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After Modern Architecture

De Stijl, 1917-1931: Visions of Utopia

edited by Mildred Friedman
Abbeville Press, 255 pp., $39.95; $24.95 (paper)

House X

by Peter Eisenman
Rizzoli, 168 pp., $35.00; $25.00 (paper)

Architecture Today

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,1 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 another in an interpretation of the immediate past that shovels blame for almost all the world’s current environmental ills on the failures of modernist architects, who must surely have been the stupidest and most unfeeling crowd ever to put two beams together. This is revisionist history with a vengeance—it will have to be carefully unraveled again.

Anyone dealing seriously with architecture must respond to these publications as well as to a great many buildings—often with a growing sense of exasperation and unease. Architectural commentary has achieved an independent life and status of its own. Modern publishing creates instant international reputations, a celebrityhood that is mechanically and redundantly reinforced by the popular press in its insatiable appetite for news and trends. The traditional means of architectural promotion, the vanity book and the office brochure, were limited in scope and low-key. Today’s promotion is complex and pervasive, carried out by and for a cultivated constituency, and it has been dramatically successful in commanding a world stage—for the first time—for the architecture profession.

The influences passing between print and practice are subtle and insidious, and the relationship grows increasingly incestuous. The sheer elegance and the scholarly gloss of many of these publications obscure the fact that we are dealing as much with hype as with art. Polemical works are to be expected in a transitional period with aesthetic axes to grind. But what we are getting is a very skilled and sophisticated kind of polemical writing that constantly crosses the line between persuasive promotion and critical commentary. It raises uncomfortable questions about the difference, if any, between proselytization and publicity. How much of this writing is manipulatory rather than expository? How much is merely self-serving? Who is manipulating whom, and what effect is this having on the creative process and the artistic results?

Right now, the profession is particularly vulnerable to the critic and the didact. The art of building is halfway between modernism and something else. Older practitioners have renounced the beliefs that supported them for most of this century, or had them shot out from under them, while younger ones are awash in a permissiveness that few are equipped to handle. With the loss of its old guidelines, the profession is exploring new, enlarged, and unfamiliar choices. Some architects are uncomfortable without cosmic justifications; others are embracing a brave new hedonism. But many are uncertain and insecure, and it is easy, and tempting, to become the willing hostage and collaborator of the commentator. The architect is not so unworldly that he does not know the advantage of appearing well illustrated in some prestigious publication.

For any constant reader of the architectural literature the feeling persists that something is awry. One cannot escape the sense that the writer’s characterizations and conclusions are often the blueprint for the architect’s work rather than the other way around, as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. The nature and sequence of the design process have become curiously ambiguous, in chicken-and-egg fashion. This gives new meaning, or confusion, to the old debate about whether art imitates life or life imitates art.

What has happened with modern communications is that the normal point of intersection between the creative process and its recording and analysis has been speeded up and even reversed. It has been natural to assume that the architect had a long creative lead over the critics of his work; that his beliefs and motivations have been so inseparable from his art, so important a part of his response to his world, and so often had so little to do with what he, and others, said they were, that the results would defy orderly or didactic explication. You could skip the description and get right to the interesting part—the building itself. (That is still a good rule of thumb.) The critic and historian, quite properly, came after the creative act, with a particular knowledge and insight, to probe meanings and processes, discern norms and standards, evaluate the work of art, and relate it to the larger setting of time and place.

No longer. The publishing mills grind while the building, or the architect, is hot. There may be no major buildings at all, only drawings, but that does not hold up the prophets or the presses. The retrospective exhibition precedes the midlife crisis.

If the chicken-egg dilemma has confused history and the creative process, it has also hatched an odd sort of architectural egg. It is not just a matter of turning trend into destiny, willy-nilly, or a question of the critic’s espousing causes—that has been done in the past. John Ruskin vigorously championed the late Victorian style that has become known as Ruskinian Gothic, an architecture of cultural and literary reference, and of predominantly surface and decorative effects. Such aesthetic inventions are not without a clear message about their limitations. What the writer attempts to do in such cases, consciously or unconsciously, is to establish and control both criteria and reputations. An outstanding recent example of this phenomenon took place in the relationship between the critics and the painters of the New York School.

Just how the course of art is affected by this curious interplay, and whether and to what degree the main tendencies are altered or diverted, is a problem that becomes particularly difficult in architecture. The literary, or critical, approach to architectural style is notably lacking in essential, nonverbal components and considerations central to the art of building. There is minimal understanding of those elements transmitted through visual conductors rather than through verbal exposition: the tectonic, spatial, and structural factors that are, along with a sense of relation to the environment, at the heart of the architectural act. The interaction of these formal and functional components, and the sensory impact of the result, creates the reality and the satisfactions of the architectonic whole.

It is difficult to write about the design process in these basic terms. Instead, it is being written about in the fashionable jargon of literary criticism and philosophical concepts now dominating international intellectual circles. This language has taken over the architectural literature and is doing much to shape, constrain, and distort building theory and practice. Both writers and architects are enthusiastic consumers of intellectual culture and the fast, furious, and often superficial dissemination of its latest products. They borrow from semiotics, structuralism, and now the “deconstructionists”; Barthes and Foucault have a wide and fuzzy following. Until Peter Eisenman’s recent conversion from guru-at-large to a practical (and busy) architect, no one could surpass him at this kind of speaking in obscure architectural tongues. Any page of the recently published House X,2 Eisenman’s exposition of one of his relentlessly theoretical house designs, yields penumbras of doublespeak. In the end, he seems to be saying that if you look at the stunning plans, sections, and axonometrics from various viewpoints, you will see the geometries of the design layered and related in different ways, for different effects. It is a tour de force performance in which the design of a building is treated as a visual and verbal abstraction far removed from any point of contact with life or reality—a neat, if hardly necessary, architectural trick.

Infatuation with these influential ideas is not limited to architecture, but it is particularly unfortunate that they are a singularly inappropriate means to an architectonic end. How they seduce with exciting, suggestive, and unworkable parallels! Analysis that yields insight in one field becomes a semantic and ideological trap in another. Figures of speech, ephemeral at best, translate poorly into bricks and mortar. Someone has made the radically sensible proposal that linguistics should be reserved for language, but that seems unlikely to happen. “Listening to architects attempt to talk the language of literary critics and philosophers is like listening to cowboys debate Aristotle,” the Boston Globe critic Robert Campbell wrote after a recent nonmeeting of architectural minds at a Harvard symposium. “From architects, after all, we hope to hear about architecture.” Only when ideas become actual building designs, Campbell observed, “are architects as architects likely to have anything interesting to say about them.” Transferred to building, borrowed ideas become a thin and unconvincing design vocabulary. The architectural egg is getting badly scrambled.

  1. 1

    De Stijl, 1917-1931: Visions of Utopia (Abbeville Press, 1982).

  2. 2

    Published by Rizzoli, 1982.

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