Roger Ebert’s Thoughts on ‘Totalitarian’ Modern Architecture

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Already making the rounds and stirring up some noise is one of Roger Ebert‘s latest posts for the Sun Times, “The Image of a Man You Do Not See,” which if you’re either a Chicago architecture or Louis Sullivan buff, you’ll recognize as a quote from the famous architect (in full, as Ebert prints it: “Every building you see is the image of a man you do not see.”). As you’ve guessed, the post is about architecture. In between history lessons, from his own to Chicago’s great buildings and the architects who designed them, Ebert branches out a bit to wonder if/complain that Mies van der Rohe giving popular rise to modernism in the US led to “an architecture that is totalitarian in its severe economy.” He appreciates van der Rohe (and even Frank Gehry!), but mourns the loss of ornamentation, the kind Sullivan earned his legacy for. So Ebert’s stance isn’t anti-modernism of the Prince Charles model (again: he says he likes Frank Gehry), but instead, seems rooted firmly in nostalgia. Unfortunately, this nostalgia seems to cloud the essay a bit, sounding like Ebert believes that once Mies came around everyone decided “Well, let’s quit with the ornamentation and originality in general,” neglecting to factor in globalization, insanely quicker building techniques, and the birth/growth of the suburbs (in no particular order). We know he must not believe that, given his few sentences about money and “cookie-cutter marketing” are dead giveaways, but all the nostalgia seems to water down the argument/grief a bit in an otherwise great read.