The Official Website of Witold Rybczynski

“Modernism wasn’t just a style—it was a way of thinking, a way of life,” expounds Jessica Todd Smith in a video on the Philadelphia Museum of Art website. Smith, who is the curator of the current PMA show, “Modern Times: American Art 1910-1950” (on view until September 3), also refers to the “beautiful chaos of innovation.” Those four decades were, indeed, chaotic: two world wars, the Soviet revolution, the Great Depression, social upheavals, the emergence of mass production and the consumer society. Where did this stormy time leave the artist? Adrift, judging from this show. Museums don’t pipe-in music (except in the gift shop), but if they did Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” (from a 1932 musical of the same name) would be perfect. Innovation was the order of the day: Calder’s wire mobiles, O’Keefe’s enlarged lilies, Pollock’s frenetic daubing.

“The world’s gone mad today. And good’s bad today.” It’s a relief to come across Horace Pippin’s calm portrait of Christian Brinton (1940), a supportive art critic. Calm, too, are Edward Hopper’s studies for his etching, American Landscape (1920). The work of photographers tends to be likewise distinctly un-frenetic, perhaps because shooting (especially with a large format camera), developing, and printing, require unruffled concentration. I particularly liked Paul Strand’s famous Wall Street, New York (1915). But the calmest work to me was a small (13” x 25”) tempura panel, Andrew Wyeth’s Cooling Shed. Painted in 1953, it barely makes the cut in more ways than one. “If modernism is a way of life, I will have none of it,” the little painting seems to say.

The first university architecture programs appeared in the late nineteenth century, at MIT (1865) and the University of Pennsylvania (1868). Previously—and for a long time thereafter—most architects in the English-speaking world learned their craft through apprenticeship, on the job, working in an office. Frank Lloyd Wright, Edwin Lutyens, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Charles A. Platt, Horace Trumbauer, Ralph Adams Cram, and Bertram Goodhue are prominent examples. While it is still theoretically possible to become a registered architect through apprenticeship, in practice formal education has taken over the training of architects. How does one teach someone to be an architect? Since architecture is not a science, there is no underlying body of knowledge to absorb. Architects study precedents, but learning to design is like learning how to swim, you have to jump in the water. Hence, the studio system. Students are assigned building problems—simple at first, increasingly more complex—and develop solutions in drawings and models. These are evaluated by the teacher and invited “jurors”; the term is apt since student are required to “defend” their designs in public. The process is intended to simulate an actual building commission in the sense that there is a list of functional requirements and an actual building site, but the studio approach has severe limitations: drawings and models can only go so far in simulating reality; there is not enough time to develop details, so materials and construction tend to take a back seat; building costs are rarely considered. Above all, there is no client. As a result, while students imagine themselves to be architects, their view of architecture is very lopsided. Satisfying the client, meeting the budget, building on time, resisting the elements, and the challenging task of “getting the job,” in H. H. Richardson’s memorable phrase, are not considered to be a part of the design process.

Of course, all architects quickly learn these lessons—on their first job—and in that sense apprenticeship continues to be a valuable part of learning how to be an architect. But the studio experience has a bad effect: it leads to over-intellectualization of the profession. Talking, accompanied by obscure theories, jargon (usually borrowed from other disciplines), and strained analogies, takes the place of building. Lutyens, for one, saw this coming. “All this talk brings the ears so far forward that they make blinkers for the eyes,” he once observed.

The Architects Newspaper recently asked a number of critics, academics, and architects “What do you see as the role of the critic in architecture today? Why is it important? What aspects of architecture are not being addressed today by critics?” and “What are the problems with criticism today?” Weighty questions that produced, in most cases, weighty—and lengthy—answers. You can judge for yourself. One of the more insightful comments was that of Frances Anderton, the British host of a weekly Los Angeles design and architecture radio show. “It was easier to be a critic when you were crusading for modernism, or another -ism, from a podium at a highly-regarded publication,” she observed. The pioneers of this mode were Allan Temko at the San Francisco Chronicle (1961-93) and Ada Louise Huxtable at New York Times (1963-82). They were preceded by Lewis Mumford at the New Yorker (1934-1960s), although his relationship to modernism was often equivocal. There had been earlier architecture critics, of course. Montgomery Schuyler wrote for the New York Times (1883-1907) and Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer’s essays appeared in Century Magazine and Garden and Forest, and both had championed individual architects such as H. H. Richardson and Frederick Law Olmsted. But the crusader-critics’ role was different: not to analyze but to persuade an often skeptical public of the virtues of modern architecture. The crusading function was adopted by their successors, but became strained as modernism became less of a cause and more of a style, in Nathan Glazer’s words. Criticism came to sound increasingly like an architectural version of People magazine. “I’ve always thought that journalistic architectural criticism was an odd bird,” I told The Architects Newspaper. “Compared to restaurant, book, or theater reviews, reviews of buildings have little immediate effect on the public. Once a building is built, it’s there, for better or worse, and we must learn to live with it.” Not that one can’t write about architecture. “Buildings last a long time, and it’s useful to reflect on their utility—what works and what doesn’t—and their meanings in our lives. Of course, this is best done in the fullness of time, decades after the building opens, when the sharp corners have been knocked off, so to speak. The result is more like cultural observation than reporting.” Or crusading.