‘Rich is Right’ – Bertrand Goldberg

Betrand Goldberg with Detroit Park City
Betrand Goldberg with Detroit Park City

America is rich, America is right. Rich is right. Architects have always worked for the rich. We are now also working for the right. And that hasn’t always been the case during the last hundred years. We had better find out who we are working for and what we are trying to say.

The second speech/essay from Bertrand Goldberg to be found in Dans La Ville, and more provocative I think, than even the ‘Critical Mass of Urbanism‘ because it really digs down into the whole point of architecture.

Because it names the reality that for millenia ‘architecture’ — not the everyday homes and settlements and lovely little towns and villages and farms that have grown up over those same millenia, but ‘architecture’ — has been for the rich.

The traditions and history of architecture have been bound together with the ruling societies of their time. Whether the Mayans or the Shakers, architects designed the buildings that spoke for decision-makers. From one period to another, the architect looked not to his colleagues for his kudos , but rather to his clients. For a new plan, a new technology, for a different and sometimes new society, the architect wanted approval from the priest, the banker, or the corporation.

Because it names the hope of architects and planners who are not radical, that the rich will seek what is right through architecture. What is just, what is fair, what will create a better world. We may not share that belief exactly, but I do think that architecture can help to do that.

I like thinking about this potential connection between people and buildings, though it is more dialectical I am sure:

Even in the most usual buildings, architecture is the public
art that shows people what they’ve been thinking. And when architecture creates an unusual building with new technology, it even can nudge social change forward.

But what are we doing instead? I gather Goldberg doesn’t really like post-modernist architecture too much:

Today we find our post-modern buildings are silly and confused. More than a symptom, they are an infection of our times, our people, our economy – a witless, de-humanizing caprice purveyed in the name of historical conscience and stylistic freedom.

There is no question that such trendy garbage relates to the strange, disastrous goings-on in our daily life. Post-modern buildings for the rich who can afford them have the same nonsense quality, the same immaturity, that we presently find in our governments, our economy, and our behavior. Architects are no more confused by this new style than by the many art and architecture critics it inspires; but buildings have more social influence than the critics they give voice
to. In some strange way buildings even reinforce moral majorities and goofy governments. (199)

Damn.

So what should we be building instead? He looks at how much memory has been lost of what came before Bauhaus, and he pulls out some visionary things that are truly awesome:

1784. the French architect Ledoux proposed a rather more than literal functionalism in this design tor a water inspector's house at the source of the River Loire. The river was allowed to run through the house. which was vaulted across the flow of the water.
1784. the French architect Ledoux proposed a rather more than literal functionalism in this design tor a water inspector’s house at the source of the River Loire. The river was allowed to run through the house. which was vaulted across the flow of the water.
Ledoux designed in 1800 a theatre at Besanion, literally as reflected in the eye of the beholder.
Ledoux designed in 1800 a theatre at Besancon, literally as reflected in the eye of the beholder.

But that connection between wealth and architecture sent developments in different directions.

This is how Goldberg explains the rise of postmodern architecture, the social currents it is channeling, its connection to new technologies and means of production:

The artist – the architect – designed for the newly developed rich and shared their change of values. The abstraction of management in governments and business was matched by the abstraction in the arts and architecture. The building artisan was replaced by the factory. The artistic pictorial was replaced by the pattern. Light and shade were replaced by the plane and the line. At the beginning of the 20th century Taut, Loos, Oud, and Gropius shared in the belief of Le Corbusier that “the right angle is the most perfect of all forms because with it we can measure all things.” By the end of World War I, the box was recognized as the perfect shape to package a right-angled society. The design of the perfect box kept pace with mechanization of all types of production : with factory-made clothes, with steel rolling mills, with automobiles, radios, and packaged food…. What started as democracy in government, industrialization in our economy, structuralization in our aesthetics – as three startling promises for individual freedom in the early 19th century – by the first half of the 20th century had produced a controlled, managed, measured, and confused mass society packed in boxes. (202-204)

So arguably they got some things right, started to some extent in the right direction, but:

They forgot that all men are created equal and different.

And what precisely was the need such architecture came to fulfill? Money.

The multinational corporation, like the late 19th century scientists had been seeking a formula for a universal face – a faceless face that would say money, but not whose, without identity as to how it was made, without accountability as to how it was spent. For them, the universality of the International Style served very well.

The governments of the world have been managing people quite the same way that corporations have been managing money. Governments strengthened by social revolution have developed an unconcern with persons, with individuals, and their problems. Our governments, however idealistic in purpose, are organized to orchestrate masses of the electorate. For this kind of government, the design of the buildings according to the International Style has been perfect. These could be designed like business buildings ; official buildings only had to add a facade of columns. (205)

It is a damning indictment of corporations, government AND architecture, and this juncture in which the failings of all three can be seen built into  permanent and concrete form.

Where does he see hope lying?

In the past five years we have seen these changes focus as three events: We have changed our expectations about government ; We have said it should become minimal. Give us room. Go away. Leave me be. Second, we have rejected the mechanization which we imposed upon ourselves in our development of industrial society. Architectural verities associated with the box and the right angle are being expunged as part of this larger wave of rejection. Third, we have revived individual ethics, as represented by the Moral Majority. (206)

Minimal government, it sheds a bit more light on the privatised nature of Marina City, and its methods of self-taxation he talks about a little in ‘The Critical Mass of Urbanism’ — a key question for the buildings and community that architecture facilitates.

To return to the built form, though, in a way this is a critique of Bauhaus as a kind of forerunner to postmodernism, despite his categorical refutation of Tom Wolfe’s rather different critique of Bauhaus:

As a Bauhaus student in 1932 and 1933, I can state that almost nothing he described about the Bauhaus is true.

For Goldberg it is this — the failure of living up to the hopes and ideals they themselves professed:

What the idealistic governments of the 19th century became for people, the Bauhaus became for architecture. Abstract, mechanized, industrialized, without concern for humanism, nevertheless they both had a concern for society. Both in a sense have failed to change our values. The serious consequence of that failure we haven ‘t yet recognized: the original targets, the original idealistic goals, the original concerns of the early 19th century remain an incomplete process with an urgent need for development. We have not fulfilled our promise to ourselves for democracy, for humanism, for using mechanization to give us a better life. These main changes in the human condition are still in progress. (207)

Bertrand Goldberg isn’t one in these essays to criticise capitalism, to face squarely the rise of real estate capital, the pressures and drivers of segregation and suburbanisation. I wish he had been younger when Harvey wrote¬†Limits of Capital, or had felt able to identify and call out these larger forces. I always get a sense of subdued desperation from such figures as Goldberg, visionary and imaginative and able to see more than most about how form and function and community come together, while also genuine in their desire to improve the world. Yet not quite able to see what is distorting every vision — or perhaps feeling unable to express it out loud. Perhaps there was nothing else he could write or say having come through McCarthyism and the continuing red baiting of American society.

Goldberg here seems to me to be writing in desperate hope, as though by writing this he could make it true that rich is right. As though by selling a vision, building a single complex, he could show the way and change everything.

I just wish more people built such fabulous buildings, put such time put into making them perfectly suited to the uses for which they were meant:

When Pope John Paul II, in his Encyclical on Human Work, says that the dignity of work “practically does away with the very basis of its ancient differentiation of people into classes according to the kind of work done,” he is continuing the 19th century battle for a classless society. When in the same document he says, “The right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone,” he is continuing the 19th century battle for redefinition of capitalism. Pope John Paul reminds us that the struggle for change Americans launched politically in 1776 is still alive.

The art of architecture is part of that change. Architecture needs a face that can be recognized as committed to that change – a face to show that architecture is a social art in an industrial age, but above all concerned with the individual. Architecture is not frozen music, as Goethe suggested; it is the body of humanism. Let us protect it.

View of the complexe comprising the obstetrical and gynecological departments and the Institute of Psychiatry of the Medical Faculty of North Western University. The concept of a bed-tower rising above a base building housing the support services has been used in many of Bertrand Goldberg's hospital projects. The Prentice Hospital has solved the structural conflict between bed-tower and base columnar patterns by an engineering breakthrough : the first fully cantilevered high-rise shell. The base building rests on traditional concrete columns.
View of the complexe comprising the obstetrical and gynecological departments and the Institute of Psychiatry of the Medical Faculty of North Western University. The concept of a bed-tower rising above a base building housing the support services has been
used in many of Bertrand Goldberg’s hospital projects. The Prentice Hospital has solved the structural conflict between bed-tower and base columnar patterns by an engineering breakthrough : the first fully cantilevered high-rise shell. The base building rests on traditional concrete columns.

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