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Rediscovering Peter Blake

May 26, 2015

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…and the story behind Venturi’s famous duck 

Maybe I should have titled this post “Discovering Peter Blake” instead, because although I’d heard the name, I didn’t know much about the man until recently. Over the years I’d come across scattered references to God’s Own Junkyard, Blake’s 1964 jeremiad against “the flood of ugliness engulfing America”—the tide of billboards and neon and tract houses unleashed during the postwar building boom. Robert Venturi invoked God’s Own in his classic Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which appeared two years later, and which I re-read a few weeks ago.

This time, I was sufficiently intrigued to buy a copy of Blake’s book online, along with No Place Like Utopia, his architectural memoir, if that’s the best way to describe it.

Who was Peter Blake? First off, he is not the pop artist Sir Peter Blake, who designed the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper. This Peter Blake was born Peter Blach in Germany in 1920. His father was the head of a public utility company, and he grew up wealthy in Berlin, with an English governess and chauffeur. That changed abruptly in 1933. The Nazis removed his father—who was Jewish—from his job, confiscated all his property, and expelled the family from the country. It was very fortunate, in retrospect.

The story of Blake’s early years, at least as it is told in No Place Like Utopia, is that of an almost preternaturally lucky young man. Blake wants to become an architect: good thing his father happens to know Walter Gropius, who secures him an internship with Serge Chermayeff in London. Later, while studying at the University of Pennsylvania, Blake is hired by a still-obscure local architect, a “sweet, romantic, hopelessly impractical, and slightly incomprehensible dreamer” named Louis Kahn.

At a party one night, Blake meets a girl; she is working for an English family that lives nearby, and lo and behold, the family is that of the great philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Blake (right) with Jackson Pollock in 1949

Blake (right) with Jackson Pollock in 1949

All of this would start to grate if Blake wasn’t so charming and didn’t have such juicy anecdotes about the luminaries he keeps bumping into. As a very junior writer at Architectural Forum magazine, Blake decides to write an honest review of Frank Lloyd Wright’s newly published autobiography, which he finds pompous and turgid. He leaves the draft on his editor’s desk and goes to lunch. In the meantime, the Great Man himself—routinely fawned over by the magazine’s senior editors—sweeps into the magazine’s offices and finds it.

When Blake returns, his colleagues look pale and the draft is still there. Scrawled across it in red crayon are the words, “George—I always thought you were a son of a bitch, but now I know! F. LL. W.” (The editors are able to talk Wright down, and Blake isn’t punished for his transgression, although the review is pulled and replaced with a positive one.)

After the war, in which Blake serves as a U.S. intelligence officer, he meets Philip Johnson at a cocktail party in the Hamptons. Weeks later he is speaking on a panel at MoMA at Johnson’s invitation. Afterwards, Johnson and MoMA’s director, Alfred Barr, take him out to lunch: Would he like to become the museum’s new architecture curator? Blake still doesn’t have a degree, and he’s not quite sure what a curator does. But he accepts.

Many of Blake’s best stories are about Johnson—who was arrogant and bitchy, he concedes, but also charming, brilliant, and capable of surprising generosity—as well as Mies, Kahn, “Lajko” Breuer, and his Architectural Forum colleagues (he returned to the magazine after a stint at MoMA), many of them European emigres like himself.

Blake’s critical judgments have aged well, too, for the most part. He saw that Wright was a genius as well as a megalomaniac. He recognized the brilliance of Paul Rudolph, and would no doubt be distraught to see many of Rudolph’s buildings threatened with demolition today. He admits that his first impression of Lewis Mumford was utterly wrong (he thought he was a fuddy-duddy) and that it took him a long time to grasp the importance of Jane Jacobs.

No Place Like Utopia captures the heady spirit of an era when progressive designers really thought they could change the world, but a few too many chapters begin with some sighing variation of, “Ah, those were great times to be alive!”

God’s Own Junkyard is an entirely different sort of book. In the foreword, Blake explains that it “was not written in anger. It was written in fury.” It is a blistering indictment of the uglification of America’s landscape in 150 pages, many of them given over to photographic evidence of the crass billboards and gimcrack architecture that Blake believed were ruining the country. There is a clear precedent in Ian Nairn’s “Outrage” issue of the Architectural Review, published in 1955, an indignant chronicle of the “subtopia” that was swallowing Britain, according to Nairn.

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The funny thing about reading God’s Own now, though, is that many of the places in the photos look…not that bad? And even kind of good. Venturi himself points this out in Complexity and Contradiction. “The pictures in this book that are supposed to be bad are often good. The seemingly chaotic juxtapositions of honky-tonk elements express an intriguing kind of vitality and validity…”.

One building in Blake’s rogues’ gallery stands out: It’s the Big Duck, the bird-shaped building built by a duck farmer on Long Island to sell, fittingly, ducks and duck eggs. Blake doesn’t comment on it, his preferred strategy being to let the photos speak for themselves. But the result of him including it was not what he anticipated. Even in Blake’s time, the duck was a beloved piece of Americana (it’s now listed on the National Register of Historic Places) and would have made most readers smile, not howl in outrage.

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National Park Service / Wikimedia Commons

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Sensing this, Venturi responded by appropriating the Big Duck as a Postmodern mascot—and an enduring architectural metaphor was born. The tug of war over the duck made Blake question his stance in God’s Own and, ultimately, back away from it (although, an earnest Modernist through and through, he never could come around to the archness of PoMo). The passage he devotes to the dispute in No Place Like Utopia is worth reading:

Venturi was clearly a serious and thoughtful critic of the Modern Movement. He was also a witty one: I had recently published a book entitled God’s Own Junkyard in which I attacked the sort of commercial vandalism that was destroying the American landscape and townscape. Most of the book consisted of photographs of what to me seemed exceptionally vulgar examples of this sort of vandalism—and these were contrasted with examples of natural and manmade environments that struck me as idyllic and increasingly threatened by vulgarians.

One of the “vulgar” examples I showed was the Big Duck near Riverhead in Eastern Long Island, an area which I had come to know very well and to cherish before it was yuppified by rich summer people; and the Big Duck was a store for the sale of dead ducks and their postmortem by-products.

Venturi argued that the Big Duck was a perfectly valid architectural statement…he further argued that every building that expressed its purpose with clarity and effective imagery was doing precisely what the Parthenon (for example) had done in its own time and place. “The Parthenon,” Venturi wrote, “is a Duck!” And this became one of the slogans of the Postmodern Movement…

I must confess that I laughed out loud the first time I read this definition of the Parthenon. Within a year or two of the appearance of God’s Own Junkyard (in 1963), to the applause of thousands of do-gooders, I had begun to realize that my view in writing the book had been more than a little narrow and obvious, and that I had shown almost no interest in popular imagery or, for that matter, in the increasingly visible images of Pop Art.

Venturi made off with the whole basket of duck eggs, in the end.

Blake died in 2006, at the age of 86. I’d like to read his articles in old issues of Forum as well as New York magazine, where he wrote an architecture column. He was the dean of the architecture school at Catholic University in later life, and complained that Washington was a cultural wasteland (it was the early ’80s, so he was probably right).

As a former architecture-magazine editor and a Washingtonian myself, I can’t help but feel a sense of kinship with Peter Blake, and wish he were better known.

RIP Michael Graves

March 12, 2015

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Like so many people in the design community, I’m saddened by the death today of Michael Graves. His cheeky, sometimes cartoonish Postmodernism was not for everyone; it was usually (but not always) for me.

Clearly, though, Graves left Washington better than he found it. The courthouse annex he designed on Pennsylvania Avenue is wonderful, a light, graceful riff on ponderous federal classicism. And who can resist the St. Coletta charter school? It is a lovable building, and there aren’t too many buildings you can say that of these days.

There will be other, far more eloquent tributes to Graves, so suffice it to say that his late-life commitment to universal design principles, and to bringing good design to the masses, were inspiring. RIP.

Now, if only the National Park Service would re-erect Graves’ scaffolding on the Washington Monument. It never looked better. (Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr.)

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Graves’ Washington-area projects (in no particular order):

Washington Monument Restoration

William Bryant Annex, U.S. Courthouse, Washington, D.C.

St. Coletta of Greater Washington, Washington, D.C.

U.S. Department of Transportation Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

International Finance Corporation Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

Interior of Sigma Chi Townhouse, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

Perseus Office, Washington, D.C.

Beatley Central Library, Alexandria, Va.

Wounded Warrior Home Project, Fort Belvoir, Va.

(updated 3/13)

Double Whammy

October 4, 2012

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A couple of weeks ago, Architect magazine published its September issue, which included a feature article I’d been plugging away at for a long, long time. In “Double Whammy,” I look at the status of women in real-estate development and find a lot of parallels with architecture. Women are entering both architecture and commercial real estate in droves, but they’re still poorly represented at the principal/partner/C-suite level. Getting the chance to work on big projects, and to borrow big money, remains rare for female entrepreneurs in both professions.

I diagnosed a lot of common ailments, but couldn’t find an obvious cure. One change that would be helpful would be for larger architecture and CRE firms to aggressively recruit and promote talented, ambitious women into their executive ranks. Women can’t launch their own firms without experience working in established firms at this level. Women need better access to capital, too, without a doubt.

Even after 15 great interviews, I’m still not sure why women architects have become well-known designers in the cultural and educational spheres (think of Marion Weiss or Julie Snow), but not the commercial world. So what, some might say — but to me it’s a problem, the glass box as glass ceiling.

Whether it’s due to the clients (developers) being almost all men, or the bias that steers women architects into interiors and away from curtain wall assemblies, or female attrition from corporate design firms — I find it troubling. For one thing, women architects are missing out on some incredible PR, the kind that comes from building really tall (or big). Is it any wonder that Jeanne Gang won a MacArthur grant after the Aqua opened?

Here’s me saying the same thing (more or less) on camera for Architect.

The Mechanic Theatre and Brutalism’s imperiled legacy

May 16, 2012

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Today over at Architect magazine, I write about the convoluted and still unresolved saga of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, an important Brutalist structure designed by John M. Johansen. A member of the Harvard Five (along with Marcel Breuer, Philip Johnson, Eliot Noyes, and Landis Gores), Johansen was a protege of Walter Gropius who married Gropius’ daughter, Ati.

The Mechanic, with its blocky concrete piers, inspires both derision and affection among locals. But its architectural significance is beyond doubt. Five years ago, Baltimore’s historic preservation commission deemed it worthy of landmarking–only for the landmark designation to be denied, unusually, by the city’s planning commission. Their rationale was that the redevelopment plan at the time would preserve and reuse 80 to 90 percent of the building’s shell. Landmarking would have been moot, and could have hindered the execution of that plan.

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Of course, the economy has changed in the intervening years, and this high-minded plan gave way to one that will deliver better ROI, replacing the theater entirely with apartments and retail. The developer recently filed a demolition permit–effectively exploiting the landmarking loophole that was brokered back in 2008.

Detractors say the theater is obsolete and resistant to reuse. Whether or not that’s true, the push to demolish seems hasty and a bit underhanded, given that the theater should have been protected in 2007, but the developer was given a special pass.

The city’s preservation commission has now re-initiated the landmarking process, but that depends on further approvals by the planning commission (the former naysayers) and the city council.

I wonder: how many more years before Brutalism comes back into fashion, as Mid-Century modern did about a decade ago? With several buildings by Johansen and Paul Rudolph under threat, much of their legacy could disappear just as people start to miss it.

The site that will be Ike’s

April 19, 2012

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Have you heard about Frank Gehry’s design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial? You may have read about it in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, or any number of conservative media outlets. (You may even have seen my articles about it in The Architect’s Newspaper.)

It has been called monstrous and innovative, a monument to Gehry’s ego and a fitting tribute to a humble war hero and president. But one thing that both its detractors and champions seem to agree on: the site is just too damned big.

Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial

Located where Maryland and Independence Avenues meet in downtown D.C., the planned memorial site is four acres, roughly the size of four football fields. Gehry had no hand in selecting or defining it. The National Capital Planning Commission identified it years ago as suitable for a memorial, and then another federal body, the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission, approved it specifically for the Ike memorial in 2005.

Gehry didn’t come on the scene until 2009, when he beat out Rogers Marvel, Peter Walker, and Krueck & Sexton for the plum job (or so it must have seemed back then).

Should Gehry have reined himself in–made do with one or two acres instead of four? Even the Washington Post’s Roger Lewis, a vocal critic of Gehry’s proposal, has conceded that that idea is not very realistic (scroll down to 12:28 in this transcript of The Kojo Nnamdi Show). Give an architect a site, and he’s going to produce a design for it–all of it.

I stopped by last weekend and took some photos. It doesn’t feel as vast as I’d expected, partly because Maryland Avenue bisects it on the diagonal (it’ll be closed off when the new memorial is built). But the internal road makes the “square” feel all the more disjointed. The main attraction is the Department of Education Plaza, so forlorn and dysfunctional that it’s been inducted into the Project for Public Spaces’ Hall of Shame.

The site does have two redeeming smaller features: a Capital Bikeshare station and a well-tended community garden.

It’ll be a shame to lose the garden to the sweep of Gehry’s design. But bikes and flowers don’t make a place Amsterdam. The tract could use some love, and a new memorial park should help revive it.

Four acres, by the way, is the same size as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Photos:

Department of Education Plaza, soon to be the Eisenhower Memorial square

Community garden