How "Genius" Disfigured a Practical Art
“Architecture of the Absurd is more than a wake-up call—it is the opening skirmish in a battle to reclaim architecture for the people who use it.”—ROGER KIMBALL
“This volume of spirited criticism by Silber, an accomplished philosopher, raises an ominous question: If it is axiomatic that we shape our buildings, and then they shape us, what are we doing to ourselves with an architecture of the absurd?”—GEORGE F. WILL
"Provocative, and brilliant, John Silber's volume on the architecture of the absurd is a challenging philosopher and educator's evaluation and analysis of contemporary architecture. He masterfully shows its occasional weaknesses as well as its many aspirations. I recommend it to readers everywhere."—ELIE WIESEL
“This is a brief but delightful tour of contemporary architecture with a guide who is famous for his candor. He divides our best-known building designers into the architects, who keep in mind the users of a building, and the artistes, who keep in mind the cover of Architectural Review. Being John Silber, he names names and shows you the artistes’ buildings, travesty by travesty. This book will gall some of them. Even more so will it embarrass the guileless souls who have fallen under the spell of the artistes’ metaphorical lyricism ‘explaining’ their own work—and paid millions for such pretty words.”—TOM WOLFE
Have you ever wondered why the Guggenheim is always covered in scaffolding? Why the random slashes on the exterior of Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum, supposed to represent Berlin locations where pre-war Jews flourished, reappear, for no apparent reason, on his Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto? Or why Frank Gehry’s Stata Center, designed for MIT’s top-secret Cryptography Unit, has transparent glass walls? Not to mention why, for $442 per square foot, it doesn’t keep out the rain? You’re not alone.
In Architecture of the Absurd, John Silber dares to peek behind the curtain of “genius” architects and expose their willful disdain for their clients, their budgets, and the people who live or work inside their creations. Absurdism in a painting or sculpture is one thing—if it’s not to your taste, you don’t have to look—but absurdism in buildings represents a blatant disregard for the needs of the building, whether it be a student center, music hall, or corporate headquarters.
Silber admires the precise engineering of Calatrava, the imaginative shapes of Gaudi, and the sleek beauty of Mies van der Rohe. But he refuses to kowtow to the egos of those “geniuses” who lack such respect for the craft. Absurdist architects have been sheltered by the academy, encouraged by critics, and commissioned by CEOs and trustees. They stamp the world with meaningless monstrosities, justify them with fanciful theories, and command outrageous “genius fees” for their trouble.
As a young man, Silber learned to draw blueprints and read elevations from his architect father. In twenty-five years as president of Boston University, Silber oversaw a building program totaling 13 million square feet. Here, Silber uses his experience as a builder, a client, and a noted philosopher to construct an unflinchingly intelligent illustrated critique of contemporary architecture.
Le Corbusier’s megalomaniacal 1930s plan for Algiers, which called for the demolition of the entire city, was mercifully never built. But his blatant disregard for context and community lives on. In Boston, Josep Lluis Sert’s unprotected northeast-facing entrance to the B.U. library flooded the first floor with snow and ice every New England winter. In Los Angeles, sunlight glinting off the sharply angled steel curves of Gehry’s Walt Disney Music Hall raises the temperature of neighbors’ houses by 15 degrees. And of course, Libeskind’s World Trade Center plan, with its spindly 1776-foot tower and quarter-mile-high gardens, proved so impractical it had to be re-designed, in an exasperating negotiation hardly worthy of the complex tragedy of the site.
Dr. Silber, an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects, asks all the questions that critics dare not. He challenges architects to derive creative satisfaction from meeting their clients’ practical needs. He appeals to the reasonable public to stop supporting overpriced architecture. And most of all, he calls for responsible clients to tell the emperors of our skylines that their pretensions cannot hide the naked absurdity of their designs.
JOHN SILBER was president of Boston University for twenty-five years and is an internationally recognized authority on ethics, the philosophy of law, and the philosophy of Kant. His works include Human Action and the Language of Volition and Straight Shooting: What’s Wrong with America and How to Fix It. He has been the recipient of Fulbright, Guggenheim, and ACLS fellowships. In 2002 he was named an honorary member of the AIA. He lives in BostonNovember 2007 $27.50 Clothbound (Can. $34.50)