Collapsing Modernism

The Details of Modern Architecture

by Edward R. Ford
MIT Press, 371 pp., $60.00

Architecture: The Natural and the Manmade

by Vincent Scully
St. Martin's Press, 388 pp., $40.00

Vincent Scully
Vincent Scully; drawing by David Levine

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 The severe, puritanical steel-and-glass boxes of the Sixties and Seventies have been replaced by buildings that exhibit a surprising variety and richness of forms.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…

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