In the Opinion section of today’s Oregonian, local freelance writer and former Conservative Digest editor Richard F. LaMountain writes about the proposed Oak Tower project, but not about the handling of its land parcel by the Portland Development Commission, as has been a frequent and controversial topic as of late.
Instead, LaMountain indicts the Oak Tower’s design as a symbol of today’s cold modern architecture proliferating rapidly throughout the city amidst a condo-building boom. “How do the Oak Street tower and the ever-growing number of these look-alike glass highrises," he asks, "affect downtown’s character and livability?”
LaMountain then describes with suspicion how today’s modern buildings are born from the Bauhaus tradition:
"Influenced by Marxist theory, they designed buildings that were rigorously utilitarian…In the decades that followed, in Portland and elsewhere, the Bauhaus ethic cospawned countless of these sheerly functional buildings…But is functional all a building should be? Look at these structures. They’re sterile, bland, impersonal and – in their geometric cookie-cutter uniformity—utterly forgettable."
I appreciate how passionate LaMountain seems to be. He rightfully believes that, as his essay concludes, “…buildings must seek to impart the nobility, the complexity and the beauty of mankind.”
Yet I couldn’t help but notice that LaMountain’s background at Conservative Digest seems in tune with a conservative attitude about building design and style that’s conducive to creating architectural Disneylands. I also think that linking modern architecture to Marxism is a laughable cheap shot. To my ears LaMountain's implication seems to be that the Commies are ruining America with their newfangled glass boxes. Didn't he get the memo that we bait the yokels with terrorism now?
LaMountain’s premise is rooted in the assumption that all modern buildings are inherently lifeless and lacking in beauty. But of course that’s a highly subjective opinion. I and a lot of other architectural enthusiasts see tremendous beauty in modern architecture. Ever heard of Mies van der Rohe, buddy?
I do acknowledge there’s a kernel of truth to what LaMountain is saying, in that an ordinary, run-of-the-mill building of yesteryear very well may be more attractive than a run-of-the-mill work of modern architecture. Embellishment can act as camouflage, and bad modernism has nowhere to hide, except perhaps in its materials.
Nevertheless, LaMountain in this op-ed reminds me of an art fan who thinks painting went downhill for good after the Impressionists. To some extent, it merely is a difference of personal preference. I happen to love Mondrian, and I’d guess he prefers Thomas Kinkaide.
What we ought to have, and always will have, is a variety of styles to our architecture. But at the same time, the current generation of working architects share access to the same technologies and materials that give shape to today's buildings, and all we can ask them to do is to make architecture that is of its time.
I also think there is a variety to today’s contemporary architecture that LaMountain apparently isn’t able to see. Buildings allude to and incorporate historic styles all the time, but they do so within an appropriately modern context. Otherwise, that’s when you get the Disneyland, Colonial Williamsburg or Las Vegas affect. Should Portland’s modern buildings be better? Absolutely. But they should get better by favoring the creative talents of the city’s best architects and creating a system better equipped to sponsor architectural excellence of any appropriate and relevant style.