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After Modern Architecture

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. 5

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

  2. 6

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

  3. 7

    Rizzoli, 1981.

  4. 8

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

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