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10 Unabashedly Harsh Critiques of Very Famous Buildings

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It turns out the ever-sassy Frank Lloyd Wright was not the only person to serve up a flavorful platter of architectural put-downs of beloved buildings. If the architecture was groundbreaking (hi, Mies van der Rohe) or particularly unusual (you too, Le Corbusier) it was probably eviscerated by a critic or two. Properly eviscerated if that critic was creative, like, say, esteemed New York Times and Wall Street Journal writer Ada Louise Huxtable, who was the doyenne of brutal analogies for everything from "palazzos on lollipops" to "marble sarcophaguses in which the art of architecture lies buried." Snap.

Farnsworth House

↑ ln the April 1953 issue of House Beautiful, the editor's note denounced Mies van der Rohe's crown achievement, the Farnsworth House. The ultimate in pared-back and something of a figurehead for modern home design, Farnsworth is far from perfect: it's not particularly livable or energy-efficient, for example. Of course, House Beautiful's issues were way less sensical. The editor called it a "threat to the new America," and splashed about in the waters of McCarthyism, saying the building was the icon of "a sinister group of International Stylists," that were trying "to force Americans to accept an architecture that was barren, grim, impoverished, impractical, uninhabitable, and destructive of individual possessions, as well as of individuals themselves," or at least that's how Peter Blake once paraphrased the article. The editor writes: "We know that less is not more. It is simply less!"

Kennedy Center

↑ "The style of the Kennedy Center is Washington superscale, but just a little bit bigger," writes architecture criticism sage Ada Louise Huxtable. "What it has in size, it lacks in distinction. Its character is aggrandized posh. It is an embarrassment to have it stand as a symbol of American artistic achievement before the nation and the world [...] The building is a national tragedy. It is a cross between a concrete candy box and a marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lies buried."

Palace of Industry

↑ After a visit to São Paulo, Swiss architect Max Bill came back disturbed by Oscar Niemeyer's take on modernism. "There I saw some shocking things, modern architecture sunk to the depths, a riot of anti-social waste, lacking any sense of responsibility toward either the business occupant or his customers [...] for such works are born of a spirit devoid of all decency and of all responsibility to human needs," the die-hard Bauhaus devotee wrote. "It is the spirit of decorativeness, something diametrically opposed to the spirit which animates architecture, which is the art of building, the social art above all others."

Villa Savoye

↑ Frank Lloyd Wright did not like Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye, which he derided as a "box on stilts." Wright also deigned to call the French modernist's oeuvre, which was grounded in a philosophy that a "house is a machine for living in," a "childish attempt to make buildings resemble steamships, flying machines, or locomotives."

Eiffel Tower

↑ By the time construction wrapped, the Eiffel Tower was pretty unambiguously beloved, receiving some two million visitors for the 1889 World's Fair. Still, the humorists of the day were positively gleeful during its construction, calling it a "truly tragic street lamp," a "belfry skeleton," and a "mast of iron gymnasium apparatus, incomplete, confused and deformed." It was called a "high and skinny pyramid of iron ladders," a "giant ungainly skeleton upon a base that looks built to carry a colossal monument of Cyclops, but which just peters out into a ridiculous thin shape like a factory chimney." It was a "half-built factory pipe, a carcass waiting to be fleshed out with freestone or brick, a funnel-shaped grill, a hole-riddled suppository." Oh, 19th-century French satirists.

Barclay's Center

↑ Upon the opening of Brooklyn's Barclay's Center in 2012, The Real Deal's critic James Gardner wrote it was "about as tawdry and uninspired a piece of work as I had anticipated." He even hated on the new subway station. "Quite clearly, it never occurred to anyone that somebody might actually want to design the place. Rather it has been conceived in the dullest and most functional style imaginable, with standard issue turnstiles, and little more than some ill-conceived brown and white tiles braying their laughable insufficiency across the walls."

Gallery of Modern Art

↑ When it opened in 1964, New York's Gallery of Modern Art was shredded by Huxtable, who wrote it "resembles a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops." That being said, she wrote some 30 years later that she got "a little lift, a sense of pleasure" when she walked by the building. In 2008, despite huge efforts by preservationist groups, the building got a major glassy overhaul.

Hirshhorn Museum

↑ Another good Huxtable line comes from her review of Washington, D.C.'s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garde, which she dubbed a "bunker or gas tank, lacking only gun emplacements or an Exxon sign." She continued, "It totally lacks the essential factors of esthetic strength and provocative vitality that make genuine 'brutalism' positive and rewarding style. This is born-dead, neo-penitentiary modern. Its mass is not so much aggressive or overpowering as merely leaden."

Glass House

↑ Connecticut's Glass House, the masterpiece by American architect Philip Johnson, was controversial at the onset—and not just because of its spare forms and blasphemously un-American modernism. According to former New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe "stormed out in a huff when he saw it," because it was so obviously derived from the German architect's Farnsworth House. The fact that Glass House managed to wrap construction first made matters worse. Ouroussoff wrote that "Johnson's vision lacked the intellectual rigor and exquisite detailing that were so critical to Mies's genius," and wrote that the I-beams at the corners of Johnson's work are "clumsily detailed—especially disconcerting in a work of such purity."

General Motors Building

↑ But, in the end, it all comes back to Huxtable. For the General Motors skyscraper, a 1.8M-square-foot midtown Manhattan monolith by architect Edward Durrell Stone she gave this description:

"Behind the marble cladding and bay windows, architecture, like the proverbial thin man in the fat man's body, is signaling wildly to get out." · All Archicritics posts [Curbed National]
· All Starchitecture posts [Curbed National]
· Frank Lloyd Wright Threw All Kinds of Shade in This Interview [Curbed National]