Peter Blake, chairman of the Boston Architectural Center, is one critic who can practice what he preaches. He has designed some 50 buildings, ranging from houses to schools, churches and a theater. Since 1960 he has been in the forefront as a defender of modern architecture, both in books (“The Master Builders) and as editor of two now defunct magazines, Architectural Forum and Architecture Plus. “I have a perfect record,” Blake comments wryly. “Every magazine I edited folded, and my books did absolutely no good; America is uglier than ever.” Berlin-born and English-educated, Blake, 56, is divorced and the father of two grown children. He lives on the 30th floor of Boston’s Harbor Towers—”one of the few architects who actually lives in a modern building,” he notes. Of late he has been rethinking his earlier enthusiasms. The result is his good-natured book Form Follows Fiasco: Why Modern Architecture Hasn’t Worked (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $12.95). Recently Blake discussed his love-hate relationship with modern architecture with Lee Wohlfert for PEOPLE.
How do you define modern architecture?
What is built today that is deliberately plain, anonymous, repetitive—buildings that have gone up all over the world since 1920 in keeping with such modern dogma as “form follows function” and “less is more.”
What were the original goals?
Totally admirable ones, such as creating an image of mass-production architecture to serve the needs of a mass society. It was all very socialist and egalitarian in spirit, geared toward providing each city dweller with light, space, air, sun.
Have architects fulfilled these goals?
Not very well. The modern cities that resulted have produced traumas of a horrendous nature. They make no sense in terms of the way people live. Architects such as Mies van der Rohe and France’s Le Corbusier were abstract artists, really. They produced symbols of a new world, a new age, a new life-style. It never occurred to them that people would have to live, work and make love in those spaces.
Can you give an example?
One of the most intriguing is Le Corbusier’s apartments [Unité d’Habitation] built in 1952 at Marseilles, France. The apartments are beautiful, but the children’s rooms are mere closets, six feet wide, some with no windows. This was great for an artist and his mistress, but for kids there was no privacy—and no place to go but out. But then Le Corbusier didn’t have children. He described his works as “pure prisms raised against the sky”—a beautiful image, but not related to the way people lived inside them.
What else did not work?
Well, I love Frank Lloyd Wright’s ideas of the “open plan” in houses and apartments—where the kitchen blends into the dining room, which in turn blends into the living room, etc. What Wright and his successors failed to realize was that the doorless open plan, as it evolved in traditional Japanese houses, depended on cheap servants to keep the spaces immaculate—or the availability of enslaved wives. Now that the Japanese woman is attaining some measure of equality, she wants a place to stash clutter out of sight. But in the Western world the open-space plan is still in vogue.
What about modern architecture’s vision of the city?
The early modernists started with a visionary ideal of the city, which just hasn’t coincided with reality. Frank Lloyd Wright’s basic idea was Broad-acre City—suburban plots that would give every family its own separate home on its own separate acre of land. Corbusier’s was the Radiant City—high-rise towers in a park, spaced very far apart. Neither could survive without elaborate and efficient mass transportation systems, which have never been designed. Unfortunately, much of the gasoline automobiles consume in the U.S. is used to commute from the suburbs to the city and back.
What has been modern architecture’s biggest single failure?
Probably the skyscraper, which is the symbol of modernity. Some of them are quite beautiful; for instance, the John Hancock Tower in Boston and the Pennzoil Building in Houston are spectacular examples of minimal art. But the all-glass, skin-and-bones buildings turn out to be unbelievably expensive to build and in terms of energy consumption. My guess is that if Hancock and Pennzoil had been built like Manhattan’s limestone Empire State Building or the brick Chrysler, they’d have been cheaper to build, and certainly cheaper to operate.
What else is wrong with skyscrapers?
They’re as irrational as anything mad King Ludwig of Bavaria ever created. One weekend years ago I was working at the Time & Life Building in New York, and all the usual workday noises were absent. I heard this groaning and creaking—like an old schooner. It took a while before I realized it was the building itself swaying in the wind. Everyone knows tall buildings sway. But not until recently have models of tall buildings been subjected to sophisticated wind tunnel tests. The results have been startling; they are buffeted in a way that would alarm any experienced sailor.
What about the pedestrian plazas at the base of many skyscrapers?
Terribly cold in winter, hot in the summer. And because tall buildings deflect the wind, the plazas are so windswept that people often have to form human chains to cross them.
What do you think about high-rise apartment buildings?
High-rise buildings are dependent on services that interfere with privacy, such as kitchen and bathroom ducts. In my kitchen, I can hear a dog bark several stories below. The only way to shut him up is to stand by the duct and bark back at him.
What is at the heart of modern architecture’s failure?
When Mies van der Rohe first talked about making modern architecture possible in 1924, he said our first consideration must be to find a new building material that would be weatherproof, soundproof, lightweight and insulating. Then modern architecture would come into its own. But it turns out there really is no new material that is all these things. When the building industry talks about research on new materials, they mean how to make a wooden-looking shingle out of aluminum. So in the Hancock building, where windows started popping out and crashing to the sidewalks below, 10,344 panes had to be replaced because technology apparently wasn’t quite up to snuff.
What is your opinion of the John Hancock Tower?
People talk a lot about the Hancock, but some 20 other buildings used the same kind of glass and had similar problems. If the company had wanted its headquarters designed primarily to serve people, the building would not have had to be anywhere near as tall. What mattered was the image; in my opinion, the Hancock people wanted the building to be taller than the Prudential Building nearby.
What about modern furniture?
Modern chairs are wonderful pieces of sculpture—but you shouldn’t sit in them. I have two beautiful Le Corbusier chairs; they look like early MG sports cars. They are lovely, but they are carefully designed to tear your pants, rip your stockings and puncture your principal arteries on the side straps. I admire them while sitting on my cozy Victorian chesterfield.
What alternatives to modern architecture do you see emerging?
A lot of architects have gone back to building with brick, once considered treason by just about everyone except Frank Lloyd Wright. And near Aspen, some Yale Architecture School students built a new school out of logs. I’m not suggesting we do that, but it turned out nice.
What trends do you find encouraging?
The recycling of old buildings is becoming more and more attractive. We are finding out that the most practical buildings were originally designed to do something completely different. San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square used to be a chocolate factory. In New York, one of the best libraries, the Jefferson Market, was a courthouse. In St. Louis, the headquarters of an education laboratory was carved out of an old Civil War hospital.
What is missing in new cities?
Chaos, which is the way real life is. What’s good about old cities like Paris, Milan, London and even parts of New York is that everything is all mixed together—living, working, schools, marketing. Someone once said, if city planners designed a raisin cake, they’d put all the raisins in one place. That’s what has happened in communities like Atlanta and Detroit. What’s needed are places where people can fight, love, shop, go to theaters—enjoy variety. Modern planners hate that because it’s not tidy. But life is untidy.