- Historic Sites
The Soulless City
It is scarred by ugliness and racked by violence. It is inundated by newcomers and strangling in its own technology. How did it get this way? Can anything save it?
February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
But this is only the entering light. As in any such edifice, there is a light within. In this case a very monstrancelike golden-brown glow that shines forth from the offices of the foundation executives, who from the floor of the park are to be seen at their work behind glass panels formed and reticulated by the same rusted beams that frame the colorless glass of two sides of the building. (Cor-ten steel seals itself by rusting and need not be painted.) At this point one perceives readily enough that the building has been built as a factory. Not precisely as a factory—any more than the Gothic Revival built office buildings precisely as medieval monasteries—but rather to evoke the style and somehow the spirit of a great plant. The huge, heavy lateral beams, from which elsewhere would be suspended the giant hoists that roam back and forth amidst the clatter and roar; the sawtooth roof; the plant managers’ eyrie hung from the ceiling, keeping an eye on everything; the perfectly standardized, interchangeable fixtures in each office; the seriousness and competence of it all, even the blue-black, somehow oily granite of the cheerless rest rooms (No Loitering in the Can) magically, stunningly, triumphantly, evoke the style and spirit of the primeval capitalist factory. Cor-ten. Red. Rouge. River Rouge. Of course! And why not, for $16,000,000 of Henry Ford’s money? He was that kind of man. Knew how to make automobiles and obviously liked to. Else he could hardly have done it so well. All black, just as the Ford Foundation headquarters is all brown. Same principle. So also the panopticon effect of the exposed offices wherein the presumptively interchangeable officers at their perfectly interchangeable desks labor at their good works in full view of management and public alike. (The public serving, perhaps, as the visitors to Jeremy Bentham’s prospective model prison: a “promiscuous assemblage of unknown and therefore unpaid, ungarbled and incorruptible inspectors”?) Critics, at least in the first reviews, seem to have missed most of this, but no matter: the architecture needs no guidebook: the intellectual and aesthetic effect is not to be avoided, even when the intent is least perceived. All in all it is just as McGeorge Bundy proclaimed it in the 1968 annual report of the foundation: “Kevin Roche’s triumph.”
But it is more than that. Or rather, there is more than is to be perceived at one time. A great work of art has levels of meaning at once various and varying. Standing in the park, gazing upward, following the factory motif, the mind is of a sudden troubled. Something is missing. Noise. Factories are places of noise. Of life. Clatter. Roar. There is no noise here. Only quiet. The quiet of the…? The mind oscillates. It is a factory, all right. But a ruined factory! The holocaust has come and gone: hence the silence. The windows have blown out, and only the gray light of the burnedout world enters. The weather has got in, and with it nature now reclaiming the ravaged union of fire and earth. The factory floor has already begun to turn to forest. Vegetation has made its way to ledges halfway up the interior. The machine tools are gone. Reparations? Vandalism? Who knows. But the big machines will no longer be making little machines. Gone too is the rational, reforming, not altogether disinterested purpose of the panopticon. One is alone in the ominous gloom of a Piranesi prison, noting the small bushes taking hold in the crevices of the vast ruined arches.
Is it the past or the future that has taken hold of the mind? Certainly the ruined steel frame is a good enough symbol of the twentieth century so far. (Where had one last seen that color? Of course. Pingree Street in Detroit after the riot. A year later there it was again, on Fourteenth Street in Washington: the fiery orange-red of the twisted steel shopping centers’ framing after the looting and arson has passed.) Or is it the future? There is a sur réal quality that comes of standing in the ruined half of the building, watching the life going on behind the glass walls of the intact half, seemingly oblivious to the devastation without. Can ruin advance slowly like rot? No. Yes. Did the automobile start all this? No. Surely it is all this that started automobiles. One quarter to two thirds of which end up with blood on them. Blood. Red. Rouge. River Rouge.
But then why has the American architect Joseph Stein built the Ford Foundation headquarters in New Delhi immediately adjacent the Lodi Tombs, symbols of death sensual to the point of necrophilia? Did not Bentham remark that he could legislate wisely for all India from the recesses of his study? There’s a panopticon in your future.
And yet it comes together in a way. “ Le siècle de la machine ,” Le Corbusier wrote in 1924, “ a réveillé l’architecte .” Not least because the machine destroys so much of that experience of community that the architect seeks to create. A biographer describes Eero Saarinen’s purpose thus: “What … [he] wished to renew, maintain, and improve was the organic expression of the civitas which he found weakened or destroyed virtually everywhere in modern civilization, with one significant exception—the university campus.” And so Roche built a ruined machine-formaking-machines as the headquarters of a great philanthropic foundation whose principal concerns have been to support the universities of the nation, and to seek to strengthen the community life of its cities.