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The Troubled State of Modern Architecture

Crying failure is a very cheap shot. Modern architecture is an immense, magnificent, and undeniable fait accompli, paralleled by only a few periods of similar creative magnitude in the history of civilization. It has produced masters equal to any; Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, have already taken their places in the history of art. The great art movements, which are the conveyors of awful and wonderful truths about ourselves and our times, come into being whether anyone likes them or not. If we were to examine the literature of the seventeenth century—I wonder—did anyone write off the Renaissance?

This generation, like every new generation, is busy reinventing the wheel and denying the faith of its fathers. Reverence for the masters of the modern movement has actually survived for a surprisingly long time. But the search for the new at the expense of the old is a process as venerable as history. It can be a confused and costly process, and it is often redundant and dangerous when an art is involved that so profoundly affects the social environment.

But I am equally convinced that something important is coming out of this peculiar, unsettled period. The ways of art and history are untidy, in spite of the efforts of historians and critics to line things up. In graduate studies, neatness counts. In any period of transition, there is always backing and filling and ambiguity. The biologist Lewis Thomas has called ambiguity an essential and indispensable part of the process of discovery. The more important the new information, the greater the sense of strangeness and askewness that it carries with it, until such time as the pieces all fit together, which is an unending and never-completed process.

I cannot think of better words for what is going on in architecture right now than ambiguous, strange, and askew. That does not make it easy to distinguish good from bad. You will not see much of this difficult new work on the streets; it is still the stuff of the specialized magazines and seminars. But it also is generating a surprising energy. This is the kind of ambiguity that seems to characterize those important, wrenching steps from one period of art to another.

For the critic, it is a very difficult time. All of one’s beliefs and experience are brought into question. It is necessary to reexamine everything, to make difficult reappraisals, to question loyalties and satisfactions—in short, to open one’s mind. But this also proves to be a time-consuming, frustrating, and aggravating business because, unfortunately, one has to read what architects and theoreticians are writing—which turns out to be a new kind of cruel and unusual punishment. Architects’ writings today go beyond permissible ambiguity. They are being couched in the most obscure, arcane, and unclear terms, borrowing freely from poorly digested and often questionably applied philosophy or skimmings from other fashionable disciplines. As in literature and other fields, we suffer through endless interdisciplinary borrowings and half-baked aesthetic Marxism. Small ideas are delivered in large words and weighed down with exotic and private references. Intellectual trendiness is rampant. Those of us who report on architectural activities must wade through masses of pretentious and glutinous prose, seeking the flash of insight, the buried diamond of evaluation, the key to the counterrevolution that we are told is in process now. And on deadlines as well.

If architects put their buildings together with the same awful gropings, the same appallingly unnecessary complexity and dubious detail, the same lack of understanding of the basic beauty of an expressive economy of means, architecture would be in a very bad way. I have been harboring a chilling thought: some architects really are building the way they are thinking, if that is the right word for what is going on in their heads.

Often, I confess, impatience or fatigue wins out. But what a concerned public has the right to expect from the critic is some kind of guidance. People know they are captive consumers of the environment. They want a set of reliable indicators, a kind of good building seal of approval. Considering the complexity of the art of building today, it is understandable that they look for expertise. It takes quite a lot of knowledge, experience, and some very unpopular value judgments to separate the meretricious from the meritorious right now, and the necessary perspective is not easy to achieve.

First, there is that phrase post-modernism that we seem to be hung up on. It was coined originally by and for one particular splinter group interested in the historical and vernacular aspects of building that the modernists had discarded. Robert A. M. Stern lists its characteristics as historical allusion, contextualism, and ornament. The result is an odd pastiche, sometimes called the Frankenstein effect. But the phrase is being used increasingly loosely for almost everything that is a departure from established or accepted practice. There are other groups that reject the label passionately; at least one architect-theorist insists that he is a post-functionalist instead. Post-modernism is not all that arcane; it is simply where one goes after modernism. It suggests a post-industrial society and a lot of currently fashionable post-other things. It is too tidy a phrase, of course, as much of a catchall as an evasion. It includes a very mixed bag of ideas and styles.

However, I find that it is a matter of considerable surprise to a lot of people to be told that they have moved into post-modernism and that modernism is now a thing of the past, just when they have finally gotten used to it. Even that reliable old warhorse of an argument about “traditionalism versus modernism” that kept everyone so busy for so long can barely be flogged alive. For one thing, tradition is in again, although one would hardly recognize it. And history and historic styles, taboo to the modernists, are respectable once more. But one cannot just copy history straight. It has to be used with at least a 45-degree twist in the mind or eye. One hears the words “witty” and “ironic” being applied to architecture quite frequently these days. There have been examples of practitioners in the past, Sir Edwin Lutyens, for example, so skilled that they could use traditional elements for dazzlingly unconventional effects. But they were deeply grounded in an established architectural culture in which they were totally at ease. I am very wary, today, of “witty” architecture; it usually implies limited talents resorting to the equivalent of “amusing” fashion in clothing or interiors. Architects may be rediscovering the past, but their knowledge of it is still so spotty, their enthusiasms so arbitrary and episodic, that a lot of what we are getting is do-it-yourself history, with a long way to go for that kind of assured and able synthesis again.

In the same spirit of novelty and perversity which is a hallmark of so much of our culture today, Levittown, Las Vegas, and Disneyworld are enthusiasms of the cultural leaders who once disdained their tacky, populist vulgarity most, and even kitsch is fashionably OK. Ornament is no longer equated with crime. Adolf Loos’s curious aesthetic morality in which ornament and crime were equated with reference to such things as the affinity of criminal types to tattoos has been turned upside down. Today we are fascinated by what repelled him. In fact, anything goes—provided it breaks modernist strictures, and the more shockingly the better. (Shock value, alas, is short-lived.) The range in architecture today is from a completely private and hermetic aesthetic, which may be just plain difficult or totally inaccessible, to the most blatant and boring populism. The only requirement is that it be turned into a fiercely intellectual exercise at the drawing board. Everything has to be seen as a set of signs and symbols or metaphors for something else in art or society.

Sometimes the end scarcely justifies the complexity of the means, and sometimes the means is hard to justify at all. For example, as much as I admire Philip Johnson’s taste and intellect, I cannot take a standup joke like his AT&T Building in New York seriously—or his PPG Industries Building, Pittsburgh, either. No, I take that back. I take them very seriously, because they are such shallow, cerebral design and such bad pieces of architecture. The impressive care and cost with which they are detailed does not really make them any better. It takes a creative act, not clever cannibalism, to turn a building into art. It must do more than satisfy a roving eye. Unfortunately, these buildings are flying the flag for post-modernism all over the place, in the name of such things as historical allusion, because this kind of superficial shocker that doubles as a calculated crowd pleaser is so beloved by the popular press.

To look at these buildings really seriously, in fact, involves evaluating the architect’s well-publicized uses of the past. It is no longer shocking to say that the past is all right; we are beyond that stage. Mr. Johnson has been saying it for a long time. But eclecticism, the dirtiest of all words to the modernist, is still like a forbidden toy; he has found the last architectural commandment to break. Mr. Johnson particularly loves forbidden toys. He does not believe in forbidden anything. But do eclectic designs like these really respond to the rich lessons to be found in other cultures and viewpoints, or do they simply divorce form from content for easy decorative effects? Or instant unconventionality. And is that enough? Or does that not really put down architecture as an art of any profundity dealing in the difficult business of resolving problems of purpose, structure, space, spirit, and style?

The Johnson-Burgee Miami Museum and Library project is quite a decent academic design—Addison Mizner without the pizzazz. Safe, pleasant, civilized; another easy answer that will go over well.

The work of Venturi and Rauch represents a difficult rather than an easy eclecticism. Their addition to Cass Gilbert’s classical Oberlin College Art Museum is a much riskier and much more rewarding kind of design. In 1966 Robert Venturi wrote and the Museum of Modern Art published the ground-breaking treatise on today’s new eclecticism: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture—“a gentle manifesto.” Almost a classic text ten years later, it was reissued in 1977. The book dealt with the “inclusive” rather than the “exclusive” environment; complexity and contradiction were seen as aesthetically and urbanistically desirable. Robert Venturi and his wife, Denise Scott Brown, immortalized the Pop environment in Learning from Las Vegas and Levittown. And they translated it all into a language of symbols and signs that gave instant intellectual cachet to suburbia and the strip. Theory, however, is always passed through Venturi’s very refined and sensitive eye for what might be called a synthetic eclecticism in a subtle act of design that manages to transcend the theories he espouses.

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