An Architect Turns to Words

We told Richard Solomon we envied architects. The idea of putting up even a single building that changes the face of the city. That your children will show to their children! That will be standing and lived in a century from now! Everyone knows what happens to day-old newspapers.

But Solomon knows what happens to architects. Over lunch the other day he told us about the best commission he ever got–for a preschool space at the Museum of Science and Industry.

“I had a fairly big budget for a space meant to make children happy,” he remembered. “I thought, this is what I went to architecture school to do. I really thought that my grandchildren would come and play in the space that I made.

“I went to the museum a year ago, and it was gone. They just erased it. I had done everything you’re supposed to do. I stayed in touch with the museum. When they got a new director, I wrote the director. But in four or five years everyone connected with the project was gone. So they decided to do a new space somewhere else and design it in-house.”

Solomon’s father was the late Louis Solomon, a founder of Solomon Cordwell Buenz, one of the firms that’s created postwar Chicago. Rick Solomon studied at MIT and Yale, went to work for the old man, and after a few years at SCB set out on his own.

“I found architecture tremendously rich, tremendously interesting,” he told us, “because of the array of things one could do within the whole field. I remember being a student going from a class that told about the size nails being produced in America to a class that talked about perceptual theory.”

But however rich the field, his own practice was small and unsatisfying. “What I found after 10 years–or 15, 20–of being in practice is that I couldn’t manipulate architecture to make personal statements of which I was particularly proud. And after a number of attempts you can’t blame the client or the situation. You have to say there’s something about the interaction between you and the process that isn’t working.”

For several years Solomon combined doing architecture with teaching it at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He wrote occasionally for Inland Architect and produced a newsletter for UIC’s school of architecture that was half calendar, half essays by students and faculty. The newsletter became an outlet for Solomon’s restless mind.

Why should the prince of Wales have become an architecture critic? he wondered in one issue. “Is it because of architecture’s peculiar relationship to patronage, a generic obsequiousness regarding Position?” Solomon observed that as royal power has waned, “the monarchs of Great Britain have moved to occupy positions of influence in progressively weaker institutions. . . . The Prince has astutely located a cultural institution weak enough and insecure enough in its own underpinnings so that his opinions will be accepted . . .”

Last year Cynthia Chapin Davidson, after nine distinguished years as editor of Inland Architect, decided to get married and move east. Ripe for a change, having already decided to shut down his practice, Solomon applied for the job. He was named acting editor at the beginning of the year and just got the position permanently. He’s also stopped teaching. He’s a journalist.

“I believe that words are a much more powerful medium, an enormously more powerful medium than architecture is,” he said. “That is not to say that one cannot do powerful work. But words are much more important.”

Of course it’s a matter of what words, and where. Inland Architect is one of the country’s most respected architectural journals. Founded at the turn of the century, resurrected 35 years ago by the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the magazine was taken over by Harry Weese in 1977. Now a board of directors is underwriting it, and the goal–which Solomon thinks is “actually doable”–is for Inland Architect to become self-sufficient. The magazine claims a bimonthly audience of 24,000 readers.

“Although the magazine is of regional focus, it’s of national interest,” Solomon said. “It walks a line between being an architectural newsmagazine and a journal of architectural ideas, and everybody wants to maintain that.”

Chicago, we observed, might be the only city going with more architecture critics than rock critics.

He agreed. “There is a group of very talented people who were associated with the magazine before I got there who are ready to write careful and critically insightful articles for virtually nothing.”

We asked him what’s happened to all the architects the big firms have been laying off in the last year or two.

“Many of them, I suppose, are rethinking their careers,” he said. “It’s a thankless job. It has to be a passion for you, or it’s very, very difficult. We’re seeing bad times now for everybody, but when times are good for investment bankers, they drive around in limousines. When times are good for architects, it means they have steady work at reasonable pay.”

We said it sounded like acting.

“It’s very much like acting,” he said. “It’s almost in some ways like acting, because your ego is always on the line. You can’t go out and act without a company. You really can’t go out and practice in any meaningful way without clients. Part of your creative self is at risk in this kind of situation . . .

“People who can hold their creative visions in architecture deserve a tremendous amount of praise,” he went on. “So this wonderful pleasure in making architecture is–at least it was in my practice, a realistic practice–occasionally in conflict with the architect as a person who provides a service for the client. It’s not just the case of a woman with bad taste who wants a kitchen. It’s often the case of a developer with perfectly legitimate requirements from his point of view . . .”

So now he writes. “One could argue,” said Solomon, who can and will, “that the interpretation of a building is as much a component of the building as the building itself.”

Do you alter a building by interpreting it? we asked him.

“The answer is yes,” he said. “The question is, do I think I alter it through invention or discovery? You see things that alter forever the way others see it. . . . The interesting question is whether you can make a building different by interpretation. When [Michael Graves’s] Portland Building was built, I think it was Wolf von Eckardt who called it a dangerous building in Time magazine. My contention is it became a much more dangerous building when those words were written than it would have been otherwise.”

What’s exhilarating about journalism is that it happens. What Rick Solomon chooses to think about today he can put in his magazine tomorrow. Lately he’s been thinking about ceremonial spaces. “I’m going to do a piece,” he said, “that recalls the fact that both sports arenas and theaters were spaces in which life-and-death issues were worked out. Looking at the new Steppenwolf theater in those terms brings something that’s really different to it. I’m really excited about it.”

You’re going to write about Steppenwolf?” we asked.

“I’m going to lay it up against a very conventional proscenium house,” he said.

Do you like the new theater? we asked.

“I don’t know yet. But I know it’s exemplary of an attitude about theater which expresses the mechanics of theater as the aesthetic. It makes a space that looks as though the audience and the actors and the back space are all in the same space. Which is very different from the Goodman Theatre, even though both purport to serve the same function. The people who built the Goodman certainly weren’t ignorant. But there’s a difference in the way we understand theater between what they saw and what [Steppenwolf architect] John Morris saw. And I’ll try to have a writer talk about that.”

You won’t write it yourself? we said.

No, said Solomon. “But I’ll talk over my ideas first.”

Spoken like a patron. And like a happier man.

Adman’s Luck

“I saw the years slipping away,” said Peter Mayle, “and I decided I didn’t want to spend any more of them under a gray sky in England.”

This was five years ago. He and his wife moved to Provence in southeastern France. They have lived there since. Mayle was in Chicago last week promoting his new book, Toujours Provence. And as we have felt that same gray sky hanging over the video terminals of Chicago, we asked Mayle how he did it.

“It’s been a fortunate combination of circumstances,” he said.

The crucial stroke of luck came in the early 70s. He was an advertising man at the time. On the side he decided to write a book telling children the facts of life, Where Did I Come From? Using the agency’s facilities, he prepared a dummy of the book that looked as slick as any finished product.

“I took it to the publisher. The meeting lasted five minutes. He said, ‘Yes, I’ll do that. I’ll print 50,000 in hardback to start with.’ It gave me an entirely unrealistic idea of the publishing business.”

Where Did I Come From? is still selling. Publishing looked so easy that he quit his job in 1974 and has been writing books ever since. When Mayle moved to Provence, he told himself he would write his first novel there. He hasn’t, but his two books on the region (A Year in Provence was the first) are so savory you will want to cut them up into little squares and pass them out to all your middle-age friends.

“I was 47. It’s a good age for moving,” he said. “You’re old enough to know what you’d really like to do, but you’ve got a few years of energy and optimism in you.”

And what did you do with the children? we asked him.

“They were grown up,” he said.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.