A stroll down a city street will convince even a casual observer that something has changed drastically in the world of architecture. Where buildings used to be gray or brick-colored or, in exceptional cases like the CBS building in Manhattan, black, they’re now shiny gold, acid green, shocking pink, anything you want. There is variegated, patterned marble and granite everywhere—on the outside and on the inside, on lobby walls and floors, even in elevators. The severe, puritanical steel-and-glass boxes of the Sixties and Seventies have been replaced by buildings that exhibit a surprising variety and richness of forms. They are not adorned with I-beams and venting grills but with ceremonial arched entrances, pedimented roofs, and ornamental friezes.
The Empire State Building was originally fitted with a tall mast which was to serve as a mooring for Zeppelins; airships have long since disappeared but many recent skyscrapers have sprouted sculptural spars and rooftop pinnacles. There are skyscrapers that look like Chippendale highboys or Art Deco bookcases, and others that could be lifted straight out of Erich Kettelhut’s sets for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. There are even a few steel-and-glass boxes, although these now resemble minimalist sculptures with angles sliced away and corners lopped off here and there.
What happened? Ever since the 1920s among the avant-garde, and since 1945 in the mainstream, architecture was dominated by an international dogma that can be loosely called the Modern Movement. Originating as a marginal, almost bohemian art movement, it eventually attracted public and corporate clients who, whether they were General Motors, Harvard University, the United States Air Force, or the United Nations, all chose to build in the modernist style.
Truth to tell, the architecture of the Modern Movement was never universally popular with the American public, neither with the working class, which preferred its houses to be Colonial or ranch style, nor with the well-to-do. But it had other things going for it. Unlike the historical styles that it replaced, the Modern Movement was considered to be progressive, and its proponents maintained that it more accurately reflected the functional spirit of modern technology and was more suited to modern building methods. Moreover, the very lack of popular support was a spur to the architectural profession and produced a high-minded sense of mission—previously, the architect merely interpreted the needs of the client; now his job was to persuade, to educate, and, if necessary, to dictate. It also helped that, by the early 1950s, modernism was the only approach taught in the schools of architecture, virtually all other teaching being strictly forbidden.
Nevertheless, when it was suggested that there was nothing inevitable about flat roofs and undecorated white rooms, that abstraction was a dead end, that, as the Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi, put it, “Less is a bore,” that is, when the dogma was called into question, the Modern Movement lost many of its adherents. Not quite as quickly as world communism perhaps, nor as completely, but with as little effective resistance.
The exact date of the collapse of the rule of modernism is difficult to determine. Some would put it as early as 1962, when Venturi built a house that, while modern in some respects, incorporated such traditional features as a gable roof, decorative moldings, and an unmistakably Palladian window. Or 1964 and the construction of a condominium called Sea Ranch, whose architect, Charles Moore, avoided flat roofs and plate-glass windows and instead based his design on local northern California barns. Or better yet 1966, when Venturi published his influential antimodernist manifesto, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.
Others, more conservative, would point to the moment when what was now becoming known, for better or worse, as postmodern architecture caught the attention of the general public. In 1980, Michael Graves won a national competition for the Portland Municipal Services Building with a striking design that incorporated stylized garlands, oversized keystones, and other classical motifs. Graves, a Princeton professor with only a few domestic renovations to his credit, beat out such prominent modernist heavyweights as Romaldo Guirgola and Arthur Erickson.
The architectural consultant to the Portland jury was Philip Johnson. Johnson was something of an architectural bellwether: in 1932 he had helped to introduce the International Style and white-box architecture to the United States; by 1949, the year that he built his famous glass house, he was the first American architect to adopt the steel-and-glass modernism of Mies van der Rohe, with whom he collaborated on the Seagram Building. About 1960 he abandoned that severe aesthetic for a grandiose eclecticism, best typified by the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. And in 1984, the man whom many called the “dean of American architects” changed course again and produced the first postmodern skyscraper—the AT&T Building, in New York. That the headquarters of one of America’s best-known corporations combined modern technology with explicitly historical and distinctly unmodern architectural imagery suggested that post-modernism had truly entered the mainstream.
The abandonment of a single architectural orthodoxy opened a Pandora’s Box of architectural approaches. Heinrich Klotz’s precociously titled The History of Postmodern Architecture, originally published in Germany in 1984, lists a dazing series of architectural “isms”—eclecticism, historicism, rationalism, neo-modernism, and ahistorical modernism.1 It is not clear how seriously one is supposed to take these labels, but their multiplicity does suggest that postmodernism is unlikely ever to acquire the single authority of the Modern Movement, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Nor has postmodernism “replaced” modernism. Many of the most prestigious commissions of the last decade have been accorded to architects like I.M. Pei (the renovation of the Louvre in Paris), who have continued to work in the modernist idiom, or to younger practitioners like Moshe Safdie (the National Gallery of Canada) and Charles Gwathmey and Robert Siegel (who are completing extensions to both Harvard’s Fogg Museum and to the Guggenheim Museum), whose buildings exhibit no postmodernist tendencies. Neither does the technically accomplished work of Renzo Piano (the Menil Collection in Houston), Norman Foster (the Hong Kong Bank, and Stansted Airport), or Richard Rogers (the headquarters of Lloyd’s of London). And modernism continues to provide the chief impetus for Richard Meier, who has just unveiled his design for the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Which suggests that the Modern Movement is far from dead; what has changed is that it now has competitors.
The displacement of modernism from its central position of authority has had another, less obvious, consequence: it has enabled historians to view the history of the Modern Movement with new eyes. A generation of architectural historians led by Sigfried Giedion, Nikolaus Pevsner, and James Marston Fitch produced a version of the emergence of the Modern Movement that was conditioned partly by their espousal of modernism, and partly by their attempt to explain what appeared, at the time, to be an evolutionary historical process. To put their historical account schematically, William Morris begat the Arts and Crafts, which begat Art Nouveau and the Austrian Sezession, which were both stylistic dead-ends but which eventually led to the German Werkbund and, through the influence of Peter Behrens, Walter Gropius, and the Bauhaus, produced the Modern Movement.
Of course, it was more complicated than that but these historians’ views were pronouncedly deterministic, and architects whose work didn’t seem to advance the evolution of modernism were dismissed as genetic dead-ends. On these grounds, Edwin Lutyens, Ralph Adams Cram, and Stanford White, no matter how gifted or prolific, could be safely ignored. On the other hand, when architects were identified as innovators—as was the case with Otto Wagner, or the young Frank Lloyd Wright—attention was drawn to only those features of their work that were “modern”—anything else was conveniently ignored. This produced a very selective account indeed. For example, in the case of Wagner’s famous Postsparkasse, it was the undecorated interior banking hall that was illustrated in Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design, not the main façade with its ornamental garlands and heroic statues of Victory at each corner.
Thinking afresh about the architectural past is the theme of Edward R. Ford’s The Details of Modern Architecture, an unexceptional title for an exceptional book. It reads like a detective story, for the author sets out to understand early twentieth-century architecture not by examining the external appearance of famous buildings or by describing their programmatic requirements, as has been done so often before, but by looking for clues in the details of exactly how they were built. This sounds so reasonable that it comes as a surprise to realize that it has never been done before, or at least never so thoroughly.
Edward Ford is an associate professor of architecture at the University of Virginia, but he is also a practicing architect and provides practical explanations of how, and why, buildings were built in the manner they were. His book is lucidly written and profusely illustrated with over five hundred simplified construction drawings based on archival material; it will be an invaluable source for anyone trying to understand how the early modernist architects really built. This fascinating investigation sheds new light on even such well-known masterpieces as Le Corbusier’s villa at Garches, a “machine for living” with crude, uninsulated concrete block walls, simply plastered over, inside and out. Or Mies van der Rohe’s beautiful Barcelona Pavilion, an apparently simple composition whose elegant marble walls and plastered ceiling concealed a rough and far from simple steel structure underneath. Nothing in the Pavilion was exactly what it appeared to be. Tapered beams at the edges made the roof appear thinner than it was; the roof looked as if it was supported on eight columns—in fact there were additional columns hidden in the “free-standing” walls; these walls were made to look like solid marble, but were really brick or masonry covered with thin layers of stone.
But his book is not a technical primer—it is an exploration of the relationship between styles of design and styles of building, between different architects’ ideas of building and the reality of building, which often diverged. “Architectural technology is no more objective or subjective than architectural design,” the author writes, “and an architect’s relationship to the building conventions of the time usually mirrors his relationship to the rest of society.” Thus we have the young Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park building unusual, even eccentric, buildings but in quite conventional ways. The dramatic cantilevers of the Robie house in Chicago, for example, were achieved by simply adding concealed steel to what was otherwise a straightforward combination of loadbearing brick walls and timber floors and roof.
After 1910, on the other hand, when Wright became a social outcast as a result of his affair with Mamah Cheney, and left Oak Park and his comfortable suburban life, his estrangement from other architects affected both his handling of detail and his idea of building. Henceforth, not only did his buildings look unusual, they were also built in unusual ways, as he attempted, in Ford’s words, to “reinvent American building.” These attempts took different forms: monolithic wood construction, systematically arranged concrete building blocks, and glass-tube skylights. Startlingly original, they rarely worked as he intended.
The Details of Modern Architecture covers the years between 1877 and 1936 (a later volume is to complete the study to the present day). The architects that Ford discusses include virtually all the prominent practitioners of the period: Cram, McKim, Mead & White, Lutyens, the Greene brothers, Wright, Wagner, and, of course, the chief modernists: Mies, Le Corbusier, and Gropius. The challenge that all these designers—not only the modernists—faced was the changes that were taking place in the construction industry, not only in what buildings were built of, but also in how they were built. Unexpectedly, Ford discovers “much that was rational in the construction of traditional buildings in the twentieth century and much that was irrational in the construction of Modern architecture,” and concludes that traditionalist architects often had more success in confronting new technologies than doctrinaire modernists.
For example, Charles McKim and Stanford White developed an approach to structural rationalism that was grounded in the Classical tradition but at the same time was flexible enough to accommodate structural steel framing and cavity walls; so also, in a different way, did Otto Wagner. On the other hand, when Mies van der Rohe used steel, it was either in a purely decorative way, as in the Seagram Building, or in a way that was unconventional and expensive, as in the welded and polished structural steel framework of the Farnsworth house in Illinois.
Difficulties arose because the Modern Movement developed an ideology of design that proved to be at odds with the way that buildings were really built. This was partly, as Reyner Banham pointed out some time ago, a result of the architects’ ignorance, partly because they were reluctant to admit that their concerns were chiefly aesthetic, not technical, and partly because the building industry was evolving in a different direction from what they expected: more specialized, less based on craft skills, and much more fragmented than in the past.
Traditional construction was carried out by a relatively small number of tradesmen, but modern buildings are built by hundreds of specialized subcontractors who work independently. For example, one contractor erects metal wall studs, another installs the plaster wallboard panels, a third tapes and plasters the joints, and a fourth paints the finished wall. Building details must not only accommodate this sequence of operations, they must also reflect the tolerance, or allowable degree of inaccuracy, of the different trades. But, as Ford points out, one of the chief construction ideas of the Modern Movement, inherited from the Arts and Crafts movement, was to “honestly” expose structural materials. To do this, and still produce a visually acceptable interior, required a high level of craftsmanship, something that was at odds with the real world of building construction. Structural steel and concrete, for example, were typically assembled in rough condition and covered with another material; exposing them demanded unusually high standards of fit and finish. Such building details, if they could be done at all, could only be realized at considerable cost. Hence the well-founded reputation of modern architecture as either prohibitively expensive, or functionally inadequate (or in many cases, both).
Most architects believed that building design should appear rational. The problem was that the logic of modern construction was an inner logic that was not always visible on the surface. A modern wall, for example, consists of several layers of different materials—interior finish, structure, insulation, moisture barrier, and so on. Modern layered construction, as opposed to traditional monolithic construction, gives the designer great freedom. The exterior material is just one more layer added to this sandwich, so that the outside wall, as postmodernist architects have discovered, can be molded and shaped at will. But it was precisely an unwillingness to exploit this freedom that directed modern architects’ attention in other directions.
Perhaps the best example of the Modern Movement’s obtuseness was its attitude to stick building, the traditional American technique for building houses out of standardized lumber assembled in light wood frames. (Also called balloon framing, stick building was invented in the 1830s, and continues to be the mainstay of the American housebuilding industry.) Here was a rational, inexpensive, adaptable, lightweight, and highly industrialized building system. Just what modern architects would be drawn to, one would think. But no, it wouldn’t do. For one thing, the structure of a stick-built house could not be exposed—it was hidden behind layers of wood and plaster. For another, the only things that were standardized in stick building were the dimensions of the lumber and the size of nails, whereas modernist architects liked their standardization to be visible, hence the rows of identical windows or modular panels that characterized their designs. Finally, although Ford doesn’t mention this, for all their avowed populist leanings most modernist architects, while they were not averse to using such outré building elements as factory windows and maritime railings, were not really interested in conventional, middle-class building techniques.
Not only Wright, who should have known better, but also European architects, like Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra, attempted unsuccessfully to invent alternatives to stick building. Schindler tried concrete, Neutra steel; neither was a success. Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer built wood-framed houses that Sigfried Giedion hailed as examples of a “new regionalism,” but the marriage between European aesthetics and American technology was an uneasy one. Using horizontal ribbon windows and large openings, which were a required part of the modernist vocabulary, meant that the simple wood frame “contains so much steel that it is almost a skeletal frame building,” according to Ford.
Perhaps another reason that stick building was unacceptable to avantgarde architects was that it had been so widely used by an earlier generation of traditionalists like McKim, Mead & White, who were the principal exponents of the so-called Shingle Style, which dominated American domestic architecture in the 1880s. The Shingle Style got its name from the predominant exterior material—wood shingles—that was used to cover these large, rambling, comfortable houses, surrounded by deep porches and with roofs punctuated by dormers and gables. Which brings us full circle to Charles Moore and Robert Venturi, for part of the rejection of the Modern Movement by American architects in the 1960s entailed a rediscovery of the Shingle Style, and of the visual pleasures and freedoms afforded by stick building. In that sense, at least, post-modern also means premodern.
The architectural historian who coined the term Shingle Style, and who first drew attention to the parallel between the domestic architecture of the 1880s and the work of Moore and Venturi was Vincent Scully. Scully, who taught the course in Modern Architecture at Yale since 1947 until his retirement last year, was important to the evolution of postmodernism, not only as an educator and public lecturer, but also as a sympathetic critic—he wrote the introduction to Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which he called “the most important writing on the making of architecture since Le Corbusier’s Vers Une Architecture.” Now the man whom Philip Johnson described as “America’s foremost teacher of architectural history,” and the author of more than a dozen books, has published yet another. It is simply titled Architecture: The Natural and the Manmade, and it is a history of building since antiquity.
Or, at least, so it appears. The narrative begins in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, and by various twists and turns—Scully is a marvelous storyteller—takes the reader up to the present day. Along the way there is a spirited account of the evolution of the Greek temple and its relationship to the landscape, a subject that Scully has pursued in an earlier book, The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods. This is followed by a detailed examination of the Gothic cathedral, both its well-known structural accomplishments as well as its symbolic content. From the Gothic the author moves to the Renaissance and a look at Italian urbanism and French gardens, followed by a chapter on the work of Vauban, the famous military engineer, whose geometric plans for fortifications Scully links to the French gardening tradition.
In the preface, Scully mentions that this book is to be followed by a series of eight television films, and Architecture has a cinematic quality as the author jump cuts from one period to another. During a discussion of Italian palazzos, for example, we are reminded of the importance of urban setting in the work of Louis Sullivan. A description of Jefferson’s University of Virginia is followed by an analysis of Wright’s domestic work, which leads into a discussion of Le Corbusier’s early villas. The book closes with a moving description of Edwin Lutyens’s World War I memorial at Thiepval, whose ferocious monumentalism is contrasted with Maya Lin’s emotionally powerful wall of names—the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, DC.2
Scully’s historical narrative deals only briefly with the twentieth century, and although he is clearly sympathetic to Wright, he has little praise for the Modern Movement itself. Le Corbusier’s design for the city of Chandigarh is unfavorably compared to Lutyens’s New Delhi; Boston City Hall is described as an “uncouth monster…tearing the very center of Boston to pieces.” His chief criticism of modernism—“a jealous style”—is the negative effect that modern buildings have had on the city. He admiringly cites Robert Venturi’s design for the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, London, as an example of an architecture that enlivens rather than ignores its context.
This isn’t a conventional potted history of Western architecture; it is, rather, a highly personal view of the art of building as the great human enterprise.
The shape of architecture is the shape of the earth as it is modified by the structures of mankind. Out of that relationship, human beings fashion an environment for themselves, a space to live in, suggested by their patterns of life and constructed around whatever symbols of reality seem important to them.
The question of symbolism is an important one, for Scully’s thesis is that the chief impulse for the making of architecture is in fact the creation of meaning. The meanings vary: a celebration of divinity in the case of Greek temples, an image of the divine order in the Gothic cathedral, and a Cartesian idea of order in the case of the French classic garden. Scully makes a detailed examination of three gardens designed by André Le Nôtre; for Louis XIV at Versailles, for Fouquet at Vaux-le-Vicomte, and for Le Grand Condé at Chantilly. He is at his best taking the reader through the gardens and giving him not only a sense of the places, but of the men who commissioned them. Here is Scully describing Nicholas Fouquet.
He is alive with that wonderful French sense of irony and manner that we saw embodied with hardly more sweetness and no greater charm in the faces of the statue-columns at Chartres. He is a lovely man; it is no wonder that the artists he backed were so loyal to him. His garden itself is like that, a masterpiece of pourtraiture drawn on the surface of the ground, civilized and mannered in the very best meaning of those words.
In this sense—the sense of buildings as kinds of narratives which continue to be accessible to us today—although the word “postmodernism” does not appear in the index, Scully has written a thoroughly postmodern history, or at least it is a history seen through postmodern eyes. Scully rejects the notion that there is an objective historical truth to be gleaned from old buildings. “[Works of art] never embody one truth,” he writes, “but multiple truths, always exceeding the intentions of their makers in depth, ambiguity, and variety, and changing over time as those who perceive them change.” In other words, the great buildings of the past still speak to us today, although what they say may be different.
It is important to note that this idea is not shared by many art historians. In a recently published collection of essays, James Ackerman points out that while historians and social scientists have been moving in the direction of studying the past with close attention to social setting, the tendency of postmodern architects is to see history uprooted from culture.3 Presumably, Scully’s attempt to incorporate the viewer’s—that is, his own—cultural position in his experience of historical buildings represents an example of this tendency, and Scully does tend to derive his insights more from what he has seen than from detailed inquiries into the past.
The value of Vincent Scully’s writing, however, lies in his recognition of the difference between studying architecture and making it. Scully has always understood more about the making of architecture than other art historians—perhaps that is why his writing has always found an audience among architects, and why his influence on architectural practitioners has been as great as it has. Still, Ackerman is right, postmodernist architects have flirted with history in often superficial ways. Many of the historical allusions in the work of even as skilled a practitioner as Michael Graves remain obscure to the general public.
I think that Scully recognizes this danger, and in this lucid and stimulating book he manages to give the reader both a sense of what it is like to experience these famous buildings today and what it was like to have built them in the first place; that is, he describes two social settings: theirs and ours. If postmodern architects really want to reestablish links with the past—a worthy aim—it is a distinction they should bear in mind.
February 13, 1992
Heinrich Klotz, The History of Post-modern Architecture, translated by Radka Donnell (MIT Press, 1988). ↩
The architecture of war memorials is one of Robert Harbison’s themes in his recent study, The Built, the Unbuilt and the Unbuildable (MIT Press, 1991). ↩
James S. Ackerman, Distance Points: Essays in Theory and Renaissance Art and Architecture (MIT Press, 1991). ↩