Roger Ebert on the Visceral Beauty of Chicago Architecture

by James Matthew Wilson on July 15, 2010 · 6 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

Mecosta, MI. A stunning reflection by film critic Roger Ebert, and a reminder that art is a matter of proportion not method, fittingness not totalitarian vision:

In architecture I am a reactionary. This isn’t ideological with me; it’s visceral. When I look at a building and conclude it’s “beautiful,” I’m not looking at the work of the children of Mies. Having spent a lifetime wandering when I could in London, Paris, Stockholm, Cape Town, Kyoto, my feet linger on the old streets but avoid the new. Venice will never be eaten by modern architecture; although the most threatened of cities, it is also the safest.

Read the whole thing here.

See University of Chicago architecture here.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar David July 15, 2010 at 1:02 pm

I still have many years of penance for my previous pogroms in the service of efficiency. Thank you for this find.

avatar WmO'H July 15, 2010 at 2:49 pm

I was hoping someone on the Porch would link to this.

avatar james c. July 15, 2010 at 3:18 pm

This piece is indeed a remarkable reflection, and I’d expect nothing less from Ebert. But Ebert’s use of the visceral experience for finding the beautiful in architecture neglects one thing that I think may be important, even necessary, for assessing buildings like those at the University of Chicago: they are faux and they fail to meet the aesthetic purpose that is met by a cathedral in Cologne or the quadrangles of Oxford. Living in Chicago, I could not deny that gazing at the Tribune Tower gives me goosebumps. But like the buildings at the University of Chicago, upon close examination I am almost always little disappointed. It is not that these buildings are made from more modern materials than their Oxford predecessors, but rather that the imagery in the gargoyles and relief sculptures usually comes with ideas that may explain their beauty. In Venice or Florence or Oxford, we see representations of Divine things, the highest things. In Hyde Park, we see Adam Smith and Francis Bacon. In Hyde Park, we try to conjure up the milieu of a medieval monastery without the medieval. Mies seems like a more natural step from this than he does from Louis Sullivan. Culture of autonomy.

avatar James Matthew Wilson July 15, 2010 at 3:44 pm

James C.’s point might be applied also to the gorgeous, but likewise ambiguous, chapel at Princeton, where the “pantheon” in the stainedglass windows varies from Bacon and Witherspoon to Aquinas and Francis. Ralph Adam Cram wished to make that chapel a bulwark against modern materialism, but the results are, again, ambiguous. That said, there is a window that details T.S. Eliot climbing the narrow stairs depicted in his poem “Ash Wednesday.” I’ll post a picture, if it comes out.

avatar Bruce Smith July 16, 2010 at 10:29 am

Slowly architectural style is making its way forward to incorporate more decoration whilst retaining its desire to use new innovative materials. You could call this style “Dec-Tec.”

avatar D.W. Sabin July 17, 2010 at 11:49 am

Viewing the commercial slag heap of modernist sheds writ large that co-opted the modern movement in Architecture, it is hard to find any romance….or resonance or spatial-tactile pleasure that one can enjoy walking through the campus of Univ. of Chicago or Yale. But there is a long list of modern architecture from Corbu, to Wright to Sullivan, Kahn, Adolph Loos, Legorreta, Barragan, Hugh Newell Jacobsen, Fay Jones, Neutra, etc etc etc. that is as equally stirring as is the U. of Chicago neo-Gothic campus. Some of the above did their best work by refining traditional form and space.

Sure, the modern movement was co-opted by commercialism but so was the entire social structure of the twentieth century. When Ebert compares the U. of Chicago to a bank branch or one of a gazillion banal office towers, he’s making an unfair comparison.

Modernism, for a time, reflected an idea that we were no longer erecting structures that were bulwarks against our antagonist Nature but a vehicle that brought the light and views outside, in …. blurring the distinction of indoor-outdoor space while inventing new form, new surfaces, new details and new spaces.

What I find most depressing about modernism, besides its incarceration within the banal prison of the moder, Hee-Haw global commercialism that confines us all, is its transformation from the egalitarian aspirations of the Bauhaus, where quality structures could be extended to the everyman and the design school was like a co-op of craft guilds to one where only the wealthiest can afford it. Though I admire his work (The Barcelona Pavilion and its salute to Marble is breathtaking) , when Mies said “Less is More”, boy…was he right. Modern industrial design, modern architecture at its best is only something the rich can afford, including the goods sold under the impertinently named “Design Within Reach”. Prefab modernist buildings of industrial components are still more expensive than some cartoon essay in comic book memory.

Like a lot of things, its not the design in total that should be rebuked, its the general perversion of it. I have been in modernist buildings that have the same level of sophisticated tactile quality, light, craft, etc etc as any of the photos shown, while having far superior air flow and natural light. That said, some of these modern hives of skyscraper apartment towers are little better than gigantic baking ovens without their sophisticated and consumptive HVAC systems. Some buildings even assault their neighbors such as the sunlight reflected off titanium panels and frying neighbors like a giant tanning mirror. I agree with Ebert’s romantic attraction to some of these older buildings but his blanket renunciation of all modern architecture…including a resurgent modernism underway, should be more a renunciation of the Moloch of Commerciality.

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