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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)

I don't understand why Roger Ebert is being criticized for stating his opinion of art. I don't happen to agree with him, but his opinion on the matter is completely valid. This is a subjective matter, and opinions on art and architecture are subject to personal preferences. If Ebert were to be critical of "Catwoman 2" would the author protest so much?

For one thing, the building shown and many Ebert are complaining about are post-modern. Combining different materials and shapes can enliven a surface, but as matisse showed the amount of color and proportion through line is what activates it. The larger the building, the more subtle the color must be, to not overpower. And shapes dicated by the site and environment, as well as use, create diversity and should not be overplanned like the early architects tried to do, like le Corbousiers nonsense, he sucked. And we got Brasilia, yech. And tenements across the world now being torn down.

Impersonal and arrogant, yes, there was much in early modernism, but also buildings that work, that are comfortable, Look at Dubai for arrogance and self indulgence gone wild, yet few truly modern buildings there. It will be a ghost town soon enough, as the oil runs dry, a perverted adult Disneyland right now. not that Disney isnt perverted itself, listen to the terrible music they seem to have taken control of now, everything, including rap, is techno pop garbage performed by idiot frontin kids, who become the embodiment of perversion. It kills the soul, and sells their product to brainwashed kids(American Idol). There are many things to complain about than modern architecture, Ebert can join Prince philip in a past that never was.

The poll options somehow manage to both greatly oversimplify and exaggerate Ebert's actual blog entry.

Ebert was writing about his personal opinion, largely specific to Chicago and more specifically to his Chicago (personal experience, history and presumably significant life events.)

I think his point was that the classic Chicago buildings of the Sullivan era and those 'Chicogwarts' buildings still can evoke an emotional reaction (for him, a positive reaction) although the architecture is specific to a place and time.

For him, the 'timelessness' of the modern architecture of Mies and successors including recent office towers is not so appealing.

Living in Toronto, which is architecturally similar to Chicago (Mies, bank towers and Gehry minus the landmark buildings of Sullivan and gang), I can at least acknowledge see his point.

The poll could use another category for folks like me who believe that in too many cases beauty has been sacrified for the desire to be 'unique'. Like the classic twisted fork, uniqueness does not imply something good. There are many modern designs that really show beauty and innovation without relying on architectural style from ages passed. Yet there are many very ugly examples of modern work created not to exalt man's creativity, strength and character, but to exalt one tasteless person with an ego.

These poll questions are worthless and biased there is no point in answering them.

this is so superficial...
architecture has evolved from being form making (the vanity and shallowness of isims and style) to providing strategies for society...

another endless discussion about nothing...

+ modern architecture as a coherent movement is no longer applicable; erbert comments might have been applicable in 1920.

Here is a rebuttal:

"Like Tom Wolfe’s entertaining From Bauhaus to Our House , Ebert has oversimplified modern architecture to a point in architectural history that was soon refuted by its own members. Even Le Corbusier moved on from the Villa Savoye to Ronchamp, a curving, mysterious shape that is immune to description. True, the damage was already done, but the rise of industry and population demanded cheap solutions fast, which had little to do with Mies’ Crown Hall.

But even if you give Ebert his anti-Mies point, on the same IIT Campus in Chicago is an example of more promising modern architecture built recently: the McCormick-Tribune Campus Center designed by the Office of Metropolitan Architecture headed by Rem Koolhaas. This is a glass and steel building, but filled with electrifying experiential cues: orange walls, bold and funny graphic design, a strange tunnel above that wraps the L tracks, interior gardens, sculptural stairways, and above all jagged forms that come from its location in the middle of campus. It does not have stone carvings. But it does warm this heart."

From http://www.architizer.com/en_us/blog/dyn/4720/no-bauhaus-in-ebert%e2%80%99s-house/#more-4720

Remember when he just spoke of movies? The guy fancies himself a video game theologist, too. Stick to what you know, or at least don't be so oversimplifying and condescending about the things you don't.

modern architecture is garbage produced by self-satisfied idiots at the behest of exploitative developers who are bribing american cities to scoop out their own guts. ebert is completely right about this and much more, too. buildings as cheap and ugly as these exist only to one day be penetrated by enemy artillery. tear 'em down!

1. Everyone is entitled to expressing their opinions, whether it's their area of expertise or not.

2. @ Michelle, why can't someone appreciate artwork and architecture related to a specific religion even if they don't agree with said religion? My mom doesn't like the hypocrisy of the Church, either, but she still enjoys the music. Should the sound of an organ or church choir turn her off just because of the actions of some priests?

3. @ Pebble, if you mean Ebert you just gave a great example of why it's not wise to make assumptions about someone's political persuasion based on things that aren't even related to politics. He's actually liberal, not conservative. He has said so himself.

Oddly enough, I seem to be leading in the poll.


"Midwest conservative"

Ebert is as conservative as Glenn Beck is liberal.

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