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POLL: Is Roger Ebert correct to dismiss modern architecture as 'totalitarian'?

July 13, 2010 |  9:54 am


Roger Ebert is giving a big thumbs-down to modern architecture.

The Chicago Sun-Times film critic uses his blog to sound off on a variety of hot-button topics, from the Catholic Church to Wall Street greed. On Tuesday, Ebert posted a blog entry in which he expresses his personal aversion toward modern architecture and what he calls the children of Mies van der Rohe.

"Much modern architecture has grown tiresome to me. It does not gladden the heart. It doesn't seem to spring from humans," Ebert wrote. "It seems drawn from mathematical axioms rather than those learned for centuries from the earth, the organic origins of building materials, the reach of hands and arms, and that which is pleasing to the eye. It is not harmonious. It holds the same note indefinitely."

Ebert singles out van der Rohe and his generation of master builders for creating "an architecture that is totalitarian in its severe economy." A proponent of the "less-is-more" aesthetic, van der Rohe created buildings that were noted for their rectilinear minimalism and deliberate lack of ornament.

Acknowledging his own "reactionary" tastes in architecture, Ebert waxes nostalgic for the Gothic structures of the University of Chicago, whose campus is sometimes referred to as "the University of Chicagwarts," after its resemblance to the Hogwarts School of the Harry Potter series.

Certainly everyone is entitled to his or her own tastes, but does Ebert's architectural screed represent the prevailing popular sentiment, or has the outspoken critic descended into old-fogey bellyaching?

Tell us what you think by taking our poll. And if you don't see an answer that you like, feel free to leave a response in the comments section.

-- David Ng

Photo: The Caltrans building in downtown L.A., designed by Thom Mayne's Morphosis Architects. Credit: Morphosis Architects

Comments () | Archives (32)

Ebert's distaste for "Modern" architecture is just about as relevant as if he were to express a distaste for Lady Gaga. Certainly everyone is entitled to their opinions, and I have a lot of respect for Ebert as a film critic, but maybe he should stick to film, rather than making incendiary comments about the history and development of a profession he clearly doesn't understand. Ebert's blog post touches on some important issues, but most importantly points out the fact that Americans are woefully uneducated in design (a profession and concept that impacts their daily lives in countless ways). Ebert claims that a Mies building will never look old. But to a trained eye, a Mies building is a clear depiction of a specific period in time.

This will make Donald happy.

What does the layperson need to understand? Does the place you live and work make you feel good or bad or nothing at all? The answers to these questions are the only questions that matter to laypersons. Now if you're an architect or architecture snob, there are more things to consider: materials, methods, and social standing. To name a few.

Of course, one is entitled to one's opinion, but one doesn't need someone else to tell them that he has the right to express his own views. But then this goes right to the heart of Ebert's argument: The attitudes of the men who build buildings is reflected subtly in their creations. Likewise, those attitudes are reflected in the things that an architect's adherents will say and write.

I'm having trouble understanding why modern architecture is any more "totalitarian" than gothic architecture. If Mr. Ebert were to do some research, he would see that, in its own day, gothic architecture alienated people and pushed social, aesthetic, and structural boundaries in the same way as modern architecture does today.

Mr. Ebert writes that modern architecture "seems drawn from mathematical axioms rather than those learned for centuries from the earth," but he fails to acknowledge the fact that progress, whether "mathematical" or aesthetic, is in fact founded on the techniques and philosophies drawn from the past.

Mr. Ebert does nothing here but prove his ignorance.

He's right in the sense that what was once architecturally revolutionary in the 1920s is now the most tepid orthodoxy. The minimalist school of 'severe economy' - as Ebert puts it - offers nothing artistically; sooner or later an ugly concrete block is nothing more than an ugly concrete block.

Midwest conservative

Interesting that Ebert hates the hypocrisy of the Church but apparently loves the architecture.

What would the alternative be? Everything that is fresh and interesting gets staale as the mediocre followers latch on top the new big thing. What else would office building be? nowq, teh ugly our lady of Angels is a travesty, cold, impersonal, and no god in sight, THAT is a travesty. No place to paint, no color, worse than LACMA, which can be painted and made interesting, the Palqace at Knossos was painted ya know, most ancient building were. (see my blog)

i like the Seagrams building, i find FL Wrights badly proportioned and falling apart from bad materieals, and bad lighting. Architecture got pretty good in the late 70s and 80s with new and better materials, then went overboard with the starchitects trying to outdo one another all the time, so much so that they forgot the site and place they were building in. The shiny aluminum panels saved the designs for Bilbao and Disney, his stuff look tacky and falling apart with his previous exteriors.

Office buildings are rather impersonal, i dont work in one, but one of those old airport hangers monstrosities, the predecessors to MAN guys favorite industrial park photograph building. Hey, its a job. Places where we congregate to commune as a people and our homes need to be festive and relaxing, office buildings are for doing, not being lazy and whining. The Dept Of Transportation iS a monstrosity, what lse would the building be like? Hogwarts? Showing off and being cut and clever is far worst than getting down to essentials. And does not age well at all, a waste of money and dreary.

I think the old fogey is right - mostly. The more celebrated the piece of modern architecture, the more I can imagine the bulldozers rolling over it 50 years hence. Thank you Roger Ebert for the courage to say "the emperor has rectilinear minimalism in his mathematical axiom."

The question is not just architectural school specific, but also city specific. Los Angeles and architectural modernism just go together. London? Not so much. It is interesting how much a single movie, "Blade Runner," and a single city, Los Angeles, were so influential to one another. After "Blade Runner" we have seen the Library Tower rise to the skies above Downtown...it is almost a replica of the Police 995 headquarters building. The new LAPD Headquarters, and the Caltrans District 7 building illustrating the article...they would be happily at home in the "Blade Runner" cityscape. Los Angeles has been the beating heart of architectural modernity for almost all its existence. Every time the mode of architecture has shifted, the shift has been made visible here.

Have you ever been to a building by Santiago Calatrava? Maybe you should have a look at one some time. How about Bart Prince? Ever heard of him? Paolo Soleri?

I thought Mies van der Rohe was pretty good, particularly his gorgeous (and comfortable) Barcelona chair. But hasn't he been dead for something like 40 years? If you want to complain about totalitarian architecture, I would suggest you denounce Philip Johnson, who actually deserved it.

Frank Lloyd Wright said, "The only thing that is real or beneficent is change."

Anthony Quinn once wrote to Wright and asked if he should go into architecture or films. Wright looked at his drawings and wrote him back, suggesting that he stick with films. Maybe you should, too.

Is that a picture of the Ministry of Truth in "1984"?

I've been on a lot of college tours, and most of the good buildings, the ones that "gladden the heart," were started either before the stock market crash of 1929, or after some point in the 1990s when college administrators finally wised up and ordered architects to, in effect, "Make the new buildings just like the 1920s ones, only with bigger windows. That's what alumni donors want."

Often the ugliest building on campus is the Architecture & Art building, like at Claremont U., where the artists got stuck with a concrete monstrosity that looks like they dug up Hitler's Bunker and shipped it to Southern California to be reassembled above-ground.

Claremont is a good university, but it was mostly built during the dark ages of architecture after WWII, so it ranges from awful (the Bunker) to motel-like (much of Harvey Mudd). There are some nice Spanish style buildings from the 1920s, but most of it is modernist and forgettable. The landscaping is pleasant, though.

In contrast, Chapman U. has a quad of decent buildings from the 1920s (that used to be Orange High School), and then it was flat broke until they hired their dynamo of a college president in 1991. So most of it was built in the 1990s and 2000s, which is why Chapman has a much better-looking physical plant than Claremont despite Claremont being more famous.

I got my MBA at UCLA in what I believe is now the lowly Education Department's building near Hilgard, a modernist hulk that looked like a 1960s junior high school. The grounds crew did a pretty good job of hiding it as much as possible behind trees and shrubbery. But when the economy got going in the late 1980s, the Anderson Graduate School of Management got some huge donations and built a much nicer looking set of digs for itself and let the Ed Schoolers have the modernist building.

The thing to keep in mind is that modernism was cheap or at least cheap looking. The U. of Chicago's gothic architecture is fantastic looking, but it was built with John D. Rockefeller's money, and he had a tons of money. An awful lot of the good college architecture in America, like Duke and Yale, was built with Robber Baron money, back when wealth was highly unequal in America.

In the middle of the 20th Century, when the top tax rate was 91%, few could afford the good stuff, so they built crummy modernist stuff and invented elaborate fairy tales about why this junk was actually better, if you knew all the theories, than the grand, beautiful buildings erected before the Depression.

Now, wealth is very unequal again, so we are getting very nice college buildings again.

POLL: Is Culture Monster correct to slant this poll question so totally?

If the accompanying picture of that atrocious building doesn't speak volumes, then what's a paragraph for?

So Roger Ebert, a blogger, can only speak out on film, but LA Times reporters are entitled to use their platform to speak out on any topic they like?

Roger Ebert is a national treasure. He has adapted to new technology with grace and humor. He absorbs an enormous amount of information and yes, speaks his mind on many different topics. Is that not what we celebrate in America?

p.s. Your "survey" is written in language that is ridiculously biased.

The problem of architecture is not the "bloated budgets"--rather, the problem is the extreme cheapness of modern architecture. Buildings like those Ebert admires could not be realized today, because they would be much, much more expensive than your typical modernist buildings. The spare modernist aesthetic is simply the cheapest way to make a building look halfway decent using modern materials.

To make buildings like those Ebert reveres, we would either need to convince those who finance them to shell out triple the cost (which would be great!) or drastically reduce the relative price of labor to what it was in the 19th century and earlier.

It's an odd word to use in this context, "totalitarian," but perhaps not inappropriate or incorrect. The buildings he denounces in his blog are certainly imposed upon a citizenry powerless to oppose them. They are imposed by ego-centric architects who are so obsessed with expressing themselves and indulging their own creative vision that they ignore every other concern. The buildings are challenging only in that they defy anyone to like them. They can at best be... appreciated.

Those poll questions are just really, really bad.

If the poll question is, "Is Roger Ebert correct to dismiss modern architecture as 'totalitarian'?" then the options should be:
a) Yes
b) No
c) I don't care

but you couldn't resist the urge to editorialize as much as possible.

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