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The Troubled State of Modern Architecture

A respectable and conventional title for this article would be “Architecture at the Crossroads.” A more alarming title could be “The Crisis of Modern Architecture.” On a more personal note, I could call it “Critic in Crisis: Or How I Am Learning to Live With, But Not to Love, Post-Modernism.”

I believe that architecture today is at a genuine crossroads, quite unlike that of any other time in history. Our Western tradition has been through more than twenty-five centuries of stylistic development, from its Greco-Roman sources to the humanistic revolution of the Renaissance and the radical readjustments of the present. The changes wrought by the technological and modernist revolution of our own day are absolutely without parallel. In our own lifetime modern architecture has been hailed—and it has failed—as an instrument of social salvation. It has been called to account by Jane Jacobs and the environmentalists. And it is now backing away blindly, in the name of change? progress? rediscovery? creativity?—I do not know what to call it—from a sociological or environmental context and into the realm of pure art again—back into an ivory tower with a vengeance, surrounded by an unsettling aura of ecstasy and unease.

What we have come to know as modern architecture in the twentieth century has had very precise rules and definitions and a very visible impact on the built world. This entire phenomenon is being attacked and downgraded. It has become fashionable to say that modern architecture is dead. We are told that we are now in the post-modernist period. None of the rules observed by modernists for the last half-century remains valid. This “revolution against the revolution” is the center of a spirited debate among architects, historians, theorists, and critics. Right now, it is generating much more passion than building. But it is bound to have a profound effect on what will be built later, which eventually concerns us all.

We have grown so accustomed to revolutions in our own time that we treat them cavalierly. There are no more dramatic changes than those that have taken place in the twentieth-century built environment. We have watched modern cities explode and seen their skylines remade as they have turned into incredible displays of glass and steel and concrete unlike anything ever known before. Only the names remain the same. None of this could have been constructed, in engineering or technological terms alone, in any other century, and the modern architecture of the cityscape has become the universal twentieth-century style. It does not matter whether anyone likes it or not. It has not needed anyone’s encouragement or permission. Even the ripoff artists have created a vernacular as valid and lasting as the Georgian vernacular that followed Van Brugh and Wren.

Does anyone still remember how hard the avant-garde fought for the acceptance of this revolution? The intellectual dedication, the evangelical passion, the all-out efforts in its behalf? The charmed circle of those who shared the vision? Those terribly shocking and fashionably dernier cri architecture exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s and 1940s? The outcry that greeted those who dared to build “modern” houses? The flat roof controversies? The missionary “good design” shows? Those tiny buildings that were hailed as triumphs?

Some of those breakthroughs are now registered national landmarks. The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities is taking over Walter Gropius’s revolutionary house in Lincoln, Massachusetts. The books and tracts meant to convince us of the apocalyptic inevitability of the modern movement have joined Alberti and Palladio in the rare book rooms of the architecture libraries. Eventually the acceptance of modern architecture came about through a combination of technology and economics that was able to achieve what lessons in taste and morality could not.

There are, of course, sermons in stones and lessons in buildings, and there is much irony in hindsight. Today there is no certainty about anything any more. There are no longer any approved verities to hang onto, no yardsticks or ideals that safely and universally apply. That the tenets of modern architecture—so sure, so superior, so blessed with the revelation of beauty and truth—should be under attack is no surprise. It is so much easier to see that the overreaching dream of salvation through design failed. It is so much easier to document stupidity, corruption, and abuse than to remember vision and intent. The failures of modern architecture are so enormous and so visible—they are lying around on every street corner. There is the irreparable damage that the rejection of the past has done to our cities, the uncaring and unthinking demolition and loss of our heritage, the destructively wrong scale and sabotaged relationships of the environment, the ignorance and neglect of the continuity that is urban culture.

Like all ideals, those of the modernists have been elusive and impossible to realize. To me it seems rather sad, and even arrogant, that the present generation does not bother to wonder what the excitement was all about. In those circles that are customarily called avant-garde, modern architecture, with its quaint belief systems, is out of style. As usual, there is a good, fast commercial buck to be made out of a bit of bandwagon jumping. Publishers’ lists are filled with titles like The Failure of Modern Architecture and Form Follows Fiasco. There is rejoicing among the Philistines and recanting among the faithful.

Perhaps if modern architecture’s stated ambitions had been less large, it would have been less vulnerable. But those ambitions were part of a period of tremendous optimism about the perfectability of man and his social and political systems and the conditions of his life. The early years of this century were full of courage and hope. Now we are coming to terms with reality and despair.

Today, the history of the fifty years in which modernism grew from a radical movement to the accepted style of the establishment is being actively rewritten. Revisionism is currently the vogue in academic circles. The results are a curious mix of valuable new insights and warped misreadings. Those who participated in this particular chapter of history, and who thought they knew what was happening, are in a state of befuddled or anguished shock. Was the revolution won or lost? Were none of its concerns real or legitimate? What, if anything, did those dedicated pioneers of a new spirit and style achieve? Were no truths revealed? Was no beauty created? Was nothing added to the history of the building art?

The discussion is taking place in an explosion of publications, here and abroad. In the United States, the most serious periodical is Oppositions, the magazine of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York, which has maintained an intense and elevated debate in predominantly turgid tones since its inauguration in 1973. The Institute is also producing a series of outstanding catalogues in connection with its exhibitions on new work and historical reassessments. For pure, magnificent presentation of the new work, and the dedicated documentation of older work of particular interest to today’s architects, the most sumptuous magazines are coming out of Japan—A + U (Architecture and Urbanism) and Progress Architecture, for example.

In the field of revisionist critical writing Charles Jencks is the acknowledged guru of post-modernism, with a series of shrewd, witty, insightful, and sometimes deeply irritating books, beginning with the collected essays on Meaning in Architecture, of 1969, edited with George Baird,1 and continuing with Modern Movements in Architecture,2 and The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. 3 In close step with him is Robert A.M. Stern, whose New Directions in American Architecture appeared first in 1969 and in a revised edition in 1977,4 and who publishes widely in professional journals here and in Europe.

Two teachers, both distinguished historians and critics—Vincent Scully at Yale and Colin Rowe at Cornell—have probably done the most to change the architectural vision and philosophy of several generations of students, beginning as far back as the 1940s. Three particularly influential and enduring architectural essays are Colin Rowe’s “The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa” (The Architectural Review, London, 1947), “Mannerism and Modern Architecture” (The Architectural Review, 1950), and “Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal,” with Robert Slutzky (written in 1955-1956 and published in Perspecta at Yale in 1963). It is significant that these pieces were reprinted as part of a Rowe collection in 1976.5

This body of history, theory, and criticism is supplemented by monographs on current practitioners and manifestoes of all kinds, of which the most outrageous and entertaining to date is Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York.6 Other valuable and informative documents are the catalogues accompanying the increasing number of gallery exhibitions of architects whose work is on the leading edge of theory or design, or who are identified with a special kind of vision, such as Aldo Rossi, John Hejduk, or Michael Graves.

A number of different camps exist (not without friction) under the banner of post-modernism, ranging from the formalists, who strip everything down to universal abstractions of typology and semiology, to the inclusionists, who embrace the messy whole of history and the vernacular environment. The debates go on ad ennui, and in some cases, ad nauseum; the different schools are united only by the belief that modernism is a thing of the past. The tendency is to write it all off as a temporary, wrong-headed aberration. Some of this is genuine soul-searching and the painful rites of architectural passage, and some of it is fashion, the cruelest modifier of all. Tough luck for those who believed and built; they are out of fashion now. The rush to renunciation has become a stampede.

Forgive me if I say that I am finding it all very tiresome. By tiresome, I mean pretentious, small-minded, lacking in historical knowledge or perspective. First, I do not agree that modern architecture is dead, or even dying, I think it is alive and well and showing signs of immense creative vitality. I believe that some of what is called post-modernism is not so much a break with modernism as an aesthetic and intellectual enrichment of the modern movement, a more complex and interpretive development that builds clearly on what went before.

As a movement, however, modern architecture is growing old; we are, after all, talking about part of the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth. It is old enough to present a body of work of tremendous achievement and a distinctive style that has already taken its place in the history of art. It is changing; it is not the nature of art to be static. But there is a large and continuous enough production to provide the successes and failures that make analysis and evaluation possible. No thoughtful scholar or critic denies the validity or importance of the modern movement. Anything so pervasive and so long-lasting cannot be all bad—or a total mistake. While the doom-sayers are busy pointing out everything that went wrong, every faulty judgment, every flawed execution, historians are able to look at the whole of this surprisingly long period of building objectively for the first time. It is an enviable position for scholars to be in.

  1. 1

    Design Yearbook, Ltd., London; George Braziller, New York.

  2. 2

    Doubleday Anchor Books, 1973.

  3. 3

    Academy Editions, London; Rizzoli International, New York, 1977.

  4. 4

    George Braziller.

  5. 5

    The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays, MIT Press.

  6. 6

    Oxford University Press, 1978.

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