Patricia Marx interviews Wolf von Eckardt, architecture critic for the Washington Post and author of the recently released book, "A Place to Live: The Crisis of the Cities." In the interview, von Eckardt expresses the desire to see technology be used more in modern architecture while also retaining the feeling of connecting to the past. Although he feels as though modern architecture has failed, he is optimistic regarding the future of city planning.
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Title: Patricia Marx Interviews: Wolf Von Eckardt
Last Updated: 2016-06-16 7:17PM
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Patricia Marx interviews each week at this time your city station brings you an interview with a leading
figure in the arts politics or the sciences and here now to introduce today's
program is Patricia
marks in the next generation Americans will bill as much that we have in our
entire history the equivalent of a whole new Chicago each year and by the
end of the century eighty percent of our people will be living and dying in the
cities. And alighted to have as my guest today in the
battle crusader for better cities the distinguished architecture critic for The
Washington Post was fun
Eckart Mr Bonaparte has just written a provocative book about modern architecture
and city planning in title a place to live the crisis of the city's.
This is on a cart. Throughout your book you use the phrase a sense of place.
What do you mean by that it's not entirely easy to
this market. Perhaps you could substitute
this phrase in a way by saying this is a place where I feel at
home and I think you and I very often get this feeling
of feeling at home even in places that we've never seen before it's it's
it's a sort of a visual
experience of going somewhere and feeling here. I fit in I belong.
I can't. I am somebody. This could be a very all over
all mine our.
Place is really such as the square Bernini's columns in front of
St Peter's which is certainly not Causey's in the sense that you know you feel causally
that that's where you're live but yet you feel.
If you're so inclined it's not the same thing for everybody that
that. You know here is something that this is an expression of a
civilization an expression of an ambition and expression of the spirit that I share that
means something to me. Or it could be just
a very innocuous little pop or small apartment of a friend that
you come in and you feel you know it's this is this where thing in other
is the kind of of environment that has
a personal relationship to the individual to where
you feel you belong. You know and there are lots
of environments where you feel you do not belong which are non-image which are driving you to being
very hectic or you don't feel you're being way about them but if you
lost. The criterion. You used to judge whether Abilene is
good architecture whether a city's well planned. I think
it is I think does it have meaning to people not does it have meaning in
terms of its profits that it makes you know as
successful not does it have meaning purely in terms of efficiency in other words is the air
conditioning working writers that warm or hot or something is does it have meaning that have appeal
to the individual to to our souls who are
spirit. There are cities that be feel attracted
to the cities of if you were repelled by.
And I think this is a quality that can be that. That in
the past as it has grown. It's it's you
know cumulated over the ages but I think it's a kind of quality that can also be created. You know we're
a bit. Too many city planners today the words
beautification good design are almost dirty words and they feel
that with the pressing and urgent needs for a decent housing for
more schools that concern for statics is really a luxury that can't be that we
can't afford. Can we afford to do wary about a sense of place.
I think we can we cannot afford not to forward
because this is the essence the
essence is not just merely to provide shelter after all we have to. Even for our
poorest niggers in Harlem we have some manner of shelter.
This is not the point it's very poor shelter in there lots of rats there but the point
that alienates him from our society and that makes him very mad and drives him to the
point of riots is a sense of alienation and frustration and so forth this because even the
best quote decent safe and sanitary housing does not have
this sense of place is this give them a feeling feeling of
belonging it's not just a matter of of pure efficiency.
Again I think it's just her bank to say that good design is
unimportant just as Lancy design
anything. I think it's utter bunk to say the beautification is nonsense
that ask any woman about beautification she knows who she puts on the lipstick and makes her feel
better and therefore she's more attractive to the men at the Something to
cosmetics. Let's not not the little Sure. Cosmetics isn't going to help
anybody with a bad
disease. You know cosmetics doesn't cure cancer but cosmetics is
a limited means to instill self confidence
and and emphasize A good points in a woman's face and so forth so why can't we why shouldn't
we emphasize a good point in the city by planting more trees and so forth but that's not the main point.
The main point is that that. Because we are so
frustrated in our our efforts to bring order and
decency social decency and social justice included into our environment
we say these things don't count anymore. Anymore let's have pop let's have jazz that's have you know.
This isn't what matters it doesn't matter. Think the very old
fashioned if you want to call it that virtues of having order
and decency and human appeal in the place in which we live are
her the real important
things you say in your book a place to live that modern architecture has failed.
You see it's lost its direction. What direction do you think it should take.
The direction of social awareness. The the direction that or
the recognition that sculpture is sculpture and
art is art and architecture is an even greater and more important art because it is a social
art because we have to do something for people.
And this doing something for people is not limited merely again to the efficiency of having
the right kind of air conditioning and the right kind
of of a proper work functioning
and the mitten necessary number of of elevators
and functional appeal but it is it's this
human element of
of giving people a sense that it's worthwhile living on this earth.
That's what architecture does it's
shelter as you remember having read the book start out way back
you know with caveman when he crawled into the cave there was this
instinctual feeling that he had to take possession of this cave by scribbling things on
the wall by giving it part of his identity and then the cave gives its identity back
to him because it's his cave now he is cave man he's not just another creature he has given man. Why
because this cave has an identity due to the murals that he painted on the
walls. Now we lost this sense of identity in our place to
live because we're not giving it and sufficient the of ourselves and
therefore the place be it an apartment or being at home or be
a a neighborhood or be a whole city doesn't give anything back to
us you travel around. In this country and as I do
and you wake up in the morning the otel you take Sean you go downstairs
and you forget where you are.
You don't know why very often literally don't quite know.
Looking down the main street out of my hotel or mine Cleveland and Buffalo are where they all look alike.
It's no identity there's no sense of belonging. This wouldn't happen to you in. Then assign roam
around and shop. You know which still
hasn't this been a car that like to explore the reasons you give for the failure of modern
architecture and the first reason you state is that its failure to
technology when when you look at things like But SR Fuller's geodesic domes in
the skyscrapers the steel and glass and. Some of the shell
structures sound in buildings it looks as if technology is being used. What more do you think could be
technology or whole or more it's been done we haven't tapped acknowledge to yet. I mean
that's what you just said. Buckminster Fuller has has
created these wonderful bubble domes and they have absolutely no relation to our daily
existence except to make nice exhibit pavilions but he's a great friend of mine but this
is just no rebel relevance to our place to live so OK And then we
have the glass skyscrapers and look technological as all get
out but they really aren't they a log cabin instead of logs you use glass it's all a
there's there's no application if you look at at.
What we've been able to do in so many many other fields of mass production
television sets and automobiles and so forth which is gotten as you know no ways
of getting about for ever Loring price you know the cost of living goes
up but the forget that our telephone bill is really coming down all the time. This is
what automation and technology is able to do for us but they're not doing it
in architecture the price of houses is constantly going
up and we are building in these antiquated old methods watch
them even build a skyscraper. And you know here this lot men putting
up a post and then they put a beam across and it's the
same with a built in Egypt. So we haven't
tapped mass production techniques automation and so forth to do this
thing fast at the scale that you need to do
it but if you argue for greater individuality in a sense of identity a sense of place. How
can you at the same time argue for greater mass production and less
individuality very good question and a very important question. But I've been
tainted that you can produce the building component the
model in such a way that you can do all sorts of applications for
I mean look at give you a practical example I think the right step in that direction is habitat at the
Montreal fair which most of us the scene here fifteen different kinds of
houses essentially these houses in the skies have been created out of the same model
a box of this is is pulled out of the shed by mass production method
good design that's can take components standardized doors
standardized this and the other thing and put it together in a way that suits people and and and
does cater to their individuality. So we have to make the
difference between cookie stand. You know. Cookie method what do you call this
thing and stamp out little houses all look a lot like
houses which doesn't work as we know makes it all terribly monotonous and
getting down to basic techniques of building with which we could do
a hell of a lot more than what we're doing now with old fashion
that you see prefabrication as a means of bringing
about better housing and also better
design not prefabrication of total houses prefabrication of building
components today. If it's even in these very
advanced technological looking glass
boxes you still have to fit each individual door in the in the catalog
that architects work with which is called Suite catalogs there are about four hundred and seventy five
different sizes and things doors this could be reduced to thirty and you could order them from the factory.
You know and do it much cheaper. Cheaper that way and still have a lot of
individuality depending on the placement depending on how you paint them so forth you know that's keeping this
from being done.
What's keeping it from being done. Is is that in contrast to most other industries
which have sort of consolidated into large corporations the building industry and
the corresponding building trade unions until still terribly
fragmented most of the building that's been done in this country is done by a
little small time builders who build three or four houses a year and therefore don't
have the resources to go into into research and development. They
the you know the means and the wherewithal for or
for rationalizing and industrializing building techniques and until we
get big business into the building and housing game. They're not going
to get any worse.
The second major reason you give for the Set your mind architecture is to say you to provide historic
um nudie I wonder if you could explain what you would see importance of that is what you
mean by that.
Well it's its familiarity I think again to to.
What we greatly admired about his double bubble gum Swinson Buckminster Fuller's
those Republicans who are greatly admire some way out pop art when we go to the museum and
we wouldn't want to have in our room or in our home. You know what we want to have in our home is
something that is is as familiar we like to have the feeling that we are part of the human race but
that acknowledge in our furniture in our in the paintings we hang on
the wall and the things that you surround ourselves with we are not
just the first man on earth but that we are the sons and daughters of our parents in the in terms
of the sons and daughters of their parents and that there is this human continuity.
You know that didn't. Didn't all happen that once was arson the whole burden of history has
our is on our shoulders that way and this sense of
of continuity of being part of the mainstream of
natural life and human
life is broken by the ambition of architects to be.
Gentle every time they design something for us. They want to do something the criterion today of whether
it's good or bad is not really is it good or bad is it original is it new is it something totally brand
new and this is what these people are obsessed with and this is what alienates us because we don't want to
be original all the time we want to be our good sweet old
selves. You say finally that the these two faults of
combined to create a third which is the savior of modern architecture and design to gain
popular acceptance. Now I want them most twentieth century art
is not as popular as
the classical and traditional art twelve tone
music abstract painting modern dance.
Theater of the absurd is never gained as much popular acceptance as
the old favorite traditional Masters now is this lack of thought to acceptance.
The architect's fault or the people's fault.
No I don't think it's a people fault. I think I'm going on the assumption that the people
are pretty nice and and full of of good will and I think when
you say that modern art has not been mixing the other aspects of modern art have not eggs
been accepted you singled out the more
experimental aspects of modern art twelve
music. I would say that Gershwin is radically modern in terms of
paid whole phenomenon don't know much about music and I don't want to fall into any kind of trap but Gershwin has
been tremendously popular. I think Kurt Weill has been tremendously popular. It's that kind
of experimentation that is still
strange to us which is different you cannot say that modern
art in its popular application
has been the kind of feeling that I think architecture it has. When you look at the
of the Montreal Expos in comparison to the to the
New York World's Fair because in all its visual appeals and the design in the kind
of lettering they had.
On the expo was extremely modern in the sense that
any and the very
advanced designer would acknowledge as a good piece of of good design and work in
my most advanced hand and it was a tremendous popular success.
If you today tried to build. Even the builds a void
Scarsdale the corpus years experimental bill of which he built nine hundred thirty
here thirty seven years later and still be a huge outcry nobody wanted to live in it so in
that sense that was a failure. The kind of graphics that they presented at Expo was a success.
The kind of music that Gershwin wrote was a success and I think in many other
things modern art has this for me it
life far more in in in in all other aspects music
painting and so on than it has been in the way we live. The main thing that
modern architecture when they started out the revolution modern architecture revolution
was Gropius and the core was your muse and so on wanted to do is what's this type of
thing that needs to be done. Which is to find the link between art and
technology to design a piece of furniture for instance or even design a house
in such a way that we can mass produce it. We can and yet make it individual
or individual is it not. And
this really we have taught. The field that we are not mass producing
anything that we really want to live
with and yet when an architect is popular like a dural stone
and gets on the cover Time is kind of the American people's architect and certainly has captured
the imagination of the people of America you criticize
Well because I don't think he has really he is he is.
Contributed to answer our problems the thing that Ed Stone and it's a
very earnest and hardworking man has done is
that he's ingratiate.
Stuff is not a made himself popular appeal to our
our instincts or our searching for continuity and
prettiness you know and cashed in on that and giving us is the sort of pretty
pretty pretty pretty as. Without
really giving us what he is capable of doing
advancing this bringing it for instance into the technological fold making the place a better place to live.
He's done that before when he was still with the international standard need to build a museum of modern
art you know way back before it got pretty
pretty and it was a wonderful museum I was going to guess that it's great you know Philip
Johnson added onto it and enhanced it for
it but this sort of honest approach to
giving society what it needs years to see can for taking the
shortcut of of pretty pretty in Gratiot
issues this event occurred. You say that modern architecture has failed
and then you go on to say that it's less important than
city planning and urban design and yet those are in a deplorable state and you
still go on to say that you're an optimist. Now how do you reconcile all those statements.
Modern architecture is really no longer very
important because what is important is the overall divine environment when we can live within the house
and apartment but we cannot live when we get out in the street so we have to do something about the
street modern city planning isn't doing
enough about the street keeping automobiles the way in solving that problem
for instance and the problem for air pollution so I see that planet where planning is a more
far more important thing than the individual building it hasn't really done its
yet and and hasn't gotten anywhere so
far are when I say I'm optimistic. It's
because we're beginning to realise what the real problem
is we're beginning to realise that the real problem is one that. Application
of real technology to the problem.
It is the realization that something is desperately wrong was on
And the people in the ghetto has helped us realize that by just exploding boom and having these minds
and open our eyes to the
and livability of our cities and by seeing what by by having it
our God knows us wrapped into what is is is wrong with society we are beginning to see what
kind of city and what kind of life we do want which is as has is it
is a game and the stick approach it's not just who is going to make money whether
the everything is going to pay for itself or
make big profits. But whether we are going to lose use our
land and and our air and our rivers and our
resources to make a place in which we
can function properly and become creative people. So we don't need the
modern city of tomorrow.
I don't think I think we need that like a hole in the head of a lot of big Mega Structures and we
don't need a lot of other things but we need a city in which we can which we can take for
granted in a way in which we can live a creative life and go on to the
problem is to find a card. What are some of the tangible signs
of tangible causes for optimism but can you give some examples of good planning.
Yes I think we have some some very good examples of I mean good examples of good
planning the easiest way to do good planning is for Chris to start from scratch out in
the open country when you start a new new
town and I think. It's its main
aspects the new town of Reston Virginia is a
good environment and has been well platen it's a lake that is a way that
people can congregate it's a way of getting to your shopping and for the way that children can. See their
friends without having to be driven by their mamas for two
hundred twenty five miles and and you know you can walk
and and you can have I think the key to this is privacy
give people privacy and same time give them community when they want
it and this can be designed you know if you don't let the automobile interfere too much and
so forth and I think this at this restaurant has succeeded I think Colombia is another new town
where building between Baltimore and
Washington has taken the bugs out brings
all the advantages of suburbia and and reduced them the
disadvantages of suburbia and I think we're beginning to see it in certain sections of the of the city where
the planning is
good what are some examples of in cities themselves.
Well I think you know there are different approaches to it and we haven't got a good total city but
the approach to a real center city which is lively and
and and symbol and you know draws people is
Rockefeller Center and that was done thirty six years ago. It's marvelous everybody still goes even on
Sundays when there are no shops and no real reason for God there. I think
we've we're beginning to do this on a larger scale in
Boston along around the the new City Hall the square there gives you a feeling
of this is Boston of identity and sense of
belonging. I think some of the rehabilitation being done
in Hyde Park in what and Chicago has some very very
excellent aspects and I see there is a direction that we begin to see with
what it is we want to and many other
places do for the master plans for cities or are necessary or that there should be an approach
more community neighborhood by neighborhood.
Both I think in order to make a neighborhood function a neighborhood. You know no man is an island to
himself and no neighborhood can function in isolation. You can't you can't get
a good school. For instance which is essential to a neighborhood a good
elementary school because before you know where the kids going to go when he gets into high school.
In order to plan anything in your own life or in the city. You always have to plan it in
the context of the next higher order. You know you cannot have a really
efficient living room in your house unless your kitchen is also fish. You know the
obvious one thing this ecology of
things so that you. The essential thing we must do is to plan good neighborhoods neighborhoods that
are really neighborhoods in which
we have the sense of loyalty to and in which people behave and feel at home and
also have their privacy but you can't plan good neighborhoods and unless you have a master plan for
the overall city to see how this neighborhood relates to everything
else and you can't really have a good city until your plan the whole region because everything is dependent
on the economics of the transportation system on the on the Where do you get your
water from where is the industry and where do people go for recreation This cannot be
handled within the city. We have to have
regional how are we going to get. I don't think we are going to get it by
just admonition and saying how awful everything
is I think we get it partly by defining the problem what is it
that we're really after and I would say this is the sort of and humanistic approach to the
environment and and and then we look back and see how did pop
really bring about the urban renewal in Rome and how did Housman make Paris a
better city. It was always linked to a
political ideological in goal. And to some sort of
political movement that wanted to get
action either by maintaining a status quo like the Pope or
by social reform like the Fabian support the new towns into England and so
forth so I think the only way we're going to get any worse in this country is that
the idea or heights and political movements in this country by the liberals
and the civil rights movements on begin to. The
the importance of environmental problems to social.
And linked themselves to a real national program to build good
cities and this is going to be done with political candidates and in the arena and
the reason we haven't had it in this country is because the planners thought they could stay low from
politics and from the practical dirty business of debating things and compromising all that.
Mr Vanek cards. Thank you for this interview. My guest has been the distinguished architecture
critic for The Washington Post and author of the book a place to live the crisis
of the city's Mr Wolf on a card. Thank you and goodbye for
now you have been listening to Patricia Marx interviews join us again
next Friday at five when once again we bring you. Patricia Marx