PRINT September 1989



“THE ARCHANGEL LOVED HEIGHTS.” And I love the high I get from the book that opens with those words: Henry Adams’ Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. Adams is writing about the statue of Saint Michael atop the pinnacle of a 12th-century French abbey; he does not fear the pathetic fallacy. He wants to bring the archangel down to earth without discrediting the idea of heights. Saint Michael, he tells us, hasn’t attained this eminence on account of God, or religion, or even architecture. He’s up there on account of a craving for high places—a taste we may share when we find ourselves transported higher by one building or one book than we are by other books and buildings. A few chapters later, when he gets to Chartres, Adams asks us to look at cathedrals as enormous doll houses and the Virgin Mary as the world’s biggest doll; if we can’t imagine ourselves as children playing with dolls, Adams writes, we will never understand Chartres. And we won’t understand angels until we can connect them with our own sense of aspiration.

Lots of angels evidently love Vienna. They are everywhere you look, but the angels that held my eye on a recent visit (my first) were the ones circulating around the Ring. Carl Schorske’s book Fin-de-siècle Vienna had prepared me for the buildings of the Ring, but nothing had prepared me for the angels that adorn them, except perhaps the Berlin-based angels in Wim Wenders’ movie Wings of Desire. In Vienna they patrol the skyline, dispensing good fortune and encouragement, holding laurel wreaths and olive branches, forming a circle of protection around the culture of mid-19th-century middle-class liberalism incarnated by the Ring.

The inner city is full of angels, but they wear the wings of the old papal, Imperial order; as Schorske observed, the construction of the Ring had the effect of turning the inner city into a museum of the Hapsburg Empire. In the Michaelerkirche, the chapel of the Imperial Court, a glorious 18th-century altarpiece shows us the Fall of the Angels, a reminder of our need for redemption, and also a reminder of the Church’s power to redeem and the State’s authority to do everything else.

In the Ring, angels are once again back on top, though they are a new breed of angel and the heights they command are worldly. These new angels are confident that they have inherited the privileges of earlier dispensations. They can dress up as classical goddesses, allegories of civic virtues, even as Maria Theresa herself, but the Ring holds them firmly in the grasp of new ideas, such as constitutional government, freedom of the press, freedom of trade. They look toward the Modern world of even newer ideas shortly to emerge just outside the inner city: toward Freud’s house, which lies just a few blocks beyond the Ring, toward the Secession Building on the other side of town.

And even though their protection failed, even with Waldheim sitting at his desk inside the Ring, reminding us of the magnitude of that failure, their message still seems worth shouting from the rooftops. Do your best! Study, work, create, and never mind about the next world; try to make something of this one. At least, their symbolism seems less tarnished now than that of the jet plane (with all its memories of Modern idealism) that takes me back to New York.

ARTFORUM’S PORTHOLE WINDOWS PUNCTUATE a frieze of angels at the top of the only New York building designed by Louis Sullivan, “the father of the skyscraper.” It’s easy to walk by this building and not even notice the angels, and, as every student of Modern architecture knows, Sullivan didn’t want them in the first place; they were included at the request of the client’s pious wife. For Sullivan, spiritual aspiration was expressed in the scale and proportions of the entire building. “It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing,” he wrote, “rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line. . . . ”

The spirituality of the American skyscraper is the subject of The Skyward Trend of Thought, a recent book by Thomas A. P. van Leeuwen. Van Leeuwen writes to rebut the orthodox Modern interpretation of skyscrapers as expressions of American pragmatism and materialism. He wants to extract these buildings from the wreckage of the Modern ideology that enlisted them as buttresses to the cause of sachlichkeit, “objectivity,” and restore to them the metaphysical values that preoccupied many of their architects.

Unfortunately he repeats the Modern ideologue’s habit of using American architecture to eclipse the European past. Thus he erases the connection between the ziggurat style of the skyscraper and 19th-century historicism, preferring in- stead to see a direct line from New York to Babylon. Van Leeuwen, a professor of architectural history in Holland, is described on his book’s dustjacket as being “in complete command of recent critical theories that have transformed the practice of cultural and intellectual history in Europe.” But his book is a tribute to the 19th-century conception of art as the religion of modern times. The analogy between art and religion may have its uses, but it’s a little hard to take in this city right now. As we stand around in the shadows of Trump, Macklowe, and Durst, do we really want to hear about the spirituality of skyscraper builders?

Van Leeuwen is right to remind us that skyscrapers once affirmed more than the skyward reach of the steel frame and the Otis elevator. But about 25 years ago the truth was no longer escapable that what it took to get up there wasn’t idealism but greed. Liberal hope took the elevator from the summits down to the street celebrated by Jane Jacobs, Bernard Rudofsky, and William H. Whyte. While Thierry Mugler’s fashion models have found spiritual room at the top, others prefer their angels at a lower cruising altitude, like the Batman wings that spread ripples of whimsical solidarity through the streets of New York this past summer.

THERE ARE STREETS IN THE City of Angels, even though they don’t fit the popular image of the L.A. freeways, and the Steel Cloud, a project designed to hang suspended over the Hollywood Freeway, joins that image to the surrounding neighborhood streets of downtown L.A. Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture, the project’s architects, won a competition earlier this year for a monument to symbolize L.A.’s new sense of itself as a place where, culturally and materially, things are looking up. The architects say that the objective of the project is to “raise the horizon” of Los Angeles. This is horizontal architecture with a vertical thrust, like the Mother Spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, whose illuminated underside, Rashid points out, inverts the sparkling nighttime vista of the San Fernando Valley. Like the spaceship, this aerial street gives us a vision to look up to, and if, like angels, we love heights, a means to get up there and witness the kind of panoramic vistas you get from the car on a freeway but rarely from the street. And it plays with the slightly disorienting sense you have in parts of downtown L.A. (at the Museum of Contemporary Art, for instance) of not knowing whether the street is on the ground or up in the air.

Programmatically, the Steel Cloud is a culture mall, with museums on immigration and Los Angeles history, exhibition spaces for art and craft, theaters for movies and live performance, and a mammoth, walk-through aquarium where you can indulge the California fantasy of being a refugee from urban captivity fleeing toward the Promised La-La Land. These components are individually articulated, in the vocabulary of warped, sliced forms for which Joseph Giovannini coined the term “deconstructivist” architecture. Rashid was a student of Daniel Libeskind’s at Cranbrook, and his forms echo Libeskind’s “Collage Rebus” projects of a decade ago. You might call the project second-generation “deconstructivist”—except that everything about the Steel Cloud negates the crisis ideology that justifies a correspondence between these forms and deconstruction.

It’s the business of clouds to reveal what’s on their observer’s minds, and what I see here is not the opening up of ruptures and fissures, but rather a symbolic fusion of the polyglot metropolis and its built forms. The building is fragmented, but the parts make a shimmering whole capable of conveying the fragment’s value. Access to the building leads from downtown neighborhoods of different ethnic composition, but toward a visual and physical center. The building’s style emerges not as the subversion of power but as an appropriate language for civic boosterism—at least in a city trying to show that it has a place for high culture as impressive as the popular culture with which it disturbed the hierarchy. The architects are seeking an architecture not better than but as good as the freeway; an architecture capable of rising to the poetry of the city’s texture, its sprawling landscape of mobility and promise.

Herbert Muschamp directs the Graduate Program in Criticism at the Parsons School of Design, New York. He contributes regularly to Artforum.