Private Jokes in Public Places

Post Modern architects find social consciences inconvenient

BY MOSHE SAFDIE

STUDENTS ALWAYS HAVE THEIR HEROES, AND A WALK through the architectural-design studio at any major university gives a clear indication of who is “in.” On a browsing tour today, we would find a surprising mixture of forms and styles. We might first come upon some drawings—delicately rendered in pink, peach, mauve, and green, variously using elements from ancient Egyptian architecture, axially arranged stepping forms, triangles, openings, and keystones—echoing the work of Michael Graves, the Princeton-based architect. Nearby, we would be likely to see someone working on a model made of white cardboard walls, columns, and beams. At first, we would think the student had been charged with rebuilding a structure in the International Style of the 1930s. A closer look would show complex geometries and spatial orders, with planes and curved surfaces interpenetrating the whole, coming together with the delicacy of a house of cards. As in the work of such architects as Richard Meier and Peter Eisenman, there would be a sense of structurelessness and of fugal variations on a theme of the International Style.

In great contrast, we might find a student busy drawing a project elements of which appeared to be wholesale reproductions of parts of buildings ranging from Art Deco to Neoclassicism to Italian Baroque façades, or even to a little piece of Hadrian’s villa. Such parts would be integrated into what appeared to be an otherwise conventional plan, with surfaces carefully decorated with moldings, columns with any of various capitals, and other classical and pseudo-classical paraphernalia, recalling a preoccupation with such elements by the New York architect Robert A. M. Stern. Next to him might be a student whose project is an urban piazza treated as a stage set, with Italian scenery as a backdrop, as in the work of Charles Moore.

Somewhere in the studio we would certainly find a student using his project as an opportunity for an ironic statement —architecture as commentary and metaphor. His project might be a little museum in Cambridge whose ground floor would be built with masonry, as if it had existed for some time, and whose upper floor would be built with sheet metal, suggesting that it was a later, temporary, addition. If asked why he did that, the student might shrug his shoulders—or offer an eloquent, if vague, explanation of the anti-establishment gesture such a building would make. He would be echoing gestures by such leading architects as Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who have designed stores to look like a Christmas package or an oversize dollhouse (a commentary on consumerism?), or by Stanley Tigerman, whose proposal for a Best Products store was an oversize split-level suburban house, including a giant mannequin of a welcoming housewife at the door.

In another section of the studio, we would come upon a model for a large urban complex whose streets were lined with identical buildings. Rows of columns and repetitive window patterns would define the street edge, and lead to a semicircular piazza. The memory of Albert Speer and Mussolini’s Rome would be immediate, but you would discover upon further inquiry that the influence is much more recent—the work of the acclaimed Italian architect Aldo Rossi.

Why such a diverse and unlikely group of architects and their devoted followers have come to be categorized in a single package, identified as Post Modernism, defies one’s understanding, until one learns that the participants themselves have done much to create the image of a united movement, and that despite extreme formal differences in their output, the architects who inspire these students are in fact united by some common values, attitudes, and philosophies.

A capsule summary of the development of modern architecture might put things in context. The beginning of the century, extending into the thirties, saw the birth of the Modern movement. The Moderns included many pivotal figures whose interests and backgrounds diverged—such as Gropius, Le Corbusier, Oud, Mendelsohn, and Mies van der Rohe—but who were above all else socially committed. Organized around the Bauhaus and the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne, the movement broke with the past—the tyranny, as the architects understood it, of eclecticism and of architecture as an art for the privileged few—and concerned itself, perhaps for the first time in the history of architecture, with the environment of everyone. Housing, urbanism, styles of living, new modes of education and recreation, technology, and industrialization all became issues in what was an essentially optimistic thrust.

The new movement was not without its contradictions. There was the puritanical cleansing process rooted in leftist ideology. Ornament was a crime, Adolf Loos declared, as buildings increasingly reflected. And while philosophically the Moderns were committed to the idea that form—and style—will grow and evolve out of the honest expression of building processes and structure, they developed their own visual formulas—white planar structures, interpenetrating volumes, cantilevered curved balconies, horizontal strip windows, shiplike details—which before long created a new formal tyranny.

Although they were committed to city life, the Moderns rejected the congested gridiron city of the past and replaced it with models of green meadows interspersed with skyscrapers. But the essence of urban life—meeting places, markets, piazzas, even streets—had been eliminated without proper substitutes. All this must be understood, however, in the context of the emergence of a radical movement: the Moderns were committed to the transformation of an entire value system of their time.

They seemed to have won their battle with the Old Guard when the destruction of World War II brought about the opportunity for realization of their dreams. But as neighborhoods and cities such as Rotterdam, London, and Dresden were rebuilt, and brand-new cities outside Europe (Brasilia, Chandigarh) were created from scratch, the elation subsided and was replaced by a sense of disappointment: the utopias were in many ways inferior to the old towns. The communities lacked variety and richness, and suggested instead a sense of bureaucracy and standardization. One lived in a “project,” not a house. The individual buildings generated the response of “cold,” “sterile,” “clinical” —all summed up so beautifully in Jacques Tati’s movie Mon Oncle. By the sixties, the notions of towers in the park, segregated land use, and even garden cities had been discredited. It was clear that social commitment was not enough. Architects needed a deeper understanding of how to make an environment with the complexity and richness the public craved. In America, this need was aggravated by the dominance for several decades of the severe style of Mies van der Rohe and the spreading of the gospel by followers such as Philip Johnson, the young Eero Saarinen, and others.

The public did not like steel-and-glass boxes. The Puritanism of the Modern movement suppressed the natural human desire to celebrate and decorate, to take delight in ornament. But it was not only ornament that was lacking. “Social housing,” as it was called in Europe (“public housing” here), failed to eradicate poverty, or even to make the life of the poor any better. Instead of devising cheaper and more efficient construction technology, architects designed anonymous, standardized, and repetitive prefabricated projects that sprang up all over Europe, from Moscow to the British Isles.

In the process of rejection of the past, urbanism suffered a drastic blow. Rejecting the street and the public square in their traditional forms, the Moderns placed buildings in open landscapes, creating open space that was less park than wasteland, destroying the connective tissues that formed urban life, and reinforcing the notion that architecture was the design of objects and not the design of the urban whole. In the triumph of Modernism, regionalism was ignored. The very term “International Style” suggested that buildings in the Nubian Desert, in the Middle East, and in northern Canada had much in common.

Aside from the revision of Modernism, architects in the seventies were faced with a new set of constraints. The years were basically ones of severe recession. Public funds for buildings were cut drastically. Construction, particularly of public housing, came almost to a halt. The cost and scarcity of energy, too, added to the economic upheaval, as did interest rates and the virtual disappearance of conventional mortgage financing. In these gloomy circumstances during the seventies, a substantial number of architects remained only partially employed or unemployed. Faced on one side with economic constraints that seemed to make it impossible to maneuver and on the other with an agenda of unresolved issues inherited from the previous generation, architects found it seductive to change the rules of the game.

THERE WERE TWO EARLY REACTIONS TO DISAPPOINTments with the Modern movement, one typically European, the other typically American: one sociopolitical, the other stylistic. In Europe, the second generation of architects—Aldo van Eyck in the Netherlands, Giancarlo di Carlo in Italy, and the Smithsons in England—gathered, in what became known as Team 10, in an attempt to begin articulating where the Modern movement had fallen short. They discussed aspects of the environment that the Modern movement ignored: the meaning of tradition, the lessons to be learned from the vernacular and indigenous architecture they found in the streets and countryside around them, and fundamental concepts such as territoriality, gathering places, and “gateway”—the sense of entering a community or house. But their underlying attitude was of reaffirmation of basic human needs in architecture.

A number of American architects began to “enrich” modern architecture by wrapping buildings with decorative grills, as Edward Durell Stone did in his design for the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India, or by talking about the architecture of delight and introducing decorative pseudo-Gothic and Romanesque elements to buildings, as Minoru Yamasaki did in his design for the buildings at Wayne State University. Both architects were duly acknowledged in cover stories in Time.

These rumblings of dissatisfaction with the severity of Modernism were first given intellectual legitimacy and depth by Robert Venturi in his 1966 book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which had an immediate impact. Venturi abolished the Moderns’ taboos. He exalted the richness of Renaissance and Baroque architecture, the desire for decoration, the intellectual pleasure of mannerism in architecture, irony and metaphor, and the unappreciated value of vulgarity—public taste as expressed in our suburbs and commercial highway strips.

Venturi’s writings attracted many followers. By the early 1970s the followers had a name—the Post Modernists—and included architects from all over America, Europe, and Japan. Even Philip Johnson jumped on the bandwagon, with his AT&T Building, in New York City, supporting the new eclecticism not only in his own work but as the juror of several competitions, notably the controversial one for the Public Service Building in Portland, Oregon. Michael Graves’s design, which was concerned mostly with façade composition, was chosen over those by Mitchell/Giurgola of New York and Arthur Erickson of Vancouver, which were concerned instead with the environment and people’s lives within it.

UNLIKE TEAM 10, WHICH BUILT UPON THE ACHIEVEments of the founders of the Modern movement by keeping their ideals but outlining their deficiencies in concept and understanding, the Post Modernists see themselves as the bearers of a new gospel: the Modern movement is dead and a new era of understanding architecture has arrived. There is not much that architecture can do about social issues, the Post Modernists say: the housing projects of the thirties, forties, and fifties proved that architecture did not erase, or even ease, the conditions of poverty and alienation. So why not turn to what architects really do well—pure design? Technology has not solved anything—it certainly didn’t make buildings any cheaper—and the Modernist doctrine that visual pleasure would result from the expression of the structural system led nowhere. Now architects can explore pure form, unencumbered by building process or by program (clients’ requirements).

When architects hoped to evolve building forms that would be instruments of social change, they permitted themselves to be the interpreters of a client’s requirements and to mold buildings to their own interpretation, often with far-reaching economic and operational consequences. More recently, governments, corporate clients, and developers have increasingly narrowed the architect’s involvement with program definition. Developers tell architects that an office building shall be no more nor less than 25,000 square feet per floor on a five-foot grid; they supply precise definitions of the plan and form of a hotel, government complex, or residential building. For an architect with social concerns and ambitions to have an impact on his culture, this situation is intolerable. But Post Modernist doctrine diffuses this frustration by redefining the architect’s role. Students can relax about the packaged building formulas everyone around them seems to be saddled with, and enjoy the makeup job. It does not matter that their contribution under such circumstances can be only skin-deep. New criteria of subtlety become important: making a glass curtain-wall with a new type of mirror or polychrome glass panels, or specifying colored rather than aluminum mullions, becomes a significant act worthy of appreciation.

Post Modernist doctrine applies to problems that are not socially and economically charged. By designing a house for an indulgent client rather than for a community of diverse people, for example, the architect avoids the conflicts between economics and amenities and between building form and energy consumption. He chooses problems in which the program is sufficiently vague to impose the least number of constraints. Architects have even begun drawing individual houses, sometimes for no client, no real site, numbered 1, 2, 3, and 4 (as Peter Eisenman does), or “A Kosher Kitchen for a Suburban Jewish American Princess” resembling a bagel, for which Stanley Tigerman received a Progressive Architecture design award. Being academic and intellectual, the Post Modernists also see architecture as an opportunity for commentary. Having stated that the Moderns avoided symbolic gestures, Post Modernist doctrine confuses genuine universal symbols—as well as ones that are immediately meaningful to people from a particular culture—with private symbols that are meaningless to the public. Thus, for example, a gold-anodized TV antenna placed over the roof of a home for the elderly (by Robert Venturi) is a gesture that might be meaningful to a limited circle of architects, but certainly one that lacks universality. Students, however, find solace in this introvertedness, since it is easier to look to one’s immediate circle than to study and penetrate one’s society for meaningful symbols.

THE CHANGE IS RADICAL. THROUGH MUCH OF THE history of architecture, architects believed style was rooted in the process of building and in the spatial order that expressed life-style. Style was the synthesis of how buildings came together, how they were used, and how they interacted with the land. Perhaps one of the most articulate architects on the subject was Frank Lloyd Wright, who, in An Organic Architecture and in his buildings, demonstrated the inseparability of these ingredients. Today we are told that these connections are nonsensical—unnecessary constraints and limits. Philip Johnson says, “There are no rules, surely no certainties in any of the arts. There is only the feeling of a wonderful freedom,” and is echoed by Frank Gehry: “I try to rid myself . . . of the burden of culture. . . . I want to be open-ended. There are no rules, no right or wrong.”

The history of architecture and urbanism, the understanding of the evolution of building form, and the ability to derive lessons from both for building today have always been essential ingredients of an architect’s education. Even in the early decades of the century, when history was de-emphasized, architects never failed to draw upon their cultural heritage. Le Corbusier explored the buildings of ancient Greece and the Mediterranean vernacular. Louis Kahn was fascinated by medieval Europe. Bernard Rudofsky made us conscious of indigenous buildings—architecture without architects. Frank Lloyd Wright was fascinated with and drew upon the tradition of Japanese building. It would seem obvious that the choice of models has much to say about the values and attitudes of each particular school. The fascination with indigenous building is a commitment to adaptability, to an architecture emerging as clearly and as unequivocably as form in nature. The fascination with medieval building cannot be disassociated from the concept of the master builder and collective building efforts of the time.

Today, however, the student treats history as a bag of tricks. Rather than understand the causal as well as historical evolution of building and urbanism and the relation between context and form, he is allowed, indeed encouraged, to dive in and pick a motif out of history to be reproduced and elaborated. Thus we find parts or wholes of buildings—or sometimes even details, such as moldings—reproduced and transformed in scale, not only out of context but without the understanding of what brought them about in the first place. Fashionable styles include late Renaissance, Mannerist, and Baroque architecture, with a sprinkling of Neoclassicism and touches of late-nineteenth-century eclecticism and Art Deco. What are we to learn about ourselves from the fascination with these models? There is, I believe, an obvious analogy between architects today and architects during the late Renaissance, when the natural evolution of building had been disrupted by an intellectual act: the adoption of a style, with its own formal building vocabulary, and the creation of the syntax of a culture. As happens in reaction to all arbitrary frameworks, sometimes imposed, sometimes voluntary, boredom gave birth to Mannerism—the willful playing of the game against the accepted rules.

I BELIEVE THAT POST MODERNISM HAS MERELY ABSORBED into its dogma current values in the worlds of art, fashion, and merchandising—the rise of narcissism, the hunger for novelty, and deep pessimism about the prospects for humanity that have descended upon us in the past decade.

This emphasis on trends began when Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson imported Modernism to America in their 1932 book, The International Style, managing to extract it from its political context. Modernism was treated as style, another trend, without the ideology that had given rise to it. The emphasis was on the visual images of modernity and not the social and political values that brought them about. This was consistent with the tradition of architectural education in America, where schools of architecture have generally been a part of the faculty of fine arts, not the faculty of engineering or urbanism, as is common in Europe.

The dichotomy between the flourishing of the visual arts in recent decades and the constant struggle of architects has frustrated architects. While “making it” was not always easy for a painter or sculptor, once support by critics and galleries was achieved—most often through great pains at self-promotion—an “anything goes” situation resulted. Artists were playing their own game. In collaboration with the critics, they were creating one school after another, one subculture after another, identifying themselves by “movements,” and establishing the market price. A delicate alliance among critic, artist, and merchandiser (the galleries) established the framework. Artists did not have to be socially useful, relevant, or politically conscious, nor did they have to deal with the impossible economic constraints of the era in order to achieve the gratification of self-expression.

It was perhaps inevitable that architects would adopt the methods of successful artists. It is no accident that the Post Modernists have their court critics: one could say that Vincent Scully, the Yale historian and critic, made Venturi, in the way that Clement Greenberg made Jackson Pollock. Architects began to confuse product (the built environment) with the means (the drawings produced for the purpose of building). Art galleries latched on to architects, discovering in their drawings a new market; architects reciprocated by treating their tools (drawings) as a marketable end in themselves. Surely the drawings of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier were as beautiful as anything produced by contemporary architects, but it would have been inconceivable for these men to treat them as anything but vehicles for achieving the built environment. The dangers of basing appreciation of architecture on drawings are obvious. The standard for work conceived and fixed on paper differs radically from the standard for work that must stand the test of being lived in and aging.

It is actually surprising that a culture in which clothing, cars, and almost all designed objects are subject to constant manipulation through arbitrary changes in fashion and style has not had an earlier impact on architecture. Architecture remained surprisingly pure during the early decades of this century, perhaps because of the ideological and political convictions of its advocates. But if Calvin Klein or Yves Saint Laurent can create a trademark, a name, that is based sometimes on an identifiable personal style and sometimes on clever promotion of a personal image, why shouldn’t architects?

Post Modernism is facilitated by the character of commercial life, but its deeper roots are in the decline of concern for the collective and the rise of obsessive concern with self and individuality, leading to a drastic imbalance between the private and public realms. The recent developments in art, architecture, and literature could not have taken place without focusing on the individual and his prerogatives. The artist’s and architect’s sense of social usefulness or plain usefulness, taken for granted through centuries of building and artistic activity, has now been replaced by a license to be arbitrary and introverted, and by a lessening of the burden to serve one’s fellow beings. This has been said many times about the visual arts. It is now possible to say the same for architecture.