Maybe this is obvious to everyone, but it hit me in a big way this morning.
Here’s a question that I’ve had for a long time. Why did we go from monumental buildings made from granite, floored with marble, and finished off with gold leaf & putti to buildings made from steel, concrete block, and glass? Sure, the answer is in large part aesthetic. But early modernist buildings didn’t stint on building materials. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Federal Center in Chicago may have lived by his maxim, “Less is More,” but it still made use of travertine marble and other posh materials. Somewhere along the way we stopped dignifying our public spaces with special materials; in most places in this country we build our museums no differently than our strip malls. Or in the case of the Children’s Museum of Green Bay, a parking ramp.
Modernism has become a cartoon version of itself as building materials have become cheaper and more standardized. With the exceptions of the post-modernist exuberance of the late 70s and 80s and the more recent sculptural architectures of figures like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, we’ve mostly been on the receiving end of lightly embellished international style for decades. But public architecture in Green Bay and other sub-second tier kinds of places* owes more to Walter Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright than to Frank Gehry.
Berner Schober Associates’ 2012 Kroc Salvation Army Community Center is an example of about the best that we can expect in public architecture where I live. It’s a nicely designed building that serves its function well, but stylistically it says that architecture peaked more than fifty years ago. It’s prairie style and modernism practiced with a blunt instrument. The second most famous thing that Mies van der Rohe said was, “God is in the details.” And the problem is details cost money. I know most of the architects who designed the Kroc Center and I suspect that there’s an better, alternate reality version of the building that exists in their imagination. They work within constraints imposed by the materials they use, software, and budget.
Here’s what I’m arguing: If it feels like we’ve been stuck in neutral for three quarters of a century, it’s because we have. Maybe not in Manhattan and other global showcases, but definitely here in the bulk of the US. The ‘stickiness’ and persistence of this style is largely because of its affordability. That part is really, stupidly obvious. But it’s not the answer to my question because people have always preferred to spend less money than more. So why have we gone from marble to VCT floor tiles?
This morning there was a lot of discussion on Twitter about top marginal tax rates, occasioned by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal to raise them to 70% to finance the Green New Deal. What struck me is that in addition to generating more tax revenue, higher rates also create a socially positive incentive for the wealthiest people to invest more in their companies’ infrastructure and staff, as well as the communities they live in. Sticking with examples in Wisconsin, here’s the Wright designed Johnson Wax Company’s headquarters in Racine:
It’s hard to imagine a company in Wisconsin building something comparable today. The benefit of investing in this kind of beauty, quality, and innovation is higher when the alternative is to give the same money to the federal government.
Please don’t misunderstand. I am very grateful to all of the people in my community who have contributed to capital campaigns; and I’m positive that some of those folks (if not all) would prefer to keep marginal rates low. But there does seem to be a devolution in the quality of architecture that’s gone hand in hand with the almost unrelenting wave of tax cuts that have been enacted since 1980. Perhaps Ocasio-Cortez’s 70% marginal rate would occasion a new architectural golden age and we can finally find out where the human imagination goes next, hopefully towards even further innovations in sustainability.
End notes: *Sub-second tier place used in a realistic sense, not a pejorative one. I’m proud to be from Green Bay. ** Photo used without permission, apologies in advance, will take down.