• The Crescent in Dallas, by Johnson/Burgee Architects, 1986. - photo by Paul Hester

Two architects — one in his 60s, the other in her 20s — discuss questions of style in architecture. Andrea Gonzalez, AIA, is a San Antonio native. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Architectural Studies from UT Austin and received her Master of Architecture from Cornell University in 2015. She has spent the last five years at DSGN Associates in Dallas. Gregory Ibañez, FAIA, received his Bachelor of Architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1980. He is a principal at Ibañez Shaw Architecture in Fort Worth. The conversation took place against the backdrop of the Coronavirus crisis. The discussion was held at a safe “social distancing” range in the conference room at the DSGN office, and via email.

Greg Ibañez, FAIA: I assume that you have heard about the proposed executive order that mandates classical architecture for new federal buildings. What do you think about that?

Andrea Gonzalez, AIA: So, [laughs] that’s a pretty heavy question. I think that, generally, it’s a huge setback for our field, and it really undermines the value of our contributions to society — our problem-solving approach, our role as public servants, and the value of innovation in shaping the future we see for ourselves.

GI: The concern is that imposing an official style — particularly a neoclassical style of some sort — has been a hallmark of 20th-century dictatorial regimes. The most conspicuous example was Albert Speer in Nazi Germany. His architecture was universally viewed as inhuman and was intended to curry favor with Adolf Hitler, who had apparently wanted to be an architect. In the same era, Mussolini had his favorite architect, Giuseppe Terragni. His most famous building is Casa del Fascio, which is today a widely admired and influential [modernist] building. So in a way, it’s kind of interesting that we architects say, “Oh, well, that one is okay.” 

I won’t appoint you to be the spokesperson for your generation, but I suspect that younger architects have never really dealt with historicism. Is that something you ever thought about? 

AG: I remember taking my first introductory architecture class at UT — “Architecture in Society” with Larry Speck, FAIA — and learning that several years before, he had resigned from his position as dean because of a disagreement with how the university had treated the design for the Blanton Museum of Art. Apparently it didn’t “fit in” with the architectural style of the campus.

GI: I’m glad you brought that up. Herzog & de Meuron were selected, and they made quite an effort to satisfy the irrational demands. UT Regents Tony Sanchez and Rita Clements led a successful effort to get rid of them, which was outrageous. Having visited a number of H&dM buildings, I rank the Blanton as a massive missed architectural opportunity for both Austin and Texas.

AG: I thought that it was interesting that we had this renowned professor (and former dean) who felt so passionately about his position, that he took it upon himself to resign. It made a statement. So I think that was my earliest understanding of the “citizen architect,” and I remember how that changed the perception of my own role in architecture — it made me realize how important it is to advocate for and support the work we think is “good.”

GI: I find it very depressing because I thought the “style wars” ended a long time ago. I attended IIT in Chicago in the late ’70s, and postmodernism had just burst on the scene, dominating the pages of Progressive Architecture. We were sitting in this Miesian temple, and we just felt so uncool and passé. Did you have any experiences like that personally? Did you ever design a project in a historicist mode? 

AG: Absolutely not. I can’t ever remember the discussion of “style” being part of desk crit, and if it came up during a review … that was not a good thing. Even in the profession today, you hear more architects say, “We don’t design to a certain style, and that’s why you should work with us.” This is a selling point for the innovators! I even feel like it’s the kind of question you get more and more from non-architects, or someone who doesn’t really understand what we do. “Can you design me a house in X style?” Well, maybe … but why would you want that? Trump’s executive order seems to demonstrate the same surface level of understanding.

GI: The National Civic Arts Society people behind the executive order apparently believe that modern architecture is at least partially responsible for what they see as the decline of American civilization. On one hand, we can at least be hopeful that they consider architecture to be influential. 

AG: Trump is not new to using architecture to display his position in society, so in a way, I’m not really surprised that he’s falling in line with this idea of trying to solidify his presidency in an architectural way through this executive order.

GI: When I moved to Dallas in 1980, every new building seemed to need a “hat.” Tom Wolfe had a best-seller called “From Bauhaus to Our House,” which crudely satirized modernists as blind, obsequious followers, which has parallels to today, maybe [laughter]. Unlike this current proposal, it wasn’t the government mandating it, this was the private clients mandating it. Which, of course, they have the freedom to do. Historicism and PoMo became all the rage. You may be familiar with the AT&T Building in New York — the “Chippendale” — which was on the cover of Time magazine.

AG: Yes.

GI: Its architect, Philip Johnson — who, by the way, went through a Nazi phase, which is discussed at length in Mark Lamster’s “The Man in the Glass House” — went all in on historicism. His Crescent project in Dallas struck me as the apex of the trend, being the most prestigious development of the time. When you look at the Crescent today, what do you think?

AG: For me, the Crescent is a caricature of its time. I can appreciate the building because it carries a sense of irony. I do think that without an understanding of the context of its time, the value of its contribution can easily be misunderstood. I realize that, for many, it is a representation of all the things they know about classical architecture, including power, prestige, and wealth.

GI: It’s a validation.

AG: Absolutely. 

GI: As I recall, the inspirational project that marked the end of that era was the Federal Reserve Bank by Kohn Pedersen Fox. It was modern, geometrically rich, and used regional materials. Ironically, it was a federal project. It pointed to a way forward, and I think it remains as fresh and vibrant today as ever. What are your impressions of that building?

AG: When was it built? The early ’90s? I actually agree with your sentiments here. The design has aged quite nicely and still feels fresh for a building that’s nearly 30 years old. For me, this building’s adaptation of the simplicity of the international style with the local materials addresses the issue of placelessness often associated with modern and postmodern architecture and starts to feel more like the attitude of a contemporary architectural response.

GI: What I resent the most about this whole thing is architectural “style” becoming another political wedge issue. And it’s like so much of our politics today in that you’re forced to go to one edge or the other. You either hate modern architecture or you hate classical architecture. To me, that’s so dispiriting that we’re in this place with architecture, just like everything else. 

AG: Totally agree. I was shocked to see that the title of the executive order is “Make America Beautiful Again.” That broke my heart. It even singles out familiar contemporary buildings specifically — like the U.S. Courthouse in Austin — but I’m actually kind of proud of that. Unfortunately, I think it almost follows suit for this presidency to create this divisive executive order and draw this line — “us or them.” It’s really unfortunate.

GI: I’m a “big tent” architecture person, to use a political analogy. I may not agree with the premise of a building, but I can get beyond that and then evaluate how successfully it was done. So I can respect work people do that I would never do. I have visited several Michael Graves buildings, expecting to hate them, and I found that I really admired them. 

AG: To your point about being able to evaluate work that you wouldn’t necessarily have done — I think that’s something that is very much a part of architectural education: developing a point of view and providing a critique. That’s the other thing that gets to me with the wording of the executive order — it tries to pinpoint what architecture is “good” and what architecture is “bad,” and, in a way, advocates for a point of view that’s unable to see the other side. It’s one more attempt from our administration to divide us around something that is, at its best, in fact, inclusive. 

GI: How do you and your contemporaries view the prominent postmodern buildings that remain? Dallas and Austin contain many hard-to-miss examples.

AG: Honestly, I feel far enough removed from the postmodern movement that these buildings are relics of their time. I can appreciate the movement for its rebellion and kitsch — appreciating the irony of things is something I think my generation has learned to do pretty well.

GI: During that time, clients would ask for a building that was “timeless,” which meant traditional. I take it that you don’t see buildings from that era as “timeless.”

AG: Yes and no. I feel like postmodern architecture inherently faces a much harsher criticism than other eras of design, but despite that, there are certainly some buildings that we’ve come to know as postmodern classics. I think it’s fair to say these are timeless, but probably not for the same reason that your clients initially requested.

GI: Do you think the contemporary buildings of today will stand the test of time better than those?

AG: Absolutely. I think approaching architecture with a purely aesthetic, or stylistic solution is a strategy of the past. The contemporary response to architecture is one that addresses so many things — location, context, culture, and human experience, on top of the real-world issues (like climate change) that we’re faced with today. At this point, it’s hard for me to imagine that architecture that successfully addresses these issues will go out of “style.”

GI: On a more fundamental level — since this is intended to be an intergenerational dialogue — I can’t speak for my entire generation, but, as one of them, I will offer an apology for the horrible state of affairs that we’re leaving to yours: Global warming, the environment, and dysfunctional government. Sorry about that. 

AG: I really don’t forgive you [laughs].

GI: Understood. I wouldn’t forgive us, either. I came of age in the ’70s, and I didn’t forgive the older generation then either. When you think about that architectural style and the things that are paramount to it, how do you do daylight harvesting in a re-creation of the Parthenon? In that language, how does sustainability work?

AG: Unfortunately, it’s not a priority for this administration to begin with, so it’s easy for them to overlook. I think if we had to design to a certain style of architecture, the majority of the energy we put forth on a project would be trying to do that and trying to do that well. Then, on top of that, we’d be working to conceal all of today’s modern conveniences in a “classical” shell — we’d be working backwards! I honestly don’t know how we’d start to address any sort of sustainable measures here — I think that as creative problem-solvers, we could probably rise to the challenge, but it would be unfortunate for that to be the next focus of our problem-solving — we’re good for so much more than that!

GI: So it’s going to be different when your generation is fully in charge? Do you think your generation will put a stake through the heart of this? 

AG: You can tell — and especially with the executive order — that Trump is really scrambling to do everything he can to solidify his legacy and make sure that his ideals carry into the future, and that is really the worst-case scenario. I’m optimistic and hopeful that in the near future, this will change. 

GI: But your generation wouldn’t put up with this, in your mind, when you’re in charge?

AG: I mean, I can’t really speak on behalf of my entire generation. I know where I stand, but it’d be naive of me to think that there’s not going to be that one person who’s willing to do it.

GI: So you’re not optimistic that your generation might not fall into the same trap? As the designated “old geezer” in this conversation, I actually have a lot of faith in your generation. 

AG: I appreciate it, but you almost have to! It’s the only happy ending to this story. I feel like after Election Day 2016, I can only give a semblance of cautious optimism here, but I do think if we can turn all of the opinion and outrage into meaningful action, we’ll be better off for it.

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