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    Postmodern Sympathy

    Joe DeBenny
    Jan 10, '12 12:46 AM EST

    Making the brazen assertion that representation is crime comes with some doubts. When I start to think I know something, I check myself. Fanatic allegiance to any idea is a stiff refusal to consider alternative interpretation and the first sign of a stagnant mind.

    A recent lecture by the Architect Will Bruder was the perfect opportunity to jar my mind from itself. For those of you who are unfamiliar with him, he is a rather influential architect here in the southwest-- especially around the Phoenix metropolitan area and somewhat in Tucson as well. I had the pleasure of taking part of a tour he personally guided through his firm in Phoenix so I couldn't possibly miss his lecture. He told myself and a few of the other students that in return we had to be prepared with good questions.

    I could remember specifically the manner in which he talked bore the mark of a brilliant man. His mouth had the burden of keeping up with his mind and we as the listeners had the even harder task of digesting his words. It was the same idiosyncrasy I had witnessed in a separate lecture given by the Pritzker Prize winner, Thom Mayne. The type where you quietly leave the lecture hall simultaneously ashamed of your own ignorance and intellectually gorged to the point of numbness. 

    The lecture was an autobiographical onslaught of images punctuated with small anecdotes that served to break the intensity of information thrown at the audience. Mr. Bruder talked about architecture with such a deep and palpable affection that it only further legitimized his imparted wisdom. So much that it drove me to ask his particular position on my personal crisis.

    I somehow managed to get the last question of the night and let my mouth run the interogative I had been quietly and foolishly reciting in my head.

    “Mr Bruder, I would be grateful if you could share your thoughts on the expressionistic and utilitarian conflict that is inherent in architecture. How do you personally determine what is ornamental and what is functional and do you believe that their relationship is in any way hierarchical?”

    He was prepared to answer before I was finished and jumped on the opportunity to share his view on the subject. He explained (and I paraphrase) that he firmly believed architecture was the the perfect balance between form and function. Architecture had to be the product of it's time and must be a representation of it as well. Mr. Bruder seemed to hold some disdain for both the modernist and expressionist hardliners alike and a urged for a balanced architecture.

    I had to agree. I had to kick myself free from such stifling doctrines. I could still identify my design values as predominately modernist, but I could no longer look at it as a war. It isn't. Perhaps my preference for modernism wasn't even rooted in principle, but deep seated aesthetic taste. Is that any better than a postmodern mentality? I'm still not too sure.

    A recent conversation with the industrial designer Donald Booty of BDA Designs helped put the issue into perspective.

    “The professors at IIT were still stuck in the 50's,” he recounted referring to his freshman year at the prestigious Illinois Institute of Technology that Mies Van Der Rohe famously headed.

    “If (a product) wasn't made out of wood or steel, they wouldn't have any of it. I was looking through these magazines filled with heavily expressive Italian design with new exciting material palettes and I thought 'Wow. This is amazing.'

    “Modernist design is timeless. But postmodern design was important in that it explored new values and when it finally reached it's climax, we could go back to modernism and ask ourselves what the good and bad things about it were. It was simply a reaction.”

    I started to feel something I hadn't before... a sort of sympathy for the postmodern movement.

    When looking at your average American skyline, a sort of pattern appears. Rectangular, box steel frames are a common feature for all major metropolitan areas. The sight has become so ubiquitous that it has ultimately climaxed into the cliché corporate architecture that we all love to hate. But it has its roots in some the best architecture of the 20th century.

    Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe's 860-880 Lake Shore Drive of Chicago, Illinois were revolutionary pieces of architecture that defined the modern and international styles. The new industrial materials of the postwar era were put to use in a new, ornament-free design unlike anything seen before let alone at such a scale. Minimalist steel framing with functional window curtain walls embodied Mies' 'Less is More' axiom.


                                         Mies Van Der Rohe: 860-880 Lake Shore Drive

    The dramatic success of Lake Shore Drive gave genesis to a wave inferior attempts at copying the style. Minimalism's elegant simplicity and painstaking attention to detail was mistaken for 'easy and cheap' to the rest of corporate America. It has lead to the plague of uninspired, pastiche buildings that are as familiar as the public hate that surrounds them.

    Postmodern reactionary designs almost seem...appropriate. Any kind of stagnation in art is met with an opposite reaction. Something akin to a Newton's third law of design. It's the perfect reminder to be cautious of stagnation in my own mind and work. 20 years old is far too young to get stuck in your own ways.


    • Excellent, probing post, and yes Bruder is a giant among men.  Glad you were able to be inspired by him.

      Jan 10, 12 3:02 pm  · 

      Thanks! It really was great to meet him. Truly a great architect.

      Jan 11, 12 8:10 pm  · 

      Will Bruder and SCI-Arc

      Back in the 80s I introduced Arizona architect Will Bruder to SCI-Arc and exhibited his work at the gallery.  Almost of his projects then were residential and Bruder used inexpensive materials such as corrugated steel, concrete block,etc   in a functionally expressive manner. I think I described him as "a straighter version of Frank Gehry"  because his 'materials palate' was on the cheap, like Gehry's way back then. Bruder and his buddy loaded their van and drove from Phoenix to SCI-Arc with models & drawings.

      The fun part was setting up the exhibit. I got Angelus Block Co to donate and deliver four  pallets of concrete block . The blocks were pedestals for the models. When Bruder and exhibit arrived we corralled a dozen student volunteers then set up the exhibit of models and mounted drawings all within one-hour. The way the students welcomed Bruder and just helped out is a good Sci-Arc memory. One of the best.

      Later that evening dean Ray Kappe introduced architect Will Bruder to Los Angeles.

      eric chavkin

      Jan 11, 12 11:11 pm  · 

      Thanks for sharing! I'd definitely say his work still primarily uses a cheaper material palate. Especially a recent Jewish temple he has worked on the employs mainly CMU blocks but organized in an intentionally chaotic way in an allusion the the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem. Quite a powerful contrast between humble materials with metaphysical intentions.

      Jan 12, 12 11:26 pm  · 

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About this Blog

Design is a field rooted in the marriage of the objective and subjective. The line between the two is often blurred and obscured to the point that there is little to distinguish them apart. A student can offer a unique perspective on the tenets of architecture with thoughts and musings unadulterated by the dogmas of traditional theories of practice. This is a blog about ideas. It's not a diary or a means to vent my personal frustrations. My aim is to stimulate architects and students alike.

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