Modern architecture has been declared dead and the wake has been held in the better art journals. News of its death has finally filtered down to that part of the popular press that is always on the alert for cultural trends to exploit. The word that modernism is out and post-modernism is in is being spread systematically and redundantly on the lecture and exhibition circuit. The schools of architecture, coming out of the chaos of the Sixties and the drift of the Seventies—belatedly responsive, as usual, to the call for revolution—are beginning to turn out post-modernists instead of modernists, which means that a new set of mannerisms is being substituted for an old set of clichés. Those of us who are inveterate observers of the half-truths and false premises that fuel the fashionable intellectual world are watching with mixed feelings.
I do not mean to sound cynical, because I am very much concerned with the directions now being taken. Something legitimate is going on; in the customary and inexorable way that architecture makes worlds that we cannot escape, post-modernism is beginning to set the stage—slowly, and in special structures—which is always how new styles begin. I find some of these directions just as intriguing as those who see the break with the conventions of modernism as the sign of a new age; I only differ with their somewhat overwrought assessment of what makes a revolution.
Other attitudes I find disheartening and even dangerous. Because, as usual, the rush to join an international coterie of tastemakers who appear to be onto something special obscures reason and judgment. The need to embrace, rather than to analyze, the fear of being branded reactionary if one does not accept the new unquestioningly, the inability or unwillingness to separate that which has genuine architectural merit from that which is merely novel or momentarily seductive, are all characteristic of our times. These are times that feed on sensation and opportunism rather alarmingly. But I suspect that we are also witnessing the classic attitudes of any period in which the proponents of change have seen themselves as apocalyptic messengers with the mandate to convert.
What is already clear, however, is that this is a moment of some importance and more than routine interest in architectural history, with the doctrines of modernism being seriously questioned, and new approaches and answers being sought. In fact, the changes that are taking place in theory and philosophy are far more important than much of the architectural work, and the publicity, that is signaling them. And the signals are being given in what seems like record amounts of obscure and pretentious language. When embracing the new means rejecting the old—and when doesn’t it?—a lot of mistakes in judgment are bound to be made. The modernists are suffering from those mistakes now; it is just that kind of messianic shortsightedness and self-absorption that has made them vulnerable to attack. The post-modernists are heading for a different set of troubles.
It can be far more revealing and helpful to take a longer view, if possible, of the architectural turmoil today; to see what death and failure are metaphors for; to try to understand the unique contributions of building in this century rather than to condemn them out of hand. Taste, of course, is a pendulum, and every artist is an explorer who wants to be on the leading edge of the new. Among those who follow there is a distinct disinclination to stand outside fashion and miss the action. The historian of architecture has a sense of having seen it all before. If it is much too early to write the history of this century, it is still worth seeking a perspective beyond the grasp of a single, and understandably self-serving, generation.
I believe that the art of architecture is in uneasy but significant transition. The high period of modernism is over; the Age of the Masters—Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier—is finished. We are clearly—or I should say, unclearly—moving on toward something else; in fact, we have been doing so for some time. But whatever comes next will be the product or inheritor of modernism, not the radical break that the new work is advertised to be. It will have as its heart the twentieth-century revolution that we call modern architecture. Anything that follows now would be impossible without those unprecedented technological and aesthetic innovations. No renunciation will get rid of this fact of art and history. No catalogue of misuses and abuses will change it. Modern architecture is too much a part of us and our world, for reasons at once simple and profound, to be finished by fiat. It takes a very small vision or a very large ego to think that modern architecture can be banished as an act of will, or tossed on the historical rubbish heap. It is just not possible to repeal the style of our time.
However, the issue is not really death; it is failure. What we are being told is that modern architecture failed—in philosophy and practice. The inadequacies and imperfections of modernist doctrine suddenly loom very large. I don’t mean just the bad buildings that litter the landscape—bad buildings are always with us. But there is a kind of consensus that modern architecture was some grand, failed illusion, with the arguments ranging from the ideological to the functional. We are given the irresistible clincher that most people never liked it anyway.
I cannot help wondering whether the sophisticated designs of Borromini appealed as much to the man in the street as to popes and princes. Or just what the popular response to some of the brilliantly perverse complexities of the Laurentian Library might have been in Michelangelo’s time. Bernini believed that his buildings had a divine inspiration, and I doubt if he was concerned about the message’s trickling down. High art has remained consistently and stubbornly independent of the reactions and values of most people.
I suspect that the high art of the twentieth century will be equally resistant to opinion polls. The curious thing today is the increasing hostility toward modern architecture by the intellectual and aesthetic elite. But that, I think, is a function of fashion and changing generations, and the need of the avant-garde to move on.
There are compelling reasons to look at modern architecture with a fresh eye—to see what worked, what didn’t, and why. From the point of view of history, modernism as a movement has already grown old; it can be measured across two centuries. It has produced an enormous body of work, good and bad. And it is beginning to be possible to evaluate aims against results. That kind of wisdom comes only with hindsight. We have a better understanding of the context of which it was a part in books like Carl E. Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, Peter Gay’s Art and Act, John Willett’s Art and Politics in the Weimar Republic. The re-evaluation is well begun; important questions are being asked; revisionism has become a scholarly doctoral industry. The challenge is to rewrite the history of the recent past with understanding and detachment. It is not easy to pass judgment on the dreams and achievements of an age. This is an exhilarating and dangerous moment for facts and balance.
Has modern architecture really failed? Or are we loading onto it our perceptions of another kind of failure—something far beyond the architect’s control? I believe that we are addressing a much larger theme: the failure of a moral vision and the breakdown of ideals of a society in transition. What we have lost is what sociologists and psychologists call our “belief systems”—those commonly held convictions that guide our acts and aspirations. No society can function without them. Those articles of faith have been behind everything from architecture to social policy in our time. They were based on an overriding idealism and optimism; they were unable to survive the cataclysmic changes of the century. The pendulum has swung to disillusion and despair.
These systems of belief were surely extraordinary. From the end of World War I to the 1960s, we believed devoutly in social justice, in the perfectability of man and his world, in the good life for all. The Bauhaus taught that the machine would put beauty and utility within the reach of everyone. Le Corbusier’s “machine to live in” and “radiant cities” would reform human habitation. We believed that the world could be housed and fed; that we could bring order to our cities; that misery and hunger are not eternal verities. We joined hands and sang, “We shall overcome.”
We also believed that everyone had a right to beauty, and that aesthetic values equaled moral values. What was useful was beautiful and good, and what was good was good for all of us. We had only to look around to see examples. Le Corbusier singled out factories and grain elevators as admirable aesthetic artifacts, because their form and function were intimately related, and their purpose was clear and undisguised.
The arts, used properly, could bring both pleasure and practical benefits to society. Architects sincerely believed that health and happiness were the natural corollaries of the right way of building; they even believed that human nature could be conditioned or changed by the right physical environment. This was the century that equated art, technology, and virtue, and concluded that the better life, and the better world, were finally within our grasp. Walter Gropius’s “teamwork” and Mies’s modular simplicity were meant to alleviate the inequities and inadequacies of the man-made environment. The architect was to be central to these aesthetic and social solutions—inextricably linked—of age-old problems, and the gratification of new expectations.
In retrospect, the hopes and beliefs of this century have been both admirable and naïve, but they have also been humanitarian to an extraordinary degree. Perhaps we in the advanced Western countries have come as close to genuine civilization as we ever will, if we define civilization as the unselfish preoccupation with the betterment of the human condition at the highest level of shared experience and universal concern. The eighteenth-century Age of Reason was followed by the nineteenth-century Age of Scientific Inquiry, which exploded, in the twentieth century, into the Age of Perfectability through science and art. It was, of course, an impossible dream.
The changes that were heralded as liberating forces turned out to be vast and shattering, with shock waves beyond anyone’s comprehension. Those changes eventually restructured—or unstructured—society. They radically altered the sense of time and the rhythms of life, and uprooted personal, family, community, and global relationships. Communications, mobility, and industrialization created a new economy and new styles of life. This “progress” had a high price—there were racial and social dislocations of universal dimensions. To the transformation of environment and expectations was added the unsettling knowledge of the complexities of human behavior; vast explosions of scale did nothing to help disoriented inner lives. Tradition was destroyed, and the destruction was celebrated.
In the end, everything that was meant to illuminate or improve the human condition struck heavy blows at basic beliefs and values. The “center” was increasingly dissolved in violence. Today, the sustaining standards and restraints of centuries are gone. We live in a time of failed human relationships and unprecedented dangers, from nuclear warfare to random death. The twentieth century has given us too much, too soon, too fast; it has delivered toys and triumphs and devastation. We are all victims.
René Dubos, in a recent interview, had to defend his confidence in the existence of some ultimate, Olympian plan of nature; in fact, he apologized for using the word faith. What he was actually apologizing for was having faith. He calls himself the despairing optimist. For the rest of us, pragmatism and cynicism are more common defenses.
Clearly it was the age, not architecture, that was coming apart during the last half-century. How innocent, how vain, of architects to take the blame for such cosmic catastrophes! What touching tunnel vision its spokesmen have demonstrated! Modern architecture was just one aspect of this century’s flawed dream and vision of reality. Things were promised that could not be delivered. The architect produced no brave new world; he could heal neither the ills of cities nor the ills of mankind. Architecture—and architects—are now taking a terrible beating for trying.
But in the process, modern architecture literally changed the world. There is a great deal more to this remarkable story than where it fell sadly short of its own aspirations. This century’s extraordinary creative energies, its genius for the new, infused all of the arts. My premise, stated before, is that modern architecture is one of this age’s undeniable achievements, paralleled only by a few periods of comparable creativity. Its structure and style have already taken their place in the history of art.
Modern architecture united revolutionary theory and technological development for an unprecedented, far reaching, and unsurpassed creative and cultural synthesis. It offered the most cohesive, innovative, expressive, and universal art form since the Renaissance. And it created masterworks to stand with any of the past, from the greatest of Wright’s prairie houses and his masterpiece, Falling Water, at Bear Run, Pennsylvania, to Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp. The skyscraper is a marvel of structure and design that has survived even the greed of speculators and bad city plans. But the twentieth century encompasses a much greater, and more subtle and various work than has been commonly understood. And modern architecture did something that had never been done before: it addressed itself to the humanitarian and social concerns made urgent by the industrial revolution and the nineteenth-century city.
These are the facts that no one is mentioning now. Crying failure makes a much more dramatic scenario than a balanced analysis. It was the script that served Robert Hughes so stunningly in the television series and book on modern art called The Shock of the New. But he recognized where art and building met in the twentieth century; Tom Wolfe reduced it all to the level of cocktail chatter in his Harper’s sendup. Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, a landmark of the modern movement, Mr. Hughes told us, ended up “cracked, stained, crumbling and otherwise ruined after a few years’ exposure to the elements.” That ignores a long history of abandonment and abuse before and after the Second World War. What the indictment often seems to come down to, in the English critic Martin Pawley’s words, is that poor maintenance equals worthless architecture. This was apparently the architect’s fault for not inventing an indestructible, glistening new material to build with. This condemnation is about as logical, Mr. Pawley says, as dismissing classical sculpture because the Venus de Milo had no arms.
No one claims that modern architecture has been nothing but smashing successes. No one denies the tragic shortfall of intentions, or the Olympian wrong-headedness of some of its most popular practitioners and ideas. Neglect and restoration are a part of all cultural cycles.
I have never been an apologist for the modern movement. My job, as a critic, has been to question a lot of the modernists’ favorite received ideas and most cherished clichés. I have watched with a great deal of uneasiness as revolutionary doctrine turned into dogma. I have often marveled at the blindness and the credulity of the faithful.
But as a nonarchitect, I was able to be a nonbeliever. I embraced history and preservation when the past was taboo. As a historian, I was an unreconstructed partisan of periods and buildings consigned to oblivion. I never accepted the visionary, sanitized planning of modernism’s neat division of life into segregated zones of activity. I have always detested the open-plan house as an assault on both privacy and sanity. I have never revered the highrise blockbuster as an aesthetic icon; it may be impressive on the drawing board but it sterilizes the street. I praised variety, accident, and incident long before Robert Venturi, and I will always be grateful for his short and influential volume of 1966 called Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Many viewed his book as an attack on modern architecture; I thought it was much more important as a civilized lesson in how to see.
I have been fighting some of these battles for a long time, when it was very unfashionable to do so. But I have never believed, at any time, that calling the bad shots out loud denigrated or destroyed the validity of the art of our time. Now everyone has discovered history and the environment. And architects have even discovered doors.
But it was the architect who was the last to realize the high price that had been paid for two of his basic beliefs: the renunciation of the past and the high hopes for the future. The rejection of history led to the unthinking destruction of the historic urban heritage and the symbols and landmarks that anchor us to meaning and place; it dehumanized the environment and denied the continuity of culture. Out of the hopes for the future came the ambitious but badly aborted attempt to solve one of the world’s most intractable problems—housing. And out of civilization’s most enduring collective illusion came the promise of Utopia. No one has delivered Utopia yet; it remains a fable for this—or any—time.
Another fable for our time is the architect as form-giver and master of our physical destiny. Fountainheadstyle, he swings his T square from the mountaintop, offering passionate declarations of beauty and technology to clients rushing to immolate themselves on the fire of his genius for the salvation of the world. Somehow computer drafting and rising interest rates just don’t fit the image.
It is true that the architect determines the forms that serve contemporary uses—but only up to a certain point. Those forms—Mies’s pure glass and metal geometry; Le Corbusier’s brute poetry in concrete—are snatched out of his hands or off the drawing board by other interests. They are co-opted, corrupted, and exploited. On the way from revolutionary concept to “bottom-line” reality, much gets lost in the translation; only Paris couture gets knocked off as consistently as architecture. The modern world is a distorted fun-house mirror of the architect’s intentions. The idealistic, abrasive, and visionary manifestoes of the early twentieth century are curious precursors of the bland, conformist structures that set the modern city’s style. To blame modern architecture for these perversions, dilutions, and falsifications is too easy a distortion of the truth.
Again, with hindsight, it is not hard to find some basic things that went wrong. For one, the architect simply did not understand how the economic power structure of the twentieth century worked. I do not refer to his frequent penchant for exceeding the budget in the interest of art. The key to his disengagement from society was his failure to come to terms with consumer capitalism. Kenneth Frampton has pointed out that the architectural leaders of the early part of this century hitched their star, and their hopes, to the traditional idea of enlightened, paternalistic patronage.1 They designed villas and mansions for the rich, and if the patrons were industrialists, they sometimes got a factory to do. They built the prototypes that remained as singular monuments—the elite cultural or educational institution, the occasional public building, the demonstration project. Their radical innovations eventually became establishment platitudes and, ultimately, popular clichés.
The intention of revolutionaries, however, is to rebuild and restructure society. But the leaders of the modern movement never participated more than peripherally in twentieth-century construction; only occasional government sponsorship gave them large commissions. This limited clientele and production were not what anyone had in mind.
The trouble was that they were selling the wrong product. Revolutionary architecture promised the perfect solution and the ultimate design, made possible by unprecedented new materials and techniques. It was a product geared to the optimistic ideals of the time. The objective was the ultimate house as a machine to live in, the building that would meet the twentieth century so well on its own terms that it could not be improved on; a standardized, massproduced, eternal utility and beauty, removed from transient fashions.
But perfection was not what was wanted; the system was not geared to the definitive answer. This approach was wholly unsuited to the realities of twentieth-century production and marketing—to an economy that relied on moving goods and changing tastes. What had dawned with the century was not “l’esprit nouveau,” or the new spirit, but the age of industrialized production that required planned or artificial obsolescence. Next year’s model was always announced as a newer and better and more stylish and satisfying product. This shifting consumer aesthetic took over taste and technology. Advertising superseded design. The modern architect, insisting on the one right and best way to design, was out of step and out of touch with his times. His ideas were translated by industry and promotion into novelties to be used as sales and styling gimmicks. Not surprisingly, he was disappointed and often embittered. Fighting resistance to the true word against what he considered to be ignorance and obstructionism, he saw himself as a reformer and a radical. He fought his battles, however, on aesthetic, not on political grounds.
But in the beginning, in Europe, the modern movement was very much a political movement. The aesthetic of modernism was tied to radical political reform. However, the political element was of little relevance over here, and of less interest to the new art’s promoters. And those social and political aspects of architectural design were to prove, soon enough, incapable of realization.
Again, with hindsight, we can see that these concerns of the modern movement were casualties of the Museum of Modern Art’s celebrated exhibition and book of 1932, The International Style, by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, which introduced the new work to this country. There was a section on housing in the exhibition, but it was secondary to the insistence on form. This was probably one of the most influential events in the history of criticism and connoisseurship. The sociology and politics that infused the European revolutionary ideology were removed for the American public; the tastemakers considered them unimportant and nonessential. Rereading The International Style is a sobering experience. It turned the movement into a set of aesthetic exercises, or a manual of style. This “purified” architectural version of the revolution was perfectly tailored for that special moment in American art and culture when the avant-garde and the establishment met and joined forces, united in their delight with the cachet of the new.
It is particularly ironic that the architect was removed from social action by the intellectual leaders who adopted him as much or more than by the businessmen who ignored or exploited him. Architects who had been reaching for freedom were given a stylistic strait-jacket and a limited role. The exploration of technology, the release from the canons of classicism, the revision of ideas about man and his world, were henceforth to be channeled into a system of designated aesthetic choices, or nonchoices, or rules. The revolution was reduced to iconography; form became formula. The Academy was dead; the new Academy was born.
In a sense, the spirit of revolution was aborted by its champions. The big breakthrough of the early manifestoes, from Italian Futurism to the profoundly influential Vers une Architecture, was the rejection of the traditional idea and restraints of custom and style, a rejection that opened the door to new concepts and techniques. 2 Much was untried and experimental; certainly a great deal would not survive. But the challenge, and the possibilities, were enormous. Inevitably, of course, another style was evolving through this exploratory process.
There were some curious side effects to the systematized rigidity that took over. No one, for example, knew what to do with nonconforming talent. The work of the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto was selectively and ruthlessly edited in exhibitions and publications to show just those aspects of his work that made him fit the picture. Only now, with the rules finally relaxed, is Aalto’s very personal, elegant, and humane style beginning to be fully understood.3 Who knows what else might have happened without prior intellectual restraints? But the mischief was done.
And the mischief continues. It is this kind of manipulation of meaning and purpose that makes it possible to declare that modern architecture is dead, and to announce that post-modernism has taken its place. If one accepts the signs for the substance, one can put on and take off styles like fashion. Removing art from the context of history, it is a simple matter to say that modern architecture didn’t matter, or had it all wrong—and anyway, the look is out. Architecture viewed primarily as a visual and intellectual experience becomes a game of skilled and artful surface effects.
And so aesthetic hedonism is an acceptable substitute today for those earnest belief systems that have gone down the drain. Young architects do not understand why the revolution was necessary, or what was gained in creativity, discipline, and understanding that it would be tragic to lose again. The anger and frustration that set the modernists against a dictatorial art bureaucracy and stultifying academic convention have long since faded; nostalgic has replaced outrage, and the excesses that inspired revolt are being re-embraced as benign. The conviction that beauty and utility were to be found in new materials and techniques, and that form and function could be united for a singular aesthetic truth, has simply been dumped. The results are often appalling. What is really being revived, alas, is not the past so much as its familiar errors, not history so much as its mistakes. What is being jettisoned is critical to great buildings.
The reason that a man like Philip Johnson can be followed like a pied piper of architecture is that he has always been a front-line runner in the pursuit of the new, and this is a generation for which that is more important than anything else. He has a quicksilver intelligence and the ability to recognize instantly genuine talent and creativity. His own judgments of the work of others are often flawless. He is also quickly bored. What his young, and not-so-young, followers like is the shock value, as well as the hedonism, of his insistence that art is all, and his assurances that the earnest social and structural concerns of the modernists were expendable nonsense—that anything goes.
This exclusive emphasis on aesthetics gives a certain consistency to his dramatic rejection of the modern movement, which he once believed in so strongly, and his easy jump to post-modernism, which turns those beliefs on their head. But his position has great appeal to architects no longer interested in saving the world because they know that it can’t be saved, and that they are not the ones to save it. What they are doing, however, is trivializing architecture, reducing it to something less than its traditional role as the one art capable of uniting the real and the ideal as an expression of body and spirit, society and symbolism. The results are small, narcissistic exercises that range from the exquisite to the empty, lacking passion or conviction.
There is more pettiness and pedantry than passion in architecture today. There is no longer the catalyst of a common enemy to fight. There are only endless and tiresome semantic arguments and the factional infighting about style. There are no heroes, and no architectural giants, because there are no causes. The causes that once united and inspired the profession have been abandoned. The sad truth is that no revolution is ever won.
Perhaps it is success that kills. Modernism was an exhilarating and seductive campaign for a long time. But it is hard to remember when anyone had to battle for a modern building. And when the struggle ceases, the victory loses meaning. Revolution leads to counter-revolution and the attack is turned against the victors. Success, as much as power, corrupts.
According to Nicholas Perry, in a review in the Times Literary Supplement of Charles Jencks’s latest primer on post-modernism,4 style today is conceived of as something like a trademark. “Competitive idiosyncrasy,” he tells us, “is the chief impression received from the promotors of the post-modernist faith.” The result is often a calculated pastiche filled with private references and in-jokes. That is not enough.
I do not mean to suggest that there is no such thing as style, or that it is unimportant. Style is the essence of art. It is the cultural index to a particular society and time. Mies said that style is the spirit or expression of an age. Now that eclecticism is respectable again and dial-an-age design is in vogue, it is fashionable to put down that definition. But Mies was essentially right. Le Corbusier titled his 1923 manifesto Vers une Architecture—or simply, “Toward an Architecture”—not “Toward a New Architecture,” or “Toward a New Architectural Style.”
Architecture is a great deal more than style. A building is the sum of many things over which the designer has little control. Contrary to popular belief, those dislocations of scale and relationship that are so much a part of the contemporary scene are rarely the architect’s invention. I find it necessary to point out continually that a building is shaped as much by law, codes, economics, client programs, investment patterns, social needs, and speculative competition as by any aesthetic act. Corporate size and power, the change from cheap to expensive energy, all those engineering developments that serve modern large-scale enterprise and investment so well—like the technology of artificial climate—play as much of a part as program, structure, and image. The architect does not see himself as victimized by these factors; he prefers to view them as patronage and opportunities. But most of the time he is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
The creative act in architecture is basically an act of survival against tremendous odds. To give these conflicting and complex concerns form, or style, is not only a challenge of epic proportions, it is the ultimate objective of the art of architecture. When this transformation occurs, in palazzo or skyscraper, from Strozzi to Seagram, it is more than a superior building; it is one of civilization’s most notable achievements.
But the dilemma the architect faces is that he either designs for his art or for the real world—and there is actually no choice if he is to build at all. The act of design is in conflict with everything that is part of the process of bringing the design into being. Sometimes the result is richer for its complexity, and sometimes it serves both art and society well. But architecture has been called a curious undertaking in which the incompatibility of the irreconcilable is raised, occasionally, to the level of art. The result is never pure art; it is always a compromise.
These are the realities that also face the critic, and that is why I am so impatient with the semiotics, typologies, symbols, and metaphors that dominate so many symposiums and so much of the writing about the changing face of architecture today. I think that many of the questions being asked about architecture are the right ones, and much of the enthusiastic rediscovery of the uses of history, ornament, context, and tradition are of enormous value. Serious and provocative studies, like Kenneth Frampton’s Modern Architecture, A Critical History (Oxford University Press, 1980) are appearing. Definitive documentation of modernist work is being undertaken. Le Corbusier’s Sketchbooks, 1914-1948 is the first volume of four being issued by the Architectural History Foundation and the MIT Press this year. An enormous publication, due from the Garland Publishing Company next year, will reproduce all of the drawing archives of the Foundation Le Corbusier in Paris. The current wave of revisionism will write a much more accurate and revealing history of the recent past if it is not used to distort the record.
We need this period of profligate rediscovery and revision, just as we needed the modernist revolution. And every generation must discover its own truths and heroes. But I am distressed when I see the new attitudes being turned into a new set of doctrinal prejudices. We do not need to exchange one set of biases for another. There are important and promising changes taking place now in the perception and practice of building that must be properly evaluated in terms of context and continuity.
I have a feeling that when the scores are finally in and architects have stopped beating their father-figures and smashing icons, the art of architecture will have emerged into a new and very vital period. But I see it as a much broadened phase of modernism—not as the undoing of modernism. I do not like the phrase post-modernism because it implies that something has been finished and replaced. I do not see this as counterrevolution, but as part of a linked, continuous development, or the natural if somewhat stormy evolution of modernism into something of much greater range and richness. This can already be found in the work of practitioners like James Stirling, whose buildings in England, Germany, and the United States display a highly original and sometimes unsettling combination of technological and classical imagery, in which both vocabulary and scale serve complex cultural references. It can be seen in the work of Norman Foster, who continues to refine and redefine the machine aesthetic. The designs of Richard Meier are an intricate investigation of the elements of the International Style for a very intricate geometry of transparency and spatial illusion—a process begun in his houses and continued through the Atheneum in New Harmony, Indiana, and the new building for the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. The Austrian architect Hans Hollein can borrow from the Brighton Pavillion, and the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki finds sources in Pierre Chareau, but both build solidly on a modernist foundation. All of them are now receiving international commissions.
I do not mean to fall into the trap of proclaiming a new world, or a new art, or of offering versions of the latest, great new truth. Like Mies, I do not think you can invent a new architecture, or a new truth, or a new world, every Monday morning. They rarely live up to the advance billing. Our world is as imperfect as we found it, and neither art nor ideology has changed it. Utopia eludes us; Groucho Marx often seems more to the point that Karl.
What I hope is that today’s architects will discover some old truths. Like the nature of art, for example—something the modernists understood very well—far better than the world of the future. Today architecture is treated as an exercise in language and ideas; but art is an act, not an explanation, an experience of space, light, form, and function shared directly by artist and viewer.
Like all great performances, a great work of art makes complexity look simple; it is executed with style, skill, and grace. Any genuine work of art is created through tremendous discipline, not put together out of a grab bag of random references and trendy trim. Great art eliminates everything superfluous and nonessential to deliver a strong, clear message in the language of its time. It intensifies all of our responses. It is not an uncomplicated message, however, and its many levels of meaning add both subtlety and power.
In architecture, that subtlety and power come primarily from the relationships of structure to space, and the image, or style, this produces. Beauty is the experience of that image in its most basic, concentrated, and moving form. It is no accident that Euclid looked on beauty bare.
In the pursuit of a misconceived freedom, this essential structural determinant of style is being downgraded today in favor of superficial effects and questionable polemics. The art of architecture is being dangerously weakened and betrayed by some of its most vocal practitioners.
After architects have tired of their new toys and nostalgie games and run out of self-indulgences, they may go back to the real and difficult business of creating art again. They are setting a much more difficult task for themselves now; removing modernist restrictions opens all of art and history once more. The challenge, and the possibilities, are awesome. But they must rediscover the truth that all great architecture engages the heart and mind and senses through those forms and sequences achieved by direct structural and spatial expression, not through hidden meanings or decorative flourishes. Facing that truth was one of the most radical and courageous acts of modernism. When we have learned that lesson, and the Miesian giants no longer threaten us, we may even discover that less is really more.
July 16, 1981
See Frampton’s introduction to “Le Corbusier, 1905-1933,” the Winter/Spring 1979 issue of Oppositions. ↩
See “From Futurism to Rationalism: The Origins of Modern Italian Architecture,” Architectural Design (London, 1981). Holt, Rinehart and Winston has just reissued Towards a New Architecture, a facsimile of the 1927 English edition of Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture. ↩
See Alvar Aalto and the International Style, by Paul David Pearson (Watson-Guptill, 1978). ↩
Post-Modern Classicism: The New Synthesis, edited by Charles Jencks, an “Architectural Design Profile,” published by Architectural Design and Academy Editions, London, distributed by Rizzoli International Publications, 1980. ↩