Rebuilding Architecture

Architecture Today

by Charles Jencks, with a contribution by William Chaitkin
Abrams, 359 pp., $65.00

Modern Architecture: A Critical History

by Kenneth Frampton
Oxford University Press, 324 pp., $19.95; $9.95 (paper)

Modern Architecture since 1900

by William J.R. Curtis
Prentice-Hall, 416 pp., $39.95; $29.95 (paper)

Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue

by Richard Oliver
Architectural History Foundation MIT Press, 296 pp., $30.00

The Decorated Diagram: Harvard Architecture and the Failure of the Bauhaus Legacy

by Klaus Herdeg
MIT Press, 125 pp., $22.50

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…

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

View Offer

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

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