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 exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s and 1940s? The outcry that greeted those who dared to build “modern” houses? The flat roof controversies? The missionary “good design” shows? Those tiny buildings that were hailed as triumphs?
Some of those breakthroughs are now registered national landmarks. The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities is taking over Walter Gropius’s revolutionary house in Lincoln, Massachusetts. The books and tracts meant to convince us of the apocalyptic inevitability of the modern movement have joined Alberti and Palladio in the rare book rooms of the architecture libraries. Eventually the acceptance of modern architecture came about through a combination of technology and economics that was able to achieve what lessons in taste and morality could not.
There are, of course, sermons in stones and lessons in buildings, and there is much irony in hindsight. Today there is no certainty about anything any more. There are no longer any approved verities to hang onto, no yardsticks or ideals that safely and universally apply. That the tenets of modern architecture—so sure, so superior, so blessed with the revelation of beauty and truth—should be under attack is no surprise. It is so much easier to see that the overreaching dream of salvation through design failed. It is so much easier to document stupidity, corruption, and abuse than to remember vision and intent. The failures of modern architecture are so enormous and so visible—they are lying around on every street corner. There is the irreparable damage that the rejection of the past has done to our cities, the uncaring and unthinking demolition and loss of our heritage, the destructively wrong scale and sabotaged relationships of the environment, the ignorance and neglect of the continuity that is urban culture.
Like all ideals, those of the modernists have been elusive and impossible to realize. To me it seems rather sad, and even arrogant, that the present generation does not bother to wonder what the excitement was all about. In those circles that are customarily called avant-garde, modern architecture, with its quaint belief systems, is out of style. As usual, there is a good, fast commercial buck to be made out of a bit of bandwagon jumping. Publishers’ lists are filled with titles like The Failure of Modern Architecture and Form Follows Fiasco. There is rejoicing among the Philistines and recanting among the faithful.
Perhaps if modern architecture’s stated ambitions had been less large, it would have been less vulnerable. But those ambitions were part of a period of tremendous optimism about the perfectability of man and his social and political systems and the conditions of his life. The early years of this century were full of courage and hope. Now we are coming to terms with reality and despair.
Today, the history of the fifty years in which modernism grew from a radical movement to the accepted style of the establishment is being actively rewritten. Revisionism is currently the vogue in academic circles. The results are a curious mix of valuable new insights and warped misreadings. Those who participated in this particular chapter of history, and who thought they knew what was happening, are in a state of befuddled or anguished shock. Was the revolution won or lost? Were none of its concerns real or legitimate? What, if anything, did those dedicated pioneers of a new spirit and style achieve? Were no truths revealed? Was no beauty created? Was nothing added to the history of the building art?
The discussion is taking place in an explosion of publications, here and abroad. In the United States, the most serious periodical is Oppositions, the magazine of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York, which has maintained an intense and elevated debate in predominantly turgid tones since its inauguration in 1973. The Institute is also producing a series of outstanding catalogues in connection with its exhibitions on new work and historical reassessments. For pure, magnificent presentation of the new work, and the dedicated documentation of older work of particular interest to today’s architects, the most sumptuous magazines are coming out of Japan—A + U (Architecture and Urbanism) and Progress Architecture, for example.
In the field of revisionist critical writing Charles Jencks is the acknowledged guru of post-modernism, with a series of shrewd, witty, insightful, and sometimes deeply irritating books, beginning with the collected essays on Meaning in Architecture, of 1969, edited with George Baird,1 and continuing with Modern Movements in Architecture,2 and The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. 3 In close step with him is Robert A.M. Stern, whose New Directions in American Architecture appeared first in 1969 and in a revised edition in 1977,4 and who publishes widely in professional journals here and in Europe.
Two teachers, both distinguished historians and critics—Vincent Scully at Yale and Colin Rowe at Cornell—have probably done the most to change the architectural vision and philosophy of several generations of students, beginning as far back as the 1940s. Three particularly influential and enduring architectural essays are Colin Rowe’s “The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa” (The Architectural Review, London, 1947), “Mannerism and Modern Architecture” (The Architectural Review, 1950), and “Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal,” with Robert Slutzky (written in 1955-1956 and published in Perspecta at Yale in 1963). It is significant that these pieces were reprinted as part of a Rowe collection in 1976.5
This body of history, theory, and criticism is supplemented by monographs on current practitioners and manifestoes of all kinds, of which the most outrageous and entertaining to date is Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York.6 Other valuable and informative documents are the catalogues accompanying the increasing number of gallery exhibitions of architects whose work is on the leading edge of theory or design, or who are identified with a special kind of vision, such as Aldo Rossi, John Hejduk, or Michael Graves.
A number of different camps exist (not without friction) under the banner of post-modernism, ranging from the formalists, who strip everything down to universal abstractions of typology and semiology, to the inclusionists, who embrace the messy whole of history and the vernacular environment. The debates go on ad ennui, and in some cases, ad nauseum; the different schools are united only by the belief that modernism is a thing of the past. The tendency is to write it all off as a temporary, wrong-headed aberration. Some of this is genuine soul-searching and the painful rites of architectural passage, and some of it is fashion, the cruelest modifier of all. Tough luck for those who believed and built; they are out of fashion now. The rush to renunciation has become a stampede.
Forgive me if I say that I am finding it all very tiresome. By tiresome, I mean pretentious, small-minded, lacking in historical knowledge or perspective. First, I do not agree that modern architecture is dead, or even dying, I think it is alive and well and showing signs of immense creative vitality. I believe that some of what is called post-modernism is not so much a break with modernism as an aesthetic and intellectual enrichment of the modern movement, a more complex and interpretive development that builds clearly on what went before.
As a movement, however, modern architecture is growing old; we are, after all, talking about part of the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth. It is old enough to present a body of work of tremendous achievement and a distinctive style that has already taken its place in the history of art. It is changing; it is not the nature of art to be static. But there is a large and continuous enough production to provide the successes and failures that make analysis and evaluation possible. No thoughtful scholar or critic denies the validity or importance of the modern movement. Anything so pervasive and so long-lasting cannot be all bad—or a total mistake. While the doom-sayers are busy pointing out everything that went wrong, every faulty judgment, every flawed execution, historians are able to look at the whole of this surprisingly long period of building objectively for the first time. It is an enviable position for scholars to be in.
Crying failure is a very cheap shot. Modern architecture is an immense, magnificent, and undeniable fait accompli, paralleled by only a few periods of similar creative magnitude in the history of civilization. It has produced masters equal to any; Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, have already taken their places in the history of art. The great art movements, which are the conveyors of awful and wonderful truths about ourselves and our times, come into being whether anyone likes them or not. If we were to examine the literature of the seventeenth century—I wonder—did anyone write off the Renaissance?
This generation, like every new generation, is busy reinventing the wheel and denying the faith of its fathers. Reverence for the masters of the modern movement has actually survived for a surprisingly long time. But the search for the new at the expense of the old is a process as venerable as history. It can be a confused and costly process, and it is often redundant and dangerous when an art is involved that so profoundly affects the social environment.
But I am equally convinced that something important is coming out of this peculiar, unsettled period. The ways of art and history are untidy, in spite of the efforts of historians and critics to line things up. In graduate studies, neatness counts. In any period of transition, there is always backing and filling and ambiguity. The biologist Lewis Thomas has called ambiguity an essential and indispensable part of the process of discovery. The more important the new information, the greater the sense of strangeness and askewness that it carries with it, until such time as the pieces all fit together, which is an unending and never-completed process.
I cannot think of better words for what is going on in architecture right now than ambiguous, strange, and askew. That does not make it easy to distinguish good from bad. You will not see much of this difficult new work on the streets; it is still the stuff of the specialized magazines and seminars. But it also is generating a surprising energy. This is the kind of ambiguity that seems to characterize those important, wrenching steps from one period of art to another.
For the critic, it is a very difficult time. All of one’s beliefs and experience are brought into question. It is necessary to reexamine everything, to make difficult reappraisals, to question loyalties and satisfactions—in short, to open one’s mind. But this also proves to be a time-consuming, frustrating, and aggravating business because, unfortunately, one has to read what architects and theoreticians are writing—which turns out to be a new kind of cruel and unusual punishment. Architects’ writings today go beyond permissible ambiguity. They are being couched in the most obscure, arcane, and unclear terms, borrowing freely from poorly digested and often questionably applied philosophy or skimmings from other fashionable disciplines. As in literature and other fields, we suffer through endless interdisciplinary borrowings and half-baked aesthetic Marxism. Small ideas are delivered in large words and weighed down with exotic and private references. Intellectual trendiness is rampant. Those of us who report on architectural activities must wade through masses of pretentious and glutinous prose, seeking the flash of insight, the buried diamond of evaluation, the key to the counterrevolution that we are told is in process now. And on deadlines as well.
If architects put their buildings together with the same awful gropings, the same appallingly unnecessary complexity and dubious detail, the same lack of understanding of the basic beauty of an expressive economy of means, architecture would be in a very bad way. I have been harboring a chilling thought: some architects really are building the way they are thinking, if that is the right word for what is going on in their heads.
Often, I confess, impatience or fatigue wins out. But what a concerned public has the right to expect from the critic is some kind of guidance. People know they are captive consumers of the environment. They want a set of reliable indicators, a kind of good building seal of approval. Considering the complexity of the art of building today, it is understandable that they look for expertise. It takes quite a lot of knowledge, experience, and some very unpopular value judgments to separate the meretricious from the meritorious right now, and the necessary perspective is not easy to achieve.
First, there is that phrase post-modernism that we seem to be hung up on. It was coined originally by and for one particular splinter group interested in the historical and vernacular aspects of building that the modernists had discarded. Robert A. M. Stern lists its characteristics as historical allusion, contextualism, and ornament. The result is an odd pastiche, sometimes called the Frankenstein effect. But the phrase is being used increasingly loosely for almost everything that is a departure from established or accepted practice. There are other groups that reject the label passionately; at least one architect-theorist insists that he is a post-functionalist instead. Post-modernism is not all that arcane; it is simply where one goes after modernism. It suggests a post-industrial society and a lot of currently fashionable post-other things. It is too tidy a phrase, of course, as much of a catchall as an evasion. It includes a very mixed bag of ideas and styles.
However, I find that it is a matter of considerable surprise to a lot of people to be told that they have moved into post-modernism and that modernism is now a thing of the past, just when they have finally gotten used to it. Even that reliable old warhorse of an argument about “traditionalism versus modernism” that kept everyone so busy for so long can barely be flogged alive. For one thing, tradition is in again, although one would hardly recognize it. And history and historic styles, taboo to the modernists, are respectable once more. But one cannot just copy history straight. It has to be used with at least a 45-degree twist in the mind or eye. One hears the words “witty” and “ironic” being applied to architecture quite frequently these days. There have been examples of practitioners in the past, Sir Edwin Lutyens, for example, so skilled that they could use traditional elements for dazzlingly unconventional effects. But they were deeply grounded in an established architectural culture in which they were totally at ease. I am very wary, today, of “witty” architecture; it usually implies limited talents resorting to the equivalent of “amusing” fashion in clothing or interiors. Architects may be rediscovering the past, but their knowledge of it is still so spotty, their enthusiasms so arbitrary and episodic, that a lot of what we are getting is do-it-yourself history, with a long way to go for that kind of assured and able synthesis again.
In the same spirit of novelty and perversity which is a hallmark of so much of our culture today, Levittown, Las Vegas, and Disneyworld are enthusiasms of the cultural leaders who once disdained their tacky, populist vulgarity most, and even kitsch is fashionably OK. Ornament is no longer equated with crime. Adolf Loos’s curious aesthetic morality in which ornament and crime were equated with reference to such things as the affinity of criminal types to tattoos has been turned upside down. Today we are fascinated by what repelled him. In fact, anything goes—provided it breaks modernist strictures, and the more shockingly the better. (Shock value, alas, is short-lived.) The range in architecture today is from a completely private and hermetic aesthetic, which may be just plain difficult or totally inaccessible, to the most blatant and boring populism. The only requirement is that it be turned into a fiercely intellectual exercise at the drawing board. Everything has to be seen as a set of signs and symbols or metaphors for something else in art or society.
Sometimes the end scarcely justifies the complexity of the means, and sometimes the means is hard to justify at all. For example, as much as I admire Philip Johnson’s taste and intellect, I cannot take a standup joke like his AT&T Building in New York seriously—or his PPG Industries Building, Pittsburgh, either. No, I take that back. I take them very seriously, because they are such shallow, cerebral design and such bad pieces of architecture. The impressive care and cost with which they are detailed does not really make them any better. It takes a creative act, not clever cannibalism, to turn a building into art. It must do more than satisfy a roving eye. Unfortunately, these buildings are flying the flag for post-modernism all over the place, in the name of such things as historical allusion, because this kind of superficial shocker that doubles as a calculated crowd pleaser is so beloved by the popular press.
To look at these buildings really seriously, in fact, involves evaluating the architect’s well-publicized uses of the past. It is no longer shocking to say that the past is all right; we are beyond that stage. Mr. Johnson has been saying it for a long time. But eclecticism, the dirtiest of all words to the modernist, is still like a forbidden toy; he has found the last architectural commandment to break. Mr. Johnson particularly loves forbidden toys. He does not believe in forbidden anything. But do eclectic designs like these really respond to the rich lessons to be found in other cultures and viewpoints, or do they simply divorce form from content for easy decorative effects? Or instant unconventionality. And is that enough? Or does that not really put down architecture as an art of any profundity dealing in the difficult business of resolving problems of purpose, structure, space, spirit, and style?
The Johnson-Burgee Miami Museum and Library project is quite a decent academic design—Addison Mizner without the pizzazz. Safe, pleasant, civilized; another easy answer that will go over well.
The work of Venturi and Rauch represents a difficult rather than an easy eclecticism. Their addition to Cass Gilbert’s classical Oberlin College Art Museum is a much riskier and much more rewarding kind of design. In 1966 Robert Venturi wrote and the Museum of Modern Art published the ground-breaking treatise on today’s new eclecticism: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture—“a gentle manifesto.” Almost a classic text ten years later, it was reissued in 1977. The book dealt with the “inclusive” rather than the “exclusive” environment; complexity and contradiction were seen as aesthetically and urbanistically desirable. Robert Venturi and his wife, Denise Scott Brown, immortalized the Pop environment in Learning from Las Vegas and Levittown. And they translated it all into a language of symbols and signs that gave instant intellectual cachet to suburbia and the strip. Theory, however, is always passed through Venturi’s very refined and sensitive eye for what might be called a synthetic eclecticism in a subtle act of design that manages to transcend the theories he espouses.
The Piazza d’Italia of Charles Moore in New Orleans (Moore, Ruble, Yudell with Perez Associates) is the ultimate eclecticism—architecture and urbanism as calculated stageset (see page 22). This eclecticism is symbolic and aesthetic on several levels of meaning. It offers classical recall seen through a sophisticated Pop eye at the same time that it is turned into something totally unlike its traditional sources for a collage of academic references, colors, and symbols—plus neon. Its final level of meaning is a carefully expressed and conscious irony in the context of the scaleless, featureless, modern city. Today’s architects do not just build; they comment. People love it or hate it.
Michael Graves deals in the most intense and esoteric eclectic imagery of all; his sources are incredibly personal, private, and diverse. His objects and images come from the most random associations and are filtered through a gifted painter’s eye. This is a hermetic and obscure and difficult kind of art. Graves is primarily a colorist and collagist. He uses color, metaphor, and historical recall in fragments, to serve a larger unifying idea. But that idea is not primarily structural—which breaks another architectural taboo. Graves digests these elements into a strong personal style that is also a consistent and unified language of design. He is pushing out the boundaries of architectural vocabulary.
His drawings, such as the one on this page, are superb artifacts in themselves. The danger is that the executed work, when it moves off the paper, inevitably turns into something else; the refinements of the pictorial image can become fussy and obscure. It may be no more than disruptive surface embellishment, which it skirts dangerously at times. And in the hands of his students and imitators, his signature mannerisms become instant clichés. Graves must be judged on at least one fully executed work. One waits for the Fargo-Moor-head Cultural Center, a remarkable design that takes the form of a bridge over a river. But Graves has already added to the language of architecture in a significant way.
If eclecticism is one direction, then abstract formalism is another. Peter Eisenman represents the opposite extreme of those who are finding ready references in the past or the popular scene. Any references to the real world have been carefully expunged from his painstaking and very elegant exercises in pure geometric form. Lines, planes, solids, and voids, and the intricate spatial and diagrammatic relationships possible among them, are all that count. These, also, make wonderful drawings. The kind of drawings favored today are isometric or axonometric views, in which a precise three-dimensional rendering without illusory vanishing points projects a kind of geometry as notable for its linear beauty as for its indication of spaces and surfaces. But as well as exploring theoretical exercises, Eisenman builds houses occasionally. This is an architecture of pure abstraction; the most extreme form of art for art’s sake, form for form’s sake. Compared to this, Euclid’s vision of beauty was overdressed.
Richard Meier uses elements of eclecticism and elements of formalism. He does not reject modernism; his work has, in fact, been called “modernism reconstituted.” He obviously borrows from early Le Corbusier; many people are thrown off by his complex love of every nuance of that now-nostalgic early twentieth-century style, which he sees with a late twentieth-century eye. But he takes those forms far beyond their original uses. Meier moves an old vocabulary, redefined by a new vision, into new explorations of spatial geometry. This becomes a significant step beyond accepted ways of composing architectural space; it offers a whole new range of perceptions and experiences. Those experiences are concentrated and compressed in the New Harmony Atheneum in Indiana completed last year; the building is somewhat smaller than originally intended. Designed as a visitors’ indoctrination center for a historic town, the structure is actually a circulation system. The space seems to be set in motion as one ascends a ramp that winds up on a five-degree diagonal grid, leading to exhibition areas, a theater, and outdoor terraces. The interior is simultaneously experienced in many different ways—each view yields still more intricate patterns of staggered and overlapping floor levels and indoor and outdoor areas in a way that expands not only one’s vision but the understood relationships of space and time.
James Stirling is an English architect whom other architects watch and copy. He designed the Engineering Building at Leicester University and the History Library at Cambridge, using an aesthetic of technology in a way that made the earlier modernists’ “machine art” look like child’s play. This became one of the most pervasive new styles, popularly called High Tech. The landscape is now littered with knockoffs of his work. His latest buildings have moved on to a kind of stripped classicism halfway between Ledoux and outer space. It is an intensely creative struggle to keep pursuing the limits of design. But this process moves beyond modernism without ever denying its achievements. The new work could not exist without the old.
The idea of solving problems of building on an innovative technical level has been the hallmark of twentieth-century architecture. It goes with the dream of the infinite, universal space. Both principles are explored further than ever before in Foster Associates’ Sainsbury Center in East Anglia. These buildings are meant to be universal—in this case the space contains a museum and school—but they also succeed in dematerializing the particular. The Willis Faber building in Ipswich even dematerializes architecture; the reflections in the glass skin are as important as the breathtaking finesse with which that skin is put together. This is the ultimate celebration of technology as art. One has to be very good indeed to pull this trick off so elegantly.
This is a limited and arbitrary selection. I have not touched on many architects and much work of equal interest. But what unifies all of this theory and practice is a sincere sense of exploration and a search for forms and sensations that were denied by the modern movement. Doors are being reopened that had been firmly closed, and a new architecture is being forged out of a wide range of interests and ideals.
There are new themes: populism and pluralism; not one style, but many styles. There is a backlash against purism and functionalism, a fascination with eclecticism and mannerism. The current preoccupation is with the periods the modernists hated most—the Baroque, the High Victorian, the Beaux Arts; the despised Academy is once again in good repute. This is partly genuine rediscovery and partly the kick-thy-father syndrome. There is a taste for the “decadent” periods, for subtle, complex, and perverse explorations of style and space. And a burgeoning admiration for the academic buildings my generation was taught not to see—that were treated as if they were not there, as if someone had committed a giant indiscretion on the street. There is everything from the most superficial nostalgia to the most specialized historicism.
Some architects are pushing the abstract frontiers of design with a growing dedication to art for art’s sake. Exhilarating and dangerous, this is the most challenging aspect of the new work today. Some of it comes closest to what great architecture has always been about: the controlled and purposeful manipulation of structure, light, and space and the rewarding relationships of pragmatic and sensuous purpose. At the same time, architecture for art’s sake threatens the all-important relationships of architecture to social needs and social purposes; the perils are as great as the promise.
“Contextualism” is another popular idea that is long overdue. It means that we finally understand that history and the environment are the two faces of architecture, that no building stands alone. The individual structure as monument is frowned on. Neighborhoods are seen in terms of social identity, cultural continuity, and a sense of place. A young French architect, Antoine Grumbach, has been studying sympathetic “interventions” into the historic texture of Paris; he is about to build a large amount of housing as “infill” structures within a framework of existing buildings. To be avoided is the dominating “statement” of the new. Symbolism, a historical function and human need discarded by the modernists, is hungered after once more. A great deal of attention is being paid to the identification of the elements of style that convey special meanings and values to those who see or use the buildings.
Once, many years ago, when I was a student in Rome, Bruno Zevi took me to see a particularly splendid Baroque church and plaza by moonlight. I had no idea at that time that cities could be so devastatingly beautiful, that stone could be so sensuous, that architects dealt in such sublime stagesets for human drama, that space could move one to such strong emotions, that architecture could make man so much larger than life. These were seductive and manipulative ideas that had no place in modernist doctrine. What had been rejected with them was the power of the architect and the traditional soul of his art. Zevi, of course, knew that; he was a historian and a Roman. All this was revealed to me in the sensuous experience of Baroque space. “Look,” he said, “she is discovering the umbrella.”
And that is exactly what is happening today. Architects are discovering the umbrella. Released from a restricted and reductive aesthetic, they are dazzled by possibilities that are as old as time. An older generation sees the new directions as heresy; a younger generation sees them as the creative reopening of the limits of design. In every case, the source is being transmuted into something different. The approach is erudite, romantic, and fiercely intellectual—even if it is not always the kind of thing that keeps us warm and dry.
All of this is part of something deeper: a search for meaning and symbolism, a way to reestablish architecture’s ties with human experience, a way to find and express a value system, a concern for architecture in the context of society. This is no longer seen just as the right to safe and sanitary dwellings and workplaces, but as the provision of a special quality of life. That is as large an ambition as anything that concerned the early modernists; it may be an equal trap. But it is a return to a basic understanding that architecture is much more than real estate, shelter, or good intentions; it is the recognition of that extraordinary mixture of the pragmatic and the spiritual that is the tangible vehicle of man’s aspirations and beliefs, the lasting indicator of his civilized achievements.
That the search for these values is enriching current practice is beyond question. But two factors disturb me deeply: the danger of architects’ increasingly addressing each other, with a widening comprehension gap between the professional and the public, and the sharp trend away from sociological to exclusively aesthetic concerns.
The pendulum is swinging from the desire to remake the world to the desire to remake art. But from the ghetto activism of the architects of the 1960s to the closed and esoteric preoccupations of the 1980s is a traumatic swing. The underlying question of the architect’s role and responsibility in contemporary society remains unanswered. If we wish to concentrate on what went wrong, this is the failure of architecture in our time. How much the architect can be blamed for that failure is unclear. What he produces is conditioned to a very large extent by forces, standards, desires, and restrictions beyond his control. We probably get the world we want and deserve.
May 1, 1980