Martin Filler’s new book Makers of Modern Architecture, Volume III: From Antoni Gaudí to Maya Lin is as moving as the other two editions in the series: not only are his portraits individualized, but their particularities are given broad and vast depth in history. As Filler describes the Italian-born Latin American emigre Lina Bo Bardi’s writings, “they are anything but a dry educational treatise.” This is equally true of this text.
Filler has a literate writing style, smoothly telling stories about individuals both liked or strongly disparaged; Maya Lin is a benign favorite and Albert Speer an ominous criminal. The essays were originally written for The New York Review of Books where they found an apt home. Yet, for me, Filler’s style could be better suited for creative literature because of the vivid word pictures he draws of individuals, their works, and the generalized historical fabrics in which they belong.
On most of his critiques I am in agreement, but on Frank Gehry, I part ways. Filler is not uncritical but ends up agreeing with most of the press that Gehry is deservedly the most celebrated contemporary architect, except for his Seattle Museum of Pop Culture. I think that Gehry’s style is too peculiar and doesn’t fit into its siting, although the famous Guggenheim Bilbao is perfectly sited within the urban fabric, in my opinion.
Filler becomes somewhat poetic when comparing Louis Kahn’s sculptural powers to Michaelangelo’s: both conceived that all forms are embedded within materials and receive their powerful force by coming into being through the artist’s touch. In the Kahn chapter, Filler also sees Kahn’s “irrepressible egotism” most obviously in his philandering personal life.
In dealing with his subjects Filler exhibits keen or probing observant insight. In the introduction, we find that Renzo Piano won his enviable commissions as much from his superbly able and talented skills as from his ability engaging to potential clients. Filler carefully weighs the religious, social, personal, aesthetic, and political strains of his subjects, so we get a crammed-full picture, a three-dimensional image of the individuals, like in Margot and Rudolf Wittkower’s Born Under Saturn.
When Filler takes on Edwin Lutyens as a figure equal in influence, although polar opposite in style, to Le Corbusier we get a sense of Filler’s droll wit. He refers to Christopher Wren’s affecting Lutyens as a “Wrenaissance.” In the midst of speaking on Wiener Werkstatte, he brings up Rafael Viñoly’s 432 Park‘s grid, remarking that it resembles a waste paper basket of Josef Hoffman. This is an essay in kitsch, says Filler.
Humor aside, Filler is poetically determined to bring out the breathtakingly serious gift that Frederick Law Olmsted gave to mankind in his designing such landscapes as Central Park and its slightly later progeny, Prospect Park, together with his partner, Calvert Vaux. Regardless of their being created in the 19th century, Filler says, they are ageless. This could be extended to Filler’s historical accounts.