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The New York Sun

 

My Father, the Architect

October 31, 2006

By Edward L. Glaeser

PRINTER FRIENDLY

Ludwig Glaeser, my father, died after a fight with throat cancer on September 27. He was an architect who, to my knowledge, never built a building, but rather presented works of the great modernists, like Mies van der Rohe, to the American public. He spent much of his career as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, and then briefly became director of the Canadian Center for Architecture. At MOMA, he ran the Mies Van Der Rohe archive, caring for Mies’ papers, which my namesake and his architectural mentor Edward Ludwig had donated to the museum. Teaching at Cooper Union, my father inspired a large number of students including the current chair of architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

I am writing this column to acknowledge the great debt that I owe to my father. His passion for cities and buildings nurtured my own. His traditional European academic background led him to trust wisdom that comes from knowing the past. While I disappointed him by failing to learn classical Greek, I did at least learn from him a respect for history that helps me balance my economist’s tendency to put too much confidence in theory and statistics.

While I have tried to emulate much of my father’s learning and character, I have also benefited from his influence even in those cases where our views differ substantially. My father was an aesthete who thought first about creating or protecting beauty. He was not an enemy of new construction and change. In 1984, he served as an expert witness in the zoning battle over a 290-foot Mies office tower in London’s Mansion Square. My father supported the developer in the failed battle against anti-change, neo-Victorians, like the Prince Regent. My father fought for this tower because it was beautiful, not, as I would have, because growth was needed for the city to adapt to new times.

The central conflict between the architect and the economist is the conflict between championing beauty and choice. While my father disliked dreary postwar apartment buildings and detested ugly suburban communities, I see much to admire in all the forms and sprawl. Much postwar construction may be dull, but those buildings made it possible for millions of Americans to live in the way that they desired. To an economist, the ability of people to live as they choose is paramount. Even if my own tastes are as urban as my father’s, I cannot see imposing those tastes on others.

Of course, even an economist can think that more beauty is preferred to less beauty. While my father was confident in his ability to assess the beautiful, I have no such confidence in my or the state’s aesthetic senses. The limited architectural history I learned from my father clearly shows that tastes are nothing if not volatile. The experience of my father’s own youth, living in a regime led by a monster determined to impose his own architectural vision on Berlin, leaves me suspicious about handing aesthetic control over to the government. While my utilitarian outlook differs from the outlook of my father and much of the design community, I would not have thought about these things if I had not had the benefit of growing up with an architect who taught me to think seriously about the environment created by man.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from my father came from his childhood rather than from anything he said or did. My father was born in Berlin in 1930 and was in Germany through the war and the dark period immediately after it. Like every European of this epoch, he had experienced a world completely unlike the safe, prosperous America of my youth. Comparing my youth with my father’s has always made me grateful for the blessings of America.

As we contemplate the difficulties of our current nation-building efforts, my father’s life offers some small comfort. In the war, my grandparents’ Berlin apartment was repeatedly bombed by Americans, but my father never stopped being grateful to those American bombers who helped end Nazism. His life journey from the horrors of Hitler’s Germany to the peaceful and free West Germany in the 1950s to the extraordinary world of New York shows the ability of America to make lives better. He and I owe a great debt to this nation, especially to those who fought in World War II and to those who worked to rebuild Germany afterwards.

Original Source: http://www.nysun.com/opinion/my-father-the-architect/42594/

 

 
 
 

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