Bulldozing Mies van der Rohe

One of the most important architects of the 20th century, love him or hate him, was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969).  Mies built hugely influential structures in cities like Barcelona, Chicago, and New York which came to define modern architecture around the world.  Yet during his very long career, he only designed one project here in Washington: the Martin Luther King Public Library, located in downtown DC.  Now as the city calls for architects to help expand and re-design the building, it might be a good time to reflect on whether something that is unremarkable needs to be preserved, simply because of who might have been associated with it.

As much as DC likes to claim that the MLK Library is significant because it was designed by Mies, said factor is the only distinguishing feature of the building itself.  There is simply nothing special about this blocky structure, other than its association with this particular architect.  It is the same sort of mechanical, rusty, uninspiring space that was copied over and over again, and could just as easily be a hospital, or a field office of the Social Security Administration, as a public library.

While the exterior of the building is the usual mix of painted steel, smoky glass, and aggregate concrete, all leaking and crumbling away, the interior is just as boring and unremarkable.  Strips of fluorescent lighting run across the ceiling from one side to the other, leading the eye to feast upon either a blank wall, or the street outside, which you suddenly find yourself wishing to go back out to.  Throw in a few copies of Mies’ 1929 Barcelona chairs in the waiting area, and presto – instant architecture!

One of the problems with the school of thought which Mies helped develop, and which put such an indelible stamp on the landscape of cities around the world, is that it allows for little or nothing in the way of regionalism.  The goal of international uniformity at the expense of local cultural expression means that one could simply pick up this rather blah building in DC, plop it down in the middle of a city thousands of miles away, say Hamburg or Dehli, and it would not matter.  This mechanistic quality is a natural follow-on from the ideas of Mies’ contemporaries Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, particularly as exemplified in the latter’s famous characterization of the home as “a machine for living”.  In fact, such thought processes have now become an ingrained way of looking at the world, not only in architecture but in government’s view of its citizens, to the extent that no one dares to question it, or indeed why we should allow ourselves, our homes, or the public buildings which we pay for to be treated as such in the first place.

By contrast, a short distance away from today’s MLK library is the smaller, former central public library.  It was built at the turn of the previous century in the then-fashionable Beaux-Arts style, thanks to an enormous gift from industrialist Andrew Carnegie, and opened to the public in 1903.  It served as the city’s largest reading room until 1970, when the MLK Library was opened, and today houses the city’s historical society.

The old library is an elegant structure, with sweeping marble staircases and symmetrical wings.  It could have been expanded upon almost infinitely as the collection grew, through the use of sensitive additions.  It also fits within the general classical architecture that defines not only most of the major buildings and monuments of Washington, but also the very rational, 18th century layout of the city itself, situated in a large square where a number of important streets and avenues all meet.

Now of course, instead of being prominently placed, the city library is housed inside a boring building on a random street corner, which one could easily walk right past and be forgiven for ignoring, thinking it was just another ho-hum office block.  There are no plans to tear it down, and thus, whatever changes may be made, this public library will look pretty much just as soul-suckingly dull as the old one.  It will not become any the handsomer for all the alterations it is about to physically undergo, thanks to the desire to preserve and celebrate something which ought to have been bulldozed years ago.

To appreciate the work of an artist, one does not need to like everything that they made.  Raphael may be my favorite painter of the Italian High Renaissance, and his was a towering talent indeed.  Yet in all frankness, some of his later pictures in particular are decidedly messy, fussy, and unattractive.  Over time he may have become more accomplished as a dramatist and decorator, but in some cases he had begun to lose the sense of quiet emotion that made his earlier work so powerful, in the rush to get out commissioned pieces to clients.

Similarly, I love Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion of 1929, with its combination of light, openness, and calm,  It is a clean, but inviting space, which invites the visitor to sit and relax.  It had a tremendous impact on the history of architecture, and we would be lucky to have something like it here in the Nation’s capital.

Yet DC’s lone claim to Mies fame strikes me as being little more than a derivative version of far superior work which he created elsewhere.  For here we see little more than the middling effort of a very famous and very busy man, who left to underlings the job of bringing his ideas into reality. In the end, it is a pity that public funds need to be expended on preserving and expanding upon a structure that has really nothing much at all to commend it.


The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library
Washington, D.C.

Leaks, Crime, and Bad Taste: The Legacy of Le Corbusier

Today a friend from the Twitterverse drew my attention to a petition to save Chandigarh, the planned city designed largely by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. While I rather fear that said friend may decide to “unfriend” me if he reads this piece, be that as it may, this petition provides me with a wonderful opportunity to go against the well-established grain of the intelligentsia, and point out exactly what a dreadful architect Le Corbusier, in fact, was.  Not only did he have terrible taste which led to urban crime and disintegration, but he was incapable of fulfilling the basic duty of a good architect: i.e. building something that could withstand the elements.

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris (1887-1965), to give Le Corbusier’s real name, was born in Switzerland but spent most of his working career in France, including collaborating with the Vichy regime. Like many an arriviste, he decided to change his name to something singular, since he liked to reinvent himself depending on what he wanted people to think about him at the time. His most famous quote, and one which pretty much sums up his attitude toward both architecture and human beings, is: “A house is a machine to live in.”  He spent most of his career following this creed, putting up graceless, poorly-built concrete “machines” all over the world, and encouraging others to do the same.

The planned city of Chandigarh in India, built between roughly 1950-1965, is a spectacular example of why Le Corbusier was such a terrible architect. Gigantic, oppressively out-scale government buildings squat alongside slimy reflecting pools ringed by parking lots, their walls stained and failing as a result of the passage of time, the extreme weather of the Indian subcontinent, and the poor choice of materials. Office blocks with pointless shapes plopped along the roofline concealing who knows what look like interrogation centers for the FSB on an episode of “Spooks”. Apartment buildings that are reminiscent of stacks of dirty, corrugated cardboard about to go into the shredder give the impression that the residents would be better off living in an actual cardboard box. Even the artificial lake created for the enjoyment of the residents of Chandigarh features what look like watch tower platforms from a concentration camp.

Those who fawn over Le Corbusier are often too ready to excuse or overlook the fact that he had no idea how to build something that would last, which is in fact why architects are consulted in the first place. Le Corbusier in his own lifetime had to incur the wrath of numerous clients for the fact that his buildings began to fall apart almost immediately after they were built, suffering from water damage, rust stains, cracked walls, crumbling facades, and so on. Like many a narcissist, Le Corbusier never thought that he was the problem, but rather that the fault lay elsewhere. When an early house he designed with a standard, pitched roof started to leak the first winter after it was completed, Le Corbusier simply decided never to build a pitched roof again, and switched to using a flat roof. However, he never figured out how to design one properly, so his flat roof buildings leak also.

Fortunately, here in the United States, the only building by Le Corbusier at which one may throw well-deserved stones is the 1962 Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard, which is not a particularly impressive example of his work – or indeed of anyone’s work. Truth be told, he did not have as much of a hand in the building as did the project supervisor, the Catalan architect Josep Lluís Sert, but he managed to stamp his particular brand of hulking ugliness on it, all the same. Given how many examples of such terrible buildings like this litter our college campuses, we can only hope that our grandchildren will have the good sense to pull them down when they fail, which they inevitably will.

Even though he himself built practically nothing in the United States, Le Corbusier’s influence on his contemporaries had a profound impact on American cities at mid-century. He is partially resonsbile for the collapse of the urban center in the 1960’s and 70’s. Granted, many factors brought about the near-demise of the American city during this period, including social unrest, suburban development, economic decline, and dependence upon the automobile. However Le Corbusier’s ideas, and the damage wrought by him and his disciples, served as an irritant for these problems, but an irritant that failed to produce a single pearl.

If you have ever seen the urban nightmare which was the recently-demolished Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago, or urban planning schemes like that of Boston’s City Hall Plaza, featuring heavy, concrete block buildings and bleak plazas surrounded by freeways, making it impossible or unpleasant for people to move around in, and choking to death entire city neighborhoods, then you have Le Corbusier and the disciples of his ideas to thank. Not only did they bring new depth to the term “ugly”, but they managed to foster crime on a scale never-before seen in American society. Surrounded by such appalling hopelessness, it is no wonder that the residents of these areas turned to substance abuse, violence, and anti-social behavior to try to escape from the hideous prisons built to cage them.

Le Corbusier’s legacy and that of urban planners inspired by him is finally being dealt with by many cities, sometimes successfully – as is the case here in the Nation’s Capital – and sometimes not. His fundamental, philosophical flaw was to view human beings as nothing more than cogs in a machine, who could be placed interchangeably in residential, office, and other buildings, that were themselves equally interchangeable. If we assume that the house is indeed a machine for living, as trite a statement as that may be, then Le Corbusier was the Thomas Midgley of machine manufacturers.

Rather than restoring his work, therefore, let us hope that the good people of Chandigarh have better sense than to waste their resources in the way that Le Corbusier wasted theirs, and instead that they may obtain the funds they need to demolish all of this garbage and begin again.

The Palace of the Assembly at Chandigarh, by Le Corbusier