Thursday, November 06, 2008

Teaching Thursday: Classroom Modernism

It has dawned on me that most of my teaching experiences have transpired in spectacular modernist buildings of the 1950s and 1960s. This makes a lot of sense considering the heroic role that art played in American education of the mid-century. Colleges and universities throughout the country commissioned grand art centers and design schools to capitalize on America's rising global prominence. Abstract Expressionism was exported abroad and Pax Americana high modernism was preached nationally. Thanks to World War II, the European avant-garde migrated en masse to the U.S. For the first time in history, the U.S. called the shots. The Cold War, moreover, necessitated the aggressive sponsorship of American culture. Art history flourished during this period as a necessary prerequisite to cultural dominance; every period and region of artistic production suddenly received new academic positions, research, funding, grad students, exhibitions. This artificial postwar boom came to end with the fall of Communism. Art history was left to its own resources, seeking the guidance of other forces like the market (Chinese art boom) or ideology (the discovery of Islam in a post 9/11 landscape).
At Clemson, where I had taught for the last few years, the School of Architecture functioned as a vessel for the state's modernization. Harlan E. McClure was brought in from Minnesota to create a Bauhaus in the upstate of South Carolina. In 1958, he designed Lee Hall (left). Although Lee Hall is now overcrowded, for me, it remains a masterpiece of modernist design. My frequent commutes out of Clemson had me pass through Greenville's airport. Designed by Skidmore, Ownings and Merrill in 1962, the Greenville airport was the brainchild of upstate industrialist Roger Milliken who used modernism in his own textile plants to create a new ideal of the pastoral South. Milliken realized the significance of hiring the New York firm of S.O.M. to upgrade South Carolina's reputation, strip away the old-boy cronyism, promise progress, research, reason and encourage international investment. The strategy worked. Michelin, BMW, Yamaha and other multinationals moved into the upstate; cheap labor and the absence of labor unions made this additionally attractive. Strategically, the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport magnetized the newcomers and facilitated the economic shift. Clemson's architecture and engineering schools were the public vehicles for South Carolina's new corporate identity. The teaching of art (nonexistent in the upstate till Clemson's architecture school) could not be separated from the greater progressive industrial mission. Modernism necessitated cultural investment. As a public university and a land grant school, Clemson had made a commitment to the economic betterment of the state. As a professor at Clemson, my contract was with the people. Modernism was part of the implicit equation that got me there to begin with.

While teaching at Connecticut College this semester, I found myself in another modernist building. Cummings Hall, designed by Gordon Bunshaft of S.O.M. in 1969, the year that the College went co-ed. The building houses art, architectural studies and music; it reminds me very much of the high modernist campus of Purchase College, another spectacular example of mid-century American cultural idealism. Purchase was founded in 1967 and was designed as a school to combine visual arts, music and the humanities. It was Governor Rockefeller's dream of a modernist utopia . Edward Larrabee Barnes was hired to draw the masterplan; Philip Johnson designed the Neuberger Museum. More than any other college I have ever visited, SUNY Purchase speaks loudly of the liberal arts in a heroic setting.

The art center of Connecticut College is organized around an exterior sunken courtyard, an interior central courtyard, a large auditorium (section left) and studio spaces at the top, dramatically light by skylights. Some Connecticut College faculty members dislike Cummings, but they would dislike anything modernist. What most fail to appreciate is that buildings such as Cummings are historical relics, unbuildable today both conceptually and technologically. Conceptually, they belong to a heroic age of growth, confidence and experimentation. Materially, they embody an industrial quality that has disappeared (along with the industrial jobs that have gone off shore). In my thinking, such modernist behemoths are an extinct species and must be preserved. Any contemporary alternative would never embody the level of quality and cultural commitment of these buildings. Universities throughout the U.S. are seeking star-system commissions to help their public image and endowment. But even the best of Frank Gehry will be the product of cynical and pessimistic times, prefabricated with plastics, glued with adhesives.

As an art historian, my encounters with Cummings occur almost entirely within Room 308, where I teach two sections of the Art History survey (left). Room 307, next door, is slightly smaller but it has one key difference: it was renovated. The Art History Department is quite proud of this renovation. I have not seen what was there before, but now it looks like a generic 1990s corporate seminar room with even gray tones and clean upholstery. But now, there is talk of also renovating Room 308. As Roger Fry pointed out in 1907, art historians study the art of the past because they dislike the art of the present. In my experience, this has been true. Some art historians are greater enemies of modernism than the general public. The American public has always been uncomfortable with modernism, struggling with abstractions that cannot capture populist sentiments. Although I have not polled the department, it seems that a restoration is seen in a positive light.

Whatever happens to Cummings 308 is up to the department and the College (I'm only a temporary art historian). However, there are compelling arguments to celebrate the historical originality of the room and to reassure that it does not get destroyed.Cummings 308 retains all its original features, most notably a complete set of fixed seats designed by David Rowland, a contemporary of Eames, Bertoia, Knoll, etc.. Rowland (born in 1924) studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art; he trained with Laslo Moholy-Nagy (director of the Bauhaus) and Norman Bell Geddes (American stream-line designer). He created the 40/4 chair in 1962 and won the 1963 Milan Triennale. The 40/4 chairs are stackable (40 chairs fit in 4 feet). Historically, the chairs are design landmarks and are collected by major museums, such as the MoMA. Design Within Reach has rediscovered them and produces them for $175. Destroying Room 308 would be the equivalent of destroying an Eames interior. Art historians, especially, should be the custodians of historical meaning and in this case, should let the heroic setting teach itself. The popularity of Mad Men, the AMC television series, shows that the time has come to reflect on 1961 American society.

Walking through Cummings, one encounters a whole bunch of 40/4 chairs in offices, in hallways, in studios. But Room 308 is unique in that it has a fixed set bolted onto iron beams.
The color scheme is radical, bright orange. Undeniably, the installation is a treasure of mid-modern design that should not be removed under any circumstance. It gives me great pleasure to have a job as an art historian, symbolically housed within a temple for modernist art and art education. Rowland's original 4/40 installation in an original Skidmore, Owing and Merrill building (designed by Gordon Bunshaft) roots me in a tradition that needs to be remembered if not revived. Next semester, I'm teaching a history of architecture class in this very room. I hope that I can convince my small group of students that modernism is worth preserving.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States