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Dead Styles Standing

March 29, 2011

piazza1-1010x400-1450778119It’s not breaking news that the profession of architecture is changing. A generation ago, computers killed handcraft for most offices. This Great Recession has meant no or low work for many more offices than in the last few burst bubbles. Non-aesthetic realities always impact the creative approach and sensibilities of what architects design – and this period of change is no different.

Given the vast homogenizing influence of internet based mass media, it’s not surprising that the world of “design” is now as amorphous as the catch-all profession of “business.” Fashion, decorating, product design, graphic design even life-style design are blurring together in a confused cultural mash-up.

I am just old enough to have had a whiff of a time before the blurring of the lines – when Howard Roark was invented to capture an architect-centric professional posture that virtually mocked all other design disciplines. Not unlike Mad Men’s Don Draper, the now obvious absurdities of an exclusive white male world are obvious with 20-20 retrospection. As with other ossified sanctimonious cultural pomposities that were deconstructed back when my generation still had hair and sufficient collagen, the white male bastion of Ivy League influence that was the profession of architecture was more or less exploded in the 1960’s.

The positive part of that explosion is that other population groups outside of my own can actually participate in the design of buildings, enriching a process that was Y-chromosome Caucasian to the -nth degree. The other upside is that initially, a flood of popular culture and socially relevant factors crashed into the profession throughout the 60’s and 70’s that had a variety of positive aspects to it.

The fragile balance depicted in Mad Men where a Good Old Boy professional cadre was immersed in a field where creativity meant cash seems pretty analogous to the 1960’s architecture world. The resulting insurrections in architecture during the 1960’s, ‘70’s and ‘80’s now seem massive, energized, flawed and compellingly guileless when compared to the static settled law of High Modernist Sculpture that has been canon for the last 20 years.

Just like the feminist, civil rights, and environmental insurrections, the brief explosive opening up of a closed loop world of architecture was in response to glaring errors of excess and prejudice of the International Style heroism that was the world’s  dominant design paradigm since World War II.

That oxymoronic Modernist tradition was based on the credo that universality and newness trumped context and memory. It was clear-cutting “urban renewal” intended to cleanse our built environment of any visual elements that had any whiff of ornament, craft, or the human touch. The transcendent irony was that the cult of the new was led by the constituency of the Old Guard – highly educated, often independently wealthy or financed white males. Mid-century Modernism was settled law and that often meant tearing down history in favor of – what?

The book Defensible Space by Oscar Newman showed that when architects think about housing in aesthetic terms first and contextual terms last, people die. Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities and revealed the costs of scorched earth urban revisionism. When little New Haven had its worst neighborhood demoed and a super highway started only to be aborted, it was clear something had gone terribly wrong in how we thought about automobiles, cities, and  neighborhoods. When Penn Station was torn down in favor of a completely anonymous ensemble of office/arena/train station – effectively exchanging memories, history and craft for dense-packed, soulless economic benefit, it was obvious that the hypnotic suspension of disbelief to legitimize the “all progress is worth any cost” ethos as spun by Robert Moses, Le Corbusier himself and the 1964 World’s Fair in NYC had gone too far.

Breaking the trance because of its obvious blind spots and tone deaf presumptions led to a brief period where there ceased to be one stylistic “norm.” Since modern architectural education invented itself in the late 19th century, Neo-Classic/Beaux Arts aesthetics had a good run for about 50 years until sometime before WWII when Modernism became the default mechanism for most of the world and ultimately after WWII, it became the consensus of cool for America’s architectural community. Of course the reactionary Arts and Crafts Movement was a joyous interlude and Art Nouveau/Art Deco extended that decorous alternative, but those sidebars were soon rendered idiosyncratic by the unrelenting verdict of aesthetic correctness that was Modernism. Classicism has survived as an alternative architectural expression to this day but it too is more foil than threat to the dogma that dominates how “legitimate” buildings are designed.

But for a brief period of time from the mid ‘60s to the mid 80’s, that reign of stylistic hegemony was broken in ways those alternatives could never approach. These blurts of unrepressed questioning were perhaps the briefest architectural experiments in history. Like most radical departures these eruptions were brief, brilliant and had a closed ended half-life.

It takes so much effort and consensus to create buildings that going with some kind of presumably safe flow usually trumps truly new ideas. Even though the Industrial Revolution made every other built thing fundamentally change – bridges, our transportation system, how all buildings were built – it took a full 50 years to have that practical, non-aesthetic reality reveal that swaddling old cloth over new buildings was absurd. Modernism as a style has legitimacy because it is the natural extension of the way its components are rendered – by machines for universal use in any climate, culture or context.

As the social explosion of the 1960’s disconnected sex from procreation, race from class, power from gender, romantic love from one correct method of expression, architects began to sense that the smooth cruise of unquestioned Modernist expression was an easy answer that ignored a lot of interesting questions.

If architecture is indeed Goethe’s “frozen music” then perhaps the first rift in the 20th century Modernist Continuum had the sensibility of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony – which was conceived in the dominant classical mode, but used punctuating dissonance to take music to a new place. Just like Bach, Haydn and Handel, Mies, Corbusier and Wright and a host of other visionaries were the Jedi Knights of architecture – all using different aesthetic semantics but all on a mission to preserve a movement.  In the late 1950’s, there came a disturbance in The Force – the Modernism-on-steroids dubbed Brutalism. It was an aesthetic punctuation by blunt force trauma – where buildings flexed raw animated structural reverie. As rendered by Paul Rudolph and other Corbu disciples, this drunk-on-structure overkill offered up a visual dissonance born of architectural arrogance that unlike Beethoven’s breakthrough 3rd, killed itself. Buildings like Boston’s City Hall became jokes and patrons were not buying the hype.


This minor apostasy in the Modernist clubhouse was not a break, but akin to a conceptual tumor of uncontrolled cell growth within the body architecture – and was noisy enough that future discords could be composed.

Soon other architects felt the tingle of ‘60’s cultural reinvention (versus purification) to offer up architecture with an overlay of ideas and questions versus credos. Robert Venturi, Charles Moore, Michael Graves and others put architecture on a stage where its constituent parts could actually be held up for commentary. Rather than rejecting all references to tradition or ornament, those old timey perspectives seemed new again – but with an edge. Eclecticism was no longer just a decorator’s rationale – it became a design party. Yes, I’m speaking of Post-Modernism.

Post-Modernism is now a great embarrassment to the profession. About five years ago on the cover of a national magazine, Venturi himself disclaimed it as having any role in his career. In retrospect it now seems as if buildings got drunk, had a tattoo or piercing applied to cosmetically shock and assert rejection of parental authority (in this case Modernism). Ultimately, sobriety and gravity proved many of those irreverent spontaneous acts of personal expression to be, well, regrettable. Post Modernism’s obvious failures include an entire sky scraper in Boston that is wallpapered with Palladian windows (1 International Place by Philip Johnson), hundreds of Dryvit clad pastiches of pretense, many of which have rotted and fallen down (like Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italie before being reverentially restored), and millions of bad trim jobs trying to evoke some playful spirit of “wit, ornament and reverence.”

The next spontaneous eruption of irreverence was caused by an international economic geo-political power play – the Oil Crisis of the mid-‘70’s. America stubbed its economic toe on the fact that carbon-based energy was not under our control and after Three Mile Island, nuclear energy could not be effectively controlled. The first new techno-based aesthetic since Industrial Revolution, the “solar” frenzy of the 70’s and early 80’s had architect-derived iconic mechanisms of energy generation that simply did not work and agreements with oil producing Arab states brought energy prices down to where they didn’t have to. But for a brief decade or so, architects like Dave Sellars and Malcolm Wells inserted solar panels, Trombe walls and windmills into their designs to create an architecture of symbolic (but ultimately bogus) technology. Just like Po Mo’s cut crown trim and faux stucco, the evidence of this “movement” has been scoured off most of the built environment – with south facing roofs now naked and fogged south facing plate glass walls closed in. Of course “green”/sustainable religiosity was welled up a generation later, but it seems more moral than aesthetic; more well-crafted marketing than innocent expression.


Inherently self-justifying and innocent, these teapot tempests now seem almost quaint in their dated delusions. But insurgencies happen for a reason. Stultifying orthodox religiosity made fertile ground for Quakers, Shakers and EST and a monotheistic world of architecture veers into large-scale cultural irrelevancy when it ceases to value how buildings can be perceived and are used by non-architects. There is a whiff of déjà vu in the smoldering resentment of today’s settled law of aesthetic orthodoxy growing in a few voices in my profession.

For just about all contemporary architectural academia and journalism, ornament, context or humor belong in the “Architecture for Dummies” handbook.  Effectively, there is a closed system where only the comfort food of self-referencing Modernism is served for “legitimate” public and professional consumption. All other approaches are dismissed as junk food – perhaps appealing to the unwashed masses but clearly offering no abiding nourishment. In many ways, innocence has left the building. Kinda sounds like 1960…

Truth be told, those mini-movements in architectural expression did result in many dead buildings standing. The closed doo-loop criteria that many find objectionable in LEED grading has the scent of the internal justifications that led to the overreach of Brutalism, the arbitrariness of Po Mo and the pseudo science of Solar Architecture. Ironically it was Brutalism’s intoxicating hubris that led architects to a level of open-mindedness that some of us wistfully miss.

It is not lost on this Ivy educated white male that these failed insurgencies were perpetuated by a profession absurdly limited to my colleagues.  Architecture schools are now filled with human beings of every gender, color and pretense, and yet it seems that this celebration of human diversity speaks with one aesthetic voice – perhaps not plainsong chant, but clearly in tight harmony. Cults of aesthetic personalities like Calatrava’s and Gehry’s “sculptures as buildings” come and go but these are gifted designers, not movements. The supertanker of settled aesthetic law plows forward through all seas.

Looking in our rear-view mirror with a generation between us and their collapse, Brutalism, Post-Modernism and Solar Architecture all had innocently optimistic origins. Those bright blow-ups all wanted to do what the Sexual Revolution, Feminist Movement, Civil Rights movements were doing at the time – questioning authority by speaking truth to power. Those motivations got air time for about 20 years prior to the present consensus.

Unlike the length of hair that can be cut, irreverent music that can be turned off, art that can be ignored or clothing/drugs/language that can be rejected, the buildings of the architectural side of the ‘60’s are in our face until they are torn down. Although architects may be taking on the affects of fashion design, you cannot donate a gravely miscalculated building to Goodwill.

Today “sustainability” often offers up a cynical inoculation against the chronic perception of irrelevant elitism that is the flip side of cool. But cool has been, is, and will probably continue to be the currency of a large percentage of “cutting edge” aesthetics – and the desire to be leading the way was the essential motivator of those half-life revolutions 50 years ago.

Back then, the exuberant questioning zeitgeist of all the Mad Men preconceptions, prejudices and absurd inequities spilled over into architecture and gave it a brief window of cultural accessibility it has lacked since. Perhaps the present collapse of the construction industry will reactivate the validity of that questioning spirit. It is simplistic to simply pigeon hole these evolutions as “style wars.” Transparent self-serving aesthetic biases often create hissy fits of snarky put downs in all fine arts communities – architecture is no different. These insurrections had visual consequences, motivations and judgments. But those are all secondary to the broad professional attitude that either encourages exploration of expression or asserts “my way or the highway.” After a few exploratory jaunts, architecture has been on one highway for a generation.  I think it’s time to consult a GPS and think about some off ramps. Hope springs eternal.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary permalink
    March 31, 2011 1:18 pm

    Random stuff back at ya real quick (trying to make up for Brutalism of my 5-year-old):

    “Aesthetic correctness that was modernism” has really got me thinking about questions of hegemony–aesthetic & corporate hegemony in tandem– and the evolution of these intertwined hegemony(ies) not so much as deliberate intention to cleanse away the human touch– but as efforts to “elevate” humanity that have just gone bad and extreme. (Thinking of evolution of corporate hegemony as maybe starting with & embodied by Andrew Carnegie, for instance– brutal & eerily “efficient” in many respects and yet he was the late 19th-early 20th century’s Mr. Arts-n-Philanthropy– intent on “elevating” the human race and sensibility through the arts & libraries, etc. . . . and then a few decades later you get these ugly weird extremes–say, in Brutalism– monolithic expressions that are almost caricatures of both 1) the labor-and-people-squashing let-’em-eat-steel mentality of evolving corporate hegemony *and* 2) corporate ideologues’ professed intents to somehow better humanity through aesthetic/spiritual/intellectual elevation. (In High Modernism has spiritual/human elevation evolved naturally into its dark twin of spiritual/human indifference? Or has a mutation occurred? Maybe this gets into the church architecture question . . . ) W/regard to High Modernism I’m not sure cleansing the human touch was intended– but maybe rather the result of supposedly good intentions for elevating the “common man” gone bad in a culture where aesthetic hegemony is tied to corporate hegemony & the subjection and exploitation of labor.

    Would love to see some specific examples (photos?) of High Modernism’s “hegemonic” architectural aspects. (Will your audience need these examples, or is it just me because I’m an architectural ignoramus?) Exactly which structural & aesthetic practices were *hegemonic*– ideological, unquestioned– & how might these aesthetic components reflect the prevailing corporate hegemony/ideology– and/or supposed “democratic” ideology? They’re just so intertwined. (Too much for a talk, though?– just looking for a few concrete examples– pun intended.) Also would be great to see examples of those radical departures/eruptions that resisted & questioned High Modernism. Will there be slides at your talk? (But I anticipate your next article on “interesting questions” will get to these?) And are these departures/eruptions from High Modernism truly departures, or rather are they (or some of them) evolutions of that aesthetic? *And,* if some of these departures are indeed evolutions, are they implicated in perpetuating the very same corporate-entrenched hegemony (at least in some ways) that they claim to resist?

    Side question: W/regard to Brutalism, in what ways is it a departure/(sidebar?) from High Modernism? Or is it a quintessential expression of High Modernism? (Non-architectural minds want to know. Or just my mind, at least.)

    Note: Love Mad Men. Only drama I watch.

    Okay, that’s all. Back to the dishes and laundry.


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