• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Inventing American Reality

This remarkable marriage of technologically based and shrewdly programmed artificial experience in a manufactured and managed environment offering controlled and pricey pleasures is now an American export. Tokyo’s Disneyland is a popular success; the jury is still out on the more ambitious Euro Disneyland that opened this summer in the former beet fields near Marne-la-Vallée, a $4.4 billion project one fifth the size of Paris. Euro Disneyland incorporates such familiar themes as Main Street and Big Thunder Mountain, but Tomorrowland has become Discoveryland, with references to European explorers, and Sleeping Beauty’s castle is considerably more elaborate than the American version, since Europeans are used to the real thing. In spite of enormous pre-opening publicity and corporate confidence, the expected crowds have not materialized. Whether the resistance is attributable simply to high prices, since the opening coincided with an international recession, or to a miscalculation of Mickey-mania, remains to be seen.

Michael Eisner, chairman of the Walt Disney Company, has become a conspicuous patron of architecture, employing some of the world’s most celebrated architects for the hotels, resorts, shopping facilities, and office buildings that serve the Disney empire. But the planners and imagemakers are not the architects; at the top are the Disney “imagineers.” The architects supply creativity and credibility for Disney’s guidelines, budgets, and design concepts. A Euro Disney opening-day newspaper photograph featured three of Eisner’s architectural Mouseketeers, Frank Gehry, Michael Graves, and Robert A.M. Stern, in front of a Gehry-designed mini-mall. It has become routine for architects to find much to admire and little to question in the Disney formula. Only Gehry says, regretfully, “I lost control.” In California, Graves has shown his mastery of the genre with an office building where the seven dwarfs support a classical pediment, among other droll grotesqueries. Stern, whose successful career is largely based on his role as a kind of Ralph Lauren of architecture,6 seems to have perfect pitch for the images that unite appropriated memories and social aspirations in a mix of status symbols and consumer comforts. The concept of the “signature architect,” a designer-name with a trademark style and obvious sales and publicity advantages, was invented by developers for the real estate market. Its irrelevance to architecture is equaled only by its success as a cultural scam. Eisner has a star-studded lineup.

One wonders, though, who is having whom. There is no denying the skill of the artifice involved; the impeccable planning and organization, the inventive technology, the masterful marketing, and the assured understanding of popular tastes and pleasures. But if one can admire the technical ingenuity and theatrical expertise that is responsible for the success of these places, how should one take the praise from the design community that has raised Disneyland to cult status? I part company with those architects who see the theme park as the new Pop Holy Grail. This blinding revelation follows their earlier discovery of suburbia, the drive-in, and the highway strip. But the American Pop landscape is real, and answers real needs, whatever one thinks of it. Even as taste-makers and planners ignored or derided them, those forms and functions were emerging to service perceived and well-marketed contemporary uses and life styles. J.B. Jackson’s brilliant work revealed the changing iconography of the American landscape,7 opening the way for Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s landmark studies of the city, suburbia, and Las Vegas.8

But while Venturi and Scott Brown have been praised for their observations on cultural themes from the Pop present to the historical past (Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture was the text that broke open the straitjacket of modernist theory and practice in the 1960s),9 their integration of this eclectic borrowed vocabulary into architecture can be as troubling as it is intriguing. Venturi’s enormously influential house for his mother outside Philadelphia in 1963—actually a charming, livable, gently offbeat house for a historical manifesto—was the postmodernist shot heard round the world. A series of increasingly important and innovative buildings at Princeton and elsewhere led to the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London completed last year, where splendid galleries skillfully combine traditional and sometimes quixotic use of sources with brilliantly modernist spatial solutions.

This architecture has not been free of risk or without controversy. It involves a sophisticated, self-conscious reworking of painstakingly analyzed and applied popular and historical themes. In this highly rationalized design process the references can be tortuous, idiosyncratic, and opaque. Appropriating low art for high art automatically cancels out those spontaneous and innocent qualities that are its most valid and attractive feature. The direct, primary, sensory communication that is unique to architecture and its user can be slowed or shortcircuited by the intellectual and aesthetic arguments. But this work has always broken new ground; at its best, it rejects familiar references and conventions for fresh perceptions and possibilities; it gives us new interpretations of space and symbolism that speak equally to the eye and mind. This architecture deals with the enrichment of vocabulary and experience, not with the trivia of trim.

The trouble begins with those who treat history as a stylistic grab bag, or when ad hoc forms devised for fast, cheap impact are offered as models for buildings whose role and image are intrinsic to a different and more traditional set of needs and values. These are trendy cop-outs that bypass tough solutions to nontraditional problems. Something perverse and peculiar happens. We get those pompier works of postmodernism—cartoon cartouches, sausage moldings, and paper-doll costumes. We get faux populism as high art. (Here I think the word faux, or fake, fits. It is a word that is everywhere today, because it is so right for what is so wrong. It has lost all pejorative meaning; using the French faux makes the fake chic.)

Today we have faux architecture. We accept the insouciant ripoff of punk-Palladian skyscrapers with drop-dead lobbies above which everything is cost-conscious banality. We do not question sloppy, free-fall history and surface novelties where paraphrase is considered an act of clever design, and, supposedly, of irony and art. Such buildings appeal to a public increasingly nurtured by and hooked on pretense, and to developers and patrons who find them the easiest route to status and style. They “work” best for those unfamiliar with the sources being ineptly or ludicrously caricatured. The worst excesses—and they are legion—rank with any of the more dismal failures produced by the tortured and exhausted principles of the modern movement in its later years. Banal is almost better.


Other factors encourage an architecture of facile illusion, of image over substance, of artifice over reality. The idea that form followed function was not only intrinsic to modernism, it has influenced virtually every aspect of design. If this was a simplistic attitude toward a complex art, it still suggested an essential and basic relationship between art and use. Viollet-le-Duc, the nineteenth-century architect for whom reality meant the visibly functional, stone-on-stone construction of the medieval buildings that he most admired, set the mood and the morality for the next hundred years when he said “a thing has style when it has the expression appropriate to its use.”

Today, form follows feeling; desire, not utility, dictates design. Style responds to a different purpose and vision; it is dream, invention, wish-fulfillment. What is appropriate is largely in the eye and mind of the creator or beholder. We reinvent ourselves, our settings, our lives; our personae hang in the closet with the designer clothes. The “look” can be anything—recycled unisex, Manhattan cowhand, grandmothers in the fluorescent gear of spandex-clad bikers, Ivy Leaguers sporting the outer limits of street style.

Is it any wonder that we expect our architecture to put on an identity, to create an image, to invent a world? Philip Johnson, with his partner, John Burgee, rode this kind of facile eclecticism to enormous success, giving banks, manufacturers, and real estate developers skyscrapers with instant images and period trappings so silly and interchangeable that they ridiculed whatever they pretended to emulate—mirror-Gothic in Pittsburgh, Flemish stepped-gables in Houston, false mansards in New York. This kind of eclecticism trashes history. Of course, one can say that a hallmark of our culture is that it self-destructs. But buildings? In spite of their size, these structures hardly command a second glance. There is something so flat, so vacuous, so lacking in density and meaning, that their offensiveness almost evaporates; they fail even at being seriously awful. Cities of character—like Chicago and Boston—begin to mock themselves with a foolish fashion parade on the skyline. Occasionally, however, the client and the container seem just right; there is a kind of play-acting pretentiousness about the Museum of Radio and Television and its little stretch skyscraper in New York.

The death of Utopian modernism, in which social purpose, form, and function were revered as the holy trinity of style, has opened more exotic paths for denial and escape. What disappeared when doctrinaire modernism lost credibility was not only faith in a certain way of building, but also the purposes that kind of building was to serve; naive, idealistic, and even wrongheaded, architects still held that humanity and the environment could be improved through design. The modernism that was to be the instrument of salvation has long since been sidetracked or perverted, the dreams and illusions revealed as foolhardy, and the classic liberal philosophy that supported the movement has been turned inside out, converted to corrosive, politically correct rhetoric. The tragedy is less in the demise of a specific theory and system of building than in the collapse of the shared values and concerns that went with it.

With this loss has come a vacuum of the kind of meaning and conviction that sustain connections to a larger place or purpose. Architecturally, there has been a turn inward, away from society, to self, to narcissism, to introspection, to arcane aesthetic exercises and narrow, self-indulgent investigations of intensely personal vision. Under these conditions, Peter Eisenman has created a theoretical, abstract architecture in which the building is its own insistently autonomous geometry. For the official opening of his Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University the empty building was its own exhibit. That Eisenman’s intricate exercises are elegant and artful is beyond argument; that they may fashionably rely on a “text” is beside the point. But when a virtuoso architectural act becomes a denial of, or replacement for, its primary purpose, or makes that purpose singularly difficult to carry out, or when the solution is not the generator of the artistic act, we are being told that it has become more important for architecture to send messages than to fill needs.

It has become acceptable for a building to exist as an art object in itself rather than to be integrated, through its art, into the rich and complex life and use that makes architecture the strongest and most far-reaching art of all. Of all the arts, architecture alone is not a studio or audience art; it is a balance of structural science and aesthetic expression for the satisfaction of needs that go far beyond the utilitarian. The ways in which the equilibrium between the physical and the spiritual is resolved, the essential mix of efficiency and delight, the quality of the balance, give architecture its beauty, strength, and style. To substitute sentiment, esoterica, or derivative abstractions for this kind of total creative engagement is a virulent and dangerous denial of the essence of building.

Edouard Sekler, professor emeritus of architecture at Harvard, reminds us that each generation, in its search for solutions, reformulates the problems that architecture seeks to solve. That is where and how transformations begin. Critics who are looking for stylistic unity characterized by matching visual markers do not look deeply enough. The rich diversity of current work is not going to “pull together” into a homogeneous post-postmodernist whole. The rules are gone; without them, the basic elements are being reconstructed. Architecture is literally being taken apart and put back together again. Purpose and plan, setting and structure, space and skin, the part and the whole, solid and void, transparency and solidity, expression and suppression, perception and meaning, are all subject to reinterpretation. The range of historical, technological, and philosophical sources now available would have been inconceivable in any previous age. This is not the cannibalizing of history. It is not Disney “imagineering.” It is a process of analysis and synthesis light years beyond cosmetic life-style simulation or popular market products. I would argue that this is one of the most dramatic, challenging, innovative, and important moments in contemporary architecture. Released from bondage to both modernism and classicism, into a world of expanding perceptions and ideas, this work seeks answers beyond eclecticism, a style beyond “styles.” What we are seeing is the basic reinterpretion and restructuring of architecture for our time.

That is why major talents whose identities are strikingly different, such as the Portuguese Alvaro Siza, the Japanese Tadao Ando, and the American Frank Gehry, follow no party line. Nor are they the strange bedfellows they may seem. What they have in common, along with other serious practitioners (including the late James Stirling), is that they are all engaged in the basic reformulation of the problems and reexamination of the means to solve them, made possible by the collapse of all dogma at this time. While each one analyzes and redefines building in his own very personal way, all are moving architecture to a place where it has not been before. Some, like Gehry, separate and reassemble the components more literally than others; each building function is studied and reshaped, keeping its identity within the whole. Gehry walks that thin, difficult, dangerous, and exhilarating line where architecture and sculpture cross, where quasi-independent forms are equally responsive to function and to art. They are the result of an obsessive and meticulous investigation of ways to express and accommodate the building’s uses and pleasures. These forms may seem eccentric or arbitrary, but to be inside them is to be aware that Gehry has expanded both the boundaries of the building and of the building art.

Christian de Portzamparc, a young French architect who has built an impressive series of structures in Paris that include the monumental Cité de la Musique at La Villette, follows similar procedures to quite different conclusions. Portzamparc’s assemblage of parts may look deceptively like a light-hearted collage of the 1950s; in photographs, it is easy to dismiss the work as consummate French chic. He likes tile, aluminum, curves, cones, amoeboid shapes, and candy colors, but this sentimental enthusiasm for the motifs and mannerisms of a recent past that he is too young to really remember is subjected to a rigor and finesse that turns what could easily be camp into high Gallic style. This is a kind of serious hedonism in which the significant emphasis is on sophisticated adjustments of proportion and form and an important new way of dealing with program and plan. Portzamparc’s buildings are composed as circulation routes and function areas united by a poetic and dramatic use of movement through changing kinds of space and light. In spite of the sins and omissions of government construction, there is no mistaking the sureness of concept and design. In his ballet school at Nanterres, a series of luminous studio levels wrap around a circular central stair for a continuous sequence of visual and participatory experiences. The dormitory curves off in its own undulating wing. Small lounges make physical and social connections. The landscape is enclosed and revealed with grace.

For such architects, buildings have ceased to be boxes with membranes defining indoor and outdoor domains. Modernism, which “broke the box,” pierced those membranes and moved the volumes about. The most significant new work explodes the last of that formal restrictive geometry. Functions are not merely “contained”; they are given conceptual and visual identity and shaped freely and imaginatively. The parts become the whole through a great variety of integrating ideas and devices; the whole has ceased to be a monolithic enclosure. It is this way of seeing buildings, their functions, and the life within them, and the thoughtful, wide-ranging exploration of such unprecedented solutions, that characterizes the new architecture, and that underlies its striking effects. This is an art moving to new levels, as it bypasses a stagnant, dead-ended postmodernism and a warped traditional revival that is already proving itself unreal, thin, and dry.

All of this work is infused with observations and allusions that go far beyond traditional architectural content. No matter how original or idiosyncratic, however, the common source is an assimilated and transformed modernism; to this has been added a vast range of deeply embedded references to the past. The result is as different from the earlier architecture of this century—and any other century—as subsequent changes in society, life, and thought can make it. But whatever the innovations, or the heresies, architecture is part of a creative continuum; it builds on its own experience, even when it seems to break with it. What does not change is the artful resolution of the elements that are its basic tools—structure, space, form, and light—and all of the poetic and pragmatic input of a humanistic art, shaped by a personal vision and the common culture.

Unlike so much that has been praised and promoted, this architecture does not disclose its virtues easily. It is a highly cerebral art, with no universal public language or instantly recognized vocabulary established over time, as in the past. And with few shared standards between a public expecting the effortless gratification of make-believe and a profession wrestling with the complexities of art and life, it finds itself increasingly isolated. The chasm continues to widen between practice and understanding, exacerbated by an increasing unwillingness on the part of a public to deal with anything but slickly merchandised substitutes that make instant contact. There has been a serious loss of communication between the real world and the synthetic world; the art closest to us has become particularly remote. And yet it has never had more creative energy; it has never been more alive. The tragedy is that it is being forced to occupy an unreal world of its own.

  1. 6

    See “Is Euro Disney a substitute for Paris?” by Joseph Rykwert, Times Literary Supplement, September 18, 1992, p. 6.

  2. 7

    J.B. Jackson, Landscapes: Selected Writings of J.B. Jackson (University of Massachusetts Press, 1970).

  3. 8

    Signs of Life: Symbols in the American City, exhibition and catalog, the Renwick Gallery, Washington, DC, 1976; Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form (MIT Press, 1966).

  4. 9

    Museum of Modern Art, 1977.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print