Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Palm Springs, Modern Architecture, and Herb Greene

Left to right: Moderator with Alan Hess, Lila Cohen, Craig Lee.

Modernism Week, celebrated annually in Palm Springs, is a melange of housing tours, cocktail parties, and lectures. It is one of the biggest tourism opportunities for Palm Springs and a chance to disseminate its unique modern image to the world. For aficionados of Modern architecture, the 2023 offerings did not disappoint. During the event I served as part-time docent at Desert Lanai, a Charles Dubois-designed condo project from 1965.  Andy Farr and five other Desert Lanai residents opened their homes to an international audience seeking a glimpse of mid-century modern architecture not normally available to the public. (Pictures below.) For me, the highlights of the week were the many lectures covering minutiae of modernism with a high level of academic discipline. Topics like “Googie” architecture were treated with depth and respect not usually associated with the subject. Another panel explained in detail the restoration of architect Paul Williams’s home in Los Angeles. And my personal favorite was a panel discussion on Herb Greene, who studied architecture under Bruce Goff at the University of Oklahoma (my alma mater) in the 1950s. 

The Herb Greene panel was important because it broadened the discussion of Modernism in significant ways. It is easy to reduce Mid Century Modern (MCM) architecture and lifestyles to a bundle of cliches: flat roofs, breeze block, martini bars, starburst wall clocks, and Mad Men color schemes. These are cliches worth loving—don’t get me wrong—but there is much more to Modern architecture. An examination of Herb Greene’s work lifts Modernism out of a stylistic rut. In fact, I believe we should stop thinking about Modernism as a style; it is more correctly understood as a philosophy. The pioneers of Modern architecture believed they were creating a new way of living with open floor plans, connections to nature, and optimism for the future. They prized innovation, creativity, and experimentation. Unlike most styles, where you can choose from a pattern book of approved architectural elements to create an acceptable simulacrum of Colonial or Gothic architecture, Modernism demands that we look at deeper connections between client, site, and materials. 

Herb Greene's Prairie House, Norman, OK. (1960)

Prairie House detail.
Herb Greene pictured with Lila Cohen.

The centerpiece of the Herb Greene panel was a film (a work in progress) by Greene’s niece, Lila Cohen, Remembering the Future with Herb Greene. Architect and nascent filmmaker Cohen presents Greene and his work as an ongoing exploration of the meaning of shelter. Greene started that exploration as a young man by traveling to Oklahoma to meet Bruce Goff. He came out of that meeting saying, “I have met my first genius.” I can personally attest to the genuineness of that sentiment, because that was exactly what I said after my first meeting with Goff some years later. 

Bruce Goff with unidentified student at Greene's Prairie House. 

Greene studied under the genius of Goff and went on to create a body of work uniquely his own. Greene’s work can be startling when first encountered. It uses materials in unexpected ways. Interiors can be transparent or cavelike, depending on the desired mood. His architecture is blithely non-orthogonal, demanding critical thinking by the user to be understood, but it rewards the effort with a new sense of what architecture could be. In addressing what could be, it looks to the future. 
Herb Greene's Cunningham residence. (1962)
Lila Cohen’s advisors for the film project include historian Alan Hess, author of over twenty books on architecture, and Craig Lee, curator of the Goff archives at the Art Institute in Chicago. Both gentlemen were on the panel and provided context on Greene’s rightful position in the panoply of modern architects. Hess linked Greene to an American architectural lineage that goes back to the nineteenth century: Sullivan, Wright, Goff, and the mid century generation that includes Lautner, Neutra, Dubois, and Greene. Lee emphasized the importance of the Goff connection. The built works of Goff and Greene do not look anything alike. But in their shared opposition to the conventional architecture of the time, it is obvious that Greene fully absorbed Goff’s assertion that “there should be as many styles of architecture as there are clients.” It would be difficult to find any definition of individualism more fine-grained than that. 
There is an MCM revival going on right now. It seems to be a national phenomenon in residential architecture. And, in commercial architecture, Modernism never went away. This is an ideal time to reassess what we mean by Modernism. Herb Greene and his work point toward an alternative to the pattern book approach. Modern architecture, thought of as a philosophy rather than a style, is an ongoing revolution that invites continuing examination. Lila Cohen’s documentary film is part of that examination. 
Andy Farr residence at Desert Lanai. 

Charles DuBois's Desert Lanai. (1965)

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Las Vegas "Mediterranean Estate"

There is a video on YouTube of one of my Las Vegas projects. Apparently, the video has been posted for quite a while; an associate recently brought it to my attention. Described as a Mediterranean estate, the home is built around a courtyard which includes a swimming pool, bridge, waterfall, and towering palms. Other features are a putting green, wine cellar, and indoor basketball court. The sprawling residence is located on a large, wedge-shaped piece of land with the entry gate on the narrow end of the wedge. From the street, there are few hints that this property fans open to allow so many luxury features. Follow this link to see the video. 

Entry gate.
Main stairway.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022


Launched this month is my new YouTube channel, Architecture Minute. Like this blog, the channel explores all facets of architecture, including architectural history, philosophy, and new ideas. Iconic buildings and important architects are also part of the mix. The great thing about a video format is, of course, the expanded ability to present the visual aspect of architectural appreciation. 

There are many vlogs about architecture, including some with similar titles. (There are only so many pithy words you can combine with architecture!) It would be a great help to my efforts if, once you find my videos, you LIKE (the thumb-up icon) and SUBSCRIBE to the channel. If you're like me, it's kind of an annoyance to be asked to commit to yet another electronic "like". But that is the only way my YouTube channel will be searchable through the inscrutable algorithems of Google and YouTube. Please LIKE and SUBSCRIBE. It costs nothing. Sincere thanks!

The first season of Architecture Minute is ten episodes. In truth, with introductions and end titles, each episode is more like two minutes, but "architecture two minutes" is not very catchy. Forgive my temporal license. Architectural concepts explored in the first season are rhythm, focal points, and articulation. Also discussed are three architects responsible for inventing Mid Century Modern architecture: Mies van der Rohe, Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Each episode is a simple lesson in architecture. It is my hope that everyone who has an interest in architecture will find something of value. In particular, young people starting out in architecture, or simply curious about it, will find this a great introduction to what architecture is or could be. 

Naturally, I invite your comments and suggestions. And please remember to LIKE and SUBSCRIBE!

Saturday, April 2, 2022

War, Race, and Onion Dome Architecture

St. Michaels Ukrainian Orthodox Monastery, Kyiv, Ukraine.

I cry everyday for Ukraine. Dead bodies on live TV, ninety-year-old babushkas stumbling toward safety, crying children, bombed buildings, starvation. All the horrors that Vladimir Putin has unleashed are broadcast every day. Like most Americans, my impressions of Ukraine before the war -- on the rare occasions we might have thought about Ukraine at all -- were fleeting thoughts of onion domes and a buttery chicken dish from Kyiv. Sort of a little Russia, by history and similar language. Now, despite the onion domes and an alphabet with funny-looking letters, we know Ukraine is less like Russia and more like any familiar Western European country. 

Beyond the onion domes is the real, twenty-first century Ukraine. Because of war, we have received a crash course on the country. On TV we see what had been vibrant and historical cities much like those we might visit on holiday throughout Western Europe. In normal times Ukrainians enjoy their cafes and coffee shops. They have their own language, their own heritage, and their own aspirations quite apart from those of Russia. Ukraine was a ping pong ball of European history, hit with invasions from every side since medieval times. Ukraine was actually controlled by Russia (or the Soviet Union) for relatively short periods, but under duress. In reality, Ukraine is more like us. We share with Ukraine a Western European system of justice which emphasizes individual human rights. We share a Greco-Roman approach to civic life rooted in democracy. They, like us, have an innovative and highly successful cyber industry. Their rich croplands look like Iowa or Minnesota. Ukrainians cast their gaze westward, not backward to the east or the Russian empire that Putin dreams of. Those are objective facts. The subjective facts are even more important. We have learned that we share the same values. President Volodymyr Zelensky started as an actor and was presented with a role to play he never could have imagined. In accepting that role, he has led and inspired Ukrainians to stand firmly in defense of their land and their democratic values. Doing so, he and all Ukrainians have reminded us of what our values actually are. When offered an exit out of Kyiv, Zelensky said, "I don't need a ride; I need more ammunition." With those words he ignited a fierce, value-based defense that may actually win this David-Goliath war. Zelensky's words and actions are echos of our own long-held values. Give me liberty or give me death was spoken by Patrick Henry at the American revolution. They could easily be Zelensky's words.  Don't tread on me was a phrase on an American warship flag in 1775; it could be Ukraine's battle cry. Live free or die is the state motto of New Hampshire. It is a phrase Ukrainians would viscerally understand. One nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all is asserted in our Pledge of Allegiance. It is asserted now by all Ukrainians. 

The western world has responded to these events with massive sanctions aimed at Russia's economy, aid to Ukraine's military, and refuge for millions (millions!) of fleeing Ukrainians. In the United States, sheltering refugees is a controversial subject. Trump, with the help of his minion Steve Miller, devised immigration laws that were unwelcoming to refugees who are black, brown, or Muslim, no matter how dire their situations. Some Ukrainian refugees, fleeing from equally desperate conditions, are now prevented from entering the U.S. by these same laws. Meanwhile, Americans, who want to welcome these mostly white, Christian freedom lovers, find themselves ensnared by our own prejudicial policies and are trying to figure out how to justify past opinions in the wake of new conditions. I wonder, though, how much of our reluctant concern for the plight of people from Guatemala is the reversed mirrored image of empathetic concern for the situation of Ukrainians. Ukrainians are like us -- but not solely as a matter of race. We see our values reflected in Ukrainians. I confess that my visceral response to the war in Ukraine is stronger than I can remember for Afghanistan, Guatemala, Nicaragua, or Yemen. Is that a sign of ethnic prejudice? Certainly a possibility, but we are also observing a war in Ukraine that looks like many World World War II movies we've seen on TV. We are very familiar with movies about the bloody battles fought in France and the air raids in London, with masses huddled in subways used as bomb shelters. And Putin's theft of the Crimea and eastern Ukraine is exactly like Hitler's uninvited annexation of Czechoslovakia that ignited the Second World War. This is a familiar war we can relate to, fought over issues we understand. My dad fought in World War II and we know what it was about. Putin has put in with the ranks of evil villains like Hitler. Between his raw, unprovoked aggression and the noble response of the Ukrainians, it is obvious which side we must be on. And it is obvious that we must help Ukrainian refugees, just like we would not have hesitated to help the desperate refugees filtering through Rick's Cafe in Casablanca. I think we feel this dire situation more than others for reasons like that. Because we have seen this all before. 

Look again at Volodymyr Zelensky. At 5'-6" he stands taller than most men. He displays no fear in walkabouts through the streets of Kyiv. He demands, not begs, from Western leaders the help required to defend shared values. He is as tough as the soldiers he commands. He acts like a super hero. Don't we all want to honor super heroes or, in our Walter Mitty fantasies, believe we ourselves would act like super heroes given similar circumstances? Wouldn't we all hope to be as courageous as Zelensky and the Ukrainians? Critics see racial discrimination in our response to Ukrainians versus other afflicted countries. I have no doubt that is a part of it. Most (but definitely not all) Ukrainians are white Christians. Is that why people seem more enthusiastic about welcoming them? Maybe. For some. But there is another explanation. Ukrainians are like us. Not because they're white, but because they hold the same values. Also, has there ever been a war with such clear distinctions between what we value as good and what we abhor as evil? Again, it is obvious which side we must be on. 

As a boy, I used to think the inscription for the Statue of Liberty was a policy of the United States. Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.... But this is not U.S. policy, it is just an inscription. Maybe, in the end, Zelensky's super power will be reminding us to do a deep read of that inscription and look at how we treat all refugees and immigrants. That may be wishful thinking. But I would like to believe in the possibility that we are capable of welcoming equally all huddled masses that yearn to breathe free -- even when the reasons are not as sharply drawn as they are here. How many times do we need to be reminded that there is only one Human Race and that all sub-divisions are artificial constructs? The tears shed on this war are partly a reaction to Putin's psychopathic cruelty and partly for frustration over the stupidity of the politics behind the war. Trump's playing politics by withholding aid to Ukraine during the 2020 campaign is the most obvious example of the intersection of Ukraine and American politics. The next close example is our immigration and refugee policies. Maybe, now, we can see that this must change. Maybe in Ukraine there is a seed of hope for that kind of future. 

One added thought: 

Trump trumpeted that there was no war between Russia and Ukraine while he was in power because he is such a genius peacekeeper. Are you kidding me? The war didn't start during Trump's reign because Putin got everything he wanted from him: withholding military funding from Ukraine, taking Putin's word that he didn't interfere with the U.S. election, countenancing the poisoning and imprisonment of Russian dissidents. Trump acquiesced to these Putin escapades and much more. Genius! Trump trumpets his prowess as a strong leader. Look at Trump and then look at Zelensky and tell me which is the more capable, brave, and strong. 
St. Sophias Cathedral, Kyiv, Ukraine.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Architectural Symbolism and the Sacking of the Capitol

In the past I have criticized the architectural merits of the United States Capitol. In playing architectural critic, I cited the bloated nature of the building: numerous additions have resulted in muddy (at best) proportions and a structure that no architect in his right mind would have created from scratch. But I also acknowledge that it is impossible to offer a fair critique of the Capitol architecture because the symbolism of the building overwhelms objective architectural criticism. The Capitol has long symbolized freedom, democracy, homeland, patriotism, truth, justice, and the American way. Architectural values have little relevance next to the abstract power of the Capitol of the United States of America as an icon. Whether on network news or the letterhead of a congress member, the mere outline of the Capitol Dome instantly communicates the high value people have attached to it -- all architectural criticism aside.  

This symbolic nature of the Capitol is only more clear after the 6th of January day of infamy. The sacking of the United States Capitol carries more weight than any run-of-the-mill riot or building defacement. It was an attack on every value that our democracy is. That is why, in the aftermath of the insurrection, shocked politicians and citizens expressed their dismay about the attack using words usually reserved for religious feelings. It was an assault on the "hallowed halls" of democracy. The building is described as "a sacred space" or "a revered sanctuary" or "a shrine of democracy."  None of this, of course, has anything to do with the physical architecture of the place. It has everything to do with the architectural symbolism of the building. 

During the Civil War, President Lincoln was urged by Congress to stop construction work on the new United States Capitol building. War funds were depleting the treasury and many saw the construction project as unnecessary spending in dire times. Lincoln saw things differently. He knew that the American people needed the symbolism of a completed Capitol. Construction continued. Lincoln, of course, was right. He knew what leaders have always known: people need a tangible representation of their most valued beliefs. The Catholic Church understood this in its ascendancy and used mammoth cathedrals to attract and impress the masses. Queen Victoria understood this when she moved her seat of power to Buckingham Palace where it would be visible to all Londoners. The pharaohs certainly understood this when ordering monuments big enough to ensure their influence even after death. Architecture can be a lasting and powerful tool around which to organize ideas and inspire devotion or -- at least -- respect. 

From TV reporting and a flood of video images, the average American now has more architectural understanding of the Capitol than ever before. We have seen how Officer Eugene Goodman, with his knowledge of the Capitol floor plan, deliberately led marauders away from the Senate chamber. Away from Vice President Pence as the mob frothed with "hang Mike Pence, hang Mike Pence..."  We have seen numerous replays of angry white males bursting into the senate chamber, invading private offices, and smashing doors and windows with abandon. All within the gravitas of marble halls, colonnades, and classical details that we recognize as our United States Capitol. 

Is there some other form of architecture that could carry the weight of all this symbolism other than the Classical Revival building that has been bequeathed to us by history? Of course. Had the Capitol been designed in the twentieth century with modernist materials and details we would probably be in thrall by whatever that building looked and felt like. Or, perhaps, some Art Nouveau confection would be our inheritance. Or maybe a late-Gothic, spire-encrusted building like the British Parliament. Whatever it might have been, if it housed our government it would eventually grow into a symbol of our government and a symbol of who we are as a people. A symbol beyond the reach of architectural criticism. But our founding fathers and subsequent leaders decided that the proper receptacle for a democratic government was Greco-Roman architecture because the Greeks invented democracy. So there we have it. That architecture has been established, repeated, and embellished over the years. As a powerful and rich nation we have had the resources to build and maintain the Capitol architecture in top-notch form. What we see today on TV is a legacy from the past that is alive today.

 All buildings have a spirit in some sense. We have warm feelings about home, religious devotion in church, feelings of excitement in an arena. Under the best circumstances, architecture supports and encourages such feelings. That is the purpose of architecture, as opposed to merely encasing these functions in an ordinary building. For any architect fortunate enough to author a major public building, one hopes they are up to the honor. The symbolism they establish with architecture can be long lasting and very serious. And perhaps it would be good to remember that any outrage we may feel about the January 6th sacking of the Capitol, any fondness we may have about the lavish architectural details, and any heartbreak we have about the desecration of that building is not about the physical construct at all. Our outrage is about the defilement of the ideas which that building symbolizes after centuries of standing unmarred by internal political strife. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Trump Thinks He Knows Architecture and Design

Architect Greg Walke sent us this meme circulating on the web.  'Nuff said.