“Gateway Arch,” Architect, Eero Saarinen, public domain image

By Paul Krainak

Mid-century urban planing in Chicago wasn’t the first to sidestep the needs of underserved demographics or grow steadily more tunneled and monocular. Suffering a kind of moral decompression, it clung to a host of formalist influenced fabrication practices. While the new order included choice structures like the Inland Steel Building and Marina City, its bruising by destructive transportation and planning behemoths like the Illinois Highway Authority and the Federal Housing Administration is well documented.

Planning in the midst of today’s chaotic economy and climate change reveals a conceptual decompression – a data-driven life form that tempers selective pandemic-related shortages, infrastructure unsustainability, and green inequity in a profession still lagging in diversity and inclusion. The design establishment considers bigger problems on the horizon to have even less profitability so stays focused on vexing backyard dilemmas rather than fundamental reform. So yeah, we’re never going to see another Brasilia or Arcosanti and we’ll miss more climate deadlines… unless we have a much heftier symbolic ambition and semantic orbit – something that would benefit multiple publics.

It’s hard to imagine contemporary building and city planning with less formal continuity or historical awareness. Bring some modernist idealism or even romanticism back with a critique and you have a direct connection to extant sites with deep narratives. Even with the flaws and a retrospectively narrow design formula modern buildings were crafted by hands, not laptops. Beyond the exalted Wright, Mies, Niemeyer, Saarinen, Eames, Knoll, and Neutra, the much less recognized Marion Mahoney Griffin, Norma Sklarek, and Anne Griswold Tyng and others managed to carve out a robust identity from sticky mathematical European assembly formulas and didn’t restrict design to prestige commissions in urban grids.

As 20th Century architecture devolved into an assets rights campaign, it squandered a national style once embraced by cold war-stressed citizens. Today luxury towers have only assumed a task of protracting our immoderate fixations with mortality while salivating over technology that enables coffee break sketches to become swaying status spindles for the uber-rich. These vertically gated, catastrophically snooty mausolea in our city centers are little consolation for social anxieties. There’s no comfort in observing how aesthetic vacancy depreciates a skyline.

20th Century architects consumed a rarified menu of archetypes and pattern, unwittingly enabling ethnographic omissions. While a joy ride for some this was design exploiting the new world – not defining it. Modern architecture was conflicted but there was a debate that ordinary observers, aesthetes, academics, and other architects could engage. Though encumbered by privilege it won’t be plucked like a confederate equestrian statue. It has too long a shadow and visual cultural theory already did that by proxy.

Modern buildings can feel like crypts or time portal sentries, their aura still triggering a taste for symbolic license. Their identity has been coded and recoded, even if only as wistful thought balloons. Those that successfully propelled American culture into the “future” have metamorphosed into splendid fetishes – the Taliesins, the Farnsworth and Case Study Houses, Columbus, Indiana. Crown Hall has weathered Rem Koolhaas.

Modern architecture doesn’t share much of its glacial content flow with the contemporary, or with the past for that matter. It’s a silent prize place-holder, suspended between eras – a casualty of presence fixation. Contemporary designers, manipulators of programs, theory attendants, curators, and collaborators produce an awful lot of decibels in comparison. Today’s “machine” builds itself within a fungible framework and sporadic pre-determined aesthetics. Collaborative design is in a constant state of flux that gives way to vexing economic and political priorities. The most powerful institutions still determine what we inhabit.

Of course, there have always been insiders skeptical of the modernist project. In the 1960’s an authentically radical architect, Illinois’ own Ken Isaacs, calculated this about modern architecture. “I suspected that the visual evaluation criterion was a built-in cultural defense mechanism to preserve the status quo. This cultural misdirection is so strong that I was certain it would not be possible for even the architectural giants of the early 20th century to beat the rap. Despite the devotion and coverage they showed, their work tended to result in a visual cleaning-up of existing artifacts. This kind of superficiality can never hope to cope with the conflicts and contradictions of the society. We needed new views in depth on way of life questions and artifacts which were responsive to objective challenges in the environment.”

Modernization’s triumphalism was ultimately forced into retirement and is now principally commemorative. The late essayist and Washington University Professor William Gass wrote about St. Louis’ Gateway Arch’s grace, immutability and meaning and described how abstraction and scale advances a critical dis-interestedness. “As a memorial, the Arch is ageless in both material and image, and like many modern buildings desires to remain young and as independent of its surroundings as an arrival from outer space… The Arch represents the life that is possible to inanimate things”.

The once novel and authoritative icon, that required collaboration, aesthetic best-guessing, strenuous labor, and good fortune to occupy real space, is 50 years old this year. Outliving criticism is a stealth attribute of eloquent artworks and Saarinen’s “Gateway” indeed has an inanimate, independent, even alien life. Beneath its vertiginous contour, however, space freezes the climactic stage of a danse macabre. The parent is dead yet beckons.


My remarks were spurred by conversation with the savvy Chicago-based architectural and graphic designer and West Virginia native Patrick Ulrich.

1. See Susan Snodgrass’s biographic study of Ken Isaacs, “Inside the Matrix: The Radical Designs of Ken Isaacs”, Half Letter Press, 2019

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