April 30, 2007

Pop (culture) quiz

I came across this quotation a few days ago. Pop quiz: who said it, and when?

Steel was terrific for tall buildings because it could withstand great lateral stresses as well as support great weights. Its weakness was that the heat of a fire could cause steel to buckle. American codes required that structural steel members be encased in concrete or some other fireproof material.

Who is it? A 9/11 "Truth" debunker, answering metallurgical genius and Truther convert Rosie O'Donnell's assertion that fire doesn't melt steel? (And how does the lovely and talented Ms. O'Donnell think steel is made anyway?) James and Pat at Screw Loose Change responding to Loose Change: This Time We Finally Got It Right Edition?


Those words come from author and essayist Tom Wolfe, in his book From Bauhaus to Our House1 This book, a critique of the Modernist or "International Style" of architecture, was published in 1981.

What Wolfe is describing is the design of the Seagram Building at 375 Park Avenue in New York, built in 1958 and designed in the Modernist style by the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, along with the American Philip Johnson. Believing in the dictum "less is more," Mies' original design was pure functionalism: the structural steel would be on display on the exterior of the building. (Modernists need nothing so "bourgeois" as ornamentation.) However, he found himself up against American building codes, which require that steel be encased in concrete or otherwise fireproofed. No matter, he concluded: encase the steel on the interior of the skyscraper, but "express" it on the exterior by attaching bronze I-beams carrying no load but imitating the concealed steel inside. (You might ask: Why does a purely functionalist structure require 3 million pounds of bronze decorative fake structure on the outside? Quiet, you.)2

To make a long story short: Fully 20 years before the destruction of the World Trade Center, the vulnerability of structural steel to fire was not up for debate.

Of course, these days, with our postmodern, question-all-authority Zeitgeist, even empirically provable facts such as fire wrecks steel buildings are questioned by porky chat-show hosts and black-T-shirted Twoofers who live in their parents' basements and have as much experience with metallurgy and civil engineering as I have exploring Mars.

There's a classic joke used to illustrate the difficulty of overcoming people's deeply held presuppositions. A man insists he is dead, despite the fact that he is walking, talking and breathing. His doctor convinces him (eventually) that dead men do not bleed, then takes a lancet and jabs him in the finger. The man stares at the blood welling up from his fingertip, and exclaims: "Holy moly! Dead men do bleed, after all!"

Yesterday, this happened. A tanker truck carries considerably less fuel than a Boeing 757, the crash didn't directly damage the bridge's structure, and it carried none of the load that the structure of a 110-story skyscraper does. Yet one good blaze weakened the structure enough to collapse two sections of the interchange.

It's a sign of the times that my first reaction, upon hearing this news yesterday, was to wonder how long it would be before the 9/11 Twoofers started claiming the MacArthur Maze bridge collapse was a government set-up. Answer: As usual, not very long.

Holy moly! Dead men do bleed, after all! Surely the truck was really a hologram and the bridge was actually destroyed with a missile. We anxiously wait for Spooked911 to build a model of the MacArthur Maze with chicken wire and cinder blocks, and demonstrate that it should be impervious to fire.

Incidentally, From Bauhaus to Our House was my first experience with Tom Wolfe, and I'm definitely going to be a repeat customer. The book is a polemic against the "glass boxes" of Modernist architecture and the religious fervour with which the various Modernist "compounds" defend their own version of architectural orthodoxy. (Generally speaking, they are all agreed that the "bourgeois," whatever that nebulous term happens to mean at the moment, is bad.) Why is it that America's modern skyscrapers, the most visible symbols of its technological and economic prowess, are homogenous, dull, bland cubes of steel and glass? Bauhaus was written too early for Postmodern architecture to have revived the idea of variety and individuality in landmark buildings, but Wolfe does cover such figures as Edward Durrell Stone, Eero Saarinen and to an extent Robert Venturi, forerunners of the Postmodern movement, whom he terms "apostates" from the Modernist compounds.

Wolfe spends several pages discussing the infamous Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis, widely regarded as the most colossal failure of public housing. Built in the mid-1950s, Pruitt-Igoe's 33 identical high-rise tenements were textbook Modernist: wide-open green areas, communal galleries, skip-stop elevators, and enclosed walkways. In the pie-in-the-sky theories of Modernist architects, these features were supposed to foster community. What they did was foster crime and vandalism, and it was only a few years before the project fell into disrepair and neglect. Finally the entire project was declared beyond redemption, and all the tenements were imploded between 1972 and 1976. It was the first Modernist structure to be intentionally demolished, leading some Postmodern architects to declare it the end of the Modernist era.

As a point of interest, the Pruitt-Igoe architect was Minoru Yamasaki, later the designer of the very Modernist World Trade Center. Cue the spooky music.


1 Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House (New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1981). The quotation is on p. 75.

2 No one who speaks German can be an evil man! footnote: Mies was also worried about the untidy appearance of the Seagram Building when its occupants tried to screen out the sun with window blinds. So he designed special blinds that had only three positions: open, closed, and halfway. Ironically, Mies left Germany because the Nazis didn't feel he was fascistic enough.