Archive | October 2011

America Changed the Man who Changed American Modern Architecture


This building you see was designed by arguable one of the most influential architect to date, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, or more commonly known as Mies. Mies along with Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius are widely regarded as the pioneers of Modern architecture. Mies and many of his post WWI contempories, sought to establish a new architectural style that would represent modern times just as Classical and Gothic architecture did for their times. His style of design was extreme clarity and simplicity, and using modern materials like industrial steel and plate glass. He strived for a type of architecture with a minimal framework of structure which would suggest the freedom of open space; he called his buildings “skin and bones” architecture.

Although we all hail his iconic structures in Chicago as symbols of our democracy, we may be misunderstanding the greatness of Mies. While taking an architecture boat tour down the Chicago river, a visitor can learn that Mies escaped Nazi Germany and was gien amnesty in the United States to produce modernist architecture, that is so prominent in today’s Chicago skyline. Chicagoans readily embrace the notion that without open Democracy, modernism as we know it today may not have been given the chance to flourish. However, rarely is it mentioned that in 1934, four years before Mies arrived to the United States, he signed a motion in support of Hitler. His support of Hitler came out of his greed in wanting to be selected as the Architect of the State. We also rarely hear that these widely embraced modernist structure has a strikely similar attitude and design that Mies proposed to get shown alongside his 1935 competition entry for the German Pavilion at Brussels Word Fair, however, the ones he proposed was adorned with an eagle and a swastika.

While Mies cannot be blamed or held responsible for Hitler’s regime, we also cannot continue to perpetuate the myth that he is a politcal hero whose buildings represent pure democracy.


Architects as Politicians

If you think about it, architects and politicians are in many ways very similiar and being an architect is not very different from being a politician.

Both architects and politicians are responsible for a constituency if only on a moral level. A politician is responsible for the general public in the area he/she represents. In the architects case, the public who uses his/her building and will interact with it even at the mirco level of walking by it.

Both architects and politicians are criticized for being sellouts. In the architects case, he/she would be criticized for being a sellout when he fails to protect the public against the profit motivated intereste of wealthy developers. It is a tough decision to make between your career and the interest of the common good.For some architects, these choices are easier to make. For instance, David Child would be considered a sellout in the profession, he does everything to please the clients even if the outcome is an eyesore to the public. On the other hand, you have Lebbeus Woods, an architect who would not budge for clients and would only build what he designed, therefore, in most cases, his designs only exist on paper, but his dignity is still intact. For all other architects, its finding the balance between good and evil.

Similar to politicians, the more famous an architect you are, the harder you fall and the more scrutiny you’ll receive. Because of the fame, famous architects are held at a higher standard than the average Joe architect. As a politician, a laps in judgement like love affairs and using of illegal substance would mean an end to a career. For an architect, the love affairs and drugs are translated into water leaks, slanted floors, and other flaws in the buildings. These flaws can severely damage a famous architects career as they are constantly picked at by critics and the public.

Below is a link to an interview with David Robinson, an architect who went on to become a politian. Although the bulk of interview talks about policies he would change if elected, he does briefly talk about who there are parallels in architecture and politics and how a design assignment triggered his impulse to pursue politics.

Hyde (the) Park (from the poor)


Although Hyde Park in London today is seen as a public park where you can find people from different social classes, this wasn’t always the case. In 1536, King Henry VIII acquired Hyde Park from the monks of Westminster Abbey. He tranformed the park into a private hunting ground by putting up wooden fences around the park and dammed up the river to create a drinking pond for the deers. From the birth of Hyde Park, one can associate it with being upper class. However, in 1637, Charles I changed the nature of the park completely by openning the park to the general public. During the Great Plague of 1655, many citizens of London abandoned the city and seeked refuge in the park in hopes of escaping the disease. However, Hyde Park has always been associated with class as it is a place where ‘summer visitors’ can gether on neutral ground for their casual meeting. The grass and trees created the feeling of home for these ‘country dwellers.’ Furthermore, the real estate prices around Hyde Park sky-rocketed and only the upper class could afford them. As a result it is easy to see that the upper class did not appreciate the fact that they had to share their front yard with the lower class.

To make matters worse, in 1851 the Crystal Palace was built in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. More than 14,000 exhibitors from around the world displayed the latest technology developed in the industrial revolution. The upper class was affraid that the Crystal Palace would attract more lower class people who were trying to climb the ladder to wealth. Therefore, after the exhibiton which lasted 6 months, the Crystal Palace in the favor of the Parliament was forced to relocate. The Crystal Palace was disessembled and reconstructed on Sydenham Hill. The moving of the Crystal Palace illustrates the political divided between classes and is made even more evident when the Parliament (upper class politician) was in favor of the relocation of the Crystal Palace.

Robert Moses, the “Master” builder


Robert Moses, also known as the “Master builder” is, if you ask any architecture professor at Cornell University would say he is one of the greatest modernist urban planners. After all, he is known as the “master builder” who changed shorelines, built bridges, tunnels and roadways, and transformed neighborhoods forever. Moses did his contribution to society, however, what the architecture professors may forget to mention is that Moses had many political agendas in his projects that reflects his insensitivity towards the lower-class and the non-whites. Perhaps his name “master builder” can be attributed to his racial characteristics. In Langdon Winner’s article “Do Artifacts have Politics?” we learn that artifacts can either inherently embody politics, or that a specific political agenda gives birth to an artifact. Robert Moses’ Jones Beach and the Long Island overpass bridges would fall into the category of the latter. Jones Beach is arguably Robert Moses’ best park many architecture historians would say, however, in order to arrive at Jones Beach, one would have to drive on the Long Isand Expressway, which was also designed by Moses. At the time of the creation of Jones beach in 1920’s, majority of public bus riders were Afircian Americans or lower class whites. As a result, Robert Moses designed the overpass bridge that went over the Long Island Expressway with a clearane of 8.5 feet with full knowledge that public buses were standardized at 12 feet. By designing these overpasses lower than the height of the public buses, Robert Moses kept the non-whites and lower class whites out of his precious Jones Beach. Furthermore, to make doubly sure that non-whites and lower class whites were kept out, he objected to having a LIRR stop at Jones Beach.