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Friday, November 5, 2010

Philadelphia Architect Alvin Holm (From the November 2010 issue of ICON Magazine)

Philadelphia architect Alvin Holm describes himself as a “once happy modernist.”
The affable white haired head of a small firm on Samson Street in Center City says he changed his mind about modernism about 20 years after getting his Masters in architecture at Penn. “I always loved the old style,” he tells me over lunch at the Irish Pub, a restaurant he designed in the classical manner. “… But when I began teaching architecture… something happened.”

Holm says that what he realized then was that continuity mattered. “And that was not what we were taught in any architecture school courses. We would look at these old buildings and ask our instructors, ‘Well, why can’t we do something like that?’ and they’d say, ‘Well, you can’t do that anymore!’”

Classicism at that time had become an untouchable subject for instructors who more often than not took great pleasure in making statements like, “Well, classicism isn’t practical because you can’t find stone cutters anymore,” or “The age of ornamentation is over.” Status quo evasions like this plagued Holm for years until he was finally able to see that these were not valid reasons at all but in fact were prejudicial aesethic judgments formed by a prevailing orthodoxy that just didn’t want to look back.

Holm’s conversion from a modernist ideologue to passionate classicist didn’t come easily. For starters, here was a man who once sat at the feet of Louis Kahn and who was mentored by the likes of Vincent Scully.

Holm remembers being charmed by Kahn. “He was a totally loveable human being. I don’t think there wasn’t anybody who didn’t like him—cab drivers, professors; he was charismatic, absolutely,” he said, biting into a classic Tuna Melt. “But I think he was wrong. I think he took us down a path that led nowhere. And I think that’s one of the problems with modernism in general. It’s idealistic without any particular ideal.”

Holm’s image conjures up T.S. Eliot’s hollow man, or Tom Wolfe’s view of modern architecture in “Bauhaus to Our House.” Wolfe’s view is unambiguous: the architecture world, like the art world and the literary world, is dominated by critics and academia, meaning that its buildings leave most people cold. Much of these “ideal-less” buildings, Wolfe says, are the products of architects who only want to out avant-garde the competition.

Though Kahn is credited with providing a link from classicism to modernism, many critics would agree with Martin Filler’s essay in The New York Review of Books that Kahn “possessed neither the inventiveness of Le Corbusier nor the elegance of Mies.” Filler writes that architecture remained a struggle for Kahn because, “he lacked extensive practical experience until well into middle age, and never mastered the appearance of effortlessness that many creators use to conceal their labors.”

Kahn, Holm says, wanted to go back to the beginning, or to Walter Gropius’ Ground Zero, that ideal-less world where the history of architecture doesn’t exist. “Kahn would sit on a stool frequently and his disciples would sit on the floor, and he’d look down for the longest time and then he’d look up and say, ‘I’d like to remember that moment when the walls parted and the columns became….’ That’s quite a poetic saying,” Holm points out, “but there never was such a moment, because there were columns before there were walls, there were columns before there was anything structural. By going back to the beginning he erased 4 or 5,000 years of history. He erased the knowledge that was accumulated for a very long period of time.”

Holm compares what Kahn did to the kind of amnesia that old people get. “That’s what modernism did. How can you call that progress? That’s called losing your marbles.”

Tough words from a man who in the 1970s worked for Vincent G. Kling, at that time the most famous architect in Philadelphia. “I was an unapologetic modernist until 1976 Bicentennial got underway with its focus on looking back and taking stock. These were also the years when most architects had little respect for preservation and traditionalism. Architects, who celebrated Classicism, such as the work of Henry Hope Reed, were seen as part of a lunatic fringe.”

Holm has his own version of what constitutes a lunatic fringe. Take Frank Lloyd Wright, for instance. While insisting that he has admiration for Wright’s work, he faults Wright’s towering ego for taking credit for the prairie style when the opposite is true. “A lot of those buildings were done by his peers and in a lot of cases a little bit earlier, but Wright gets credit for it all around the world. The Arts and Crafts movement was an international movement long before Wright came on the scene.”

Perhaps the most bothersome issue for this 2009 Clem Laline Award winner—given to an architect for his/her advocacy of humane values in the built environment--is modernism’s grip on the architectural schools, where architectural history and classical architecture are simply not taught.

Today’s architectural students are not looking towards the classical world for inspiration. “To my eye,” Holm says, “the dominate style is continuity. And this was not what we were taught in architectural school courses. From a modernist point of view, all the old buildings are artifacts from a culture that doesn’t exist anymore. All the books in architectural school are written from a modernist point of view.”

Across the Schuylkill River on the Penn campus (where there are no Irish Pubs), William Whitaker, Collections Manager for the Architectural Archives Facilities at the University of Pennsylvania, reminded me that “modernism is not a fixed form, although in America it tends to be seen as such.”

For Whitaker, the finest examples of American modernism can be seen through residential works, such as the Levitt Brothers houses that sprang up in the early to mid-1950s. These homes, he says, were influenced by the prefabricated building methods utilized in the World War II era during the construction of bomber plants and Ford factories. “So before you condemn modernism, consider that the ever popular indoor/outdoor patio in homes was modernist development, as was the sliding glass door (developed from the sliding screens of Japan),” he says.
Traditionalists believe that when the moderns stripped ornament away, much of the soul in architecture was lost-- “And with it went the soul of our cities,” Holm would add-- while Whitaker says the two are not mutually exclusive.

“In some architect’s hands, when you stripped down the building to its bare essentials, it actually becomes a soulless expression, but in the hands of an able architect the placement of a window could never be more beautiful because it brings light into the room in a very special and distinguished way.

“In the classical tradition, in most cases you are designing from the outside in, but the modernists saw it as design by inside/out.”

One criticism of modernism is its insensitivity to history, but Whitaker says the same can be said of Roman and Renaissance times, “where they went in and essentially changed the reigning sensibility,” with a kind of “This is old and we want something new” attitude.

“I don’t accept the idea that this kind of change is solely a question of modernism, though the modernists did do that,” he says. “That’s an old argument over modernism, “but they certainly did that, there’s no question. Even in the building where my office is, the Frank Furness library at Penn, its bright red, incredible detail is everything folks generally detested—and they were not modernists—at the turn of the century when they wanted to knock it down. It’s the old giving way to the new, it’s part of architecture.”

But Whitaker, who graduated with a Masters in architecture in 1995, agrees that in more recent times there’s not so much an understanding of architectural history in the training of new architects.

“What is capturing the imagination of young student architects is the incredible transformation of a global world, issues of how one interprets all this diversity, of both people and information into a given architectural design. This is really what is fascinating them now. It’s certainly not something that’s looking towards the classical world for inspiration.”

And that’s a tragedy, according to Holm, who regrets that students are not learning about the fabulous architects who designed the old train stations and the big hotels. Architects like Kendall White and Bernard Sawyer have slipped into-- if not quite obscurity—at least disuse.
But even Whitaker is quick to point out that you don’t have to define modernism in strictly “for” or “against” terminology. A counterpoint to Kahn, he says, is Bob Bishop, a Philadelphia architect who studied with Wright in Taliesin. “Bishop brought back a wonderful sensibility about space, about forms, and about materials in the 1930s through the 1960s,” he says.

An example of Bishop’s work is the District Health Center at Lombard and Broad Streets in Philadelphia, a soft modernist building with a delicate, refined, and un-Kahn-like scale.
As for Holm, who says that City Planner Ed Bacon once patted him on the head in a kind of knighthood and said, “You’re on the right track,” God is always in the details.
And that, usually, spells ornament. “We embellish what we revere,” he says. “We adorn that which we love.”

But the truth is, they’ll always be people who want to minimize that.

Thom Nickels writes for many publications. He is the author of nine published books, including Philadelphia Architecture, Out in History and the just-released novel, SPORE.

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