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Architects Display Selective Outrage

The Architectural Caste System
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If you doubt that the architectural establishment’s number-one priority is to protect the privileged position of orthodox Modernism, consider the story of two museum buildings in New York City.

The first case involves the former home of the Folk Art Museum, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. The story of how this building sank the Folk Art Museum is too lengthy to get into here. The relevant point is that the neighboring Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) bought the vacant building primarily because MoMA wants the land for expansion. When MoMA announced it would demolish the 12-year-old building, the heavens opened and a torrent of vituperation from the architectural community rained down on MoMA.

The Architectural League of New York State suddenly found preservation religion and went public with a letter urging MoMA not to raze “this significant work of contemporary architecture.” The letter had 35 signatures, including such big guns as Richard Meier, Robert A.M. Stern, Hugh Hardy and Thom Mayne.

These preservation converts rhapsodized over Williams's and Tsien’s “architectural gem,” with Architectural Record magazine gushing it was “a beautiful and inventive jewel of a building that enriched its streetscape and the city.” To others (including this writer), the Folk Art Museum building is uninviting and awkward, both inside and out. It bears no relation to its neighbors nor to the folk art it was supposed to serve. The public seemed to agree and stayed away in droves. Nonetheless, the anger from the architectural establishment grew so loud that MoMA partially relented and hired Diller Scofidio & Renfro  to see if there’s any way to incorporate the building into its expansion.

Throughout the uproar, it’s been clear that what matters most to the protesters is the building’s roots in orthodox Modernism – and that it was designed by architects in good standing with the Modernist hierarchy. MoMA was essentially being accused of infanticide. Who in the upper caste can be safe if a Modernist institution like MoMA destroys the work of anointed designers?

Preserve or pass?

Lest that seem overly cynical, let’s look at a similar situation: the remuddling of 2 Columbus Circle. In this case, instead of protesting, the architectural establishment looked the other way – the major difference being the bona fides of the designers of the two museum buildings. Two Columbus Circle was completed in 1964 by architect Edward Durell Stone to house the personal art collection of Huntington Hartford, heir to the A&P supermarket fortune.

The key to this story is that both Stone and his client were considered outsiders by the intellectual elite. Huntington Hartford was ostracized by the art elite because he despised abstract art, and Edward Durell Stone, once a champion of European Modernism, was considered an apostate by the architectural elite because he had abandoned austere Modernism in favor of a more romantic, historically inflected architecture. Stone, who was arguably the most famous architect in America in the 1960s, used stylized elements adapted from Venetian Gothic for his Huntington Hartford Gallery.

Predictably, the architectural press panned the building. Ada Louise Huxtable was among the most devastating, likening the columns at the base to “lollipops” – thereby coining its popular nickname: “The Lollipop Building.” After Huntington Hartford ran out of money, the building went through various owners, ending up with the City of New York. The long, sad, unsuccessful nine-year saga to get this remarkable building landmarked has been meticulously documented in a time line prepared by the New York Preservation Archive Project.

The salient point is that the fight to save 2 Columbus Circle was led by the preservation community, not the architectural community. With the notable exception of Robert A.M. Stern, the same architects who are screaming about the Folk Art Museum building did not lift a finger to save Stone’s creation. 

These two case histories illustrate the architectural caste system at work. Brahmins on top of the architectural hierarchy are heavily invested in the theory that Modernism is superior – morally and aesthetically – to Traditionalism. When this theoretical supremacy is challenged, the establishment lets loose an avalanche of rhetoric, sophistry and archibabble to defend Modernism’s privileged status. But because he had been excommunicated from architecture’s inner circle, no such effort was expended to defend the legacy of Edward Durell Stone.

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