Modern architecture has been declared dead and the wake has been held in the better art journals. News of its death has finally filtered down to that part of the popular press that is always on the alert for cultural trends to exploit. The word that modernism is out and post-modernism is in is being spread systematically and redundantly on the lecture and exhibition circuit. The schools of architecture, coming out of the chaos of the Sixties and the drift of the Seventies—belatedly responsive, as usual, to the call for revolution—are beginning to turn out post-modernists instead of modernists, which means that a new set of mannerisms is being substituted for an old set of clichés. Those of us who are inveterate observers of the half-truths and false premises that fuel the fashionable intellectual world are watching with mixed feelings.
I do not mean to sound cynical, because I am very much concerned with the directions now being taken. Something legitimate is going on; in the customary and inexorable way that architecture makes worlds that we cannot escape, post-modernism is beginning to set the stage—slowly, and in special structures—which is always how new styles begin. I find some of these directions just as intriguing as those who see the break with the conventions of modernism as the sign of a new age; I only differ with their somewhat overwrought assessment of what makes a revolution.
Other attitudes I find disheartening and even dangerous. Because, as usual, the rush to join an international coterie of tastemakers who appear to be onto something special obscures reason and judgment. The need to embrace, rather than to analyze, the fear of being branded reactionary if one does not accept the new unquestioningly, the inability or unwillingness to separate that which has genuine architectural merit from that which is merely novel or momentarily seductive, are all characteristic of our times. These are times that feed on sensation and opportunism rather alarmingly. But I suspect that we are also witnessing the classic attitudes of any period in which the proponents of change have seen themselves as apocalyptic messengers with the mandate to convert.
What is already clear, however, is that this is a moment of some importance and more than routine interest in architectural history, with the doctrines of modernism being seriously questioned, and new approaches and answers being sought. In fact, the changes that are taking place in theory and philosophy are far more important than much of the architectural work, and the publicity, that is signaling them. And the signals are being given in what seems like record amounts of obscure and pretentious language. When embracing the new means rejecting the old—and when doesn’t it?—a lot of mistakes in judgment are bound to be made. The modernists are suffering from those mistakes now; it is just that kind of messianic shortsightedness and self-absorption that has made them vulnerable to attack. The post-modernists are heading for a different …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.