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Inventing American Reality

1.

In recent years a shift has taken place in the way we perceive reality, a shift so pervasive that it has radically altered basic assumptions about art and life. The shift is profound; it goes beyond the debate over modernism and postmodernism and it increasingly affects the design of the buildings around us. Some, like myself, believe the shift mutilates and sells short what it pretends to elevate and embrace. It has instantly recognizable characteristics—an emphasis on surface gloss, on pastiche, on the use of familiar but bowdlerized elements from the history of design, on tenuous symbolism and synthetically created environments, a detachment from the problems and processes through which contemporary life and creative necessity are actively engaged. These attributes provide a dubious replacement for the rigorous and elegant synthesis of expression and utility that has always defined and enriched the best of the building art. This change in vision and values has brought irreversible changes in the understanding and practice of architecture today. The art of architecture as packaging or play-acting is a notion whose time, alas, seems to have come.

I do not know just when we lost our sense of reality or interest in it, but at some point it was decided that the evidence of the built world around us was not compelling; that it was possible, permissible, and even desirable to substitute a more agreeable product. Once it was accepted that reality was disposable, its substance could be revised, manipulated, or abandoned. The devaluation of our cities and the structures in them that followed—essentially the abandonment of the richest and most revealing record of the human condition—has spread like a virus, invading and infecting architectural and urban standards in the most basic sense. The replacement of reality with selective fantasy has been led first by the preservation movement and then by a new, successful, and staggeringly profitable American phenomenon: the reinvention of the environment as themed entertainment. The process of substitution probably started in a serious way at Colonial Williamsburg, predating and preparing the way for the new world order of Disney Enterprises. Certainly it was in the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg that the studious fudging of facts received its scholarly imprimatur and history and place as themed artifact hit the big time.

Restoration is a difficult and unclear procedure at best, a highly subjective kind of cosmetic surgery that balances life and death. At Williamsburg, a “cut-off date” of 1770 was set; subsequent history was to be amputated, the place frozen in time. Once a “cut-off date” has been chosen for a project, the next step is to “restore it back”—to use preservation-speak. “Restoring it back” means re-creating the place as someone thinks it was, or would like it to have been, at the cut-off date. As practiced in this country since the 1920s and 1930s, these linguistic and conceptual crimes against art and history have achieved complete acceptance and respectability. They have also given a license to destroy. Seven hundred and thirty-one buildings were removed at Williamsburg, eighty-one were renovated, and 413 were rebuilt on the original sites.1 Pre-restoration photographs show later eighteenth-and nineteenth-century buildings of local styles. They were real, of course, but inappropriate to the cut-off date, and had to be bulldozed or moved.

This becomes a slippery game. After eliminating the “wrong” buildings, the next step is to replace them with the “right” buildings, which are moved, in turn, from somewhere else. Proceeding with hubris and a stunning illogic, a consortium of preservation architects and historical soothsayers plays God, with an assist from the spirits of Emily Post and Elsie de Wolfe. Along the way, there is much fashionable antiquarian upgrading. To complete the stage set, major buildings that no longer exist are erected. The prime example at Williamsburg is the Capitol. The decision to build it involved some Alice-in-Wonderland architectural hair-splitting about whether to construct the first or the second version of the long-gone structure. Much was made of documentary evidence, with what are increasingly revealed as questionable conclusions.

When it comes to furnishing and equipping these re-created settings, the dreams and ambitions of curators take over, and collections of “museum quality” are assembled. Occasionally, a piece of furniture or an object is returned to its original place, but much that is only tenuously connected is rationalized by the phrase “of the period.” Elegant and elaborate curtains and upholstery from fabric manufacturers known for historic reproductions inevitably follow, inspiring upscale decorator “lines.” Details of rebuilt or restored structures are copied from the more splendid examples, here or abroad, or from pattern books—always, of course, “of the period.”

At this point, reason disintegrates; carriages and costumes and all the appurtenances of make-believe take over—in the interest of greater reality of course, as well as of the tourist trade. (I am still bemused by a television series, purportedly on architecture, in which the postmodern architects Leon Krier and Robert A.M. Stern, riding in one of those carriages, blithely expressed their admiration of the spurious and the silly at Williamsburg; this was followed by their enthusiastic endorsement of a vaguely Williamsburged, deeply banal, suburban shopping center.)

The blend of new and old, real and fake, original and copy, in even the best of these restorations defies analysis; it is dedicated to a wholly artificial construction that is supposed to convey a true (that is, tangible) experience of American art and history. But if these “re-creations” teach something to those who might otherwise remain innocent of history, they also devalue what they teach; the intrinsic qualities of the real place are transformed and falsified.

In a brilliant discussion of this curiously American phenomenon of the glorification of the unreal over the real, Umberto Eco has observed that for a reconstruction to be credible to the modern public, it must seem “absolutely iconic, a perfect likeness, a ‘real’ copy of the reality being presented…”

The American imagination demands the real thing, and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake…

…for historical information to be absorbed, it has to assume the aspect of a reincarnation…. The “completely real” becomes identified with the “completely fake.” Absolute unreality is offered as real presence…2

The restoration must be “better” than real, superior to any natural survivor, and, of course, the housekeeping will be a marked improvement.

A visit to these places can be pleasant enough if one suspends all concern about accuracy and mixed messages. The average tourist is routinely lulled into thinking that this is the way it was—tidied up a bit, naturally, and with a few good restaurants added—an impression reinforced by the information dispensed by the ladies in hoop skirts and Reeboks. There have been some efforts over the years to indicate what actually survived in situ in Williamsburg, if not exactly what had been done to it; what is more dubious is the distinction made between the genuine article and those that have come to be called “authentic reproductions.”

It is hard to think of a more dangerous, anomalous, and shoddy perversion of language and meaning than the term authentic reproduction. This curious expression is one of the most mischievous and misleading of contemporary cant phrases. These are the con words of American culture. Something that is authentic is the real thing, and a reproduction, by definition, is not; a copy is still a copy, no matter how skilled or earnest its intentions. To equate a replica with the genuine artifact is to cheapen and render meaningless its true age and provenance; to imply equal value is to deny the act of creation that was informed and defined by the art and custom of another time and place. What is missing is the original mind, hand, material, and eye. In other words, authenticity. The kindest thing you can say is that an authentic reproduction is a genuine oxymoron.

Authentic reproduction” has entered the language and culture as a total up-ending of values and a great moneymaker for historic restorations, museums, and assorted coattail enterprises. What interests me is how far this easy confusion of fact and fantasy has come and how insidiously it has perverted the way we think. Williamsburg and its progeny have taught many of us to prefer—and believe in—a sanitized and selective version of the past, to deny the diversity and eloquence of change and continuity, to ignore the actual deposits of history and humanity that make our cities vehicles of a special kind of art and experience, gritty accumulations of the best and worst we have produced. This record has the wonder and distinction of being the real thing.

When reality occasionally rears its head in these preservation “enclaves”—frequently an assortment of fragments moved out of the path of development and given a new “olde” name—the whole business tends to collapse. A later look at the evidence at Williamsburg caused a drastic revision of paint colors from discreetly muted and widely salable Williamsburg blues and greens to much gaudier hues. In the further interest of “authenticity” management introduced some token pigs to roam the too-tidy streets, although they were not allowed to forage for garbage. (The addition of livestock in these so-called authentic restorations has brought another curiosity—“breeding back,” to produce more authentic animals.) Anguished, scholarly soul-searching is now going on in Williamsburg about how to increase the authenticity of the imitation. Younger historians claim that the Capitol is not all that authentic after all.

The builders of the reconstructed Capitol have been accused of redesigning it. It takes just about half a century for the cycles of taste and style to shift. An article in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians3 has suggested that the original documents and foundation remains were misread in the 1930s. Taught to think in terms of the formal classical symmetry of their Beaux Arts training, the restoration architects could not believe, or accept, that the building’s axis could have been off-center. The entrance contradicts the evidence of the foundation and is probably in the wrong place. Other spatial relationships are also questionable.

Beyond virtually unavoidable technical errors, such “authentic reproductions” will always be false. Few documents are not subject to interpretation. Still, reconstruction has taken on an aura of natural, or national, correctness. Foreign dignitaries are welcomed at Williamsburg by the State Department and provided with photo opportunities in carriages. But since the most accurate documents and most astute detective work are rarely definitive, new directors and attitudes and the passage of time lead to “revisions,” each touted as more authentic than the last. In fact the differing interpretive visions and their mutations are as interesting for what they reveal about changing tastes and viewpoints as for their exposure of the limited, wishful, and often demonstrably false first reconstructions of the experts. To track the life of a restoration is to learn a great deal about art, history, and reality.

2.

It has been a short distance down the yellow brick road from Williamsburg to Disneyland. Both are quintessentially American inventions. Both deal in a doctored reality. What they have in common is their suspension of disbelief, the expertise of their illusion, and their promotion of a skillfully edited, engineered, and marketed version of a chosen place, or theme. If one of the original impulses behind Disneyland was the commercially attractive idea of having people pay to see the famous cartoon characters walking around at human scale, another was Walt Disney’s love of model trains and his passion for changing their settings. It was a short trip to fantasy environments. In the Disney parks, the inaccessible and exotic can be enjoyed comfortably, conveniently, and interchangeably; Swiss and Polynesian villages coexist at a friendly, reduced scale and in close proximity. Familiar cities like New Orleans are edited down to clean and cozy versions of the Vieux Carré or the Garden District, divested of the distractions of dirt, crime, and ethnic diversity. The experience of seeing a miniature Matterhorn from a California highway is topped only by seeing it again outside Tokyo. “Main Street USA” is created even as main streets die across the country.

The possibilities are limitless. Each subject is designed as an appealing visual narrative, presented, as its creators would say, as a “themed” package. The result, which covers a wide range of variations, is the theme park, a singular product of our time and a distinctly American contribution to world culture and human experience. The theme can be geographical or historical, fiction or fantasy; it can invent worlds of the past, present, or future. There are “parks” for marine and animal life, domestic or wild, and, a genre on the increase, the “participatory” theme park with simulated experiences in simulated natural settings or site-and-story rides in re-created movie back lots. The “adventure” park has replaced the old amusement park; instead of dizzy rides it offers the thrill-packed, computer-programmed “dangers” of crocodiles and volcanoes that can be enjoyed safely in parts of America that have never seen either. History can be revisited through the same kind of artifice. Where witches were once imprisoned, tortured, and put on trial, the experience can now be simulated in the same setting with son et lumière, live actors, or automated mannikins suitably enhanced by smoke and screams. All these innovations seek to provide themed entertainment as a controlled environmental experience in which the whole family can share feelings of nostalgia, or shock, or sense the uplift that is thought to come from historical or cultural information.

The “theming” of America is not limited to such tourist enterprises; it includes restaurants, shopping centers, hotels, and housing developments, whether it is just a “look” or a complete concept carried out to the last “authentic” touch. A shack in a roadside parking lot can contain a flocked and gilded restaurant with battalions of stemware suggesting rare, cellar-stored wines and menus as big as broadsides implying Lucullan feasts in a setting of rococo splendor. The building is a darkened, windowless box, the illusion sealed against the surroundings. One stumbles out into daylight and the real world of car washes and cut-rate mini-malls.

There is a tradition here, of sorts: so much of the country has been created out of wishful thinking. The gridded new towns on vast, blank tracts of land for a westward-moving population; the Hispano-Moresque resorts in Florida with imported palm trees and imitation boiserie devised by Addison Mizner for the private Pullman-car commuting rich—all were equal acts of will and imagination. Jefferson consciously chose a romantic classicism imported from Europe as a suitable architectural image for the new democracy. What was arbitrary and artificial at the start, however, could be naturalized by use, growth, and evolutionary change. As the years passed, the accretions of actuality and the alchemy of time provided appropriate character and substance.

The difference today is that themed creations are made-for-the-moment, instant environments, intended only as temporary, substitute events; they are conceived and planned as places to visit in which novelty, experience, and entertainment are sold for a price and a limited period. Based on tested formulas for attracting families, the genre is being extended to complete, themed vacation resorts for longer stays and more tourist dollars. Disney World’s Yacht Club Resort and Beach Club Resort in Orlando, Florida, are themed vacation hotels, detailed throughout to evoke the leisured, opulent, late nineteenth-century life of the verandahed, wooden, grand hotels of the upper-crust, old-money East Coast. Bar Harbor, Maine, as recreated in Florida, is made of glued sawdust clapboards and fiberglass balustrades to withstand the tropical humidity. While Ralph Lauren may sell the blazers and braid and pressed linens that are the dream-world trappings needed to complete the fantasy, it is sneakered and T-shirted Middle America that comes and pays the bills. But the point is illusion, not veracity. Never underestimate the remarkable skills expended on these ersatz and enormously profitable wonders.

It follows naturally that the great American pastime of shopping figures prominently in all of these enterprises. From credentialed restorations carried out by trained professionals to the most blatant pit stop on marginal historic tours, from the Colonial craft-and-candle shop and the general store in the rebuilt Western ghost town to the roadside rest and souvenir stand, behind the reconstructed or imaginary façades, there are always goods for sale. In still another related and uniquely American invention, buildings of genuine antiquity are used to create a “festival market-place,” as in Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall market, or “themed” new construction serves the same purpose, as on Baltimore’s waterfront. All are designed according to a pre-set commercial formula based on the essential number of continuous shopping feet considered necessary for merchandising success. The standards for the shops are set and maintained by restrictive clauses in leases. When the historical setting is fragile or discontinuous, as at New York’s South Street Seaport, most of the eccentric and believable fabric of the past is lost—distorted by and subordinated to the commercial calculation.

The themed shopping environment that uses style as a distinguishing marketing factor is the ultimate extension of the shopping mall as purveyor of entertainment and social activity; it is the heart of modern consumer culture. Potemkin villages offer postmodernist façades with false dormers, towers, arches, and trim in shades of mauve, pumpkin, and pistachio, while the chains and franchises behind them are predictably the same. They are not meant to convince; these are stage sets supplying a background architectural theme. Tucked artfully behind Los Angeles’s glittering Rodeo Drive is a new, cunningly curved street, a pseudo-Continental mix of small period-revival buildings devoted to luxury shops. History is a marketing ploy; shopping is the end of the preservation rainbow. More serious is the carry-over of the same pretense to other buildings and places where what remains of an indigenous urban life is being replaced by these “lessons” in merchandising and make-believe.

3.

Surveys have shown that Americans increasingly choose theme parks as vacation destinations. Museums, also dependent on visitors, have had to hustle to compete. Museums of natural history and anthropology, in particular, find it hard to match reconstructions of native villages with computer-programmed figures performing rites and dances in reproduced regalia with hot-out-of-the-copy-shop accessories. The informative dioramas that mimic reality with animals in simulated habitats, and such evocative genuine artifacts as Conestoga wagons and the battered utensils of the long, Westward trek, are still static displays; they lose out to “restored” and “recreated” Old West saloons with shootouts on the hour. A new museum of the University of California at Berkeley, located not in Berkeley but in the well-to-do suburb of Blackhawk, augmented its exhibition of New Guinea artifacts with a “science theater” where an experience called “Nature’s Fury” produced a rocking earthquake simulation from a mini-volcano. Going a step further to achieve “life-like” relevance appropriate to the community, a suggested survivor’s kit was displayed in the trunk of a BMW.

It has become common practice for originals, reconstructions, and reproductions to be mingled in museum displays; one must read the labels to know what is real and what is not. But since few bother, the distinctions, and their meanings, are often lost. While art museums are more removed from the tourist attractions where the “world’s great masterpieces” are re-created in everything from living tableaux to glow-in-the-dark copies on velvet accompanied by unctuous commentary, the great museums have not escaped the same confusion and devaluation. High art has been “contaminated”—Eco’s word—by the “blurring of the boundaries” of original and reproduction, and the leveling of all with the copies for sale in the museum shop. The ostensible purpose of the reproduction, to make one want the original, has been supplanted by the feeling that the original is no longer necessary. The copy is considered just as good, and in some cases, better, according to Eco; Jean Baudrillard argues that the simulation replaces the original to become the “reality.”4

Is it any wonder, then, that there are “galleries” selling assembly-line Picassos complete with fraudulent signatures for ludicrous sums, and that they are being bought with full knowledge of their fakery?5 Barnum was right, there is a sucker born every minute, but the situation was more straightforward when the flimflam was pure and the suckers were those too dumb or unfortunate to know the difference—when the difference was still assumed to matter. What is appalling is that those who know enough not to want the fake Picassos still find it chic to argue that authenticity is no longer to be valued, that the imitation, in fact, is a better idea—as with the retroclassicism of the false-front urbanism planned for St. Paul’s precinct in London. No matter how seductive the arguments for familiarity and human scale, the irreconcilable conflict with twentieth-century life makes a parody of the eighteenth-century models.

Once the substitute is considered the more acceptable version, remarkable things occur. In Texas, when movie makers planned a film about the Alamo and found the real landmark small and unprepossessing, they built a bigger and better Alamo in a nearby town. Today both the false and the genuine Alamo are equally popular tourist attractions.

The theme park has no such problem of degenerative authenticity. Nothing in it is admired for its reality, only for the remarkable simulation that is achieved; the selective manipulation of its sources is a deliberate, expressive distortion that is its own art form. It is not surprising that much of the most popular and profitable theme park development is carried out by the masters of illusion; the movie and entertainment businesses have become the major innovators and investors in theme parks and related enterprises. An entire new industry has grown up to serve “themed entertainment,” providing such things as those computerized volcano eruptions and fiberglass rock formations; according to an industry spokesman “you get a very artificial appearance with real rock.” A company called Wet Enterprises, which makes computerized fountains, developed much of the extremely impressive futuristic technology for Disneyworld. Those who wonder what happened to American know-how have just not been looking in the right places.

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.

4.

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. 1

    These figures come from Marcus Whiffen, Public Buildings of Colonial Williamsburg (Colonial Williamsburg, Inc, 1958), p. v.

  2. 2

    Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyper-reality (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986).

  3. 3

    Carl R. Lounsbury, “Beaux-Arts Ideals and Colonial Reality: The Reconstruction of Williamsburg’s Capitol, 1928–1934,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (December 1990).

  4. 4

    Jean Baudrillard, Simulations (Semiotext(e), 1983).

  5. 5

    See “Into an Age of Fake Art: A Very Real Quandary,” by William H. Honan, The New York Times, September 3, 1991, p. 14.

  6. 6

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

  7. 7

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

  8. 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).

  9. 9

    Museum of Modern Art, 1977.

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