25 December 2005

harvard design anxiety

THE LATEST ISSUE of the Harvard Design Magazine, which apparently has come down with a case of schizophrenia, contains both an homage to Harvard alum Philip Johnson and a super-critical offensive by Kenneth Frampton. I can't possibly imagine two more contrasting articles: one heaping false praise on the last century's champion of sell-out architecture, and the other reaffirming a long career's commitment to architecture's progressive imperative.

The piece entitled In Memoriam: Philip Johnson by Hilary Lewis attempts to obscure the subject's superbly reactionary role as an architect, educator, and curator with frivolous anecdotal musings on Johnson's life. Lewis, discussing Johnson's admiration of Nietzsche, fails to grasp the darker undercurrents of power politics that played such a large part in his long career, not to mention that philosopher's role as a likely inspiration for Johnson's gravitation towards the glamour of the Nazi Party in the prewar years. Indeed, much has been written on the scandals and controversies of Philip Johnson, so I hardly need to go on about his political and aesthetic fascism. Nevertheless, I can't restrain myself. Perhaps those who exalt Johnson in retrospect should recognize that his oft-celebrated stylistic eclecticism is rooted in a much deeper ideology of selfish egoism. For me, this ideology forms the basis of his incredible shape-shifting ability, which I too believe was Johnson's most remarkable quality. But if transformation is to be understood as the hallmark of Philip Johnson's career, then we must include all of his transformations in memoriam, including the most masterful one: his uncanny transformation from a Nazi on the front lines in Poland to a snazzy Harvard modernist, tastemaker, and architectural kingmaker of the postwar years.

On a completely different ideological plane, Ken Frampton's The Work of Architecture in the Age of Commodification asserts once again that architecture must operate independently from the power structures of consumer capitalism. In this introduction to a series of essays on commodification and spectacle, Framtpon artfully uses individual critiques of each included essay to form a broader critique on the profession's current embrace of "sell-out" (for lack of a better term) architecture. Once one is able to wade through the trademark Framptonese verbiage, there is a fantastically clear, oppositional, and ultimately optimistic vision that still, despite today's eagerness to go with the flow, holds much promise.

link: Hilary Lewis's In Memoriam: Philip Johnson
link: Kenneth Frampton's The Work of Architecture in the Age of Commodification

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