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Rebuilding Architecture

Beyond the recognition of Jencks’s considerable virtues as critic and polemicist, however, there is much to disagree with in his persuasive theses. One could start, of course, by saying that “multivalence” is not achieved by sticking a lot of stuff together or assigning meanings so subjective that a glossary is needed. I, for one, have never believed that tarting up buildings with amusing bits of history or decoration, inside or out, as in Robert Stern’s persistent use of fat fake columns and stick-on moldings or the “false front” collages favored by some others, has either a larger architectural significance or provides a public presence.

It is simple-mindedness, not simple architecture that is univalent—buildings that are barely two-dimensional and cannot carry more than one idea at a time. These slick ciphers abound in every American city. But the little-boy badnesses and bags-of-tricks presented by Jencks as a corrective vision have their own kind of emptiness; they suffer badly from conceptual and metaphysical overload. The line between artfulness and meaninglessness is getting very thin.

Jencks’s obsession with a pejorative division between “late modern” and “postmodern,” with all deficiencies and failures ascribed to the former, begs the issue of whether either meets the criteria of good architecture—or even of what those criteria should be. If, as its critics point out, late modernism is simplistic, inappropriate, brutish, and dull, postmodernism can be confusing, trivial, corny, and inconsequential; but because it is so much more sophisticated in the games it plays, it can also be extremely seductive and misleading.

Ricardo Bofill’s “viaduct houses,” constructed for the French new town of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines and used for the continuous, full-color wraparound photograph that forms the dazzling jacket for Jencks’s Architecture Today, is obviously meant as a paradigmatic postmodernist example. The building is a show-stopper—a neo-Roman aqueduct, triumphal-arch image forming multi-storied dwellings of unreadable size, dramatically doubled by a lake reflection. When one visits Bofill’s even newer and larger housing at Marne-la-Vallée, which is equally photogenic, one experiences aspects that escape the camera’s eye. These are, indeed, novel and dramatic designs, but they are deeply disturbing buildings. The innocent dreams of impossible grandeur that gave Morris Lapidus’s Miami Beach hotels their curious charm has been raised to a kind of aware and awful apotheosis. In Bofill’s buildings, Lapidus’s naive fantasy has become a skilled, knowledgeable manipulation carried out with infinitely more expertise, on a monstrous scale.

This artful, monumental kitsch has something for everyone; it works for both popular and educated taste on totally different levels. An exuberant hautbourgeois pretentiousness is coupled with a Piranesian vision of space incongruously (cynically?) applied to ordinary domestic uses. The image is pop sinister. One assumes that this “double coding,” this jolting marriage of the vulgar and the erudite, is another of postmodernism’s calculated ironies. Otherwise it is hard to explain Bofill’s colonnaded and mirrored Busby Berkeley stage set for the “theater” segment of the housing, or the “Carceri” quality of the entry courts. It is cinematic, of course; it lacks only tap dancers and swinging chains. This is a coolly, confidently, and expensively executed destruction of architectural meaning and style.

It is best not to come to postmodernism, or to Jencks’s books, as an architectural innocent. This is not just a matter of missing the in-innuendoes, or being an easy mark. Jencks is a brilliant and frequently infuriating critic, equally full of marvelous insights and willful misreadings; but both need a practiced observer.

He can be scrupulously fair, as in his assessment of the talented and debatable work of James Stirling, or he can describe the elegant modernist buildings of Richard Meier with keen understanding and then carefully undermine his praise with the use of an oddly belittling tone. There is no more succinct analysis of one of today’s most “difficult” practitioners and cult figures, the Italian Marxist-mystic-rationalist Aldo Rossi, than appears in Jencks’s Architecture Today, and no more wretchedly inadequate treatment of Mies van der Rohe than in Jencks’s Modern Movements in Architecture. That Mies’s buildings might have any conceptual or aesthetic significance, or any legitimacy whatever, is a possibility denied and derided in a tone that forecloses debate. They are dismissed as “empty parallelepipeds of post and lintel construction which enclose a ‘universal’ blank space…so obviously reductive as to be laughable.” Jencks begins by calling Mies’s work “exquisite farce” and ends by warning that those who take Mies seriously have fallen for the idea that a “half-baked, univalent architecture is better than an inclusive one.” It takes courage to risk that stigma.

On the other hand, Jencks’s description in Architecture Today of “gridism,” a Japanese “new wave” flirtation with an abstractly sinister bathhouse or mortuary style (perfect for fashion photos) is all that one could ask for in perceptive commentary.

What was a modernist principle of rationality and order, the applied grids of Viennese architects Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos, has now become both a comment on that principle and a subversion of it. Anonymity, neutrality and background order are here the content of the architecture, not a utilitarian device.

This says everything about the highly skilled and self-conscious creative decadence that defines where the aesthetic action is today. One cannot get closer to the nerve center of much late-twentieth-century art.

Writing history of any kind in a period of ideological transition is extremely difficult. In addition to the problem of perspective, there is in the arts the subjective matter of taste. Sigfried Giedion, Nikolaus Pevsner, and the early work of Henry-Russell Hitchcock read differently now; these influential modernist texts seem even more remarkable than when their apocalyptic vision burst upon a generation looking for a holy grail. This was special pleading of a very high order.

To revise these histories is no small assignment. Kenneth Frampton’s Modern Architecture: A Critical History,6 is a major work with impressive parts that never quite seem to come together; it is difficult to discuss the book as a whole. A useful and wide-ranging work of superior architectural scholarship, this ambitious publication contains many chapters that stand on their own as perceptive essays; it is marked throughout by a consistently mature critical intelligence. Frampton gives a considerable emphasis to those subjects only lightly touched on or ignored in standard modernist histories—Terragni and Italian rationalism, for example, and the modernistic style in America (is Frampton the only one who has got the name right?). This is a pudding of a book from which one may pull any number of splendid things.

The quality of Frampton’s research and analysis is high, but this is a standard we have a right to expect from architectural writing today. (He established that standard himself years ago with his article in Perspecta on Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre in Paris,7 a ground-breaking critical redefinition of both the architect and the building and their place and meaning in the modern movement.) The particular value of this kind of revisionist history is that it seeks sources and examines them thoroughly—a huge advantage if one wants to arrive at any approximation of the reality of events or a more accurate and revealing account of the influences, context, and conditions that have shaped the architect’s work and beliefs. Right now, we need all the information we can get.

It is extremely unlikely that anyone is going to produce the “definitive” account of modernism at this point; such definitive accounts are usually written only as a carefully planned polemic, a form that is looked on currently with extreme suspicion. What matters most in Frampton’s kind of “cultural” history is the quantity and quality of the information upon which the writer’s opinions, and the opinions of others, will be based. I find myself more impressed by the depth and quality of his basic research than by any political interpretation of it he may suggest. This seems a fair test to apply to much of today’s architectural writing.

Here the contrast between Frampton’s and Jencks’s treatment of Mies, for example, is instructive. Jencks’s analysis consists of jumping on Mies with both feet after shadowboxing showily with a bit of history and philosophy; Frampton’s approach has the virtue of critical exposition rather than demolition. Frampton deals directly with Mies’s frequently repeated, overriding concern for “the expressive qualities of an objective building technique, logically conceived and vigorously executed.” The advantages, and the limitations, of this philosophy are clear. Mies’s buildings were neither universal, as claimed, nor replicable, as hoped. What Mies’s followers (and critics) failed to grasp was the “delicacy of his sensibility,” in Frampton’s words, “that feeling for the precise proportioning of profiles that alone guaranteed his mastery over form.” This superb sensibility inevitably made Mies’s buildings something more than Jencks’s “exquisite farce”; they were masterful, because he was a master, and, on occasion, they were great.

Frampton’s discussion of Alvar Aalto greatly increases our understanding of the Finnish architect’s work. Aalto’s development is far more complex than the popular notion that he sprang fullblown from the brow of the International Style while adding some mysterious affinity with man and nature that has been labeled, much too glibly, “humanistic.” Initially, Aalto was drawn to versions of romantic classicism and Finnish national romanticism which he admired and emulated; he was strongly influenced in his early years by the work of Gunnar Asplund and Erik Bryggman. An encounter with De Stijl at a European conference made him an ardent convert to constructivism; there was a clear Dutch prototype for the famous Paimio Sanitorium that established him as a practitioner of the new “functionalism.”

But Aalto’s characteristic use of wood, which began with his furniture designs in the late 1920s, and the softened and more sensuous forms of his familiar, mature style were due less to some northern Druidic instincts than to the patronage of the Gullichsens of the Allström timber interests in the 1930s. The work that followed, from exposition pavilions and houses to institutions, continued to explore wood in a marvelous way; his activity as a painter and an admirer of Arp, Miró, and Le Corbusier, moreover, had much to do with his use of curvilinear forms. (Frampton also tells us that the proponents of the earlier Finnish national romanticism, wishing to promote the use of local granite, drew on the buildings of Edinburgh and the work of H.H. Richardson for technical and aesthetic examples. The sources of style do not have to be invented by art historians; they are usually there for those who look for them.)

It is only against this instructive background that one perceives why Aalto’s buildings are not cerebral, International Style abstractions, but places of warmth and individuality. He fused his affinities for both rationalism and romanticism through a particularly gifted handling of light, space, surface, material, and site, all strongly directed to the enhancement of personal, sensory experience. It is the extraordinary degree to which Aalto’s buildings have shaped that experience that makes his work some of the finest of this century. It is not surprising that his influence is growing while other reputations shrink. Aalto has been receiving increasing critical attention, from the detailed documentation of his early work in Paul David Pearson’s Alvar Aalto and the International Style of 1978 to Malcolm Quantrill’s recently published Alvar Aalto: A Critical Study.8 Frampton calls Aalto’s buildings “life-giving rather than repressive.” They are marked by the kind of “delicate sensibility” that Mies devoted to a diametrically opposed ideal, and for both Aalto and Mies the end was the same: the making of a building in which the user achieves dignity through art.

  1. 6

    Oxford University Press, 1980.

  2. 7

    Kenneth Frampton, “Maison de Verre,” Perspecta 12 (Yale Architectural Design, October 1969).

  3. 8

    Paul David Pearson, Alvar Aalto and the International Style (Whitney Library of Design, Watson-Guptill, 1978); Malcolm Quantrill, Alvar Aalto: A Critical Study (Schocken, 1983).

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