I remember going to an art exhibit at the University of Utah Fine Arts Museum a few years back and seeing a construction piece called "three pyramids walking." It was a shadow box filled with sand in which three painted pyramids were placed - and that was it. I suppose we have all examined modernism in art or architecture and have turned our heads to the side in an attempt to clarify perspective and gain understanding, and then walked away wondering.
The 20th century has been a unique time in the history of design. Modernism in art has taken us through many gyrations of the abstract. I believe we have and are seeing the same thing in architecture. For example, the December issue of Progressive Architecture (the name implies the content) features several architectural pieces that I have discussed with friends and, to many, the designs appear as so much junk. One architect friend said, "It looks like a cross between Tijuana junk housing and a warehouse." It is architecture for the avant-garde.For those of you who have been around for a long time or who are up on your history into the first couple of decades of this century, you know that during this time we practiced art and architecture in the eclectic. That is, we copied the Renaissance, gothic, Greek, Roman, etc., etc., etc. Art was the first to make a dramatic breakaway, and architecture soon followed.
S. Giedion in his book "Space Time and Architecture," said that "there are whole decades in the second half of the 19th century in which no architectural work of any significance is encountered. Eclecticism smothered all creative energy." Eventually this eclecticism gave way to modernism with a vow never to return.
But nothing is permanent, and today modernism is giving ground to the softer, more ornate post-modern styles. Recently, architect Kevin Roche presented his proposed addition to the Jewish Museum in New York. It is absolute eclectic.
This new proposal has generated considerable debate.
Observer: "It could be the last word in contextualism."
Member of the Municipal Art Society: "The design is modest and appropriate, a happier solution that offers no resistance to the original Warburg Mansion, or to the surrounding streetscape."
Third member of the Municipal Art Society: "The replica of Gilbert's original design, no matter how brilliant, is unimaginative and does nothing to show the evolution of design in our time."
Fourth member of the Municipal Art Society: "Generations in the future should not be fooled."
Second observer: "The design is appropriate, and such historical mimicking typifies the current creative climate."
Kevin Roche: "Not so much a revival of a revival style but a continuation of C.P.H. Gilbert's original 1908 plan as if Gilbert himself were designing the expansion."
Third observer: "The 1962 addition is indicative of the jarring effects of modernism."
In comparison, regarding a favorable but sometimes confused recent eclectic addition to the Spence school one block south, a third-grader said, "But I thought we had a new building . . . "
And so the debate continues. There is no doubt that the 1962 modern addition is inappropriate. However, even though I find the proposed Roche addition contextual, I do feel that the original verticality and singularity of the French Renaissance home is watered down by the lateral expansion of same.
Knowing Roche's approach to design, I trust that he considered several alternatives before settling on the proposed. I wonder what the alternatives were and if there was a sketch or a model that would have been more satisfying - perhaps there was or could be a design with a lesson in history as well as compatibility.
-Joseph Linton is an architect in Highland, Utah County. He welcomes other viewpoints.