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Thursday
Dec022010

In Which Writing Is Uncomfortable At A Round Table

Why, How to Write

This is the third of a four part series of writers on writing. Once I had a writing teacher who told me that he couldn't respect anyone whose work he didn't like. I told him I couldn't like anyone's work who I didn't respect, but I was lying, since I spent most of yesterday reading ABC of Reading. Still, we try to keep this space anti-Semite free and I have a long essay in the works about why The BFG ruined 1991 for me. The best writing advice implores you to see if you can work around it, but some of what you read below is actually valuable. Generally, the more practical advice seems at the moment of its imparting, the less relevant it will actually become. Please revisit the first two parts of this series below:

Part One (Joyce Carol Oates, Gene Wolfe, Philip Levine, Thomas Pynchon, Gertrude Stein, Eudora Welty, Don DeLillo, Anton Chekhov, Mavis Gallant, Stanley Elkin)

Part Two (James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Margaret Atwood, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov)

Part Three (W. Somerset Maugham, Langston Hughes, Marguerite Duras, George Orwell, John Ashbery, Susan Sontag, Robert Creeley, John Steinbeck)

Part Four (Flannery O'Connor, Charles Baxter, Joan Didion, William Butler Yeats, Lyn Hejinian, Jean Cocteau, Francine du Plessix Gray, Roberto Bolano)

W. Somerset Maugham

All I can usefully do is to tell you what is my own practice, and the first thing that strikes me that I have no habitual practice; it seems to me that every novel must be written in an entirely different fashion, and so far as I am concerned each one is in a way no more than an experiment. Each subject needs a different treatment, a different attitude, and even a different manner of writing. The only rule I know which is always valid is to stick to your point like grim death.

I cannot help thinking that to entertain is sufficient ambition for the novelist, and it is certainly one which is hard to achieve; if he can tell a good story and create characters that are fresh and living he has done enough to make the reader grateful. You will not have failed to notice that many novels are written which have every possible excellence and yet are quite unreadable. I hope you will not think it a willful eccentricity when I tell you that I look upon readableness as the highest merit that a novel can have. They say it is better for women to be than to be clever; that is a point upon which I have never been able to make up my mind; but I am quite sure that it is better for a novel to be readable than to be good and clever. I have often wondered what exactly it is that gives a book this quality. I will not tell you all the conclusions I have come to but only one or two points which seem to me to tend to that admirable result.

I think first of all that the writer is wise to be brief. The value of a piece of fiction depends in the final analysis on the personality of the author. If it is interesting, he will interest. It is true that the young writer cannot expect to have a personality that is either complex or profound; personality grows with the experiences of life; but he has some counterbalancing advantages. He sees things, the environment in which he has grown up, with the freshness and energy of his youth; he knows the persons of his own family and the persons with whom his daily life since childhood has brought him in contact, with an intimacy he can seldom hope to have with people he comes to know in later years. Here is material ready to his hand. If his personality is so commonplace that he can see this environment and these people only in commonplace way, then he is not made to be a writer, and he is only wasting his time in trying.

Langston Hughes

How to be a bad writer (in ten easy lessons):

1. Use all the clichés possible, such as "He had a gleam in his eye," or 'Her teeth were white as pearls."

2. If you are a Negro, try very hard to write with an eye dead on the white market - use modern stereotypes of older stereotypes - big burly Negroes, criminals, low-lifers, and prostitutes.

3. Put in a lot of profanity and as many pages as possible of near pornography and you will be so modern you pre-date Pompeii in your lonely crusade toward the bestseller lists. By all means be misunderstood, unappreciated, and ahead of your time in print and out, then you can be felt-sorry-for by your own self, if not the public.

4. Never characterize characters. Just name them and then let them go for themselves. Let all of them talk the same way. If the reader hasn't imagination enough to make something out of cardboard cut-outs, shame on him!

5. Write about China, Greence, Tibet or the Argentine pampas — anyplace you've never seen and know nothing about. Never write about anything you know, your home town, or your home folks, or yourself.

6. Have nothing to say, but use a great many words, particularly high-sounding words, to say it.

7. If a playwright, put into your script a lot of hand-waving and spirituals, preferably the ones everybody has heard a thousand times from Marion Anderson to the Golden Gates.

8. If a poet, rhyme June with moon as often and in as many ways as possible. Also use thee's and thou's and 'tis and o'er , and invert your sentences all the time. Never say, "The sun rose, bright and shining." But rather, "Bright and shining rose the sun.'

9. Pay no attention really to the spelling or grammar or the neatness of the manuscript. And in writing letters, never sign your name so anyone can read it. A rapid scrawl will better indicate how important and how busy you are.

10. Drink as much liquor as possible and always write under the presence of alcohol. When you can't afford alcohol yourself, or even if you can, drink on your friends, fans, and the general public.

If you are white, there are many more things I can advise in order to be a bad writer, but since this piece is for colored writers, there are some thing I know a Negro just will not do, not even for writing's sake, so there is no use mentioning them.

Marguerite Duras

It's uncomfortable sitting at a round table: your elbows aren't resting on anything and you can't lean on them to rest from writing, and while you're writing they're sticking out into nowhere, and if you don't notice that right away you tell yourself, "I don't know what's wrong with me, I'm tired," and it's because your elbows aren't resting on the table.

George Orwell

Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time. 

John Ashbery

Every writer faces the problem of the person that he is writing for, and I think nobody has ever been able to imagine satisfactorily who this “homme moyen sensuel” will be. I try to aim at as wide an audience as I can so that as many people as possible will read my poetry. Therefore I depersonalize it, but in the same way personalize it, so that a person who is going to be different from me but is also going to resemble me just because he is different from me, since we are all different from each other, can see something in it. You know — I shot an arrow into the air but I could only aim it. Often after I have given a poetry reading, people will say, “I never really got anything out of your work before, but now that I have heard you read it, I can see something in it.” I guess something about my voice and my projection of myself meshes with the poems. That is nice, but it is also rather saddening because I can't sit down with every potential reader and read aloud to him.

I write on the typewriter. I didn't use to, but when I was writing “The Skaters,” the lines became unmanageably long. I would forget the end of the line before I could get to it. It occurred to me that perhaps I should do this at the typewriter, because I can type faster than I can write. So I did, and that is mostly the way I have written ever since. Occasionally I write a poem in longhand to see whether I can still do it. I don't want to be forever bound to this machine.

Susan Sontag

Many writers who are no longer young claim, for various reasons, to read very little, indeed, to find reading and writing in some sense incompatible. Perhaps, for some writers, they are. It's not for me to judge. If the reason is anxiety about being influenced, then this seems to me a vain, shallow worry. If the reason is lack of time — there are only so many hours in the day, and those spent reading are evidently subtracted from those in which one could be writing — then this is an asceticism to which I don't aspire.

Losing yourself in a book, the old phrase, is not an idle fantasy but an addictive, model reality. Virginia Woolf famously said in a letter, ''Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading.'' Surely the heavenly part is that — again, Woolf's words — ''the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego.'' Unfortunately, we never do lose the ego, any more than we can step over our own feet. But that disembodied rapture, reading, is trancelike enough to make us feel ego-less.

Like reading, rapturous reading, writing fiction — inhabiting other selves — feels like losing yourself, too.

Everybody likes to think now that writing is just a form of self-regard. Also called self-expression. As we're no longer supposed to be capable of authentically altruistic feelings, we're not supposed to be capable of writing about anyone but ourselves.

But that's not true.

Robert Creeley

For me, it's literally the time it takes to type or otherwise write it — because I do work in this fashion of simply sitting down and writing, usually without any process of revision. So that if it goes — or, rather, comes — in an opening way, it continues until it closes, and that's usually when I stop. It's awfully hard for me to give a sense of actual time because as I said earlier, I'm not sure of time in writing. Sometimes it seems a moment and yet it could have been half an hour or a whole afternoon. And usually poems come in clusters of three at a time or perhaps six or seven. More than one at a time. I'll come into the room and sit and begin working simply because I feel like it. I'll start writing and fooling around, like they say, and something will start to cohere; I'll begin following it as it occurs. It may lead to its own conclusion, complete its own entity. Then, very possibly because of the stimulus of that, something further will begin to come. That seems to be the way I do it. Of course, I have no idea how much time it takes to write a poem in the sense of how much time it takes to accumulate the possibilities of which the poem is the articulation.

Allen Ginsberg, for example, can write poems anywhere — trains, planes, in any public place. He isn't the least self-conscious. In fact, he seems to be stimulated by people around him. For myself, I need a very kind of secure quiet. I usually have some music playing, just because it gives me something, a kind of drone that I like, as relaxation. I remember reading that Hart Crane wrote at times to the sound of records because he liked the stimulus and this pushed him to a kind of openness that he could use. In any case, the necessary environment is that which secures the artist in the way that lets him be in the world in a most fruitful manner.

John Steinbeck

My basic rationale might be that I like to write. I feel good when I am doing it — better than when I am not. I find joy in the texture and tone and rhythms of words and sentences, and when these happily combine in a "thing" that has texture and tone and emotion and design and architecture, there comes a fine feeling — a satisfaction like that which follows good and shared love. If there have been difficulties and failures overcome, these may even add to the satisfaction.

As for my "reasoned exposition of principles," I suspect that they are no different from those of any man living out his life. Like everyone, I want to be good and strong and virtuous and wise and loved. I think that writing may be simply a method or technique for communication with other individuals; and its stimulus, the loneliness we are born to. In writing, perhaps we hope to achieve companionship. What some people find religion, a writer may find in his craft or whatever it is — absorption of the small and frightened and lonely into the whole and complete, a kind of breaking through to glory.

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Part One (Joyce Carol Oates, Gene Wolfe, Philip Levine, Thomas Pynchon, Gertrude Stein, Eudora Welty, Don DeLillo, Anton Chekhov, Mavis Gallant, Stanley Elkin)

Part Two (James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Margaret Atwood, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov)

Part Three (W. Somerset Maugham, Langston Hughes, Marguerite Duras, George Orwell, John Ashbery, Susan Sontag, Robert Creeley, John Steinbeck)

Part Four (Flannery O'Connor, Charles Baxter, Joan Didion, William Butler Yeats, Lyn Hejinian, Jean Cocteau, Francine du Plessix Gray, Roberto Bolano)

ms. duras

"Ghost of Love" - David Lynch (mp3)

"I Know" - David Lynch (mp3)

"Good Day Today" - David Lynch (mp3)

photo by oliver zahn

Wednesday
Dec012010

In Which We Retell The Story Of Men Against Themselves

Empire State of Mind

by MOLLY LAMBERT

Humble brag time! For the past couple weeks I have been busy traipsing around the city of New York with the Gossip Girl Historical Reenactment Society, meeting the whole internet IRL and literally reenacting several Gossip Girl plot points from this season. Which ones in particular? You'll never know, XOXO.

You may remember that I called John Mayer and Taylor Swift before it even happened, or maybe after it actually happened but before the information got out, because I am a gossip batman who calls everything in advance, running around the downtown of the mind incepting people's sexual fantasies while they are floating down to earth. It is also entirely true that I have access to an alternate world internet that you get to through a special web portal (Platform 9¾) shaped like John Malkovich's brain.

I brought a printed out copy of this particular essay to read at Refresh Refresh Refresh, the event organized by Leon Neyfakh that brought me out to New York. I realized while looking for something to read that I have written Mad Men recaps almost exclusively for the past year, although they have served the double function of acting as my diary. If you play them backwards, you can find out what I did that weekend. 

I decided halfway through the reading that I would feel like a tool reading this essay out loud, because I am not actually as blowsy in real life as I am when I blog. I am also not generally ever as serious as this essay makes it seem like I am. I am 2% pretentious literary intellectual, and 98% total fucking goof.

Instead I mostly talked about Steely Dan and Taylor Swift, which if you know me you know is not at all unusual. I identify with Steely Dan and Taylor Swift because I am squinty and have curly hair and sometimes like music that other people hate (whether because too jazzy or too countrypolitan). How much Steely Dan talk is too much Steely Dan talk? Is there even such a thing?

Since I wrote this essay, men and women have continued to be much more alike than they generally think, and I continue to feel like fostering transparency about it is the best possible idea. The brain is still not a sex organ. Women are often bigger Don Drapers than men, and dudes in their heart of hearts sometimes feel like the Little Mermaid posted up on that fucking sea rock.


For every Taylor Swift there is a Miley Cyrus, and for every John Mayer there is a Jonathan Richman. Gender, like everything else in this world, is not an oppositional binary. And that is also how despite the minorly world-shattering identity crisis it has caused me I can finally accept that while Los Angeles is my birthplace and general home, New York is pretty fucking cool too. And I DO like saxophones.

Thanks to everyone who came out, hung out, and let me sleep on their couches. I'll be back, and probably sooner than later. Spread love, it's the Brooklyn way.

Men In Revolt

by MOLLY LAMBERT

This just in: according to the neurotic Jews and WASPs of the last decade's fiction, American men don't know how exactly they should be acting about sex. This is brand new information! Does masculinity focus on being too self-absorbed? Is femininity still too much about self-abnegation? Is literature self-absorbed? Did Warren Beatty tell Peter Biskind that Jane Fonda can unhinge her jaw like a python? Is Sol the cold sun?

Done are the days of Vice Magazine's tits and cocaine ethos, as are the nu-80s that were the 00s. Somebody tell John Mayer before he threatens to date rape us again. C'mon John, I'm a polymath too, there's no need to keep screaming out for approval constantly. You want to be respected as a comedian? Knock up Jennifer Aniston.

I kid, I kid. Everyone knows the problem with Jen An is that she's too submissive, and what John Mayer needs is a strong top. That's what Brad Pitt needed (also rimjobs). Maybe John Mayer should fuck Madonna? I like Madonna even more now that I know she taunted Warren Beatty at gay discos for not dancing with "hey pussy man!"

h8 u & ur aesthetic terry richardson

Meanwhile the not-a-girl, not-yet-a-woman demographic is flooded with New Moon and Taylor Swift. Transgressive as their popularity alone may be, both Twilight and Taylor ascribe to a world view that too many fourteen year girls are already inoculated with. An entirely boy-centric romatic one, where nothing is interesting unless it involves crushes and the surrounding drama. Even fifth wave feminist Megan Fox admits there's no such thing as Megan Fox. No wonder Mahnola is fucking pissed.

love ur raspberries t shirt chabon hope it's these raspberries

I read Michael Chabon's Manhood For Amateurs. The cover has a neat conceit, but it doesn't actually work, a metaphor for masculinity if ever there was one. There are essays about being a son and brother written in the kind of clean clipped front lawn style associated with Richard Ford and the dignity of restrained masculine emotions.

There are essays about fatherhood, married life, and courting his wife that seem overly tailored to the idea that his children might read them someday, which makes them read somewhat dishonestly. There are also a couple of essays about his first marriage and various youthful sexual indiscretions that are frank and detailed (which is not to say erotic) enough to give readers major secondhand embarrassment.

Maybe this is the worst kind of criticism to give these practitioners of the new earnest manhood, but god is it boring. Not that this validates the grand tradition of geniuses as tremendous bastards. One can be a tremendous bastard without being an author or a genius and vice versa. I'm not saying Chabon should go for a ride and never come back, but he should definitely at least stop over-supervising his children's playtime.

In another essay, Chabon admits his worst failing is an inability to write three dimensional female characters. Looking back, it's kinda true. While I commend his honesty, I never understand this, even though it's something I occasionally hear from men. I always say "write a male character, then give them a female name." 

As a girl you grow up seeing yourself in male characters, because (unfortunately) the cool ones are still mostly men. One of the reasons I picked Adventureland as my favorite movie of last year is that it had fully fleshed out and well written characters of both genders. Chabon recognizes that his tendency towards seeing women as mysterious is wrong, but finds it very hard to shake. There is no mystery to women. There is plenty of mystery to sex, but it's equally mysterious to everyone.

For my money, Wonder Boys is still Chabon's best book, and as much as he loves fantasy and genre, the farther away he gets from reality the less interested and invested I get in the characters. This is just a personal preference, I would rather read smaller scale character studies, but I also think that emotional observation is a core component of his talents as a writer. Besides, the genre fic thing is beyond played out. New novels by all writers starting now in 2010 are forbidden from involving the following things: comic books, detectives, baseball, magicians, the holocaust

let's talk about the giant stack of books Ayelet is resting her tiny legs on

Anyway if Katie Roiphe is underwhelmed and unoffended by the sexually neutered males of Brooklyn fiction, she should check out this vast cultural wasteland called the internet. The best writing about sex is currently being done by the people who are smart/stupid enough to date and write about it. Dating wasn't even really invented until the 1950s, it's no wonder nobody knows how to do it.

if I were a boooooooooooooooy, I'd b alec baldwin

If I were a man, which is something I've obviously spent a great deal of time thinking about, I would feel as insulted by the bulk of male culture as I am by most things steered to women. The men I know are nothing like the caricatures of "men" I see advertised to me everywhere. They are not oafs or jerks or lazy misogynists. They have more feelings than they know what to do with. They are real people, and they deserve to be insulted by what masculinity has come to represent.

The best advice I have ever heard about sex, romance, and masculinity is from porn star/P.T. Anderson muse John Holmes in Exhausted: John Holmes The Real Story.

"You don’t have to be overly macho. You don’t have to be over-complimentary. Gain her respect. And that’s treating her as an equal. Don’t bullshit her. Treat her as a human being. Treat her as you would treat yourself. As soon as you have that respect from her, she’ll treat you with the same respect that you show. Then you fuck the shit out of her." - John Curtis Holmes 

Molly Lambert is the managing editor of This Recording. She is tricoastal like Julia Allison now. She tumbls and twitters.

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"Heart and Soul (Martin Hannett mix)" - Joy Division (mp3)

"From Safety to Where (Martin Hannett mix)" - Joy Division (mp3)

"Passover (Martin Hannett mix)" - Joy Division (mp3)

Tuesday
Nov302010

In Which We Get High And Ascend Into Nothingness

Babel's Babies

by PAUL JOHNSON

It can be argued that there was always an element of the fantastic in American architecture, even at its most (apparently) utilitarian. Nothing brings this out more clearly than the story of the skyscraper. Here is another deep and ancient human instinct: to build houses of many storeys. Some of the biggest Chinese pagodas, from the early medieval period, had ten or more levels. In fifteenth-century Italy it was the fashion, in certain cities like Bologna, to build tower-houses to celebrate family pride and overtop rivals, with the equivalent of twelve storeys.

sana'a tower houseThat was also the fashion in southern Arabia, though somewhat later. In Sana in northern Yemen, nine-storey houses were built in the seventeenth century; in Shibam there are, even today, over five hundred such tower-houses, though the highest has no more than eight storeys. The Potala Palace in Tibet has twelve storeys in some places, though they exist within the entrails of a gigantic building.

potala palaceThe term 'skyscraper' was a late-eighteenth century invention applied both to the high triangular sails on ships and to high-standing horses — Skyscraper won the Epsom Derby in 1789. Its first recorded application to a building was in 1880, when Queen Anne's Mansions were built in Westminster, ten storeys high, with perky roofs and spires, using traditional technology.

carson mansion in eureka, CAReally tall buildings, however, required three things: steel-frame construction; powered elevators and strong financial pressure to concentrate office blocks in city quarters with high rentals. That meant Chicago was, almost inevitably, the first skyscraper city, especially since, unlike its main rival for the position, St. Louis, it was outside of the swath of the Civil War. Here we come to another example, and a brilliant one, of technology creating art. The rise of Chicago was exceptional even by American standards, and right from the start, was the result of using the latest technology. In 1830 it was a fort with a few farmhouses, and a population of two hundred. At the head of Lake Michigan it was the natural entry point for the great Midwest plains, but a half-mile sandbank blocked access. Army engineers, using new digging equipment and explosives, blasted a canal through.

Two years later, a Chicagoan called George Snow invented the balloon frame. This was a house-construction system using milled lumber, quickly nailed together without need for mortice and tenon, which halved the time taken to build a house. The balloon frame plus railroads explains why, by 1848, Chicago was a first-class port handling the biggest inland-water ships in the world, with a hundred trains a day arriving on eleven different railroads. In 1856, it decided to jack itself out of the mud. Again using the latest equipment, the entire built-up town was raised 4 feet, by means of giant jacks. Briggs' hotel, made of brick, five storeys high and weighing 22,000 tons, was jacked up while continuing to function. The jacking finished, the spaces were infilled and new roads and sidewalks laid down.


The appalling Chicago fire of 1871 helped matters. Lasting 27 hours, it destroyed 17,000 buildings, a third of the total, and made 100,000 homeless. The city was then invaded by architects and engineers, who set about devising fireproof building systems. By 1874, Peter B. Wight and Sanford Loring had combined steel framing, brick flooring and cladding of terra-cotta and ceramic to make their buildings virtually proof against flames. Chicago had limitless access to land and shortage of space was never a factor in the skyscraper boom there. But accountants calculated that very tall buildings, erected in the financial-business sector of the city, could generate rents ten times higher per square foot of office space than low buildings only a few hundred yards away.

upper michigan avenue 1925Moreover, caissons developed during the national bridge-building phase of the 1860s and 1870s were discovered to be perfect for laying the foundations of immensely heavy buildings on Chicago's muddy surface. Chicago also seized eagerly on the new elevator, run first by steam, then much more efficiently by electricity. New York's Haughwout Building had put in a steam elevator in 1857, and it had come to Chicago in 1864, before the fire, in a store owned by Charles B. Farewell. By 1870 there was a hydraulic elevator, and in 1887 the first electric one. By that date Chicago had 800,000 citizens. Eight years later it had over a million, and 3,000 electric elevators, with elaborate safety devices — and in many cases with beautiful wrought-iron and brass gates, mainly in the French Second Empire mode — had been installed.


Whether New York or Chicago built the first true skyscraper need not concern us, though the title probably belongs to New York's equitable Life Assurance Company Building of 1868-70 by Arthur Delevan Gilman. It combined steel frame, the new kinds of cladding and lifts, thought it was only five storeys high (and has long since been pulled down). Far more important was the fact that Chicago produced the first skyscraper architect in Louis Sullivan. Chicago was a utilitarian city which had to make every dollar pay and looked to a 9 percent return on capital. New York was a headquarters city where prestige and self-advertisement were factors in buildings. The first Chicago building with iron pilasters, large windows and a proper skeleton facade was the Leiter Building by William Le Baron Jenney, but it was only five storeys, like the Equitable. Jenney built a ten-storey building in 1884-85 for Home Insurance, with reinforced iron frames on two facades.

Leiter buildingBuildings are not luxuries, like paintings and sculpture. They are necessities. They have to work. One of the characters of the International Modern Style was that, being highly ideological and rigid, it was also inefficient. Its buildings, conceived on the principle of functionalism, were actually dysfunctional in many cases. High-rises created crime and other social problems. Brutalist hospitals killed their patients. Such buildings also disgusted younger architects with their lack of opportunities, choice and inspiration. In 1966, Robert Venturi published an important book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which called for multiplicity and variety in the style of new buildings and answered Mies van der Rohe's fatous 'Less is more' with 'Less is bore.'

Sony Building (formerly AT & T building)In paintings, such an attack would have been severely punished; indeed, the book would have been reviewed. But Venturi's onslaught brought commissions. Clients were as bored as he was. Individuals wanted homes, not units. Corporations wanted images they could be proud of like the Chrysler or the Empire State buildings, not glass boxes. When Philip Johnson and John Burgee produced their design for AT&T's corporate headquarters in New York in 1979, its flashy classicism surmounted by a broken pediment acted like a slogan, and for the first time in the century, anti-Modernists got the publicity on their side. It would not be true to say that Modernism in architecture collapsed like a pack of cards, though some of its buildings came close to it before they were demolished. But by the 1980s it was dead.

Neuen Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart Post-Modernism in architecture took many forms. Michael Graves reintroduced colour contrasts in the Portland Building. In the Republican Bank, Johnson and Burgee reintroduced the Gothic with Baltic stepped-gables and spires in an immense tower. In the Neue Staatsgalerie, James Stirling and Michael Wilford experimented in what might be called New Mycenaean. Venturi's Sainsbury Wing for the London National Gallery was Baroque Pastiche.

Sainsbury wingSpanish architects were particularly forward in producing new stylistic exercises. At Marne-la-Vallee near Paris, Ricardo Bofill combined classicism with varieties of Baroque and even pseudo-Rococo. In the same vast development, Manuel Nunez produced immense circles, curves and arches. Santiago Calatrava reintroduced spectacular vaulting for a variety of internal purposes. Another huge 1980s-90s development, Canary Wharf in London Docklands, was predominantly Romanesque. The architects of classical Greece, ancient Egypt of the New Kingdom, Neo-Babylonia, Paleteresque and Sondergotik, Palladio and Piranesi all arose from their graves to haunt the fleeing Modernists.


Colour returned - gleaming classical white, blood-red from the hetacombs, pale green from Art Deco, the orange of the Pueblo Indians, shocking pink from the heyday of Schiaparelli and Raoul Dufy, yellows and browns of desert Islam. Much of the new architecture was silly and meretricious; much was the architectural equivalent of Pop art or Op art. But it created a multilingual hubbub — very different from the strident authoritarian monoglot monotone of International Modernism — in which creative architects of genius could find their individual voices, as they were beginning to do, in increasing numbers, by the early 21st century.

Hong Kong Shanghai BankWith the return of exuberance in building, the skyscraper tower made a dramatic comeback, not only in the United States but all over the world especially in the new economies of the Far East. Hong Kong, like Manhattan Island, was a natural skyscraper city. It grew to the skies, in the 1950s and 1960s, in the unfeatured block style of International Modernism. The seventies introduced colour and variety. In the 1980s there came revolutionary changes with the introduction not so much of Entrail architecture as of Meccano towers, in which huge steel beams on the outside provide the patterning and decoration and appear to constitute the structure — thus the 1986 Hong Kong Shanghai Bank of Norman Foster jostles for attention with its immense neighbor, the Bank of China Tower by I.M. Pei.

Meccano architecture, both in its hard-edge and rounded-edge versions, became a particular favorite in East and Southeast Asia. It was used for the immense twin towers of the Tokyo City Hall, 1992, by Kenzo Tange, a late convert to Post-Modernism, who causes a sensation when he produced his plan for what looks like an 800 foot-high metallic west front of a late-twentieth century cathedral, with square girder frames instead of spires. Nearly twice as tall were the twin Petronas Towers at Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, 1,480 feet high when completed in 1996. Their Meccano serrations are rounded and there is a whiff of the pagoda about their spires.

site of Park Hyatt GuangzhouBut one of the objects in building them was to produce for Asia in general, and mighty little Malaysia in particular, the title of the world's tallest building, at least for a time. This had been held by the Sears Tower in Chicago. It is worth reminding those who think it odd that Communism should produce the world's tallest building that for decades the record for the tallest building in Europe was held by a Wedding Cake tower built in Warsaw in the 1950s. It was beaten by Norman Foster's Kommerzbank headquarters building in Frankfurt, thought its 1300 feet is comparatively low by world standards.

the never built tour sans fin in ParisGreat skyscraper towers are never built for purely commercial reasons. They advertisements, self-advertisements, corporate, personal or even national: in short, their motivation is akin to artistic; to use the current 21st century jargon, they are 'statements.' Skyscrapers are still built with essentially the same technology used in the Empire State at the end of the 1920s. But increased knowledge of how they and their materials behave, when built, enables them to creep higher and higher. As long ago as 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright designed a mile-high skyscraper. Present towers are still less than a third that height. There is a proposal to build a Millennium Tower of ninety storeys and over 1,000 feet in London; for a Tour Sans Fin in Paris, for a Nina Tower in Hong Kong (called after the billionairess Nina Wang); and a tower in Melbourne which will be 2,250 feet high.


Planning is going ahead on buildings of up to 2,600 feet, including a tower in Tokyo in the Entrail style. These projects depend on the economic climate; the Empire State, planned just before Wall Street crash of 1929, was the last big skyscraper to be built for nearly two decades. But there can be little doubt that the mile-high skyscraper will be built during the 21st century. As is shown repeatedly in the cities of America, which has always built the best skyscrapers and grouped them profusely, a grove of varied tall buildings is one of the most exciting sights on earth. These airy and glittering city centres are perhaps the greatest achievement of twentieth-century art.

Paul Johnson is a British historian and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. You can purchase Art: A New History here.

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