The AIA slights Philadelphia architecture

I remember Louis Kahn (even if the AIA doesn't)

    The American Institute of Architects is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year—and for the general public, it has involved a passel of citizens in choosing their favorite 150 buildings. No Pritzker Prize Ceremony this. Nor it is a fully egalitarian plebiscite. As he explains in his most recent Slate essay (“The Usual Suspects,” March 14, 2007), Penn Professor Witold Rybczynski observed with his usual brilliance that this is no open-and-shut election. All lovers of architecture (and Philadelphia) would relish malingering over the preliminary 247 choices made by a panel of more than two thousand AIA members. No such luck: The architects’ final cut was then winnowed by a representative panel of 1,808 adult amateurs to the final 150.

    Talk about March Madness. Those AIA ideologues are crazy hares. Here are the AIA’s Top Ten:
1. Empire State Building (1932)
2. The White House (1792)
3. Washington National Cathedral (1990)
4. Thomas Jefferson Memorial (1943)
5. Golden Gate Bridge (1937)
6. U.S. Capitol (1793-1865)
7. Lincoln Memorial (1922)
8. Biltmore Estate (1895)
9. Chrysler Building (1930)
10. Vietnam Memorial (1982)

How Philadelphia fared
    Phillyphiles won’t be pleased by this list of 150. A piddling five of our buildings made the honor roll. Philadelphia’s City Hall (1881, by John McArthur Jr.) came in at 21st place, just behind the Brooklyn Bridge (1883) and barely ahead of the outrageously gross Las Vegas Bellagio Hotel and Casino (1998, Deruyter Butler).
    The Philadelphia Museum of Art (1928, Borie et al.) makes the list at 24. The Wanamaker Building (1909, Daniel Burnham) clocks in at place 32. Penn’s Arts Library (1888, Frank Furness) at Penn comes in at place 54, making one wonder why it prevailed over the quintessentially quirkier Furness Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (1876), that glorious Centennial addition to Philly’s manscape. Finally, 30th Street Station (1934, Anderson, Probst and White) squeezes onto the Prized List at 137th.
    Geez. No Independence Hall. No PSFS. No Barnes. No Rodin Museum. No Mitchell/Giurgola. No Venturi and Scott Brown. No Louis Kahn! More than 200 opinionated architecture freaks have posted outraged notes at these omissions. But Kahn only makes the cut for his Phillips Exeter Academy Library (1972). No Kimball Art Museum, no Yale Art Center. No Salk Center.

Louis Kahn levitates in a TV studio
    In my only face-to-face with that genial genius, Kahn was my guest on my WFIL-TV  “University of the Air” series, The Manmade Landscape, in 1959. We talked about the imminent appearance of his Salk Center in La Jolla, California, with its maquette on the table between us. Kahn got so self-enchanted telling me about how he had designed the Center’s library so that scientists and humanists would be forced to confront each other and thus share and perhaps modify their diverse perspectives (this was in the middle of the C.P. Snow/Two Cultures imbroglio) that he started levitating right off camera. It’s the only time in my brief TV career that I had to tell a genius to please sit down.
     Later, on visiting La Jolla, I stopped the first guy in a white lab coat I encountered with my Big Question: “Did Kahn’s design really succeed in bringing the scientists and humanists face to face?”

    “Only until Jacob Bronowski died,” he answered sadly. Bronowski was the BBC house polymath (ace mathematician/William Blake scholar) who dazzled us PBS viewers with his Ascent of Man series. He blessed the end of that public career as the first Fellow at the Salk Center.

A grossly defective methodology
    The AIA is to be praised for opening such a dialogue. But its methodology is grossly defective. It acts as if New York, Chicago, and D.C. constitute American architecture. I was delighted to read in the over 200 posts many cris de coeur from my hometown, Detroit, deploring the total absence of the pioneer industrial architecture of Albert Kahn.

    I contend that the Cleveland parvenu Philip Johnson almost terminally corrupted our view of American architectural history with his hyperestheticized skew on the subject. Johnson was a philosophy major in the ’20s at Harvard who only started to study architecture under Walter Gropius in the late ‘30s. In his private letters he mocked his “master” for being too committed to making well-designed housing available to working-class people. What a corruption of democratic dogma.

What the AIA should do
    The AIA would have done better to break down its survey into genres. Start with churches. Public buildings. Schools. Infrastructure. (It’s dimwitted to ask people to compare resort hotels with, say, the Brooklyn Bridge.) Leisure spaces. (New York’s Central Park and Jones Beach are comparable— and incomparable— chefs d’oeuvres of those two giants of our common leisure, the perennially praised Frederick Law Olmsted and tthe often snooted Robert Moses.)
    And one by one, the AIA could publish glove compartment brochures, with driving directions and preparatory readings. Most vigorous AIA chapters conduct annual awards for best local this and that building. But mostly architects hoping to win an award show up. Involve the schools in the annual awards, with busloads of prepped high school students gawking creatively each spring. In a generation, you’d have a savvy architectural citizenry. It’s what Ed Bacon and Ricky Wurman first planned back in the 1960s, using the public schools for upgrading Philly understanding of architecture.
    And pick Ten Great Philly Buildings to get everyone thinking. Which would you put on such a list? Your grandchildren would then know what it’s all about. We still have an egalitarian city with a mainly aristocratic architectural education. Let’s move on, AIA and the electorate. We need urban planning that goes beyond Casino Placement.

To read a response by Witold Rybczynski, click here.


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