Although I'm more interested in political leaders and U.S. presidents these days, I still tremendously respect the great architects of the 20th century. Wright, Kahn, Corbusier, Gehry, Ando, Koolhaas -- what separates these masters from the rest is not necessarily their form-making, or even their self-promotion. These things, I believe, we cannot really learn from. I think what we CAN learn from is their relentless dedication to pursuing, and developing, a unique vision. When it comes down to it, the reason we study these designers, or that their buildings are national or even international landmarks, is because they found extraordinary, authentic ways to express themselves through buildings. Mostly from humble, middle-class backgrounds, these "starchitects" started out doing scrappy projects -- single-family homes, a police station, their own (or their Mother's) house -- that no one really believed in at the time. It was only through intense trial-and-error, and by doing one building after another, that they found their own taste, and their own interests, that carried them to new heights of design innovation. And boy, did they fail a lot. Corbusier spent his early 20's really as a vagabond, traveling around Europe and trying his hand as a moderately successful painter. Gehry started his career designing shopping malls, before designing his controversial house addition that many of his neighbors hated (and the Simpsons parodied). Wright, after finding fame and success in his 20's and 30's, fell "out of style" and had to retreat to Taliesin with his disciples, before emerging back into the forefront of American design in his 50's and 60's. It is easy to cynically dismiss the masters as obsessive or egomaniacal, and those are probably true facts -- but what can you really learn from such negative pronouncements? A more constructive, optimistic reading of their career is that they were disciplined master craftspeople who pursued their design interest with skill and determination, rallied clients and followers behind their vision, and never let setbacks or failures keep them down. They protected their creativity, and they believed in what they had to say with their work. If Lincoln and Roosevelt are exemplars of the external self, and how to manage and deal with a changing world, then Corbusier and Ando are models of cultivating the inner self, and how to focus on principles and values, day in and day out.
On a sunny Fourth of July, I re-discovered Forest Park in St. Louis. The park, built in 1872 and then expanded for the 1904 World Exposition and Olympics, embodies the City Beautiful Movement in the late 19th century. During that time, industrial cities across America and Europe mitigated pollution and congestion by building grand public projects and parks. Today, Forest Park, which spans about 3 square miles (about twice the size of Central Park in New York), hosts most of the city's major tourist attractions, including the Art Museum, the Zoo, the Muny, and the Missouri History Museum.
My hike led me to realize that the 19th century American landscape paintings at SLAM correlated well with the various parklands and landscapes outside...