The greatest pleasure of “From a Cause to a Style” lies simply in listening to Glazer think as he walks us about his native New York, with occasional diversions to other locales like Boston or the Washington Mall. His intelligence fairly radiates from the page, and his prose is a pleasure to read — clear, supple and frequently droll. His descriptions of the hysteria that engulfed British architects when Prince Charles dared to criticize their work are priceless. So, too, is his skewering of a tragically hip proposal for a new park on the West Side (“a field of upright steel beams, set on grass”); and the attempt by the bombastic sculptor Richard Serra to criticize capitalist society by forcing his “Tilted Arc” — a dreadful, looming wall of steel — on downtown office workers who simply wanted a restful plaza in which to enjoy their lunches. (Serra saw himself, in Glazer’s words, as “attacking the awful by increasing the awfulness.”)
There are those who will probably view Glazer’s debunking of Modernist architecture as akin to shooting fish in a leaky cement barrel. But he is always cognizant of the demands of the real world. He seems genuinely sympathetic to Modernism’s original goal of providing a better way of life for all; concedes the manner in which that goal has been ambushed by the likes of racism, budget limitations or narrow political agendas; and grants Modernist public housing its triumphs, however accidental, as in the mix of high-rise and low-rise building that has come to pass in East Harlem.