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The Two Architectures

Jurg Siegenthaler writes this monthly column for swissinfo.

(American University)

This is a time of star architects. Every few months we hear of a new construction – more often than not a museum - created by a celebrity builder.

Once the style of "high" architecture filtered down to street level, informing the design of ordinary dwellings. Perhaps it still does, but nowadays it can take centuries.

With the rise of star architects, old industrial cities have become pilgrimage destinations: Milwaukee has the first Santiago Calatrava on American soil!

Famous tourist destinations are adding such gems that visitors can experience a near-transcendental experience: Mario Botta's San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is a knockout! Luxembourg is getting an I.M. Pei, even though it has no modern art collection and will have to fill its new museum with contemporary art.

Sometimes we are able to step back into architectural history for a thrill: Philip Johnson's 1949 glass house can now be visited by small groups of fans who want relief from his later skyscraper cum neo-Georgian pediment and his incongruous Le Corbusier eyewear.

Contrast this to our humdrum domestic architecture. I should know, living near Washington, DC. Both the post-Second World War residential sections of the city and the older suburbs are filled with American-Colonial-style brick boxes.

At present, the newer expanses of suburban sprawl are dominated by imitation Victorian villas with porches - on which no one ever sits due to oppressive heat and the more seductive wide-screen television sets inside.

We may observe this disconnect elsewhere, too. On my next visit to Basel, I will be able to retrace the early and the later works of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. But traveling up the Birs or Ergolz valleys I am likely to be overwhelmed by bare-boned boxes of apartments or latter-day chalet creations.

Ordinary dwellings

What has happened to the translation and transmission from high architecture to the design of ordinary working- and middle-class dwellings? The stylistic time gap between "high" and "low" architecture has grown to at least 50 and in some places to 200 years.

A glance at the architecture schools suggests why. Of 43 topical courses listed in the schedule of the Architecture Department at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology, only three touch remotely on ordinary housing.

Apart from courses that prepare students for, perhaps, becoming a star architect, there are many dealing with the design of a whole new city: exciting, but also shot through with a heavy dose of utopianism.

I suspect the main explanation for the gap is economic. Even in the United States, where land is relatively abundant, an aspiring homeowner has a hard time coming up with the funds for a choice site and an architect who will create an innovative, individually designed blueprint, especially in states with an overheated housing market.

Popular demand

While economic conditions are generally good, the squeeze on the middle class is considerable today and the poor do not fare well at all. Yet there are no longer any well-funded government housing programs for which talented architects would be in popular demand.

In my backyard, it was last in the 1940s and 1950s that "Goodman Contemporaries" sprang up on the wings of Federal Housing Loans and the GI Bill: scaled-down Frank Lloyd Wright derivatives with large windows and high ceilings, a delight for the masses.

The Case Study House program of the Los Angeles area "oversaw the design of 36 prototype homes... plans for modern residences that could be easily and cheaply constructed..."

It lasted through the postwar building boom, from 1945 to 1966. Yes, imaginative architects have come up with proposed prefabricated houses today - even some attractive solutions for housing the homeless - but few of these have been put in place, again because of the tight economics of urban space and the restrictive zoning in the "better" suburbs.

In the end, the economic nexus might have to come into the picture in a different way, as an incentive. Along with the Pritzker, the Nobel Prize equivalent for great single items or oeuvres of architecture, we should award a prize for the latters' translation into aesthetically and economically outstanding domestic buildings - preferably combined with a recognition of communities that have encouraged this practise on a large scale.

Some stars know this. Even as her retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York opened, famous architect Zahra Hasid suggested:" There needs to be some kind of master-planning idea... We tried for the competition for the High Line. But it would also be interesting to do housing."

Jurg Siegenthaler

Biography

Every month retired professor, Jurg Siegenthaler, compares and contrasts aspects of life in Switzerland with that of his adopted homeland, the United States.

He emigrated to the United States from Switzerland in 1967, and is now a retired university professor living close to Washington, DC. He is a graduate of Bern University (Dr.rer.pol., 1966).

His fields of teaching and research encompassed economic history, social theory and social policy analysis. Throughout his career, he has maintained close comparative research interests in the US and Switzerland.

He is associated with the Institute for Socio-Financial Studies, a research non-profit that has done a lot of work improving financial literacy at the community level.

Since his retirement, Jurg Siegenthaler has broadened his involvement in community organizations and in the arts. He is married and lives with his wife in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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