How is the recent architect literature dealing with the transition between modernism and postmodernism? This unusually provocative moment when the art of building is straddling orthodoxy and revolt has produced some of the most spectacular books and periodicals that the profession has ever seen. It soon becomes clear, however, that much of this outpouring will not move the art of architecture forward. Neither buildings nor the books about buildings are escaping the dead ends and enchantment with trivia of the popular culture, or the more dubious, esoteric concerns of the academic culture.
Even the best efforts to achieve some kind of balanced or historical view of the current activity, or to draw an even-handed picture in critical terms, seem to fall into the trap of confrontation. One either joins the in-group or becomes hopelessly unfashionable, written off as a reactionary, unreconstructed thinker. For the critic to invoke a perspective requiring more than a brief attention span is an acute embarrassment. To ask questions about meaning or validity spoils the momentum and the fun.
The denunciation and denial industry, fueled by the ex-modernist Peter Blake’s early exegesis, Form Follows Fiasco (1977), is still going strong. Attacks continue to come from both sides, usually from those least qualified to make them. The most vociferous critics of the postmodernists are the discarded and wounded of the modern movement, the rank and file of practitioners who have failed or refused to see the postmodernist light or have not been agile enough to change course and convictions when the signals became clear. The letters columns of the professional magazines have been filled with cries of anguish and betrayal and the cancellation of subscriptions as postmodernist projects appear. Among the most vocal of the antimodernists are repentant, born-again architects renouncing their modernist sins, of whom Philip Johnson has been the nimblest and most outrageous, a position he clearly relishes. This group includes the put-down artists who have rushed in to demolish reputations while ignoring the realities of architectural history, and the large, philistine fringe that never liked modernism anyway and is no longer ashamed to say so. The audience for Tom Wolfe’s gossipy idol-smashing in From Bauhaus to Our House1 was already out there, waiting.
But much of value is being published for both the interpretation of the moment and the reconstruction of the immediate past. The range is wide, from distinguished original research to ordinary special pleading, with books divided rather neatly into revisionist history, polemical treatises, and scholarly, sometimes stunning monographs.
On the positive side, what is emerging in very piecemeal fashion and from many divergent viewpoints is a thoughtful evaluation of the modern movement in architecture, and a much more full and varied account of that movement, made possible by the passage of time and the disintegration of dogma. We are getting a new sense of the many-faceted art that modernism really was, with new insights into both accepted and forgotten figures. Ideas and trends omitted from the official accounts of modernism for reasons of polemical purity or theoretical consistency are being investigated and restored to respectability.
Neglected or actively disliked periods such as Art Deco, a romantic survival of the French salon arts of the 1920s and the last great decorative arts style, are now almost dismayingly chic. Until recently, the only acceptable attitude was to dismiss or patronize examples of this work as enduringly awful bourgeois taste. Although this sybaritic, ornamental approach to buildings and interiors actually represented one of the two sides of the coin of modernism, all right-thinking modernists have condemned it with the same vigor that they reserved for the original sin of academic traditionalism. Today the “modernistic” Chrysler Building is probably the most admired of all skyscrapers.
Turn-of-the-century romantic nationalism in Scandinavia and other transitional European styles are being explored as an authentic part of the process of twentieth-century architectural development. The anachronism of continuing hard-core academic and classical practice in some of the century’s most important official architecture at a time of universal radical change—a troubling, inconsistent chapter that has been glossed over or ignored—is being resolved as part of a pluralistic history. The architecture of the last hundred years is turning out to be more varied and a great deal more interesting and challenging than the official historians or taste makers have either endorsed or allowed.
This revisionism is not only an enormous and necessary task, it is what gives the current architectural publishing boom its legitimacy and importance. Missing from such reconsiderations, however, are badly needed studies, using rapidly disappearing documentation, of those architects and movements at the top of the postmodernists’ enemies list; Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and the Bauhaus, for example, serve mainly as whipping boys. The climate is not yet right for the useful assessment of deposed heroes. History, unfortunately, not only repeats itself, it repeats its mistakes. The chief difference between the modernists’ rejection of their predecessors and the postmodernists’ denial of theirs is one of tone: modernism was righteous and brutal and postmodernism tends to be witty and vicious, which is considerably more entertaining.
The large revisionist histories are the most ambitious of the new publications, but one comes to the reluctant conclusion that they are also the most disappointing. For all their conscientious efforts to set the record straight, these books are far less valuable, or successful, than the sometimes arbitrarily chosen, but frequently superb historical studies of people, movements, and places, based on new evidence or offering new interpretations of existing material. We are in a golden age, or moment, of this kind of scholarly research and writing.2
The fact is that even with the advantage of half a century of hindsight, the history of modernism is still in flux. Gaps are being filled and texture and variety are being added. Some early chapters, the Dutch De Stijl and Russian Constructivism, are emerging in far greater detail. Defectors and dissidents, such as Bertrand Grosvenor Goodhue—who worked in an eclectic range from the Gothic West Point to the “modern” Los Angeles Library—and the post-Wrightian romantic, Bruce Goff, are returned to the fold in doctoral and postdoctoral studies; and even accepted pioneers of modernism like Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos are examined for the more unsettling, traditional aspects of their work that have always been played down.
But if the history of modernism is still being revised, no one has succeeded in defining postmodernism to everyone’s satisfaction. A public used to being spoon-fed approved avant-garde formulas is hopelessly confused. Postmodernism has simply become a kind of umbrella label for whatever starts by rejecting the principles and practice of modernism. Beyond that, it is a license to hunt—for forms, for decoration, for meaning; its sources are the near and distant past, and its values, which turn away from society and inward to personal tastes and concerns, are primarily and almost exclusively aesthetic. Elaborate bows are made to a “search for language” that includes highly subjective expressive images.
That search received its first wide public notice in Robert Venturi’s call for “complexity and contradiction” and his plea for the “inclusive” rather than the “exclusive” view of the built world that startled the profession in the 1960s.3 It was more specifically directed and defined—and therefore immediately became more controversial—by Robert A.M. Stern, one of the earlier postmodernist practitioners and the author of a number of articles and revisionist studies, of which one of the more valuable is a monograph on the American architect George Howe.4 It was no time at all before Charles Jencks provided a more systematic outline of a postmodernist style—described as “multivalent” rather than “univalent,” using “coded” design elements that conveyed double meanings about symbolism and style—gleefully reversing the “purification” process by which modernists had attempted to reduce buildings to a straight-line, functional logic. This soon solidified into a new dogma, or a set of predictable design clichés.
The roots of postmodernism go considerably farther back than these publications, however; they can be found in those brief, heretical episodes of the 1950s that hardly shook the world—the “New Empiricism” in Scandinavia and “Neo-Liberty” in Italy. Although these short-lived movements were shocking aberrations to those few who knew they were occurring, they were singularly lacking as catalysts or catchy slogans for a revolution. Both were relaxations of modernist austerity that featured a creeping invasion of softened forms and a sidelong look at the decorative past.
It was not until Arthur Drexler’s 1979 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, “Transformations in Modern Architecture,” that the general art-loving public was informed that something might have gone wrong. Drexler’s show stressed the increasing formalism of the buildings of the 1960s and 1970s, revealing the forced and foolish acrobatics of many “structural” and “functional” features pushed to decorative extremes. Drexler’s pointed and far-from-innocent documentation—never have so many bad buildings been given so prestigious a showcase—dealt a body-blow to modern architecture by showing how far it had strayed from its original premises. And because he threw in a little new work with the old the message was received with howls of protest from the architecture profession, modernist and postmodernist alike.
If there has been any single catalyst for the new, it has been the work of Charles Jencks, by far the most articulate and productive apostle of postmodernism from its beginnings, or from the time, one might say, when it was not much more than a gleam in his eye. His subjective rewriting of architectural history in Modern Movements in Architecture was followed by The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, Post Modern Classicism, and, most recently, Architecture Today.5 One has the feeling that his postmodernist barrel is still largely untapped.
At a time when architectural commentary is at its most pretentious, turgid, and murky, Jencks is an intelligent, stylish, and provocative polemicist. An able manipulator of facts and opinions, a master of architectural hat tricks with styles and substyles, an expert maker of elaborate charts and graphs of cosmic, disembodied logic, he entertains at the same time that he outrages—something he does with a calculated consistency. You don’t have to be a postmodernist to enjoy Jencks’s books.
For sheer cleverness and wit, Jencks far surpasses Tom Wolfe’s mean-spirited and tiresomely arch put-down of modern architecture, and he has the additional advantage of being able to make connections with the large context of art and history on a sound basis of professional expertise. To an acute sense of what is new, he adds that most important critical faculty, a very good eye. He rarely confuses novelty with ability. Even the most far-out examples are so judiciously selected and handsomely illustrated that you end up admiring what you dislike. The talent of the architect is always clear, no matter how preverse or difficult the building.
The formal geometries of the dining room of a house in Ticino, Switzerland, by Bruno Reichlin and Fabio Reinhart, to cite one example, are the product of exceptionally sophisticated architectural sensibilities (see page 55). I am easily bowled over by the near-perfection of its neo-rationalist aesthetic. And even while I admire its “visual language,” the unrelentingly hard, cold surfaces and the punitive rigidity of the Mackintosh chairs make my head and back ache, and I know that the elegant, abstract order that makes this room memorable will be shattered the moment it is occupied. (I resist the temptation to write a commentary about the postmodernist irony of architecture as art that self-destructs in use.) Perhaps the beauty of the photography in Architecture Todayhas something to do with it. There is nothing remotely to suggest any possibility of the tacky or transient in glowing, full-page close-ups of Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans, although one suspects that this presentation of clever technicolor imperial glory may be a slight exaggeration of the actual scale, reach, and setting of the design.
Beyond the recognition of Jencks’s considerable virtues as critic and polemicist, however, there is much to disagree with in his persuasive theses. One could start, of course, by saying that “multivalence” is not achieved by sticking a lot of stuff together or assigning meanings so subjective that a glossary is needed. I, for one, have never believed that tarting up buildings with amusing bits of history or decoration, inside or out, as in Robert Stern’s persistent use of fat fake columns and stick-on moldings or the “false front” collages favored by some others, has either a larger architectural significance or provides a public presence.
It is simple-mindedness, not simple architecture that is univalent—buildings that are barely two-dimensional and cannot carry more than one idea at a time. These slick ciphers abound in every American city. But the little-boy badnesses and bags-of-tricks presented by Jencks as a corrective vision have their own kind of emptiness; they suffer badly from conceptual and metaphysical overload. The line between artfulness and meaninglessness is getting very thin.
Jencks’s obsession with a pejorative division between “late modern” and “postmodern,” with all deficiencies and failures ascribed to the former, begs the issue of whether either meets the criteria of good architecture—or even of what those criteria should be. If, as its critics point out, late modernism is simplistic, inappropriate, brutish, and dull, postmodernism can be confusing, trivial, corny, and inconsequential; but because it is so much more sophisticated in the games it plays, it can also be extremely seductive and misleading.
Ricardo Bofill’s “viaduct houses,” constructed for the French new town of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines and used for the continuous, full-color wraparound photograph that forms the dazzling jacket for Jencks’s Architecture Today, is obviously meant as a paradigmatic postmodernist example. The building is a show-stopper—a neo-Roman aqueduct, triumphal-arch image forming multi-storied dwellings of unreadable size, dramatically doubled by a lake reflection. When one visits Bofill’s even newer and larger housing at Marne-la-Vallée, which is equally photogenic, one experiences aspects that escape the camera’s eye. These are, indeed, novel and dramatic designs, but they are deeply disturbing buildings. The innocent dreams of impossible grandeur that gave Morris Lapidus’s Miami Beach hotels their curious charm has been raised to a kind of aware and awful apotheosis. In Bofill’s buildings, Lapidus’s naive fantasy has become a skilled, knowledgeable manipulation carried out with infinitely more expertise, on a monstrous scale.
This artful, monumental kitsch has something for everyone; it works for both popular and educated taste on totally different levels. An exuberant hautbourgeois pretentiousness is coupled with a Piranesian vision of space incongruously (cynically?) applied to ordinary domestic uses. The image is pop sinister. One assumes that this “double coding,” this jolting marriage of the vulgar and the erudite, is another of postmodernism’s calculated ironies. Otherwise it is hard to explain Bofill’s colonnaded and mirrored Busby Berkeley stage set for the “theater” segment of the housing, or the “Carceri” quality of the entry courts. It is cinematic, of course; it lacks only tap dancers and swinging chains. This is a coolly, confidently, and expensively executed destruction of architectural meaning and style.
It is best not to come to postmodernism, or to Jencks’s books, as an architectural innocent. This is not just a matter of missing the in-innuendoes, or being an easy mark. Jencks is a brilliant and frequently infuriating critic, equally full of marvelous insights and willful misreadings; but both need a practiced observer.
He can be scrupulously fair, as in his assessment of the talented and debatable work of James Stirling, or he can describe the elegant modernist buildings of Richard Meier with keen understanding and then carefully undermine his praise with the use of an oddly belittling tone. There is no more succinct analysis of one of today’s most “difficult” practitioners and cult figures, the Italian Marxist-mystic-rationalist Aldo Rossi, than appears in Jencks’s Architecture Today, and no more wretchedly inadequate treatment of Mies van der Rohe than in Jencks’s Modern Movements in Architecture. That Mies’s buildings might have any conceptual or aesthetic significance, or any legitimacy whatever, is a possibility denied and derided in a tone that forecloses debate. They are dismissed as “empty parallelepipeds of post and lintel construction which enclose a ‘universal’ blank space…so obviously reductive as to be laughable.” Jencks begins by calling Mies’s work “exquisite farce” and ends by warning that those who take Mies seriously have fallen for the idea that a “half-baked, univalent architecture is better than an inclusive one.” It takes courage to risk that stigma.
On the other hand, Jencks’s description in Architecture Today of “gridism,” a Japanese “new wave” flirtation with an abstractly sinister bathhouse or mortuary style (perfect for fashion photos) is all that one could ask for in perceptive commentary.
What was a modernist principle of rationality and order, the applied grids of Viennese architects Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos, has now become both a comment on that principle and a subversion of it. Anonymity, neutrality and background order are here the content of the architecture, not a utilitarian device.
This says everything about the highly skilled and self-conscious creative decadence that defines where the aesthetic action is today. One cannot get closer to the nerve center of much late-twentieth-century art.
Writing history of any kind in a period of ideological transition is extremely difficult. In addition to the problem of perspective, there is in the arts the subjective matter of taste. Sigfried Giedion, Nikolaus Pevsner, and the early work of Henry-Russell Hitchcock read differently now; these influential modernist texts seem even more remarkable than when their apocalyptic vision burst upon a generation looking for a holy grail. This was special pleading of a very high order.
To revise these histories is no small assignment. Kenneth Frampton’s Modern Architecture: A Critical History,6 is a major work with impressive parts that never quite seem to come together; it is difficult to discuss the book as a whole. A useful and wide-ranging work of superior architectural scholarship, this ambitious publication contains many chapters that stand on their own as perceptive essays; it is marked throughout by a consistently mature critical intelligence. Frampton gives a considerable emphasis to those subjects only lightly touched on or ignored in standard modernist histories—Terragni and Italian rationalism, for example, and the modernistic style in America (is Frampton the only one who has got the name right?). This is a pudding of a book from which one may pull any number of splendid things.
The quality of Frampton’s research and analysis is high, but this is a standard we have a right to expect from architectural writing today. (He established that standard himself years ago with his article in Perspecta on Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre in Paris,7 a ground-breaking critical redefinition of both the architect and the building and their place and meaning in the modern movement.) The particular value of this kind of revisionist history is that it seeks sources and examines them thoroughly—a huge advantage if one wants to arrive at any approximation of the reality of events or a more accurate and revealing account of the influences, context, and conditions that have shaped the architect’s work and beliefs. Right now, we need all the information we can get.
It is extremely unlikely that anyone is going to produce the “definitive” account of modernism at this point; such definitive accounts are usually written only as a carefully planned polemic, a form that is looked on currently with extreme suspicion. What matters most in Frampton’s kind of “cultural” history is the quantity and quality of the information upon which the writer’s opinions, and the opinions of others, will be based. I find myself more impressed by the depth and quality of his basic research than by any political interpretation of it he may suggest. This seems a fair test to apply to much of today’s architectural writing.
Here the contrast between Frampton’s and Jencks’s treatment of Mies, for example, is instructive. Jencks’s analysis consists of jumping on Mies with both feet after shadowboxing showily with a bit of history and philosophy; Frampton’s approach has the virtue of critical exposition rather than demolition. Frampton deals directly with Mies’s frequently repeated, overriding concern for “the expressive qualities of an objective building technique, logically conceived and vigorously executed.” The advantages, and the limitations, of this philosophy are clear. Mies’s buildings were neither universal, as claimed, nor replicable, as hoped. What Mies’s followers (and critics) failed to grasp was the “delicacy of his sensibility,” in Frampton’s words, “that feeling for the precise proportioning of profiles that alone guaranteed his mastery over form.” This superb sensibility inevitably made Mies’s buildings something more than Jencks’s “exquisite farce”; they were masterful, because he was a master, and, on occasion, they were great.
Frampton’s discussion of Alvar Aalto greatly increases our understanding of the Finnish architect’s work. Aalto’s development is far more complex than the popular notion that he sprang fullblown from the brow of the International Style while adding some mysterious affinity with man and nature that has been labeled, much too glibly, “humanistic.” Initially, Aalto was drawn to versions of romantic classicism and Finnish national romanticism which he admired and emulated; he was strongly influenced in his early years by the work of Gunnar Asplund and Erik Bryggman. An encounter with De Stijl at a European conference made him an ardent convert to constructivism; there was a clear Dutch prototype for the famous Paimio Sanitorium that established him as a practitioner of the new “functionalism.”
But Aalto’s characteristic use of wood, which began with his furniture designs in the late 1920s, and the softened and more sensuous forms of his familiar, mature style were due less to some northern Druidic instincts than to the patronage of the Gullichsens of the Allström timber interests in the 1930s. The work that followed, from exposition pavilions and houses to institutions, continued to explore wood in a marvelous way; his activity as a painter and an admirer of Arp, Miró, and Le Corbusier, moreover, had much to do with his use of curvilinear forms. (Frampton also tells us that the proponents of the earlier Finnish national romanticism, wishing to promote the use of local granite, drew on the buildings of Edinburgh and the work of H.H. Richardson for technical and aesthetic examples. The sources of style do not have to be invented by art historians; they are usually there for those who look for them.)
It is only against this instructive background that one perceives why Aalto’s buildings are not cerebral, International Style abstractions, but places of warmth and individuality. He fused his affinities for both rationalism and romanticism through a particularly gifted handling of light, space, surface, material, and site, all strongly directed to the enhancement of personal, sensory experience. It is the extraordinary degree to which Aalto’s buildings have shaped that experience that makes his work some of the finest of this century. It is not surprising that his influence is growing while other reputations shrink. Aalto has been receiving increasing critical attention, from the detailed documentation of his early work in Paul David Pearson’s Alvar Aalto and the International Style of 1978 to Malcolm Quantrill’s recently published Alvar Aalto: A Critical Study.8 Frampton calls Aalto’s buildings “life-giving rather than repressive.” They are marked by the kind of “delicate sensibility” that Mies devoted to a diametrically opposed ideal, and for both Aalto and Mies the end was the same: the making of a building in which the user achieves dignity through art.
By the end of the book’s discussion of Aalto we have absorbed so much that even a rather typical Frampton sentence about Aalto’s willingness to break modernist rules—“This meant that the latent tyranny of the normative orthogonal grid should always be fractured and inflected where the idiosyncracies of the site or the programme demanded it”—is entirely clear, if a little overwrought. Unfortunately, he uses a lot of that kind of language, which seems to be the identification of a card-carrying architectural intellectual.
Frampton has two styles: he writes history as an informative and absorbing narrative that moves right along, and he writes theory in a miasmic prose dense with references to German philosophers. I find the latter more of a stumbling block than a sign of critical intelligence, something with which Frampton is singularly well endowed.
Another major effort to rewrite history, William Curtis’s Modern Architecture since 1900,9 is clearly meant as a revisionist textbook, and in a field not exactly crowded with candidates it has its value. This is a book one would love to like. Curtis has made a conscientious effort to give a comprehensive account of the modern movement in architecture by filling in the gaps left by modernist rhetoric and omission; he clearly wants to tell the whole story with truth and justice for all. An able historian, he succeeds to a degree, but next to Jencks’s high jinks and blithe disregard for truth and justice for all, this is an earnest, plodding, and pedantic work. The two books have quite different objectives, and this makes comparison unfair. But Jencks’s shrewd and accurate perceptions of contemporary culture and its intricate connections to the art of building—as when he characterizes the various architectural responses to the banality of the shopping center—almost always hit the mark. Unfortunately, Jencks is not immune to contemporary faddishness, which somewhat spoils his endorsements for architectural immortality.
Curtis does not make a much more convincing case for his chosen immortal, the Swedish architect Jorn Utzon, the designer of the Sydney Opera House and the much more restrained church at Bagsvaerd, near Copenhagen—the pictorial grand finale of the book. Curtis declares the church a model of imagery supported by form, and an example of “a genuine style, based on private, intuitive rules.” I doubt this will persuade many that Utzon’s architecture is the real thing as opposed to postmodernism’s shoddy goods. Curtis has written a serious and useful work that contains much sound analysis, but it is no rocket across the architectural sky. One finishes it with respect and relief.
By far the most helpful, and consistently remarkable, series of architectural publications is to be found in the books, catalogs, and journals that have been put out by Rizzoli International Publications. Why, and how, the financially troubled and scandal-rocked Rizzoli empire has been able to publish architectural books with such professional acumen, omniscience, and omnipresence is not for this writer to understand. But Rizzoli seems to be everywhere, recording offbeat exhibitions and important competitions, and issuing student publications in addition to its constantly expanding, wonderfully eclectic book list. No other publisher has approached such excellence, diversity, and quality in such impressive quantity.
A series of monographs put out by Rizzoli for the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, for example, includes new material and viewpoints on such odd architectural bedfellows as the revolutionary Russian architect Ivan Leonidov and the New York establishment modernist Wallace K. Harrison. Both were the subject of Institute exhibitions. All of these publications quickly became collectors’ items. The books and catalogs of the Rizzoli list belong in every serious architectural library.
The best of the recent scholarly monographs, whether from trade publishers or university presses, have a common theme: they are revisionist studies bent on reviving or reinterpreting reputations. As they multiply, an impressive documentation of certain phases of early modernism is being developed. Because today’s architects and commentators are intrigued by mixed messages of all kinds, studies have proliferated on maverick figures like Asplund who was dealt with seriously and at length in Stuart Wrede’s book The Architecture of Erik Gunnar Asplund.10 Exactly those aspects of Asplund’s work that troubled the chroniclers of the International Style—a very personal resolution of the ambiguities of new and old forms—have made him attractive to the postmodernist sensibility. The stripped classicism of his work had a subtle evocative power and a historical memory that was at odds with the emerging Functional Style. Asplund’s talent was undeniable; even the modernists singled out his Stockholm Crematorium as a stylistic icon. But it was the timing of his romantic classicism, against the modernist tide, that relegated him to a minor role.
A great deal of attention is being devoted to those early modernist periods marked by a creative vacillation between past and future. The preferred subjects tend to be historically ambivalent, aesthetically offbeat, or stylishly nostalgic. The work of the Scottish art nouveau architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh with his ties to the Vienna Secession, for example, has this triple appeal. The proto-modern simplicities and antihistorical references singled out by the historians of the International Style have been replaced by an examination of decorative details and praise for the expressive interpretation of tradition. Recent interest in the work of Adolf Loos stresses his links with classicism more than his notorious indictment of ornament.
The brief, star-crossed period of revolutionary Russian modernism is also receiving intense scrutiny. Frederick Starr’s monograph on the architect Konstantin Melnikov,11 based on the documentation Starr gathered in the Soviet Union during the 1970s, describes the aborted relationship between Soviet politics and modernist architecture in the early years of the revolutionary state and is the definitive monograph on this important architect. Melnikov’s Soviet pavilion at the Paris Exposition of 1925 brought Russian romantic radicalism to an admiring European audience. (This was the same exposition that gave the world Art Deco, the least revolutionary of modernist styles.) A few years before Melnikov’s death in a Moscow sanitarium, I visited the architect with Starr. We sat in a neglected, overgrown institutional garden and heard the gentle old man in hospital pajamas describe the excitement of carrying fresh drawings under his arm to the Kremlin. He spoke of the early shared political-aesthetic ideals of building a new state, and of the disillusionment of the Stalin years.12
An entire generation of American architects outlawed by the taste makers of the modern movement is being rehabilitated by younger historians. Practitioners banished into limbo by the rise of modernism are carefully documented in monographs such as Robert Stern’s George Howe and Richard Oliver’s Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue.13 The American-born Howe has been consistently cast as subordinate to his Swiss-born partner, William Lescaze, an early advocate of the International Style, who has always received the lion’s share of credit for such modernist masterworks as the 1931 skyscraper for the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society. Stern may bend over a bit to favor Howe, but the information he provides redresses any real imbalance and fills in a good deal of missing history.
Oliver’s book restores Goodhue to the place in the American architectural pantheon denied him because of his eclectic work. That this eclecticism was the expression of a major original talent ranging from a refined Gothic revivalism in his New York churches to the free romanticism of the remarkable Nebraska State Capitol of 1920 (see page 56), is no longer in question. Considering the size and importance of the institutional, cultural, and public building commissions in academic and eclectic styles, there is vast material for scholarly study. As an inevitable byproduct, a lot of bad academic work is about to be as highly praised as bad modernist work was before it.
In a somewhat different category are those monographs that come subtly or aggressively under the heading of promotion—the glossy picture books on the work of practicing architects of many persuasions. The market has been flooded with these huge and costly publications. All are illustrated to the point of gorgeous embarrassment, although they may be written with varying degrees of intelligence or grace. For anyone interested in the state of the architectural establishment, postmodernist division, there are stunning recent books on Michael Graves, Robert A.M. Stern, and Arata Isozaki14 that provide useful pictures of their work; the documentation such publications provide is usually valuable in inverse relationship to their size and weight.
A book published by the MIT Press this autumn brings current publishing full circle to the who-killed-modern-architecture theme that has been a leitmotif of the architectural book boom. The initial response to Klaus Herdeg’s The Decorated Diagram, subtitled “Harvard Architecture and the Failure of the Bauhaus Legacy,”15 is “Oh, no, not another one on the failure-of-modern-architecture.” The Decorated Diagram was accompanied by the publisher’s information that Herdeg’s book is “the thinking person’s From Bauhaus to Our House.” If I were Herdeg I would protest. The only discernible, but deceptive, resemblance is in the presentation, which just puts more fuel on a spent fire. In some parts the book seems closer to the famous case-history method of the Harvard law and business schools than anything produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Design. But it will be too bad if the book comes across as just another example of modern architecture bashing or Bauhaus debunking because it has far more pertinent and useful things to say. Herdeg’s concerns go considerably beyond the attack he mounts on Harvard as the generator of the decorative formalism of American modernist architecture. He is interested in means, ends, and values; he sees architecture as a marriage between appearance and purpose, in which formal elements are imbued with a wide range of meanings. He believes in the kind of controlled and creative design that “challenges the imagination and offers emotional rewards, whatever its pragmatic duty.”
The question of form and content Herdeg explores in his case histories of the design process will be a disappointment to anyone looking for conspiracy theories or elite plots as perpetrated at either Harvard or the Bauhaus or in any other hotbed of architectural subversion. He has no use for either the high seriousness of purpose of the modernists or the “cheap thrill eyecatchers” or “impudent irony” of the postmodernists. He is acutely aware of the gap between intent and result in both cases. His attack is concentrated on the abstract formalism of late modernism and the educational system that encouraged its development and was blind to its inadequacies. Harvard, of course, as the leader of architectural education at that time, is a sitting target. By citing the work of Harvard Graduate School of Design alumni, he aims his fire at the way this heavily rationalized decorative formalism (the “decorated diagram” of his title) was transmitted through the teaching, and the students, of Walter Gropius.
By blaming Harvard, he is killing the messenger who brought the bad news; if he did no more than that, the book would not deserve much attention. For one thing, the messenger is dead; the Graduate School of Design is under new leadership and following a different course. What remains today are a great many modern buildings, good and bad, by Harvard graduates, and a great many modern buildings, also good and bad, by non-Harvard graduates, that are essentially the same thing. They demonstrate a predictable range of sensitivities and deficiencies of the late modern style. To confuse the issue further, Herdeg has put a lot of mismatched architectural eggs into his Harvard basket. He has then proceeded to tar both modernists and postmodernists with the same Bauhaus brush, which takes considerable agility.
The real value of the book is the author’s ability to analyze individual buildings with an objectivity that has been conspicuously lacking in the modernist-postmodernist debate. He deals with all pratfalls even-handedly. The failures of both modernist and postmodernist works are dissected with equal acuity and a long view of architecture. His criticism of I.M. Pei’s late modernist work, for example, is not a repetition of the currently popular judgments of “passé monumentality.” The defects of these buildings are explained by showing the limitations imposed by Pei’s strict adherence to modernist rules. Herdeg chooses the Johnson Museum at Cornell University (see page 59) for analysis, although this structure lacks Pei’s usual clarity and is actually quite “schizoid,” as Herdeg points out, in its spatial organization.16 Pei’s other museums are better examples of the “powerful formal devices” of modernism—the clearly ordered and unified arrangement of spaces in a smooth, totemlike container.
“The unqualified application of such powerful formal devices,” Herdeg writes, “tends to inhibit spontaneous interpretation of spatial configurations for social and other purposes.” These buildings are, indeed, absolute; not surprisingly, they make unequivocal modernist statements. Beyond the obvious difficulties of adaptability, they lose their essential aesthetic character if not “read” as originally designed. The East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, for example, works superbly as public space and for an equally formal if rather limited display of compatible art. But an event with the emotional drive and shattering excesses of the Rodin show made a shambles of the building’s resolute, measured image.
Herdeg is equally effective in deflating the rhetoric and results, and some of the reputations, of postmodernist practitioners. He demolishes two luxury apartment houses in New York, one at 800 Fifth Avenue, the other at 1001 Fifth Avenue, for which two Harvard alumni, Ulrich Franzen and Philip Johnson, designed facaAades with much fanfare. What he does not say is that neither of these architects approached the commissions as exponents of Gropius’s “total architecture” or anything in the Bauhaus tradition; both were designing as postmodernists of greater or lesser conviction. Franzen’s conversion was the more recent; Johnson had not done anything Gropius told him to for a long time.
Herdeg zeroes in on the details of these two perfectly dreadful façades—Franzen’s at 800 Fifth and Johnson’s at 1001 Fifth—describing their formal and symbolic failures in almost clinical terms. Both facaAades, he says, “play out a literal heavy-handed charade” in their attempts to relate to their neighbors—a Beaux Arts apartment house next to 1001 Fifth and the small, Georgian Revival Knickerbocker Club next to 800 Fifth. Although each design “pays tribute to context” by taking its formal cues from the masonry, moldings, windows, or other details adjoining it, something has gone terribly wrong; both buildings are banal and busy caricatures. Johnson’s vertical bay window strips, “in dark glass and metal against off-white stone, run up the faćade like so many zippers,” emphasizing rather than diminishing the effect of the building’s excessive height. The borrowed elements “appear to dissolve into an array of unrelated and therefore confusing anecdotes.”
Herdeg disposes forever of any architectural pretensions the two buildings may have. Of 800 Fifth: “The façde…appears as a non-façade…a tartan weave of glass, spandrels and wall.” Of 1001 Fifth: “The question presents itself whether this display of unnerving effects amounts to a deliberate use of irony for the purpose of reconciling conflicting conditions, or whether, because of self-contradictory design actions, essential order and control have been lost.”
If there is irony here, it is that both of these “decorated diagrams” are actually the product of New York’s standard speculator practice of dressing up the ordinary; the fancy false front, put on for the luxury trade, covers a conventional building, tricked up, in this case, by a pretentious postmodernist rationale. There surely is no more unsavory architectural formula. It is reaching hard, as Herdeg does, to blame this on the Bauhaus.
Herdeg also devotes a great deal of space to dismembering an earlier Philip Johnson building of the 1950s, the Sheldon Art Gallery in Lincoln, Nebraska, done when Johnson was first breaking with the International Style and flirting with history. He makes a detailed comparison with a museum that was greatly admired by Johnson’s first, modernist mentor, Mies, and has since become an icon of the postmodernists—Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Altes Museum in Berlin. This is a building that has been referred to repeatedly and respectfully by Johnson in both his modernist and postmodernist periods.
The Sheldon Art Gallery is not one of Johnson’s better buildings; his production, at best, is uneven, and the truly great building eludes him. There has also been a remarkable absence of critical analysis of where the failure lies. Herdeg uses this design to identify weaknesses that can be found in much of Johnson’s work; they are characteristic of the architect rather than of the Harvard curriculum. In a discussion of similarities of formal structure, differences in the relationship of facaAade to plan, and the disposition of spaces in the two museums, Johnson comes off distinctly second best.
The calculated orchestration of physical, spatial, and temporal elements and forces into a vibrant yet serene whole in the Schinkel facaAade is reduced in Johnson’s museum to a single chord straining to evoke a sound of grandeur…. Where one facaAade freezes into decoration, the other opens countless opportunities for human participation.
He concludes that the Johnson building is the product of
an object-fixated, style-drunk process…a play of sensual agitation…anything but the subtly calculated interplay of architectural elements and ensembles in the service of human comfort and the heightening of self-esteem which we find in the façade and entry sequence of the Altes Museum.
The same treatment is meted out to Edward L. Barnes, a Harvard graduate who remains a convinced and consistent modernist. Herdeg compares Barnes’s master plan for the State University campus at Purchase, New York, with Thomas Jefferson’s plan for the University of Virginia. Jefferson’s masterwork has always been an impossible act to follow, and Barnes’s plan, generally considered one of his least successful efforts, highlights the modernists’ persistent problems with creating an inviting human setting. Herdeg attributes this to the modernist insistence on “the building as object,” existing independently rather than meshing with its surroundings in more harmonious and humanistic ways. Of all the “failures” ascribed to modernism today, this, and the unfeeling and unseeing destruction of the past, are the ones that really hit home.
But then Herdeg lumps together Barnes and Johnson, modernist and postmodernist, against the winning team of Schinkel and Jefferson. It is no contest. “One set of buildings,” Herdeg writes, “Schinkel’s and Jefferson’s—call on the eyes to lead the intellect and emotions to a richer understanding of architecture, subtly revealing a true symbiosis between appearance and purpose, while the other set of buildings—Johnson’s and Barnes’s—permit, by less controlled and more literal appeal to the eyes, only a discontinuous grasp of the building, as if its attributes were presented by flashcards.” Flashcard architecture! The perfect postmodernism.
If what Herdeg is saying is that both examples are seriously flawed, he is right; if he is saying that both are failures of the Bauhaus legacy, it is impossible to agree. But when he broadens his criticism, he becomes irrefutable. His comment that any architecture that does no more than provide visual and tactile stimulation is a failure is right on the mark. Modernist and postmodernist buildings can all make the same bad music, only in different keys.
Herdeg’s definition of architecture as a process that “gives formal significance to such considerations as social and functional use, structure, lighting and materials” should be a working truism, but it is largely disregarded. That all design devices should ultimately “resolve [themselves] into a deeper understanding of architecture” is indisputable, although increasingly ignored. Perhaps these words should be graven on the door of Harvard and every other school, with the remarkable observation that goes to the heart of the matter: “Architecture [is] most effective when it makes possible…moments of suspension between one’s inner and outer world.”
Architecture thus conceived is the transition point, a cleverly crafted place of space and light and thoughtful detail where we experience both worlds and that “heightened sense of self-esteem” that Schinkel and Jefferson—professional and amateur—understand as essential to the building art. Today’s flashcard architecture is not good enough. When the architect succeeds in creating such a place through the aesthetic control of physical and structural reality, when he uses his art to provide “countless opportunities for human participation” and to give us a feeling of dignity and self-worth, such transcendental, civilizing moments are reached. These are the structures in which we understand architecture; they are the ones that touch society as a whole. Harvard? The Bauhaus? This goes back to the beginnings of building time.
December 22, 1983
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981. ↩
Two outstanding examples of the genre, because of the excellence of their documentation and the focus of their viewpoint, are Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna and John Willett’s Art and politics in the Weimar Republic. ↩
Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (Museum of Modern Art, 1966; revised ed. 1977). ↩
Robert A.M. Stern, George Howe: Toward a Modern American Architecture (Yale University Press, 1975). ↩
Modern Movements in Architecture (Doubleday Anchor, 1973); The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (Rizzoli, 1978); Post-Modern Classicism (Rizzoli, 1981); Architecture Today (Abrams, 1982). ↩
Oxford University Press, 1980. ↩
Kenneth Frampton, “Maison de Verre,” Perspecta 12 (Yale Architectural Design, October 1969). ↩
Paul David Pearson, Alvar Aalto and the International Style (Whitney Library of Design, Watson-Guptill, 1978); Malcolm Quantrill, Alvar Aalto: A Critical Study (Schocken, 1983). ↩
William J.R. Curtis, Modern Architecture since 1900 (Prentice-Hall, 1982). ↩
Stuart Wrede, The Architecture of Erik Gunnar Asplund (MIT Press, 1980; 1983 paper). ↩
S. Frederick Starr, Melnikov: Solo Architect in a Mass Society (Princeton University Press, 1978). ↩
Another valuable addition to the documentation of Soviet modernism is a translation of Moisei Ginzburg’s Style and Epoch (Anatole Senkevitch, Jr., trans.; MIT Press, 1982). Ginzburg’s Soviet manifesto paralleled Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture in France, carrying many of the same ideas. This publication restores it to history. ↩
Richard Oliver, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue (American Monograph Series: Architectural History Foundation/MIT Press, 1983). ↩
Michael Graves, Buildings and Projects, 1966-1981, Karen Wheeler, Peter Arnell, and Ted Bickford, eds. (Rizzoli, 1983); Robert A.M. Stern, Buildings and Projects, 1965-1980: Toward a Modern Architecture After Modernism, Peter Arnell and Ted Bickford, eds. (Rizzoli; London: Academy Editions/St. Martin’s Press, 1983); Philip Drew, The Architecture of Arata Isozaki (Harper and Row, 1982). ↩
MIT Press, 1983. ↩
A New York Times headline writer’s error has come back to haunt me. My article of June 11, 1973, on the Johnson Museum called it a flawed design and expressed reservations. The headline read “Pei’s Bold Gem,” which Herdeg may have accepted as my evaluation. Journalists neither write, nor see, their headlines. ↩