Essays: Less is less |
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Less is less

by Jonathan Meades

The Skyscraper by Paul Goldberger
The City Observed: New York: A Guide to the Architecture of Manhattan
by Paul Goldberger

The reaction of the English to tall buildings is odd and inconsistent. Call them skyscrapers and put them in New York (or Chicago or Cleveland or Sioux Falls) and they incur something that approaches, if not awe, then admiration. Call them tower blocks and put them in Glasgow (or Hackney or Hanley or Colchester our old friend the University of Essex) and everyone jumps up and down in a pogo of deep concern and true ire and calls for the blood of a now aged, eternally tatentless architect. 'Aesthetic and social disaster' is the bit that comes next. But Paul Goldberger's informal history of the most quintessentially American of building types prompts me, not for the first time, to wonder if the 'social' is merely dressing and if what we (I mean those English who do not live in high rise public housing but abhor it none the less) really object to is the places' appearance and the way they spoil previously consistent towns and suburbs. It is not difficult to find those who are otherwise orthodox in their Augustinian conviction of our inevitable weakness jabbering on about the ghastly effects of tower blocks, about the way that a hostile environment (also a word they'd usually steer clear of) creates muggers and problem families and all that. Very likely they are indulging in that peculiarly English puritanism which does not allow that an aesthetic judgement be made untempered by some sort of moral or utile alloy; it is very handy when deprecating something that you dislike the look of to be able to haul in the intelligence that seven of its tenants have taken their own lives, that valium is delivered in catering packs to accommodate the great demand, that the children have a haunted look etc. No matter that many other forms of public housing have a similar record of own goals (as we in the Met. call them) and pill popping and haggard kiddies, these other forms do not offend our eyes and sensibilities in the way that tower blocks do.

Likewise we invent extra aesthetic sources of complaint about tall commercial and institutional buildings awful places to work in, monuments to greed, monuments to aldermanic pomposity and so on. More red herrings as, I am sure, a fondness for New York indicates. Britain's skyscrapers are hated not because they are skyscrapers but because they are such bad skyscrapers; there are few exceptions. They are bad for a number of reasons, chief among which is that they derive from a tradition that, although it had some adherents in America, is essentially European and utopian rather than theatrical and practical. The precursors of the New York skyscraper were, according to Rem Koolhass in his exciting though numbingly pretentious Delirious New York (a book in whose direction the mostly straightforward Goldberger nods), the funfair towers of Coney Island hence their showiness, hence their begetters' competitiveness in the matter of height: the architect of the Chrysler Building was so determined that it should exceed his former partner's effort at 40 Wall Street that he added the curious spire, which is of course what makes it so distinctive. Both buildings were soon to be eclipsed by the Empire State Building.

It was not until after World War II that American skyscrapers began to manifest the influence of those European architectural gurus who had fled Hitler, found themselves unwelcomed (or at least uncommissioned) in Britain and had crossed the Atlantic just in time. The most individually powerful of them was Mies van der Rohe, whose own work was done mostly in Chicago, where he found a climate sympathetic to his austere minimalism and disciples who unquestioningly accepted the rightness of his neat daft maxim 'Less is More'. These disciples included the partners in the firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill who, so slavishly did they ape their master, came to be known as 'the three blind Mies'. One of the more ludicrous sections of The Skyscraper is that in which Goldberger purports to discern differing qualities in Miesian towers. Of course they all look the same boring glass boxes just like that which Mr Peter Palumbo is presently attempting to foist on the City (and which a number of true believers like old Casson and Stephen Gardiner were busily promoting); London is already lumbered with too many such drearily unimaginative piles and can surely do without another. Why it is lumbered with them is because, like New York in the early post-war years, it fell to modernist rhetoric. During these years skyscraper design was at its nadir: the 'theoretically based', undecorated pile in the sky showed itself in this country at its very worst. At least in New York and Chicago there were tall buildings to hide the bald monsters, here there was nothing. And as the 'rebuilding' of Britain went on over the next two decades the boneheadedness of Miesian design became clear to everyone: Less is Less. The boneheadedness of Corbusian design also became clear here, though it never really caught on in the USA. Now this country is no longer a willing host to tall buildings and American architects have mostly returned to an older tradition, that of image making.

Lack of decoration and visual relief apart, the greatest difference between the treatment of skyscrapers here and over there is to be found on the ground. As Goldberger points out in the introduction to The City Observed, New York is a rigorously planned city and one in which the majority of buildings, high or low, modernist or stagey, adhere to the street wall; there are plazas and so on but they are not the norm that they became in this country, where the very idea of the street disappeared beneath the weight of Corbusian dogma. Had skyscrapers been taken up in Britain at a different moment in the 1930s, say, when the models would inevitably have been American, and had the urge to build alternatives to the traditional and comprehensible street been less marked, then we might, I suppose, still be slinging them up. It is worth noting that most of the buildings that Goldberger refers to are commercial or official, and when he does refer to domestic high rise he does not feel impelled to kick off on the social disaster note; this, sure enough, is because the two do not go hand in hand in, say, Manhattan any more than they do in St John's Wood for some reason or other tall blocks of flats are successful when occupied by the well to do (the richish, anyway). Lifts are not turned into pissoirs, men who can afford more spray cans than you or I will own in a lifetime resist the temptation to write on walls, access from the street is restricted.

The City Observed is a guide book of a sort of which there is no up to date equivalent to London the nearest thing is Nairn's London (1966 and regrettably long out of print), though that book covers a far wider area and is far more winningly wayward. Goldberger is more interesting for the mass of information that he imparts than for the often jejune opinions that he proffers. Just as English critics tend to divide current architects into the good guys and the bad ('the herbivores and the carnivores' as Casson puts it, borrowing from Michael Frayn) so does Goldberger; this division is made largely according to the aims and pretensions of architects rather than according to their actual buildings. Thus for archvillain Richard Seifert (who is probably a victim of anti-Semitism) read archvillain Edward Durrell Stone. Neither of these men has ever made the right arty noises. They tend to get their buildings put up and to design for their clients rather than for their peers. Goldberger includes a lot that is banal and that is rendered even more banal by tiny snap shots (the photographic illustration of The Skyscraper is good). He also includes a number of buildings that are rather delightful a lot of good late 19th and early 20th century classicism, a strangely inaccurate couple of Adam pastiches from the 1930s (one of them a hospital for alcoholics), some good streamlined stuff, a surprising number of fine churches. None of these though is likely to provoke the wonder that the great skyscrapers of half a century ago are capable of provoking, which is still the same sort of wonder as Scott Fitzgerald's Dutch sailors felt when their eyes first gazed on the unknown world.