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Collapsing Modernism

The Details of Modern Architecture

by Edward R. Ford
MIT Press, 371 pp., $60.00

Architecture: The Natural and the Manmade

by Vincent Scully
St. Martin’s Press, 388 pp., $40.00

A stroll down a city street will convince even a casual observer that something has changed drastically in the world of architecture. Where buildings used to be gray or brick-colored or, in exceptional cases like the CBS building in Manhattan, black, they’re now shiny gold, acid green, shocking pink, anything you want. There is variegated, patterned marble and granite everywhere—on the outside and on the inside, on lobby walls and floors, even in elevators. The severe, puritanical steel-and-glass boxes of the Sixties and Seventies have been replaced by buildings that exhibit a surprising variety and richness of forms. They are not adorned with I-beams and venting grills but with ceremonial arched entrances, pedimented roofs, and ornamental friezes.

The Empire State Building was originally fitted with a tall mast which was to serve as a mooring for Zeppelins; airships have long since disappeared but many recent skyscrapers have sprouted sculptural spars and rooftop pinnacles. There are skyscrapers that look like Chippendale highboys or Art Deco bookcases, and others that could be lifted straight out of Erich Kettelhut’s sets for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. There are even a few steel-and-glass boxes, although these now resemble minimalist sculptures with angles sliced away and corners lopped off here and there.

What happened? Ever since the 1920s among the avant-garde, and since 1945 in the mainstream, architecture was dominated by an international dogma that can be loosely called the Modern Movement. Originating as a marginal, almost bohemian art movement, it eventually attracted public and corporate clients who, whether they were General Motors, Harvard University, the United States Air Force, or the United Nations, all chose to build in the modernist style.

Truth to tell, the architecture of the Modern Movement was never universally popular with the American public, neither with the working class, which preferred its houses to be Colonial or ranch style, nor with the well-to-do. But it had other things going for it. Unlike the historical styles that it replaced, the Modern Movement was considered to be progressive, and its proponents maintained that it more accurately reflected the functional spirit of modern technology and was more suited to modern building methods. Moreover, the very lack of popular support was a spur to the architectural profession and produced a high-minded sense of mission—previously, the architect merely interpreted the needs of the client; now his job was to persuade, to educate, and, if necessary, to dictate. It also helped that, by the early 1950s, modernism was the only approach taught in the schools of architecture, virtually all other teaching being strictly forbidden.

Nevertheless, when it was suggested that there was nothing inevitable about flat roofs and undecorated white rooms, that abstraction was a dead end, that, as the Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi, put it, “Less is a bore,” that is, when the dogma was called into question, the Modern Movement lost many of its adherents. Not quite as quickly as world communism perhaps, nor as completely, but with as little effective resistance.

The exact date of the collapse of the rule of modernism is difficult to determine. Some would put it as early as 1962, when Venturi built a house that, while modern in some respects, incorporated such traditional features as a gable roof, decorative moldings, and an unmistakably Palladian window. Or 1964 and the construction of a condominium called Sea Ranch, whose architect, Charles Moore, avoided flat roofs and plate-glass windows and instead based his design on local northern California barns. Or better yet 1966, when Venturi published his influential antimodernist manifesto, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.

Others, more conservative, would point to the moment when what was now becoming known, for better or worse, as postmodern architecture caught the attention of the general public. In 1980, Michael Graves won a national competition for the Portland Municipal Services Building with a striking design that incorporated stylized garlands, oversized keystones, and other classical motifs. Graves, a Princeton professor with only a few domestic renovations to his credit, beat out such prominent modernist heavyweights as Romaldo Guirgola and Arthur Erickson.

The architectural consultant to the Portland jury was Philip Johnson. Johnson was something of an architectural bellwether: in 1932 he had helped to introduce the International Style and white-box architecture to the United States; by 1949, the year that he built his famous glass house, he was the first American architect to adopt the steel-and-glass modernism of Mies van der Rohe, with whom he collaborated on the Seagram Building. About 1960 he abandoned that severe aesthetic for a grandiose eclecticism, best typified by the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. And in 1984, the man whom many called the “dean of American architects” changed course again and produced the first postmodern skyscraper—the AT&T Building, in New York. That the headquarters of one of America’s best-known corporations combined modern technology with explicitly historical and distinctly unmodern architectural imagery suggested that post-modernism had truly entered the mainstream.

The abandonment of a single architectural orthodoxy opened a Pandora’s Box of architectural approaches. Heinrich Klotz’s precociously titled The History of Postmodern Architecture, originally published in Germany in 1984, lists a dazing series of architectural “isms”—eclecticism, historicism, rationalism, neo-modernism, and ahistorical modernism.1 It is not clear how seriously one is supposed to take these labels, but their multiplicity does suggest that postmodernism is unlikely ever to acquire the single authority of the Modern Movement, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Nor has postmodernism “replaced” modernism. Many of the most prestigious commissions of the last decade have been accorded to architects like I.M. Pei (the renovation of the Louvre in Paris), who have continued to work in the modernist idiom, or to younger practitioners like Moshe Safdie (the National Gallery of Canada) and Charles Gwathmey and Robert Siegel (who are completing extensions to both Harvard’s Fogg Museum and to the Guggenheim Museum), whose buildings exhibit no postmodernist tendencies. Neither does the technically accomplished work of Renzo Piano (the Menil Collection in Houston), Norman Foster (the Hong Kong Bank, and Stansted Airport), or Richard Rogers (the headquarters of Lloyd’s of London). And modernism continues to provide the chief impetus for Richard Meier, who has just unveiled his design for the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Which suggests that the Modern Movement is far from dead; what has changed is that it now has competitors.

The displacement of modernism from its central position of authority has had another, less obvious, consequence: it has enabled historians to view the history of the Modern Movement with new eyes. A generation of architectural historians led by Sigfried Giedion, Nikolaus Pevsner, and James Marston Fitch produced a version of the emergence of the Modern Movement that was conditioned partly by their espousal of modernism, and partly by their attempt to explain what appeared, at the time, to be an evolutionary historical process. To put their historical account schematically, William Morris begat the Arts and Crafts, which begat Art Nouveau and the Austrian Sezession, which were both stylistic dead-ends but which eventually led to the German Werkbund and, through the influence of Peter Behrens, Walter Gropius, and the Bauhaus, produced the Modern Movement.

Of course, it was more complicated than that but these historians’ views were pronouncedly deterministic, and architects whose work didn’t seem to advance the evolution of modernism were dismissed as genetic dead-ends. On these grounds, Edwin Lutyens, Ralph Adams Cram, and Stanford White, no matter how gifted or prolific, could be safely ignored. On the other hand, when architects were identified as innovators—as was the case with Otto Wagner, or the young Frank Lloyd Wright—attention was drawn to only those features of their work that were “modern”—anything else was conveniently ignored. This produced a very selective account indeed. For example, in the case of Wagner’s famous Postsparkasse, it was the undecorated interior banking hall that was illustrated in Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design, not the main façade with its ornamental garlands and heroic statues of Victory at each corner.

Thinking afresh about the architectural past is the theme of Edward R. Ford’s The Details of Modern Architecture, an unexceptional title for an exceptional book. It reads like a detective story, for the author sets out to understand early twentieth-century architecture not by examining the external appearance of famous buildings or by describing their programmatic requirements, as has been done so often before, but by looking for clues in the details of exactly how they were built. This sounds so reasonable that it comes as a surprise to realize that it has never been done before, or at least never so thoroughly.

Edward Ford is an associate professor of architecture at the University of Virginia, but he is also a practicing architect and provides practical explanations of how, and why, buildings were built in the manner they were. His book is lucidly written and profusely illustrated with over five hundred simplified construction drawings based on archival material; it will be an invaluable source for anyone trying to understand how the early modernist architects really built. This fascinating investigation sheds new light on even such well-known masterpieces as Le Corbusier’s villa at Garches, a “machine for living” with crude, uninsulated concrete block walls, simply plastered over, inside and out. Or Mies van der Rohe’s beautiful Barcelona Pavilion, an apparently simple composition whose elegant marble walls and plastered ceiling concealed a rough and far from simple steel structure underneath. Nothing in the Pavilion was exactly what it appeared to be. Tapered beams at the edges made the roof appear thinner than it was; the roof looked as if it was supported on eight columns—in fact there were additional columns hidden in the “free-standing” walls; these walls were made to look like solid marble, but were really brick or masonry covered with thin layers of stone.

But his book is not a technical primer—it is an exploration of the relationship between styles of design and styles of building, between different architects’ ideas of building and the reality of building, which often diverged. “Architectural technology is no more objective or subjective than architectural design,” the author writes, “and an architect’s relationship to the building conventions of the time usually mirrors his relationship to the rest of society.” Thus we have the young Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park building unusual, even eccentric, buildings but in quite conventional ways. The dramatic cantilevers of the Robie house in Chicago, for example, were achieved by simply adding concealed steel to what was otherwise a straightforward combination of loadbearing brick walls and timber floors and roof.

After 1910, on the other hand, when Wright became a social outcast as a result of his affair with Mamah Cheney, and left Oak Park and his comfortable suburban life, his estrangement from other architects affected both his handling of detail and his idea of building. Henceforth, not only did his buildings look unusual, they were also built in unusual ways, as he attempted, in Ford’s words, to “reinvent American building.” These attempts took different forms: monolithic wood construction, systematically arranged concrete building blocks, and glass-tube skylights. Startlingly original, they rarely worked as he intended.

  1. 1

    Heinrich Klotz, The History of Post-modern Architecture, translated by Radka Donnell (MIT Press, 1988).

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