Building in affluence

Architecture in North America since 1960
January 12, 1996

This review of the architectural debate in North America from 1960 to the present day offers a picture of cut and thrust which is fascinating not only in itself but also for certain extrinsic reasons. First, there is a dynamic peculiar to American theory and practice which not only drives every proposition at once to its extreme potentiality but also enjoys the affluence and the chutzpah to build its wilder speculations. Second, there are significant differences between the American and European perception of what the modern movement is about that occasionally call to mind G. B. Shaw's aphorism about "two nations divided by a common language". Third, for me the period in question exactly corresponds to my own engagement in the story, which began with the invitation to teach at Yale in the fall term of 1960.

The mood was crackling with optimism and energy and there was a stirring of polemic in the air that promised to trouble the cool tenor of Miesian order that had dominated the 1950s. The students reported the rumour of a "revolt against Mies" said to have been launched from a secret weekend brain-storming by, inter alia, Philip Johnson, Minoru Yamasaki, John Johansen, and Eero Saarinen, who had nailed to the mast the plaintive protest "the alphabet of architecture must be extended beyond A and B" (ie "beyond Mies"). The students wickedly dismissed this event as "the Birth of the Ballet School". For them the man to be respected was Louis Kahn whose new and austere art gallery currently housed the school of architecture: and there were mutterings of a rebel of another kind who was just emerging from under Kahn's shadow - Robert Venturi.

It was at this time that the newly elected president, John Kennedy, launched his Union Message on Housing and Community Development - a broad-front counter- attack which in the view of the authors of this book became the springboard for "an American Renaissance". They claim that "during the first five years of the 1960s, there was a constellation of buildings emerging in the United States, not only of exceptionally high quality and exceedingly innovative character, but also those of a germinal nature, whose impact would be felt in architectural thinking for years to come." Brave words.

Kahn's Richards Laboratories and Paul Rudolph's Art and Architecture Building at Yale were the pace-making monuments of the hour with Skidmore Owings & Merril's Hancock Tower in Chicago taking over as the tallest building in the world. At the other end of the scale Edward Barnes's Haystack Mountain School inspired a form of urbane vernacular. You could have been forgiven for believing that it was now all plain sailing under a blue sky.

But then in a suburb of Philadelphia and a tree-ringed field in Orinda, California two disturbingly unorthodox buildings appeared on the scene - Robert Venturi's house for his mother and Charles Moore's house for himself. Their highly charged historicist motifs challenged the esperanto of the "international style". The whiff of counter-reformation hung in the air. A heady, paradoxical conjunction of two novel but ostensibly contradictory conditions were brought together. On the one hand a pragmatic acceptance and accommodation of those awkward requirements that the "Ballet School" would simply ignore in the interests of stylistic simplification: on the other hand a blasphemous indulgence in historical reference pitched to the point of mannerism.

This change of mood was echoed by a parallel shift in the world of politics. In the words of the authors "the years of hope", now gave way to "the days of rape" - the energy crisis and Vietnam versus "flower power", the green issues, the critique of Jane Jacobs. A brief soul-searching led to the process known as "working with the community" which the lawyers quickly stitched up into a rather dogged scenario called "advocacy planning". But before long the resurgence of money for the few in the Reagan years was swiftly celebrated by such monuments to glitz as Philip Johnson's Garden Grove Community Church and Der Scutts's Trump Tower.

The principal differences between the American and the European perception of the nature of the modern movement are twofold. First, the question of "style". Established American architecture, contrary to common belief, is not grounded in the "native" tradition (so eloquently expounded by Lewis Mumford) of Horatio Greenough's "form follows function" and the "organic" architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright but instead in the values of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. That school assumes that architecture is a fine art ("serving only itself") and not the more classically correct concept of a practical art ("that serves an end other than itself"); within it the "high game" of style ruled supreme. And so it was the search for a new style that in 1932 motivated the famous exhibition mounted at the Museum of Modern Art by Philip Johnson and Russell Hitchcock and which propagated the debilitating interpretation of the new architecture in Europe as "the international style". This formalism threads its way throughout the narrative of this book, often comically. It is typified by Mario Gandelsonas who, in discussing Peter Eisenmann's "cardboard" architecture, argues that buildings are objects to "read" rather than to "use". He claims that the house in question constitutes "a number of formal operations on geometrical elements devoid of any external reference to function or to site". And when, in 1977, Arthur Drexler launched another propaganda exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art its subject was the Ecole des Beaux-Arts itself. He justified the theme by announcing darkly that "we would be well advised to reexamine our architectural pieties" - and all the trumpets sounded for him on every side. At a blow postmodernism had received its pedigree and justification.

And not without a little help from Venturi. For much as he claimed the authority of Aldo van Eyck and Alvar Aalto as precedent for his engagement with complexity and contradiction at the level of content (and this is what makes him most interesting to us) it is significant that the forms with which he clothed his thinking still exuded the whiff of Beaux-Arts rhetoric - like moth balls in old mink.

In Europe on the other hand the modern movement was perceived to be emancipatory and revolutionary, replete with ethical and political imperatives, offering a new way of life rather than a new style of architecture; and paradoxically much of the invention and vitality in the "heroic" springtime of the 1930s sprang from the work of architects in Holland and Germany who explicitly rejected art as a constructive influence upon their work - a paradigm as unbalanced in its way as the art for art's sake persuasion. The best work, however, retained the double allegiance of a practical art and it is significant that soon after the International Style Exhibition Alvar Aalto argued that formalism was beginning to paralyse essential development.

The second difference lies in the attitude to technology. Where the Europeans have idealised (and in "high tech" idolised) technology, the American view attributes no special importance to an expertise that it takes to be second nature and a taste for "progress" that it has long taken for granted. The authors suggest that American architects' lack of interest in "high tech" is grounded in a reading of Heidegger's The Question of Technology; I suggest that the reason lies not so much in philosophical revaluation as in overfamiliarity with the marvels of Cape Canaveral and (even more to the point for the professional practitioners) the growing record of architects taken to law for the failure of unproven technical components.

The range of work in this book is enormous, the selection catholic, the skill refreshing: but Kahn towers in significance over the rest of the field. The one profound innovator since Frank Lloyd Wright, Kahn had already in the early 1950s laid down a challenge to flowing cubist space by demanding the closure of discrete "rooms", space and structure conceived as one thing. He drew from his Beaux-Arts training a powerful sense of hierarchy whose order (not the classical Orders) he reinvented in terms of "served" and "servant" spaces: and, uniquely, he insisted upon including within that order the whole new realm of environmental control systems which other architects had simply shoe-horned out of sight - although these elements now frequently accounted for 50 per cent of the cost of a building. Nevertheless while he gave an architectural status to his shafts and ducts he insisted, unlike the advocates of "high tech", that this was a "servant", not a dominant, status. Like Cezanne, he stubbornly rethought his discipline from its very origins, unashamed of initial clumsiness, spurred on by a love of the old masters, yet obliged to make it new. The grandeur of his struggle is measured out by the distance between the first stumbling drawings and the final powerfully assured construction of the Richards Laboratories. And it was his questioning of what architecture "wanted to be" that provoked the fascinating gloss of his archetypal language into the argot of the American Main Street that puzzled and teased us in the work of Venturi and Moore.

In their conclusion to the book the authors state that "Concern for values . . . the preoccupation with the quality of technology, the environment, and community were at the center of the American functionalist paradigm that emerged in the writings of Horatio Greenough, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Lewis Mumford. As we move to the end of this century, we believe the Mumfordian 'multi-functionalist' paradigm continues to be as pertinent as ever." Insofar as Mumford spent his life fighting against everything that the Ecole des Beaux-Arts stood for and has been accordingly anathematised by almost all of those represented in this book this is a surprising but heartwarming reminder of that other submerged tradition within American culture.

There are two criticisms that could be levelled at this book. First, the excellent critical comment that accompanies the illustrations is often starved of the specific visual evidence that would substantiate what is claimed to be the case. It is infuriating to be told that Gehry's Weisman Art Museum contains "five of the most gorgeous galleries on earth" with no illustration of them. Second, this is not the only case in which we are denied any images of interior space: throughout the book external views outnumber interior views by over five to one. This imbalance is not insignificant. To anyone who believes that the unique province of architecture lies in the moulding of inhabited space and that you do not know a building until you have been inside it the preoccupation with architecture as sculpture may be apposite for the Parthenon but not for buildings that house the activities of man.

That said the general reader (and not just the specialist) cannot but enjoy the clear celebration in this book of the virtues and vices of that jolting American energy, generosity of spirit and courage to risk being silly that is not to be found elsewhere. Be warned however by the comment on Frank Gehry's own house: "this building is about the fear of boredom". It is not the only building in this book of which that can be said.

Colin St John Wilson, former professor of architecture, University of Cambridge, is architect of the British Library, St Pancras.

Architecture in North America since 1960

Author - Alexander Tzonis, Liana Lefaivre and Richard Diamond
ISBN - 0 500 3414 9
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £38.00
Pages - 312

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