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 and 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.

Architecture has always contained references to conceptual qualities, such as symbolism, which the modernists carefully suppressed. But these characteristics are a consequence, not a starting point, of the process by which the design of a building both responds to the functional program it is supposed to carry out and achieves its expressive content. Whatever conceptual strategies may be in play, they are a function of traditional architectural devices such as scale and ornament. References from other disciplines have as little relevance to architecture as the old canard about Gothic buildings being like frozen music. (It takes a truly absurd idea to have that much enduring popular appeal.) Such borrowings serve, more than anything else, to give a pretentious gloss to bad buildings.

The visual metaphor is a very small hook to hang buildings on, and irony doesn’t hold up well on the average street. Minoru Takeyama’s hotel-as-phallus in Hokkaido hardly recalls an ancient Shinto sexual symbol to the average viewer, even if the symbolism is carried through to the ashtrays. To say, as Charles Jencks does in Architecture Today,3 that the gifted and witty Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman uses suggestions of buttocks and pianos in his “Hot Dog,” “Daisy,” or “Animal Crackers” houses to evoke an “ironic acceptance and celebration of consumer madness” stretches both architecture and credulity. (See page 29.) It really doesn’t do much for the houses, either.

If in the beginning, however, there is the word, in the end there is the building, and the building is what counts. It must stand and be used without theoretical scaffolding. It must carry constant values as well as accommodate changing interpretations and needs. Every theoretical system eventually disappoints, or is outgrown or left behind, and the disillusion and rejection are greatest where the aspirations have been the highest. Its fallacies and failures are inevitably perceived and trumpeted by the next generation. Because this gap between generations born into different worlds is so much more than a matter of taste—because the division involves such deep feelings about art and society—the split between the modernists and the postmodernists is particularly bitter. If one lesson should have been learned it is the danger of the codification of building according to any theoretical construct for use as a prescribed system of design.

Surely the most painful failures of modernism stem from its pious, optimistic simplicities; its saddest lesson has been the confirmation of the foolishness of faith. But if the democratic idealism and elite paternalism espoused by the leaders of the modern movement and the machine-art cures of the Bauhaus did not eliminate the world’s ills through design, if pseudoscientific nostrums turned out to be less than surefire, some of us still find ourselves touched by the modernists’ concern for the human condition. Architects were no more misguided than those who set the course of political and social change. Intellectual noise is a poor substitute for a willingness to take risks for a vision of laudable, if impossible, ends.

Architects may be the last of the innocents—dazzled by intellectual discourse, awed by articulate argument, they are really not all that much at ease with words. To subordinate the unique gift of conceptual vision to nonvisual data and reasoning is to lose the philosopher’s stone by which they turn utility into art. The architect’s most glorious and valuable asset is his “eye”—an eye tuned to the infinite nuances of light and form, surface and space, mood and meaning. By instinct, inclination, and training, the architect’s eye responds to the elegant rationale of structure; otherwise architects would be painters or sculptors—and the line, in fact, is sometimes very close.

But buildings differ from sculpture in that their generating and formative mechanism is a practical program; they are the working, three-dimensional realization of a pragmatic set of requirements. Architecture is the one art that serves society and the spirit equally.

The point at which the architect’s eye and intellect meet, when the architectonic sensibility must deal with considerations of purpose, space, and time, is critical. The degree to which the designer is able to synthesize the formal and functional elements of the building determines the measure of his buildings. But the sources are almost always visual or derived from the experience of other buildings. It is to these other buildings that the architect looks, openly or secretly, for solutions to specific problems, for enrichment of the design vocabulary, and, above all, for inspiration. I have seen architects of modernist or postmodernist conviction, scornful or adulatory of the past, stand speechless and withdrawn, lost in absorbed admiration before the great buildings of Berlin, Paris, or Rome, in or out of fashion.

The “ideas” of the English architect James Stirling, for example, who has been much in the international press as a prize-winning designer on the leading edge of the new, can be traced to the buildings he admires, not to the theoretical discourse that surrounds him. There is a great deal in Stirling’s work that is exploratory and ambiguous—obscure, arguable juxtapositions of style and meaning occur as he moves from polished high-tech to a romantic techno-history. The transition was undoubtedly aided by Leon Krier, whose singleminded attachment to the styles, forms, and techniques of the preindustrial age is matched only by the evocative imagery of his delicate drawings. At one point, Krier worked in Stirling’s office, and the influence seems to have been lasting and one-way. Stirling’s experimental, hybrid aesthetic, which relies strongly on his subjective responses, is as booby-trapped with potential failure as the earlier modernist work that strove in different ways for new expressive dimensions. If optimism and confidence were characteristic then, ambiguity and uncertainty are common now, when the most remarkable buildings may break new ground with disastrous side effects, with gains in some areas balanced by losses in others. Paradox and irony are probably as close to truth as we dare approach it today.

What Stirling understands is that the lessons of great building still apply, even in the vortex of change. His acceptance speech for the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1980 was dissertation on the sources of his own development.4 This is no litany of abstract ideas; it is a wideranging paean to the state of the art as defined by some of its best buildings, for which he feels a special sympathy. If one studies the examples he admires, they all fall into periods of change and difficult synthesis. The work that intrigues him includes the buildings designed during the transition from the neoclassical to the romantic styles in England and France in the first half of the nineteenth century, the powerfully unconventional expression of Baroque elements in Hawksmoor’s London churches, and the vibrant geometry of Russian constructivism. In the light of these models, all of which stress conflicting forces resolved into a dynamic whole, Stirling’s love of a kind of structural and cultural bricolage of sometimes arbitrary and mysterious connections, and the challenges that he sets for himself, are better understood. Over the years, the high skills and brilliant variations of all these prototypes have been tucked away as part of Stirling’s visual and visceral baggage. His architectural ideas, as ideas, are not all that complex, whatever overlays of fashionable polemics may be added to them.

But Stirling’s use of these sources is not simple at all, and the results are neither easy nor traditional eclecticism. The references may be employed directly or obliquely; the way they are combined seems guaranteed to shock. In the design for the Tate Gallery extension in London, for example—which has been the subject of much controversy—a recessed, pediment-shaped entrance enclosing a revolving door is likened by Jencks to the Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae, although no literal detail remains, while the stonework and segmental window above are compared to George Dance’s Newgate jail. (See opposite page.) All this sits together in an image not easily forgotten. Stirling’s design for Harvard’s Fogg Museum in Cambridge. Massachusetts, has a glass and metal entry flanked by cooling towers like space-age classical columns, the whole framed by overscaled quoins. Inside the entrance, stone walls, floors, and false columns evoke a templelike, archaic solemnity. What one most admires is an enviable mastery and combination of primary design elements—such as plan, scale, and telling detail—at the moment when a new style is evolving.

That architects learn best from other buildings does not mean theory has no place in their work. The marriage of polemics and practice has a long and honorable tradition. Architecture has always had a relationship with the avant-garde, which, in this century, provided genuine points of convergence between the visual and building arts. The development of new technology fed revolutionary concepts about the organization of society and individual expectations; industrial advances were to give the workers power and create a better world. These were ideas that appealed to the pioneer modernists; they underlay the machine aesthetic and the teachings of the Bauhaus. All this interacted naturally with building on a previously unknown scale. Utopian philosophy was a rational ally of radical change and massive new construction.

Nor is it unusual in architecture for theorist and practitioner to be the same person—a notable phenomenon in “modern” times from Serlio to Le Corbusier. The books of Serlio and Palladio were enormously and lastingly influential; but by modern standards they were very limited editions that dealt directly and personally with the basics of building and style, and they traveled with dignity and reasonable speed—taking centuries rather than months—into the mainstream. But if theory is not integral to the conceptual architectural vision, the results will always be marginal as architectural art.

It was not until the rise of the nineteenth-century scholar-critic that attention was focused on “objective” historical definition and stylistic sources and criteria, rather than on the basic requirements for building fashionably and well. And it was with the rise of the twentieth-century tastemaker-critic, in conjunction with the modern press, that aesthetic criteria were overwhelmingly emphasized. The introduction of this judgmental mediator between producer and consumer was a response to the cultural anxieties and the demands for interpretation from a new, mass audience that was part of a growing consumer society—a situation encouraged by the sense of mission of an elite intelligentsia. The argument, still offered, is that this made the consuming public more aware of, and knowledgeable about, art. Not least, it also created a new market.

The process never served the conjunction of pragmatic and spiritual values that architecture uniquely encompasses. It tended instead to reduce complex architectural factors, never easy for the public to understand, to a simplistic system of formal aesthetic cues by which one could tell what was acceptable or fashionable. The signals were clear: a flat roof and flat white walls, large strip windows held taut to the surface as part of the infill of a light, flexible frame, an asymmetrical plan and entrance, and ramps and roof gardens if the budget permitted. The prime example and symbol in this country was the Museum of Modern Art in New York, by Philip L. Goodwin and Edward D. Stone. There were also a few small Massachusetts houses by expatriate architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, in which the International Style was wed to the New England vernacular. But the celebrity of the new style was owing to those prestigious intermediaries—the critic, the museum, and the publisher. This influential endorsement had an inevitable effect on architects’ work.

It was that kind of didactic intervention that turned the radical architectural vision, whatever its flaws, of Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture of 1923 into the chic and sterile iconography of Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson’s The International Style of 1932. And it is the direct result of this critical process, which did so much to denature and formalize the modern movement, that is at the root of much of the current debate.

At this moment, the polemical and propagandistic process has reached a peak. Architects are being told what they have done, and how they should do it, in everything from popular texts to magisterial treatises. These books have come a long way from the simple eighteenth- and nineteenth-century guides for carpenter Georgian or country-cottage Gothic to the present eclectic hash. There is good news and bad news, however, and the good news is that we are looking at the buildings of the past for their enduring values, even though, in this country, using history is still considered a radical act. In Europe, there is less of a tendency to go on about history because it is so much a part of the urban heritage and daily life. Here, it is terra incognita for a generation brought up without cultural continuity, and the results can range from awkward to inept. At best, they are uncomfortably self-conscious, as in the firm Bumpzoid’s country-house hybrid—a rustic wood structure wearing a white Greek Revival temple-top—described by the architects with a certain staggering bravura: “The tradition of Classic meeting Farm that seems to run in a direct line from Vicenza to Virginia has not been ignored.” The significance of the rediscovery of the past, however, goes beyond the debate about how to use it. What is important is the total, unrestricted education and indulgence, once again, of the architect’s eye.

The bad news is that much “postmodernism” stops right there. Buildings that do not go beyond the novelties or easy effects of a surface eclecticism and a few recondite games with space and form seem as flat as their facades. All the other naughtinesses being paraded as revolutionary are beside the point. The only real revolution is that the architect is open to the full range and richness, to all the history and invention, of architectural art.

But the architect can’t go home again, at least not in the sense that was possible before the twentieth century altered every response and value as surely as science and technology revolutionized building, and life itself. Until this century, Western art and culture moved in and out of a comfortable classical base; the architect merely shifted sources according to prevailing taste—from the Renaissance to the Beaux Arts. The process presented few philosophical or structural doubts because both the old models and the new versions were based on the same materials and construction and an enduring, familiar scale. Only with the development and universal use of modern technologies have serious questions arisen about the appropriate and significant relationship of structure and style. Modern cities disrupted scale completely.

History cannot be repealed; there is really no way to revoke modernism by pronouncement. It is impossible to withdraw technology—although devout classicists like Leon Krier would do so, building only in masonry and wood. The revolutionary aesthetic vision that served the ideals and aspirations of the twentieth century is part of the collective culture; the future will give modernism’s successes and failures equal time and study and far better analysis than they are getting now.

That the modern movement is now part of history, and that the present generation sees it as just another historical source, is certain proof that an era is over. What comes next will inevitably grow out of modernism and build on it. But the loss of the future to the past comes as a shock to those who lived through this century’s battles. Those who were not part of the revolution see no revolution at all, only a wrongheaded interruption of history. They view it with no sense of its historical imperatives. Unprecedented changes challenged the modernists to build a better world, at a time when progress was an innocent ideal. Mies van der Rohe and modern engineering made possible a vision of cities of clean, bare-boned beauty, in contrast to the clutter and corruption of the past. Architecture was to be a benevolent act of purification. Uncomprehending and intolerant of these passionately held, if highly imperfect, moral and aesthetic convictions, younger professional deny the period’s importance and denigrate its art.

However, there is an even more important change that underlies what often seems to be merely a surface stylistic debate. We are not dealing with a simple difference between those who willingly embrace proven historical precedents and those who believe that innovative solutions offer better answers, and better buildings, for a nontraditional age. The issue goes far beyond the call for recognizable references and humanistic goals. No one really disputes the desire for symbolism, ornament, and attention to the setting.

What is increasingly being called into question today, particularly among the more doctrinaire (and therefore radical) classical revivalists, is the idea and value of the creative imagination—an idea so shocking that it is barely being grasped. In a sense, the devaluation of creativity parallels the rise of the radical right in politics and the conservative tide in American life; art is no island.

The theme of the creative imagination, supported by developments in philosophy and psychology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, flowered fully, and was pushed to its limits, in the twentieth-century preoccupation with inner meanings and abstract art. But “originality” is now suspect in some architectural circles, and it has been reduced to a role of minor eclecticism in others.

The classical tradition held that the imitation of reality—the Greek idea of mimesis—is the highest aesthetic ideal; the repeated successes of the classical tradition were achieved through established rules and conventions based on its familiar and recognizable forms. In The Creative Imagination: Enlightenment to Romanticism, James Engell traces the opposing attitude—the artist’s interest in the “inner life and the subjective world” that characterized the romantic tradition.5 For all of architecture’s progressive social ideals, modernism has been predominantly concerned with the exploration of this inner life and the subjective world; this has, in fact, been the distinguishing and obsessive theme of twentieth-century art.

The history of modern art is one of personal search and continuing experiment in the hope of an aesthetic break-through that will objectify and unite the conscious and subconscious realms. In painting and sculpture, evidence of these new relationships between eye and mind have been instantly celebrated, although their value has never been easy to judge. In the buildings of Le Corbusier, who functioned equally as architect and painter, the line between the two tends to disappear. Familiar views of the Stein Villa at Garches of 1926–1927 offer an abstract composition as effective as anything on canvas. These were like no building seen before. This century has held this kind of original vision in highest esteem. The idea, and exercise, of the creative imagination has been absolutely central to the modernists’ approach to art and style.

One of the postmodernists’ strongest arguments for the return to a classical or other tradition is the desire for a more clearly understood art with a more direct and universal kind of communication than modernism provided. The paradox, or irony, is that the universally understood “signals” of classicism now being reclaimed by the avant-garde are not being transmitted in their most familiar and comprehensible form. While there are a few “strict classicists”—Alan Greenberg has followed a straight revivalist line—architects like Michael Graves are using selected elements as personalized, private cues that express more of the inner life and the subjective world than it recalls any common language of the recognizable past. What is actually happening is that these revised and often arbitrarily or eccentrically employed references are being romantically recycled, with conspicuous license, through that highly suspect mechanism—the creative imagination.

There is nothing wrong in principle with this as a design process, except that the meanings and messages being touted as its raison d’être just aren’t coming through. If reports of the death of modernism are somewhat exaggerated, so are the claims of the birth of postmodern classicism as its successor style. The case for such a style is being made by those who, with great rhetorical skill, tailor examples to fit, achieving a tenuous coherence that it would be churlish not to admire. Interesting examples can be found in Speaking a New Classicism, by Helen Searing and Henry Hope Reed, 6 and Post-Modern Classicism, edited by Charles Jencks,7 among the other books I shall be dealing with in a second article. Still, if such claims fail to convince, the reexamination of such master classicists as Schinkel and Ledoux does nobody any harm. A good classical education has never lost its value.

Some of the most publicized works of postmodern classicism tend to be disappointingly obscure and inaccessible, carried out in the form of pictorial pastiche rather than fully developed designs. Even when used with great skill, as in the case of Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans, the classical parts are no longer united in a solid, monumental hierarchy; they have been consciously and cleverly isolated and recycled for their entertainment and dramatic value as elements in a stage set. At its best, this classical eclecticism creates an undeniably poetic world of evocative ideas and images. How these images can be transferred to the real and rigorous terms of today’s building is extremely arguable and still unproved.

Usually the inevitable process of compromise with program, use, and cost leaves a denatured and weakened design that looks like a poor copy of the original rendering. Michael Graves’s heralded and much-debated Portland, Oregon, Public Office Building was apparently watered down by budget cuts to the point where it no longer could be pronounced the building of the post-modern future, staking claims for a new architecture. Such claims and disappointments are unfortunate, since they distort, or ignore, the need for critical objectivity. Sadly, the quality of material and detail that modernism relied on for a successful aesthetic after stripping away all traditional references often met the same fate, with similar results; it just seems that postmodernism may have even more to lose.

The jury is still out on postmodernism, however, particularly in the case of Graves, currently its most celebrated and controversial classicist. Graves’s very personal collagist vision puts together classical fragments and allusions with a painterly and decorative eye for a highly pictorial product. This is, perhaps, the one clearly defined new style—Graves’s “handwriting,” from his use of overscaled keystones and fluttering garlands to painted Pompeian colors, is immediately recognizable. Each of his buildings has been greeted as a kind of updated winged victory or hydra-headed monster; there is no neutral ground. Michael Graves is a talented, idiosyncratic designer carrying architecture in a very disturbing direction that deserves more thoughtful analysis and less empty praise.

The Portland building will be followed by a large and important commission, the competition-winning office tower for the Humana Corporation in Louisville, Kentucky.8 This will be a skyscraper like no other, in Graves’s own crypto-classical vein. It will also be a more valid test of postmodern eclecticism than the incessantly publicized, bowl-‘em-over, fancy-dress skyscrapers that have come from the office of Philip Johnson and John Burgee, of which the most notorious is the enormously overscaled, historical odd-parts AT&T building in New York.

The most fundamental change in architecture today is one of attitude. Scratch a postmodernist and you will find an apostle of architecture for art’s sake, something that would have had any respectable and responsible architect drummed out of the profession not too long ago. As long as architecture was understood as a complex social and technological art, style had to be delivered in a plain, functional wrapper. With the renunciation of traditional social responsibilities as beyond his capacities or control, the architect has finally been freed to pursue style exclusively and openly. This is now architecture’s most aggressive theme, pursued without apology or disguise. Like so much else today, the emphasis is on the self and the senses, with “design” an increasingly hermetic and narcissistic process, serving as often to short-circuit purpose and accessibility as to expand the horizons of constructive vision. Style is being dangerously confused with art.

This pursuit of style for its own sake is a logical consequence of the death of the twentieth-century belief in salvation through design and the architect’s rejection of any social compact. If there is to be no brave new world, if scientific and technological progress are not to be the bearers of its art and joy, then modernism, with its very specific message of the perfectibility of the human condition through the quality of the built environment, can no longer be considered the only appropriate vehicle of expression for the conditions and spirit of this century.

These factors, above all, have changed the rules, and the approach, to the practice of architecture today. There is no Zeitgeist demanding recognition and fealty, no unifying force or sentiment, no greater public good, no banner around which architects can rally. They can go in any direction and follow any muse. This is surely one of the most open, challenging, promising, and dangerous moments in the history of the building art.

But the profession has not risen noticeably to meet the challenge. Freedom from the restrictions and limitations of modernism has not produced an efflorescence of masterworks, or even a consistently higher level of design. The postmodernists are already guilty of the cardinal twentieth-century sin that they have charged to the modernists: their buildings are beginning to be a bore.

How many false columns and gables, how many cut-out oculi and post-Palladian screens, how many deco touches and diagonal plans, how much ad hoc jumble, does it take to add up to a predictable postmodernist cliché? As an alternative to the modernists’ “boring boxes,” to use that redundantly pejorative phrase, we have dreary decorated boxes, whose “commentary” is elusive and transient at best. Plain has been replaced by fussy, the bland by the tricky, and the merely dull has given way to the actively annoying. When modernism is bad, we have been told over and over, it is very, very bad; but when postmodernism is bad, as the nursery rhyme goes, it can be horrid.

Style, as it is being written about and embraced today, is no longer style as we have previously defined and understood it—as an attempt to give appropriate expression to a kind of life, or society, or collective need, or moment in cultural time. Once the modern movement was divorced from its revolutionary aspirations by the passage of time and the arrival of other needs, it was inevitable that it would be stripped of everything but its surface hallmarks and that the modern style would be reduced to their manipulation. To announce the death of the dream has become, with appropriate irony, an avant-garde act. Contrary to much elite belief, the world has been ready for postmodernism for some time.

This is the first of two articles.

  1. 1

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

  2. 2

    Published by Rizzoli, 1982.

  3. 3

    Published by Harry N. Abrams, 1982.

  4. 4

    See James Stirling: An Architectural Design Profile, by James Stirling, Robert Maxwell, and others (Academy Editions/ St. Martin’s Press, 1983).

  5. 5

    Harvard University Press, 1981; see Walter Jackson Bate’s review, The New York Review, November 18, 1982.

  6. 6

    Smith College Museum of Art, distributed by the University of Chicago Press, 1981.

  7. 7

    Rizzoli, 1981.

  8. 8

    See A Tower for Louisville: The Humana Competition, edited by Peter Arnell and Ted Bickford (Rizzoli, 1982).