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Cranston Jones talks about his book "Architecture Today and Tomorrow" ; part 1

BROADCAST: 1961 | DURATION: 00:29:56

Synopsis

Cranston Jones discusses the architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Walter Gropius.

Transcript

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Studs Terkel And Wright's problem in in building the, or in in creating the Guggenheim Museum was a wholly different one than say Taliesin. Somewhere that was rolling country, where it was free, is that it? He was free.

Cranston Jones Well, that's where he's a great poet, in the country. Or or where where he has this relationship with land. He is an agrarian American. He's a farm boy at one point. He knows how to milk cows. He knows where chickens lay eggs. He knew these things. These things were in his fingertips. His seal, you know? He always marked things with the red seal- that color is actually happens to be the lilies that he used to find while haying the Wisconsin fields. He has a very- his fingers are still feel the earth. However, now the thing I would like to get- make a big point of is that the words can be misleading and that Sullivan is quite happy to jettison an idea and change the words when he wanted to actually decorate the building, than he had other words for this. But where's the consistency is in in architecture is in the forms, in the what they build. In other words the architect, he wouldn't be an architect if he could do it all with words- he'd write poems. He must build things and you must look at what he builds because often he's sw- he is singing sweet songs to the client, or he is justifying his role in history, or he is doing many things. But actually, his engineering sense, his tactile sense- his sense of touch is operating all the time. He is- he is thinking high- in a very rational way as he is thinking. Or else he has decided he will be irrational, and if you're great enough you can get away with it.

Studs Terkel Yes-

Cranston Jones Therefore, I think if there are word inconsistencies, they may not be as important as form inconsistencies and it is in this sense that Mies van der Rohe almost certainly owes a tremendous- well I wouldn't say that he owes a debt, I would put it this way: that he, he expresses concepts remarkably close to Frank Lloyd Wright. Their language verbally speaking may be different. Their look may be somewhat different but they are working within the same period of time. They are they are, I don't think we use the word zeitgeist because we don't know what it means, but they are all children

Studs Terkel Spirit of the time,

Cranston Jones Yes, and so that I I feel that it's more important to look at the buildings to see the dialogue in terms of form versus form, which of course impossible to do verbally. The inconsistencies is the quarrels of architecture often, often are because the men have talked themselves into extreme positions. They are quite capable however of looking at each other's solutions and judging it very honestly. They can communicate on other levels and we judge buildings this way we like, we like, we like- how else can you like Buckingham Palace and like the Popes' Palace in Avignon? I don't happen to, like Buckingham Palace, but I was trying to think of who likes some of the Roman churches, Borromini and so forth- Bernini. And at the same time like high Baroque. But you- but also I like Romanesque, but also I like Gothic.

Studs Terkel There's no rule. You need not be limited to one particular school or a way. There's no there's no reason why your vision- your appreciation can't be [multi?], of course.

Cranston Jones I think it's the big break-

Studs Terkel You like, you you may like modern classical music as well as Beethoven and Mozart,

Cranston Jones We need a little jazz-

Studs Terkel And jazz. I'm

Cranston Jones But we need a little Mozart. I think this is- I'm getting something here, which is- we were talking earlier. Well, it's this: that that people say I don't like modern. Well, modern is a word that is no longer very usable because modern was once a a rallying cry against really a pushover opponent. But, anyway against this making every facade a classical facade, it was the Beaux-Arts type of design and the battle has been won. It's just been won. They've even buried the corpses practically, there is, as there- now once the battle is won, you hit this problem, this happened in political history endlessly that the revolution you get is never the revolution you wanted. That the peace after a war isn't as good. One would almost rather be Edwardian rather than take what happened in the 1919, you know? Or that what happened in Poland, Germany, Russia, France, and so forth is. It would have been better, the world before, if one could have solved problems otherwise. Now, so that today, so that for a long time it has been this crusading mood which still is is alive and in the old timers. In fact, we have now our architecture in this century, we have it. It isn't anybody else's. And what's wrong with it now is that it maybe it isn't good enough yet, or not enough of it's been built, or that the architects aren't good enough. But it is no long- it is now- now comes the period of tremendous variety, of proliferations, of refinement, of if you don't like glass, you don't have to have glass, its just as modern to be- to look inward on an interior court if its a house. If you do not like steel and glass, then one can work with concrete. In other words the, this idea that there is a style called Modern, and you either like it or you don't, is nonsense. All we can say is there is a way of building today. It has certain aesthetic directives, it has certain polarities, but it is extraordinarily enriching.

Studs Terkel But there is a variety of choice.

Cranston Jones Today, there is tremendous variety, yes.

Studs Terkel The difference between today and yesterday is really technological, is it not? I mean the technological advances, the new substances, I suppose. Being the fact- the key factor, rather than the actual-

Cranston Jones Well, I would make a parallel, since we can make these kind of parallels here, that you have the great first Impressionist show in France in 1872, or something of this sort, in which the Parisians came and scorned and laughed at people like Monet and Manet, and and the works. Actually, if you will look at them twenty or thirty years later, you will find that one wonders what Degas and Renoir and Monet have in common? I mean, what was it? Once they were all of a piece. They had another way of seeing. They saw an object as the refraction of light- if it's as simple as that. They saw that you don't see the object you see the light from the object, therefore get- the the painting should radiate light or should be dealing with light. That's the way the physicists of the time were understanding light through refraction and so forth. We are in a similar situation. There was a time in Europe, I think the year would be 1927, but here it's later, in which it all did look alike. I must admit, and we all know what it looked like: a flat roof, it had white walls, it had ribbon windows- the windows went around the corners. Today, there is no reason why the roof has to be flat. It can be flat, but but the flatness of the roof does not make a building either necessarily modern or necessarily good. And we are in a position working as the Impressionists, this group of tremendously talented rebels, then each went to paint his own way so that we get the marvels of what I would say Renoir was versus Monet, you can't be further apart. Today this is happening. We are and we are now. We've gone through the narrow wasp waist period. We've gone through the squeeze. Now, we are at the proliferation period. This is the excitement and- but, the dialogue, you mentioned one: the Romantic versus the classicist. You have the structural man versus the person who feels that the essence of architecture is the wall. Now, the only thing is that there is a vocabulary that they all speak. They all understand what the other one is talking about. They disagree, but the disagreements are the disagreements between Renoir and Manet, Monet, Degas-

Studs Terkel These are disagreements then that pale pretty much as time goes on. As as they differed so much in the past, day, they're looked upon as traditionalists by the nonobjective artist today. I mean so different. I mean, they are so much the same to to the new artist today.

Cranston Jones Yes.

Studs Terkel And so these architects, the differences really are not basic ones, are they? When it comes to the human being, living in a in a- well perhaps they are basic-

Cranston Jones The difference- the differences are enriching. That's my point. I mean, you can't say that Renoir and Monet didn't have differences, but thank God for Renoir and thank God for Monet. I would give you an example, for instance. This is a q- I was talking to Eero Saarinen, whom mentioned earlier, shortly before he died, and he made a point that that most offices today, meaning architectural offices, can work in only one style. He was putting styles in quotation points. But, basically well,I don't- I'll pick a company- Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, for a long period had a simil- similar look to its buildings. They were splendid, they were exalted industrial products, they were Lever Houses, one that would be known in New York. And here I think it would be Inland Steel would be the best example I could think of. Now, the- but, he was of the opinion that his office could work in other styles. It could work in, it could work, for instance,in in in a kind of Alvar Aalto, with with brick with a certain feeling. It has done with college, Concordia College, in which the- the it evoked somewhat a medieval town or some colleges and Yale that do this. He could with General Motors Technical Center, outside Detroit, pure Mies van der Rohe, all but with some changes- warmed up Mies van der Rohe. He could, on the other hand, in Idlewild, where he has the tremendous vault wing structures- this is pure structure, not really pure structure, it's a pure sculpture. Again, so that in other words, even working within the modern tradition, there are variants. There is a Wright- Wrightian ideas, you see. In other words I'm saying that that the conversation now, is is is not insignificant at all but enriching-

Studs Terkel Enriching. As we come to another figure whom you mentioned, who who was certainly a titan of our time: Corbu- the Frenchman. Le Corbusier- Swiss. Was he Swiss originally? Say-

Cranston Jones Yes, he was Swiss.

Studs Terkel Now what- his wholly different, different I say within this framework, Wright, recognizing the the environment, the place- you know having his, his work becoming part of that landscape- very much part of it. Whereas, wasn't Corbusier's the opposite? Consciously being something to stand out.

Cranston Jones Yes. No two men disliked each other more intensely.[match striking] Le Corbusier, well, I think the best example would be that Frank Lloyd Wright, when he had to build a house such as Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, would- snuggle the house against and under the shoulder of the hill. It is of the, of the hill it grows from the hill the the laying of the stone repeats the limestone quarry. Thanks. When Le Corbusier built a building, it would be a pristine clean white box separated from the earth on stilts. It was manmade. White, white really doesn't exist except in bleached bones, I guess in nature. And it was a manmade box and it had a relationship of contrast with nature. It was man in nature. Frank Lloyd Wright you can't tell for sure where the- where the hills end and the house begins, in a sense. I mean, the the mood carries through. However, again, perhaps some of these- everybody develops here and I think that in many ways Frank Lloyd Wright's spirit in a way informs and informs us about some of Le Corbusier latest works. The great Chapel at Ronchamp in France is pure sculpture, but it too crowns a hill. It seems to grow from the hill. It seems to- Le Corbusier thought of it as having an acoustical relationship- a kind of great shout out across the Vosges Mountains and a reply back. Well this is rather Wrightian. I noticed in one of Frank Lloyd Wright, or rather, Le Corbusier when he had to get out of Paris, when the Germans occupied it, left his garden and the garden went to weed. But other things- birds came, seeds came, so forth and and and nature, as it were, created a garden on his roof garden- rooftop. Which he he liked. Now, this is pure Frank Lloyd Wright. This is not- this is not living in the modern style. And for his convent, actually the monastery, at- in in near Lyon- the most recent major work we have of Le Corbusier. Again, he simply seeded the roof with with dirt and in time, and already, there's grass there, there's a little tree growing, things just arrive out of the air-

Studs Terkel In your chapter on Corbusier you infer, I think somewhere here, that he's that he's not contradicting himself, but he was returning to a Wrightian idea. I think you inferred this somewhere in the chapter didn't you? That's the point- the point you're making now.

Cranston Jones There's one side of architecture here that's tough and it's tough because it's geometry and whereas we all respond to the poetry of of of a cathedral, when you start talking plane geometry at us we all balk a little. It so happens that the natural language of the architect is geometry. It's the hardest thing to talk about, but that Frank- that Wright adored geometry, the this endless ptof- proliferation of triangles and circles- his ornament is full, its purely geometric and- but Le Corbusier, too, is a great believer in geometry. However, whereas Wright- well what can we- what did he draw from? His geometry, his his feeling for materials, his his revolution in terms of all kinds of things such as central heating, bigger plane panes of glass- he did the first glass door, for instance, Wright did, you know. Things like this were available to him. As soon as they were available use them. Of course, he would also go back to Roman brick, but he worked with the nature of materials-

Studs Terkel Metal chairs his, too?

Cranston Jones Metal chairs are his. Air conditioning again of a sort. He used the picture window, God help us, is probably is too. Though never used the way it's used today. The- a great source for the Europeans, however which was not available to Frank Lloyd Wright is art and primarily cubism. Picasso being the great name here. And Le Corbusier uses, as a great source of inspiration, the art of our time. This and and Gropius and the Germans as well. Now, this source was not available to Wright. There were simply not the painters here that could be of use in architecture. This is where he pays the penalty of his age. But for Le Corbusier The idea is that architecture should be magnificent sculpture and sculpture understood, in part, and in a primitive sense and in part with reference to things like the Parthenon - the great marble pillars held up above a city, and in part Cubist sculpture. He- you know Le Corbusier paints every day. He considers himself a painter- he's more vain about being a painter than he is about being an architect almost. So that the latest works of Le Corbusier remind us very much of of of sculpture- sculptured masses. No more- if it's thick it may not be thick because it has to hold anything up, its

Studs Terkel It is sculpted in concrete-

Cranston Jones Yes, sculpture in concrete.

Studs Terkel Concrete was his basic material, wasn't it?

Cranston Jones Yes, and there is a kind of feeling that around 1956, something happened, you know. One only knows- one knows it at the time, but you don't know what you know. Now what I think we know, is that Le Corbusier kicked out all the rules and did something else again in this particular chapel that we're talking about- the walls of that chapel don't hold up no load at all and yet they're 4 or 5 feet thick. That the vaults on the roof actually aren't true vaults at all. They're simply form sculptured in con- sculpted in concrete. And that today you can use architecture, special architecture, not a department store, but special important focal point. You can make them in many forms. And of course it's just this point, and we were talking dialogues- it's becoming a monologue, I must

Studs Terkel No, please. It's your book-

Cranston Jones Well, it's at just this point that the fascinating thing happens. That the the engineers come up working now out of mathematics, out of formulas derived from the optical laws of lenses and many other things. With a kind of mathematics that didn't exist until the early- until 125 years ago. There simply was no mathematics to do this. And they have created new forms. These are the forms in concrete in which the- you can, you can cover up a football stadium and be- and perhaps be an inch and a half thick at the peak, you know. I mean, this is a through- getting their strength from form. This suddenly has, has given us other forms. These people say that all of this this talk about Modern architecture was nonsense. It was just taking the note from Sullivan, you mentioned earlier. It's just cleaning off the decoration, it's just reorganizing things. It does not flow out of a new way of doing things- it isn't new at all really. It's just an aesthetic revolution, it's art for art's sake and anyway, they are the new crusaders. But the fact that they are producing new forms has now suddenly a- how should I put it? Broken some of the glass windows here and you find architects now-

Studs Terkel As disturb-

Cranston Jones Oh, it is very disturbing. So, now, you'll find architects are more adventuresome than they were. Far more willing to go in for curves, for ramps, for-

Studs Terkel You know as you're talking, Cranston Jones, I was leafing through this- your book and I neglected to mention the photographs, the pictures about 50 or so, magnificent ones in color. Looking at Corbusier's Chapel at Ronchamp, you mentioned his being affected by art movements of the time. Even the the roof of the chapel, you pointed out, it was like a nun's cap. Everything seems to have a- seems to be a work of art. Art in in the sense as we know it today. Of course he's a sculptor,

Cranston Jones What he did there was solve another problem and that is how do you get good collaboration between the sculptor, the painter, and the architect? And in this case, of course, he solved it beautifully. He is the painter. He is the sculptor. He is the architect. This is one answer to a problem. However, just when you think you have Le Corbusier nailed down and that you know where he's from, you will notice that this church has extraordinary towers that look a little bit like the ventilators on ships. Actually, you will find those very same forms in Ischia, an island near, near Sicily, in which the very primitive peoples there have always used these wind ventilators to catch the wind to bring it down. And so, Corbusier's way of getting back to nature is a little bit like intellectually. Its through history: to the primitive, to the folk, to the Mediterranean forms. And this is a great where- the great Mediterranean forms of art

Studs Terkel There is always the sense of history then, in this man. A sense of

Cranston Jones And the liking, and a liking for, for forms that have been used over and over again. The peasant, the simple forms. The the almost brutal forms- he doesn't mind if they're brutal. It's masculine-

Studs Terkel He is not afraid to work- the fact that concrete itself is used is a factor, I suppose. The fact that the texture is rough. Is that it, rough? And very, very virile as against the delicacies of others.

Cranston Jones Well, he says life is rough, what's wrong with that? It does not have to be smooth and glassy. However, he was once the man who loved the smooth and glassy. He has himself evolved as we go along.

Studs Terkel That's Corbusier, the city planner. Perhaps, you you mentioned, in some pictures that are quite revealing of the city of Chandigarh, is it? The the city in India.

Cranston Jones Yes we've had in the last 10 years two brand new cities in the world. One is in Chandigarh, which is the capital of the Punjab and the other is Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. And both of these two cities have been built under the sign of of Le Corbusier. The man in Brazil, Oscar Niemeyer-

Studs Terkel Is he a protege of Corbusier?

Cranston Jones Well, a disciple, yes-

Studs Terkel Disciple.

Cranston Jones Yes. So, this is what we perhaps are less aware of in this country. We are the great steel building country of the world. The Germans a little bit close to us and the British a little bit, but really nobody has the steel that we have. It's why it's so appropriate that Mies van der Rohe should be here, he is the architect of steel. But, elsewhere, the most steel they can get is the steel for the reinforcing rods. There is very little steel. There's only a very small mill in Brazil. They have no co- they have no exchange. They must build with concrete. When you build in concrete, you then look to the man who is best in concrete. Who is doing forms in concrete that are exciting. And this means that in Africa, in India, in South America, wherever concrete is the primary means of building, not steel as with us. This other man- again we are in pol- polarities, again a dialogue. But, Le Corbusier has a tremendous influence. One that we are not as aware of. He has never built a building here in the United States. He's about to build one at Harvard. A small building. He is the man, I think if we know that all, we know him because of the forms of the United Nations. The the high tower, the Secretariat, and the the auditorium are his forms. However, he did not carry them out. They were carried out by Wallace K. Harrison in New York. You needed an American if you're going to put up an American building, and where as the form, the the model as it were, expresses some of Corbusier's thinking, not- we don't know him well enough yet. But, it's good to know that there is another man who the other half of the world looks to.

Studs Terkel In this first third of your book, our guest this morning, those who may have tuned in late, is Cranston Jones, who has won any number of awards for his essays and is very provocative and perceptive works on architecture. Transforms- and was responsible for the "Form Givers" of 20th century, showing a Chicago a couple of years ago. Has written the book, "Architecture Today and Tomorrow," published by McGraw-Hill. And we're just- all we're doing now, I know, is scratching the surface, Cranston, with you is our guide. The first third book deals with "Form Givers," some of the titans from Sullivan, to and including Mies van der Rohe I believe-

Cranston Jones Mies van der Rohe, the last one-

Studs Terkel And Aalto-

Cranston Jones Alver

Studs Terkel The Fin. Corbusier contributes so much, we come to Gropius and the Bauhaus. Chicago was directly involved here. Directly- evolved I should say, the the IIT, the Institute of Design here. From when Moholy-Nagy came here. The Bauhaus- what is the Bauhaus' prime contribution- Gropius' to, to architecture?

Cranston Jones I feel myself- we've been talking about forms, we have seen Wright as the romantic and Mies van der Rohe as the classicist, and Le Corbusier as the man who treats architecture, in one sense, treats architecture as a great art. Now, in this, you need some very practical men at work and you need someone who is a theoretician, and I felt that Walter Gropius, in the Bauhaus, in Germany- well his great sl- was primarily a method giver. He taught us the method of putting together the the various contributions that were there and available to be used. I think if one simply recalls who was on the staff of the Bauhaus, which was a school, one realizes how many loose ends there were in the 20th century that needed to be pulled together. There was- there would be, I think, all these names now are to a lesser or greater degree familiar to us. There would be painters of the order of Paul Klee, who, who is dealing almost with the unconscious images of in man. The infantile, but yet the most poetic. We have Kandinsky, the, the the most passionate of the abstractionist, and perhaps the first great abstractionist. We have Lyonel Feininger, another- actually was an American. And you would have people like like Marcel Breuer, from Hungary, who was the finest designer of the group. Herbert Bayer, you have just mentioned also Moholy-Nagy, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy. These are men from Germany, from Hungary, from Russia- there were not many Frenchmen there. Who, and the the sort of what, they nailed to the banner was was a slogan which was art and technology, the new unity. An idea that, that civilized man had gotten to be so specialized that he lost the great unity of life. Unifying things and that, for instance, there were many men who could design a chair, but he couldn't build it. But the builders of chairs couldn't design a chair-

Studs Terkel The recognition of craft then. That is the artist had to be the craftsman too, is that it?

Cranston Jones He must be able to to both design and build a chair. Reintegrate here, and not get too specialized. And out of it, I think, the most recognizable thing that we would know today would be, well, the word industrial designer surely comes out of this world, but it would be what we call a design team- would be the word that any, any American would immediately recognize as American, but is a Bauhaus concept. This is that you bring together the the various men necessary to design a building, in the team, and that they can work in a common discipline to produce the finished product. It's -this is, this is used now by almost every big architectural firm. It is capable of of designing the parking lot as well as the as well as the facades. It can do with the whole, whole job. It's very sympathetic to Americans. The problem is, of course, that does great architecture got created by a committee and the answer is self answering, it does not. For great architecture, there must be a man. There must be the top architect, and so Gropius, I feel, is a man who who gave us the the way of building the the approach to building, the- you know no one man today can do all the working drawings- do all this. There must be a way for us to do this. He himself, however, although he was brilliant as a young, as young designer. He put up one of the very first of the all glass curtain walls and the Fagus Factory in 1911. He was also heavily influenced by Wright. We are looking at a picture here, and which is absolutely a Frank Lloyd Wright. This happens to come from a bank that Frank Lloyd Wright designed but didn't build, but that is a Frank Lloyd Wright doorway in the [colonial procession hall-?]

Studs Terkel The circular staircases- this glass enclosed staircases, is that a Gropius innovation, too?

Cranston Jones Well, it is identified with Gropius. Yes, of course. That particular staircase, I have seen in a Chateau at Fontainebleau, I mean it's the circular staircase. It's in the library in the Vatican. These are-

Studs Terkel There's something in this chapter on Gropius that hits me very hard. Art, you're quoting Gropius here, art and technology, the new unity. And then Gropius was aware. And this is the part that the machine was slowly strangling the individual craftsman. A yawning gap was widening between thinking and doing, between the skilled designer who could conceive of a new form and the skilled carpenter, or metalsmith who could execute it. Isn't this really the problem of our time? The man, the artist being alienated from the end product. You know, I suppose in the olden days, and the home economy days, the man, man could make the whole shoe, you know? The cobbler, he makes the whole shoe- everything. And is the problem of our day, on this? And isn't this what Gropius was really-

Cranston Jones It's what he was working with and it could be. You know, in the medieval days, the cathedral builder, the master builder, always used to have to st- well this is a story, I don't know if its true but I've always been told- that the master builder had to stand on the floor of the church, in the nave, while they, while they put in the final, the final stone in the arch.