next to it." A city should have its masterpieces, he argues, but masterpieces don't make a city. However impressive their talents, the star architects have not found a way to replace the urban environments their predecessors helped tear down in the last century. "That task has been abandoned."

Glazer, 84 this year, remains one of the grand figures of the intellectual arena created by New York Jewish intellectuals some six decades ago. He's been close to the centre of social thought since 1950, when he worked with David Riesman on The Lonely Crowd, the most-discussed work of sociology in that era. In 1963, he and Daniel Patrick Moynihan helped destroy one of the chief legends of American life when they wrote Beyond the Melting Pot.

They demonstrated that ethnic groups in New York City, far from mingling, were in many cases living distinctly separate lives, generation after generation. That opened a new field of ethnic studies across America. Glazer continued to believe that assimilation remained the appropriate style of American democracy but eventually conceded that his view had ceased to matter. We Are All Multiculturalists Now, his short and rather sad book, published in 1997, acknowledged the more or less permanent failure of assimilation.

In 1998, he and three contemporaries (Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, and the late Irving Howe), all of them Depression-era graduates of the City College of New York (CCNY), were the collective subject of Joseph Dorman's excellent documentary, Arguing the World. It charted their lives as they moved from their boyish Marxism to a more sophisticated engagement with society and politics.

Glazer began his undergraduate years by briefly specializing in history. Since his move into sociology, he's made it his sometimes melancholy task to trace, with sensitivity and accuracy, the highly imperfect progress of democratic ideals that his generation once took for granted.

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