Ebert Gives Modernism Two Thumbs Down

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Ebert admits to loving the original University of Chicago campus, though hating its modern additions, such as Saarinen's Law School. (Courtesy UChicago)


Everyone may be a critic, but none moreso than Roger Ebert. While film has long been the Chicagoan’s preferred medium, he has increasingly cast his eyes and pen elsewhere on his Sun-Times blog (begun after a bout of thyroid cancer). Yesterday, he fixed his attention—and mostly scorn—on modern architecture. It’s a highly opinionated piece, one in which Ebert openly admits his increasingly “reactionary” preferences:

It was not always so. My first girlfriend when I moved to Chicago was Tal Gilat, an architect from Israel. She was an admirer of Mies. Together we explored his campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology. She showed me his four adjacent apartment buildings on Lake Shore Drive and said they looked as new today as when they were built. It is now 40 years later, and they still look that new. Then I was impressed. Now I think of it as the problem. They will never grow old. They will never speak of history. No naive eye will look at them and think they represent the past. They seem helplessly captive of the present.

Ebert goes on to bemoan the loss of character in Chicago and beyond, in buildings new and old. “Remember a deli, with its neon signs, its daily prices, its sausages and cheeses and displays of pop and wine in the window. Now it has been defaced and replaced by this branch of the Bank of America, which was not even conceived for this site, but offers as little glass and metal as it possibly can, devoid of any ornamentation at all.” Yet this seems much more like a problem with capitalism than architecture, not to mention that the latter has always been a product of the former, a reality of both the most grandiose and spare buildings. There’s long passages applauding Sullivan—and defaming Mies for denuding him, as Ebert sees it.

With all this praise for the past, is there anything he does like? Never having watched much Ebert ourselves, we always got the sense he was rather conventional. What does he think about Jean Gang’s Aqua or the compelling work of Krueck+Sexton? Surely it can’t all be bad, much as Ebert seems to be remembering the past a little too fondly, as there has been the good and the bad throughout history, architectural and otherwise. Over at the LA Times there’s a poll asking readers what they think of Ebert’s arguments. About a little more than a third say he’s being too simplistic, while the same amount find him to be right on the money. Whatever said you take (and we think we can guess what that is) it’s still a thoughtful, if disagreeable piece, and well worth reading.

7 Responses to “Ebert Gives Modernism Two Thumbs Down”

  1. Paul says:

    I think the real failing in the obserservations begins with flawed terminology. “Mechanized Architecture”, better reflects the result of large-scale capitalism’s hijacking of the modern idiom. Granted the vision of modernism was always fused with an ideal of mechanized production, the only real successes were acheived when the conception and construction of buildings were done in a traditional site-specific manner, and only the components were came from large scale manufacturing. This is being repeatedly proven in all aspects of life, not the least of which is food. In that sense, Roger, I concur.

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  3. Curtis B. says:

    Roger has a real talent for the untimely remarks that tells all. For instance, he used to rank on Gene Siskel for Gene’s passing moments of aphasia – who knew that Gene would soon be dead of a brain tumor? To bemoan the antiseptic agelessness of Mies’ work is probably Roger’s way of (unconsciously) announcing his own imminent demise.
    Certainly, there is nothing praise-worthy in the over-bank-branchification of the landscape – it’s an easy target. Is the faux Gothic of University of Chicago the anodyne to the Mies campus just a few miles away? Of course not! Is a grungy, fly-shot deli in Wicker Park preferable to a crisp and impersonal cash dispensing facility? It’s all a matter of taste. We have to move forward. The past will still be with us, no matter how we try to expunge it.

  4. Charles H. says:

    I nominate Roger for the 2010 Prince Charles-Head-Up-His-Ass-About-Architecture Award…

  5. Steve in DC says:

    Ebert sees only the present in the buildings of the High Modernists?!

    Perhaps if he would catch up to actual buildings of the present–those where, for example, sustainability is intrinsic to the design–he would realize that IIT, 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, etc. are indeed artifacts of the past, full of assumptions and resonances that are most distinctly not of the present. And he could probably, therein, find something romantic, which seems to be his interest.

  6. Mark says:

    Well, in his way, Ebert is merely trying to say what many people feel. Modernism, per se, is a cold abstraction that generates from the head far more than from the heart. Ebert wants architecture to express human-to-human relationships, something that Modernism is particularly vacant at doing. His choice of historical revivalist illustrations while citing Sullivan is an example of his struggle for a cogent vocabulary with which to make the plea.

  7. Franz Schulze says:

    Regarding Ebert, the self-styled polymath: his recent attack on Mies van der Rohe, one of the several most illustrious architects of the modern period, demonstrates that he is no better at understanding that discipline than he is at judging literature. I am reminded of his claim a few years back that Thomas Mann was not a great writer but P. G. Wodehouse was.

    Franz Schulze

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