The Troubled State of Modern Architecture

A respectable and conventional title for this article would be “Architecture at the Crossroads.” A more alarming title could be “The Crisis of Modern Architecture.” On a more personal note, I could call it “Critic in Crisis: Or How I Am Learning to Live With, But Not to Love, Post-Modernism.”

I believe that architecture today is at a genuine crossroads, quite unlike that of any other time in history. Our Western tradition has been through more than twenty-five centuries of stylistic development, from its Greco-Roman sources to the humanistic revolution of the Renaissance and the radical readjustments of the present. The changes wrought by the technological and modernist revolution of our own day are absolutely without parallel. In our own lifetime modern architecture has been hailed—and it has failed—as an instrument of social salvation. It has been called to account by Jane Jacobs and the environmentalists. And it is now backing away blindly, in the name of change? progress? rediscovery? creativity?—I do not know what to call it—from a sociological or environmental context and into the realm of pure art again—back into an ivory tower with a vengeance, surrounded by an unsettling aura of ecstasy and unease.

What we have come to know as modern architecture in the twentieth century has had very precise rules and definitions and a very visible impact on the built world. This entire phenomenon is being attacked and downgraded. It has become fashionable to say that modern architecture is dead. We are told that we are now in the post-modernist period. None of the rules observed by modernists for the last half-century remains valid. This “revolution against the revolution” is the center of a spirited debate among architects, historians, theorists, and critics. Right now, it is generating much more passion than building. But it is bound to have a profound effect on what will be built later, which eventually concerns us all.

We have grown so accustomed to revolutions in our own time that we treat them cavalierly. There are no more dramatic changes than those that have taken place in the twentieth-century built environment. We have watched modern cities explode and seen their skylines remade as they have turned into incredible displays of glass and steel and concrete unlike anything ever known before. Only the names remain the same. None of this could have been constructed, in engineering or technological terms alone, in any other century, and the modern architecture of the cityscape has become the universal twentieth-century style. It does not matter whether anyone likes it or not. It has not needed anyone’s encouragement or permission. Even the ripoff artists have created a vernacular as valid and lasting as the Georgian vernacular that followed Van Brugh and Wren.

Does anyone still remember how hard the avant-garde fought for the acceptance of this revolution? The intellectual dedication, the evangelical passion, the all-out efforts in its behalf? The charmed circle of those who shared the vision? Those terribly shocking and fashionably dernier cri architecture…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.