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Mies Is Less

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To the editors:

Ed Zotti has done some good writing on architecture for the Reader and other journals. In his recent article on Louis Sullivan [November 28], however, he stumbles badly.

First of all, Zotti offers in his piece a veritable Thanksgiving-Day cornucopia of inconsistencies and contradictions. Examples: He damns Sullivan, then praises him; calls him a modernist, then a Victorian; says he is irrelevant for our time, then insists he is worthy of emulation, etc. As annoying as is all the flip-flopping, it is a minor problem compared to the eagerness with which Zotti embraces the simpleminded antibusiness/antitechnology line espoused by David Andrews, author of one of the books Zotti discusses in his article. Anyone who can assert, as Zotti does (quoting Andrews), that the skyscraper is "a monument to institutional cupidity," and who can also imply that the minimalist glass and steel aesthetic of the 50s and 60s resulted from the need by developers to cut construction costs, cannot be taken seriously as a critic.

Without question, a good critic should recognize all the limitations of the skyscraper -- that, for instance, engineering plays as big a role (or bigger) than architecture; that, excepting the lobby, there is not much interior space for the architect to design; that we do, indeed, have reason to worry about environmental problems caused by the building of mega-towers, etc. But a good critic will also affirm that the skyscraper has been one of the most important contributions the U.S. has made to world architecture; that masterpieces are just as possible with the skyscraper as they are with other buil ding types; and that Louis Sullivan was one of the first great designers of this quintessentially American and 20th century structure. Finally, a good critic will bend over backwards to avoid using the kind of ideological cant (e.g. "a monument to institutional cupidity" etc) that complete-. ly undermines David Andrews's book and, I'm afraid, seriously mars Ed Zotti's article.

Bill Hinchliff

N. Hoyne

Ed Zotti replies:

Mr. Hinchliff is extraordinarily naive if he believes that skyscrapers are built for any reason other than profit and/or corporate aggrandizement. I do not mean to take an ideological position in saying this; it is a simple statement of fact, Moreover, I know of no serious critic who would contend that the widespread adoption of minimalism by office developers in the 50s and 60s was the result of some sudden outbreak of good taste. If I may quote from Martin Filler, writing about Mies van der Rohe in the New York Review of Books (June 12, 1986):

"Very little 'Miesian' architecture was actually Miesian at all, but rather was expedient construction by speculators who saw minimalism not as a medium for elegant simplification and technical perfection, but only as an opportunity for cheaper, easier, and therefore more profitable real-estate development than had been possible before. Costly materials, intricate detailing, and time-consuming craftsmanship (all of which were present in archetypal Mies works ... ) were largely dispensed with by his imitators. But it was the economic impetus behind that shift away from Mies's exacting principles (and away from the ornament and decoration of conventional office buildings up to that time), rather than a new philosophical enthusiasm, that established the International Style as the favored mode of the American corporate establishment in the years after World War II."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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