De Stijl, 1917-1931: Visions of Utopia
edited by Mildred Friedman
Abbeville Press, 255 pp., $39.95; $24.95 (paper)
by Peter Eisenman
Rizzoli, 168 pp., $35.00; $25.00 (paper)
by Charles Jencks, with a contribution by William Chaitkin
Harry N. Abrams, 359 pp., $65.00
James Stirling: An Architectural Design Profile
by James Stirling, by Robert Maxwell
Academy Editions/St. Martin’s Press, 103 pp., $14.95 (paper)
A Tower for Louisville: The Humana Competition
edited by Peter Arnell, edited by Ted Bickford
Rizzoli, 119 pp., $14.95 (paper)
Two words characterize the architectural scene today: dynamic and disquieting. It is not the degree or kind of change that is unsettling, or the heat of the debate between the modernists and the post-modernists; change and controversy are an indication of a vital and lively art. The high ratio between unsolved problems and unfulfilled promise is a mark of a transitional period. Certainly no other art approaches the art of building today in its scale and diversity, its extraordinary impact on lives and places; and no other art faces the enormous and shattering challenges that have followed the liberation of architecture from modernist doctrine, or has invested equivalent energies in redefining that highly debatable doctrine. The one universal conclusion is that something significant is happening.
But exactly what is happening, or how, is not always clear; there are factors peculiar to our time that make judgment difficult. The new architecture is being shaped as much by the speed, effectiveness, and glamour of communications, with all of its distortions and false gods, as by the conventional course of art and technology and controlling market forces. Publishing, that mixed blessing of information and promotion, exacerbates the dilemma. Never have there been so many books on architecture, or such an avalanche of journals, from international magazines to student periodicals, with so many of them distinguished by the high seriousness of their tone, the quality of their historical and critical discussions, and the costly beauty of their design and production. One is torn between gratitude for this outpouring, after years of publishing aridity, and alarm over the bandwagon mentality and the often merely fashionable character of the product.
For every useful study that increases our knowledge of the architecture of this century, there seems to be an equal number of tiresome tirades devoted to the gross misreading of recent architectural history fed by the factual errors and faulty assumptions that have become the accepted mythology of post-modernism. Much of this flow of information and opinion is taking place through exhibitions and their catalogs. Last year’s excellent De Stijl show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, for example, filled in gaps and provided a perspective that only the passage of time and the waning of revolutionary ardor could make possible. The exhibition, under the direction of Milton and Mildred Friedman, and the catalog edited by Mildred Friedman, were a model of research and scholarship.
Far more common, however, are such publications as the catalog for an exhibition called “New Architecture, Maine Traditions,” prepared at West-brook College in Portland, Maine, a small school that obviously does not have the resources of the Walker Art Center, although this rather ambitious show on regionalism—a popular post-modernist topic—did have the support of the local and national humanities councils. This publication is representative, or perhaps the word is “symptomatic,” of much that is appearing today. The introduction, by the gallery’s director, Judith Sobol, can stand as a classic of postmodernistthink. One appalling statement follows …