Writing about the art of building has a long tradition. Inspired by the ancient Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius, who wrote On Architecture, the oldest surviving dissertation on classical architectural theory, Renaissance architects like Alberti, Vignola, and Palladio all produced theoretical treatises. So did Jacques-François Blondel in the eighteenth century. The practice continued in the twentieth century with Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, and recently Robert Venturi and Aldo Rossi.
Initially, architectural books were practical instruction manuals like Wenzel Roriczer’s fifteenth-century manuscript, On the Correct Building of Pinnacles. Even a scholar like Alberti devoted as much space to practical subjects such as the correct way to apply plaster and the manufacture of brick as to aesthetic issues. But Alberti, like many succeeding writers, was also a polemicist, and his book was intended to convince the reader of the rightness of his Classical cause.
Sometimes, as in the case of Vitruvius or Wright, one senses that the polemical writing was, at least partly, driven by a desire for self-promotion. After all, architects need to attract clients, and books illustrated with their own work (as Wright’s always were) are a useful publicity device. Other authors, like Le Corbusier, Venturi, and Rossi, seem to have been inspired by inactivity as much as anything else; it is no coincidence that when their architectural careers prospered these men wrote less. Busy architects are occupied with building, not writing, and successful practitioners like Edwin Lutyens and Mies van der Rohe wrote no major theoretical works; neither, for that matter, have the most lionized architects of our day, Frank Gehry and Richard Meier.
Nevertheless, celebrated architects have sometimes summed up their theories and experience toward the end of their careers. Frank Lloyd Wright wrote A Testament in 1957, only two years before his death, and Palladio published his famous Four Books of Architecture when he was sixty-two, ten years before he died. In this book, which would influence architects for centuries to come, he included descriptions of his own buildings with detailed plans and dimensions, for proper proportioning was considered to be one of the chief skills of the architect. Interestingly, historians have discovered that there are many small discrepancies between the drawings in the book and the executed buildings. It appears that for Palladio the book was an opportunity to put on the record his idealized vision, not the messy reality.
Building is unavoidably messy. Constructing large buildings has little in common with the autonomous creative process of the painter or the sculptor. In addition to the designer, architecture involves the contractor, tradesmen, technicians, the architect’s assistants, and, of course, the client. Moreover, designing and building is a long process, with unexpected changes and on-the-spot modifications of the original concept. Architecture also costs a lot of money. The only other art form that comes close is film. This summer’s blockbuster, Batman Returns, is said to have cost over $55 million, but the new Getty Center in Los Angeles, now being built by Richard Meier, has a budget of $360 million. With so much money at stake, and so many people involved, the architect’s personal vision is easily compromised (it is not, after all, his own money). It is all the more understandable, therefore, that architects feel the need to give a written, theoretical underpinning to their all-too-practical and compromising art.
During the last decade a new kind of writing about architecture has become prominent. This theoretical literature is sometimes called “critical theory,” sometimes “history and theory,” sometimes just “theory.” It is based, in large part, on the writings not of other architects but of literary theorists like Jacques Derrida and the late Paul de Man, and it is buttressed by the work of lesser-known philosophers, linguists, and Left Bank intellectuals.
In view of these literary influences, it is not surprising that the proponents of critical theory are less interested in the business of building than in the abstract question of how to interpret the meanings that buildings embody and convey. Still, one characteristic that the authors of the recent contemporary architectural literature share with their predecessors is the desire to elevate the architect from a mere builder to something else. In his treatise on the theory and practice of architecture, completed about 1450, Alberti pointedly distinguished the architect from the ordinary carpenter:
Him I consider the architect, who by sure and wonderful reason and method, knows both how to devise through his own mind and energy, and to realize by construction, whatever can be most beautifully fitted out for the noble needs of man, by the movement of weights and the joining and massing of bodies. To do this he must have an understanding and knowledge of all the highest and most noble disciplines.1
This was the architect promoted to an all-knowing scholar-builder.
In Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture, published in 1923, the role proposed for the architect was a lofty combination of artist, visionary engineer, and social scientist—a good description of the author. Subsequent generations became disillusioned with the responsibilities of being reformer-builders and they realigned their goals. In Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) Robert Venturi referred to himself as an artist, and in the final paragraph of the book proposed Pop art as a model for a future architecture—a model that he was to follow. Proponents of critical theory favor what has been called an architecture of ideas and ambitiously seek to boost the artist-builder to philosopher-builder.
Mark C. Taylor is not an architect—he is a professor of religion at Williams College—but his new book, Disfiguring: Art, Architecture, Religion, is in the tradition of the polemical architectural treatise. And the author, too, suggests a new role for the architect, that of a theologian-builder, something that even Alberti, who was a cleric if not an ordained priest, did not do.
The connection between religion and architecture is powerful. For centuries, the practice of architecture was synonymous with the construction of exclusively religious buildings: first ancient temples and sepulchers, later Christian basilicas, medieval cathedrals, Renaissance and Baroque churches. Indeed, until the Baroque period, the history of Western architecture is predominantly the history of churches. (Mosques, temples, and shrines have an analogous place in the architectural history of Islamic, Hindu, and Japanese cultures.) When the power of organized religion eventually waned, the religious sources of architecture remained intact, especially in the nineteenth-century revival styles: Classical, Romanesque, Gothic. Secular buildings like the New York Public Library and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, or at Princeton University and West Point, continued to use architectural forms derived from Greek and Roman temples and Gothic cathedrals. Even skyscrapers like the Woolworth Building and the Chicago Tribune Tower adopted the neo-Gothic style; so too, in a highly stylized fashion, did New York’s World Trade Center and the curious neo-Gothic headquarters of the PPG Corporation in Pittsburgh.
Tracing the religious roots of architecture is not Professor Taylor’s purpose, however. He wants, he writes in the introductory chapter, “to create a dialogue between religion and the visual arts by developing an interpretation of twentieth-century art and architecture from a theological or, more precisely, an a/theological perspective.” The reader may be surprised to learn, as this reviewer was, that a/theology covers “the middle ground between classical theology and atheism.” The necessarily slippery nature of such a middle ground makes it a poor foundation for Taylor’s ambitious but unsatisfactory book.
He begins his study with an examination of the work of three modern painters—Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, and Mark Rothko—and several familiar early modern architects, including Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe. Taylor sees the increasing abstraction of modernism—in both art and architecture—as a spiritual dead end in which the stripping away of representational ornament ultimately leads not only to simplicity and abstraction, but to emptiness. As a reaction to this emptiness, postmodern architects have reaffirmed the need for figurative modes of expression. The difficulty, as the author sees it, is that these modes too closely mirror the modern condition, that is, they are frequently shallow, ingratiating, and consumerist. Describing buildings designed by Robert Venturi, Charles Moore, and Michael Graves, Taylor sees an attitude that he describes as “ironic,” in contrast to the “heroic” constructions of their early modern predecessors. Disfiguring closes with an examination of what is presented as an alternative form of postmodernism, exemplified by the work of two architects, Peter Eisenman and Bernard Tschumi, a painter, Anselm Kiefer, and a sculptor, Michael Heizer.
The attempt to locate the work of architects in a broad artistic setting falters on several grounds, but chiefly because the author fails to understand the peculiar nature of the art of building. To begin with, he generally treats buildings as if they were merely works of sculpture. For example, he makes much of the fact that Mies van der Rohe’s famous all-glass Farnsworth house is elevated five feet above the ground to produce a “sense of aloofness,” and chooses to ignore the fact that this had a lot to do with the springtime flooding of the adjacent Fox River, which requires the current owner to keep a canoe handy expressly for such occasions. (Mies never built any other houses similarly raised in the air.) The author also suggests that the transparent walls are part of a “language of absence” intended to give the architecture a sense of dematerialization. But if Mies were intending to build a spiritual void, as Taylor suggests, would he really have incorporated such luxurious and sensuous materials as travertine floors, primavera wood paneling, and shantung draperies, all obviously chosen for their visual and tactile richness, and calculated to undermine any real sense of austerity in this genteel and opulent building?
In any case, there is no reason that a weekend retreat like the Farnsworth house should be a spiritual statement; Mies’s chapel at the Illinois Institute of Technology might have been more suitable for a case study. But Taylor, by his own admission, is not “particularly interested in works of art that are religious in a direct or straightforward way.” Thus, he does not mention Edwin Lutyens’s great World War I memorial in France or Maya Lin’s equally moving Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, DC. Not a word, either, about the two great masterpieces of twentieth-century religious architecture—Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame-du-Haut at Ronchamp and Wright’s Unity Temple—or about Rothko’s chapel for the de Menils in Houston. Aldo Rossi’s San Cataldo Cemetery at Modena, surely one of the most influential religious buildings of the 1970s, also goes unmentioned.
The author’s perplexing decision to write about architecture and religion but not about places of worship may be intellectually provocative, but it results in a misleading analysis. For example, he deplores the grandiose lobby of Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s AT&T Corporate Headquarters, which he describes as “the functional equivalent of a latter-day cathedral.” But why look at the “functional equivalent” (whatever that means), instead of examining the real thing: Johnson and Burgee’s Crystal Cathedral, the vast spiritual greenhouse designed for Robert Schuller in Orange County, California. This unusual building is much more revealing than the AT&T building of the skewed contemporary relationship between modern architecture and religion. Taylor wryly depicts Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans as having “the sense of frivolity and levity that I had come to expect from postmodern architecture,” but he ignores Moore’s St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Pacific Palisades, California, which, while just as postmodern as the New Orleans plaza, is not frivolous or light-hearted. Neither is Michael Graves’s postmodern design of 1987 for a church in Cincinnati. But Taylor chooses instead to concentrate on the two hotels that Graves built for Walt Disney World in Florida, which he finds to be superficial and fanciful. Imagine, resort hotels that are superficial and fanciful!
Perhaps the most inexplicable omission in this book is that of the work of Louis Kahn. Kahn, who designed several places of worship, including two synagogues, a mosque, a convent, and a priory, was arguably the most philosophical and spiritually minded of postwar American architects. His Unitarian church, in Rochester, New York, has been described by Vincent Scully as one of the few examples of modern religious buildings in America that is neither domestic nor theatrical—“Kahn’s church has the strength of something thought through in reverence for the facts of things: here, for light.”
Also missing from Taylor’s account are two earlier architects who stand out both for their piety and for the significant religious buildings they designed: Ralph Adams Cram and Antonio Gaudí. Cram was the architect of many beautiful Gothic revival churches in the United States, most notably the nave and chapels of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York. Gaudí’s great monumental work, only now being completed, was the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. And what about Frank Lloyd Wright who, like Kahn, was not religious in the conventional sense, but who also built several memorable places of worship, not only a second Unitarian church in addition to Unity Temple, but also a Greek Orthodox church, and the extraordinary Beth Sholom synagogue in Philadelphia?
An investigation of modern places of worship might have produced a very different judgment about the relationship between twentieth-century architecture and religion, just as an examination of the buildings of Gaudí, Cram, Wright, and Kahn might have suggested that the distinction between “modern” and “postmodern” is inadequate to describe architecture’s recent evolution. But that would have distracted the author from his goal, which is to present the current deconstructivist movement in architecture as the solution to what he sees as our spiritual ills.
The goal of deconstructivism is to translate the theories of literary deconstruction into building, and to undermine conventional architecture in much the same way that deconstruction has attempted to undermine conventional literature. This movement has been encouraged by Philip Johnson, who organized a Museum of Modern Art exhibition on “Deconstructivist Architecture” in 1988. It has also found great favor in schools of architecture, and is beginning to affect the profession at large—more than half of the prestigious Progressive Architecture awards in 1992 were conferred on buildings that exhibited, in one way or another, the influence of deconstructivist theory.
The term deconstructivism was coined by the architectural critic Joseph Giovannini, who conflated the words “deconstruction” and “constructivism.” This paradoxical opposition of meanings—taking apart and putting together—successfully catches the spirit of this movement. Deconstructivist buildings are usually identifiable—they look either as if they are coming apart, or were improperly assembled. Walls are tilted, roofs intersect at unexpected angles, mysterious grids are laid over each other to produce unsettling forms. It’s a tough, unsentimental, urban style—the architectural equivalent of punk. Like punk, it is intended to appear radical and revolutionary—or at least as revolutionary as expensive buildings can be. The difficulty with trying to create a “subversive” architecture, of course, is that this aim is itself undermined by the mundane desire of building owners (especially public institutions and corporate clients) for permanence, practicality, and, of course, status.
This is perhaps why deconstructivism has produced more theoretical writing than probably any other architectural movement in history. Unfortunately, the purpose of most of this theoretical work is not to clarify but to intimidate. Robert Hughes’s criticism of Jean Baudrillard’s America (a book which Taylor cites approvingly several times) gives an accurate account of the genre: “It subjects the reader to a rite of passage, and extorts assent as the price of entry. For the savant’s thought is so radically original that ordinary words will not do. Its newness requires neologism; it seeks rupture, overgeneralization, oracular pronouncements, and a pervasive tone of apocalyptic hype.”2
In the text of Disfiguring one finds persistent use of cryptic neologisms (“Postmodern logo centrism appears to involve the rejection or negation of the logocentrism that informs the theoesthetic of modernism”), facile oppositions (“Though not precisely unnameable, this other cannot be properly named; though almost unfigurable, this other can be figured only by a certain disfiguring”), and annoying and down-right silly word play (“As we shall see, he [Graves] eventually lightened up and his work became less grave”). All this intellectual posturing simply serves to obscure what is basically a muddled hypothesis: that profane buildings incorporate sacred values.
It’s easy to see why Taylor is attracted to deconstructivism rather than postmodernism. Robert Venturi was once asked if he welcomed criticism of his own work from his students at Princeton: “Sure, why not?” he answered. “It’s only architecture, not religion.” One suspects that for a deconstructivist designer—or a deconstructivist critic—no building, no matter how ordinary its purpose, is ever “only architecture,” it is also an opportunity to make a statement, usually one about angst, alienation, and the emptiness of modern life.
Taylor quotes the architect Bernard Tschumi on his design for the Parc de La Villette in Paris: “La Villette, then, aims at an architecture that means nothing, an architecture of the signifier rather than the signified—one that is pure trace or play of language.” This twaddle may sound like urban anomie raised to high art, as Charles Jencks once characterized deconstructivism; but looking at the actual park pavilions, which are rather handsome steel structures painted bright red and include a café and a lookout tower, one hardly sees “nothing.” They remind me of an oversized Erector set or of an Alexander Calder stabile. Like much deconstructivist architecture, they also manage to be radical and fashionable at the same time and incorporate the sort of mechanical decor that is usually associated with high-price clothing boutiques.
What does this have to do with religion? Not much. Architecture students undoubtedly make pilgrimages to the Parc de La Villette, but for the young Parisians having their espressos and croissants in the shadow of Tschumi’s red constructions the park is merely a nice place to go in the afternoon. Venturi was right, architecture is not religion—although a place of worship can be an expression of religious belief. But to attempt to elevate the making of mundane buildings into a theological activity does little service to art and religion, and none at all to architecture.
November 19, 1992