Sunday, July 26, 2009


Trust me. I know "modern".

I grew up in a pre-mid-century modern house, whose spare style was a statement of available materials and capital. In the fifties I watched with envy as the neighbors built their wooden house with sloped roofs, plate glass, and egalitarian bathrooms. In the sixties I saw Mies birth Mies Modern as he gutted a block of the loop. And tried to compete with the new Miami Beach Modern apartments on Lake Shore Drive for hearts and minds. I went to school in a Bauhaus inspired studio, learned of Corbu, the Wiener Werkhaus and the Fagus Works. Friends interned at TAC and came home wrapped in Marrimekko. "Total Scope with Grope, " they chanted (stoned out of their minds). My first apartment (seventies modern) had plastic furniture, an arc lamp, celery shag carpet, and a Macrame plant hanger. My cigarettes balanced on a Warren Platner ash tray. I participated in Post Modernisim (though the effect was somewhat diluted by the strip center building type that had become my specialty.) I've seen the granite and stainless elegance of nineties modern. The computer inspired millenial modern return-of-the-curve. And finally, (thank heaven) the come-to-Jesus, this-is-it, the-final-real-and-forever modern of the new age. Sensible. Sustainable. And nine-eleven secure. Designed by architects with head shots and windblown hair, and sales gigs ranging from "Magic Carpets" to "Deconstructivism".

Now, don't get me wrong. I can identify and relate to real masterworks of every decade of twentieth century architecture. (And in some future post I'll describe how Richard Meier's work in New Harmony, Indiana fundamentally changed my own work and way of thinking.)

But there is one thread of modernity that persists and repeats. It is the belief that "This time, we've got it right." "This time its real, lasting, permanent" There is an odor of infallibility. An arrogance that allows the destruction of even the finest expressions of generations now passed. Below is
the "elegant transformation" of the Insurance Exchange. The original building was designed by Peirce Anderson in 1911. I forget who did the 1995 remodeling.

The original space was a dead ringer for the Atrium at the Railway Exchange (Daniel Burnham, 1904), though larger and more finely detailed. These days, there is a CAF Daniel Burnham Exhibit at the Railway Exchange, that is well worth seeing. The model of Chicago is spectacular. But take a look, too, at the skylight, the ironwork, the light fixtures, the balustrades. And consider the weight of loss and gain.
Credits are due Sally A. Chappell Kitt and her highly recommended work THE ARCHITECTURE OF GRAHAM ANDERSON PROBST & WHITE, page 46, University of Chicago Press.

1 comment: