I have lamented many times in this blog the paucity of substantive, critically balanced, and socially engaged architectural writing  currently available to a literate audience in America. I contend that The Architect’s Newspaper offers the best journalistic work available now. The New York Review of Books is generally concerned with published work, not architecture per se, but Martin Filler has begun to write about the built environment with real fire and an intelligent point of view. However, if one wants the kind of serious periodical that one used to expect out of Perspecta, The Architectural Review, or Oppositions, there is almost nothing to read these days. Having edited one of the Ivy League student journals in the 1970s (a heady time) I can say there is nothing of that caliber in student periodicals now.

One of the things that traditionally set fine architectural journals apart from other kinds of periodicals was their exquisite graphic design. Collectors still value early issues of L’Esprit Nouveau, Perspecta, and other influential “small magazines” for their sheer beauty. In the age of internet publishing, concern with paper quality, bindings, typefaces, duotone printing and color lithography seem to be things of the past. Yet architecture is concerned with craft as much as with dazzle, and a good book is a crafted object.

There is a little-known architectural journal that has been published sporadically since the early 1990s that increasingly challenges the public with its ideas, artistic works, buildings, crafts and fine scholarship. It is called The Classicist. Though that title may suggest to many a Luddite point of view, or at the very least a focus on the Antique, such an interpretation would sell short the intent and content of this fine journal. Yes, the classical tradition is invoked often, and many writers are scholars and artists trained in that tradition, yet much of what is presented is engaged with present day problems in urbanism, architecture and art. Indeed, for those wishing to fine a really critical analysis of many of the ills in our built environment, this is the place to go.

Volume 8, edited by Richard Johns, an English scholar teaching at the University of Miami, is the best yet issued by The Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America, the sponsoring organization based in New York. Not only is the book exquisitely beautiful, it contains work of  such consistent quality and depth that any sympathetic reader will be pleased to own it. It will soon become a collector’s item in its own right. Printed  in full color on elegant heavy stock, every page is a delight to look at. Moreover, there is so much to read a curious architect will be busy for months.

I won’t go into the detail about the contents in this blog, but will write more in a later post. I can only say now that with this extraordinary publication, ICA and CA can justly lay claim to producing an architectural journal worthy of standing with the best in a canon dating back to The Builder in the 19th century. Bravo. The competition, if such exists, will have a high bar to reach.

The American Institute of Architects will gather this week for their annual meeting in Miami. The economy is in a funk. The glamor of the last bubble is gone. Architects are feeling undervalued. The government is stalling in its commitment to infrastucture improvements and green building. There seems little to celebrate.

One event at the meeting will surely draw the attention of the profession here in America–the appearance of this year’s Gold Medalist, Peter Bohlin. An American success story, par excellence, Bohlin is just the kind of architect who should be praised in 2010. He is a man of modest stature, quiet and assured. His architecture is subtle and gentle. He began his practice in Wilkes Barre, in the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal field. He has no flash, no inflated ego, no overblown charisma. His firm’s solid reputation has been built slowly, from the ground up.

In short, Peter Bohlin is a quintessential American builder, concerned more with substance than theory, with place more than style. All of his buildings are as expressive as their circumstances allow, but no more so, because that is what fits the client, the budget, and the locale. Unlike a Glenn Murcutt or a Luis Barragan, Bohlin is not a lone practitioner working in a highly personal way. His firm has several offices spread from coast to coast. He takes commissions that are meaningful to communities and neighborhoods as well as to individual patrons. He isn’t on the short list for glitzy museums in Abu Dhabi or Singapore. He doesn’t run with the fast crowd. In fact, he looks a bit rumpled, like a venerated grandpa.

In an era of shortages and diminished expectations, it seems just plain wrong to be giving out prizes for the kind of architecture that got built on massive corporate greed and cultural one-up-manship. To his credit, Peter Bohlin didn’t succumb to the star system that has driven high design for the past two decades. He put on his smock and sat at the drafting table every day, turning out buildings that one might mistake for vernacular, everyday places, buildings made of logs, industrial steel, bricks and mortar. I think that’s worth celebrating. Raise a glass of champagne for Mr. Bohlin, even if you can’t be in Miami.

Back to the Bauhaus

June 8, 2010

Martin Filler has added another gem to his recent essays in the New York Review of Books. Absorbing a huge array of books, exhibitions and films on the Bauhaus, including MOMA’s recent exhibition, the intrepid critic provides a lucid and very timely appraisal of the German school’s history in the June 24, 2010 issue.

Filler reminds not only the public but younger architects that the Bauhaus was not the Modern Movement. It deserves neither the uncritical worship nor the unbridled condemnation that often follows a citation in design literature or criticism. Recent scholarship, mostly in Europe, has helped to uncover a broader and more complicated history of the little Weimar academy that had such a profound influence on 20th century art, architecture and urbanism.

Among the giants who taught at the school, Wassily Kandinsky, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, and Gunta Stolzl have recently been re-appraised in books and exhibitions. I was unaware of the latter, the only woman to be named “master” at the Bauhaus and a textile designer of profound gifts. Moreover, her 1921 collaboration with Marcel Breuer, a “primitive” chair, looks far more revolutionary than anything produced by Breuer alone. Filler astutely points out that these little-known examples of arts and crafts experimentation were as important to the Bauhaus aesthetic as the better known architectural drawings and models we see in most histories of the school. There are some wild and irrational pieces in these publications, nothing like the cool compositions of Gropius or Hannes Meyer.

He also underlines the essential pedagogical contributions of Bauhaus artists and architects, particularly Johannes Itten’s famous Vorkurs or first year curriculum. Every artist, graphic designer, planner or architect trained in the later 20th century was exposed to this system; we are all the better for it. If only architectural programs would re-study the essential aims of “basic design” in light of the Itten system,  students might come away with more discipline and judgment than they get from the watered down versions taught today.

Most important, from my point of view, Filler understands that Bauhaus art theory was not so fundamentally different from its Beaux Arts antithesis as we sometimes believe. “It is generally held that Modernism celebrates fragmentation and opposes the continuity implicit in the Classical tradition,” he writes. Not so, according to these new studies–“during the politically precarious but creatively fertile years of the Weimar Republic, the Bauhauasler gathered under one roof to learn, practice and teach arts as ancient as weaving and as novel as photography, with utter seriousness and optimistic conviction.” By bringing old crafts and theories together with new ones, these designers forged a method appropriate to the new century while acknowledging the myriad contributions of past masters. There was less distance between the workshops of Morris & Company in London, the Weiner Werkstatte, Chicago’s Steinway Hall studios and the Bauhaus than we have been lead to believe.