New York Times
October 25, 2002
Castles in the Air Adorn Cities on Paper
By HERBERT MUSCHAMP
First there was God, then came history, now there is the survival of the fittest. I'm not prepared to argue that this sequence represents the Ascent of Man. I am simply trying to tell you how architecture became the inspired mess it is today. It isn't all Philip Johnson's fault. He had helpers. Major historical influences were at work. And you should know something about these unseen forces if you want to get the most out of "The Changing of the Avant-Garde," an important show of architectural drawings now on view at the Museum of Modern Art's temporary headquarters in Long Island City, Queens.
Organized by Terence Riley, chief curator of the Modern's department of architecture and design, the show focuses on conceptual projects from the 1960's and 70's, a period when architects were rapidly shedding the aesthetic restraints of the Modernism movement. Much more was going on here than the challenge to an architectural aesthetic, however. Western architects were gradually waking up to a momentous possibility. Never before, it seemed, had they been less constrained by authority, by an ideological scaffolding strong enough to stabilize the meaning and value of their forms.
It's no wonder that the period is memorable more for paper fantasies than for buildings. An architecture without authority risks becoming one without clients. And we are only just now learning how hard it is to rebuild public support for architecture that takes risks.
"The Changing of the Avant-Garde" honors the gift of the Howard Gilman Collection of Visionary Architectural Drawings, which was donated to the Modern two years ago. Pierre Apraxine, the collection's curator, has helped select work for the show, which is supplemented by drawings from the same period drawn from the Modern's archives.
Inevitably, this arrangement has produced a distorted view of the time. The show is far from encyclopedic. And it does not reckon with the Modern's own role during a period that witnessed the decline of the values the museum was partly founded to promote. Nonetheless, it hits enough high spots to establish the period's importance. What we see here are the roots of architecture's revival as an art of ideas.
Chronologically organized, the show begins with a selection of drawings of the Dymaxion House by Buckminster Fuller, the famed designer of the geodesic dome. Conceived in 1927, the house predates the period in question, but Fuller's influence did not become widespread until the emergence of the counterculture in the late 1960's and early 70's. In 1969, with the publication of the first Whole Earth Catalog, the "Bucky dome" became the counterculture's chief tribal totem.
Fuller's technologically attuned work came to represent an impersonal vernacular, an idealized solution to every need for human shelter. To a degree, his designs were an escape from architecture, and this urge to flee was one of the period's defining characteristics. "How much does your building weigh?'` Fuller would ask, as if the whole idea of architecture had become too weighty and cumbersome for Spaceship Earth.
Yona Friedman's Spatial City, a project of 1958-59, was even lighter than Fuller's domes. At least, it promised to release entire cities from gravitational force. A kind of horizontal Eiffel Tower, suspended over existing urban development, the project was both superstructure and infrastructure. It resembled a jungle gym on which temporary structures could disport themselves like gangly children. Power, water and other services would be contained inside the structural elements of the metal three-dimensional grid, with housing and other buildings inserted into the open spaces between them.
A ludic dimension had taken hold; the city came to be seen as a gigantic fun fair (a vision coming to frightening fruition in the theme-park styling that would grip urban planning decades later). Play and eroticism figured in many conceptual projects of the period, but none exercised greater influence than Cedric Price's Fun Palace, a project of 1959-61. The concept would find form eventually in 1977, with the completion of the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris.
The idea for the Fun Palace was supposedly first hatched (on 42nd Street) by Mr. Price and the theater director Joan Littlewood on a visit the two made to America that year. The design reflected the increasing whimsy of post-imperial Britain. Architecture? Fun? This was a clear philosophical departure from the Brutalist style associated with Britain's welfare state.
Part open university, part indoor amusement park, it was meant to be housed within an immense structure recognizably descended from Paxton's Crystal Palace. Permanently affixed building cranes enabled walls and floors to be constantly rearranged, like Tinkertoys. One sees this as a metaphor for the situation in which architects then found themselves, with no sturdy ideological scaffold on which to build.
In contrast to the material dimension of structure and function, fun implied a psychic state. The emotional content of buildings is one of several themes traced by the Modern's exhibition. Images of solitude, pleasure, fear and aggression haunt the designers' imaginations, much as reason and objectivity had preoccupied their elders.
Perhaps the show's overarching theme is architecture's changing relationship to the city. Instead of regarding the 19th-century industrial city as a technologically obsolescent problem, architects began to embrace it as a source of inspiration. The large-scale, comprehensive master plan gave way to the concept of the individual building as an urban intervention.
The megastructure — a single building housing a variety of uses — was the pivotal building type in this transition. In place of catastrophic urban renewal, the megastructure was, in effect, a city within a building. The Fun Palace is one example of this type. Another is Paul Rudolph's plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway. (The World Trade Center, in fact, was a variation of it, containing offices, transportation, shops, a hotel and public spaces within an organically conceived complex.) Paradoxically, by enlarging the scale of the individual building, architects were taking a step toward contracting the scale of their ambition over entire cities.
Aldo Rossi took the decisive step with the publication of his 1966 book, "The Architecture of the City," and with his designs for the Cemetery of San Cataldo in Modena, Italy (with Gianni Braghieri), which he began in 1971. The book's appeal was manifold. Rossi was an architect. Unlike Jane Jacobs, whose widely influential 1961 book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," also argued in favor of the microscale, Rossi wasn't handicapped by contempt for the Modernism movement. It is a melancholic book, one that views the city through de Chirico's Surrealist eye.
With Rossi, we reach the point at which the distinction between the modern and the traditional is no longer tenable. In his later work, Rossi conducted a somewhat Disneyfied flirtation with period styles. Initially, his sympathy for the past was quite different. It was a meditation on personal memory, a reflection on the ominously mute symbolism with which buildings are invested by children and other innocent observers. We give buildings theatrical meanings quite independent of the historical circumstances that produced them.
Memory is not the same as history. It is an internal, not an external authority. As such, it cannot support the transcendent ideological framework that history had been providing architecture for 400 years. Modernism itself was part of that framework. Modern architects simply took 19th-century historicism — the view that every epoch produces a distinctive architectural style — and projected it onto the 20th century. The death of Modernism, then, was the death of history, and the death of authority also, at least for the purposes of a democratic secular society. Until the Renaissance, after all, architecture had known no other authority but God.
In his design for the Modena cemetery, Rossi invokes religion to conduct a last rite for architecture itself. Derelict, imperfect, the city now becomes an authority by default. And we plunge deeply into the Surrealist terrain occupied by architecture today: the area of overlap between metaphor and material, between politics and the psyche.
A Surrealist would describe this terrain as the space between Freud and Marx. But particularly in American cities, it would be more accurate to call it the space of Darwin. For we are not used to dealing with buildings here on their intrinsic aesthetic or conceptual merits. We are used to dealing with power, and with the use of politics to confer prestige on work that may be entirely lacking in cultural value. This is the point at which the Museum of Modern Art's own role since the 1960's becomes germane to the show's subject.
As the leading arbiter of early-to-mid-20th-century architectural taste, the Modern inherited the École des Beaux-Arts's authority to confer historical stature. For the last 40 years, the museum's role has become fuzzier. In 1966 it courageously published Robert Venturi's "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture," the book that set American post-Modernism in motion. Conscientiously, the museum declined to support the reactionary work to which that movement ultimately led.
Yet the Modern has offered only intermittent support for contemporary work of substance. In the past decade, we have had major shows on Kahn, Wright, Aalto and Mies, while an entire generation of living architects (Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Alvaro Siza, Sir Richard Rogers) has been overlooked for full-scale retrospectives. We get power-brokering group shows of work by younger architects, while blazing talents like Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel and Thom Mayne fail to receive their full due. Developments in Asia and Latin America go largely untracked. No show has come close to this year's Venice Architecture Biennale in bringing the international architecture scene into panoramic focus. New York needs it more than Venice does.
I hope that the Modern gives up these Greatest Hits of Modernism, already. They've become the curatorial equivalent of post-Modernism's period recyclings. Contemporary architecture has regained public interest but still needs sustained institutional support to maintain momentum. That became clear earlier this year, when the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation tried to imprint ground zero with the hokey New Urbanist real estate formulas favored by Alexander Garvin, the agency's head of planning and design. "The Changing of the Avant-Garde" is a welcome undertaking, but it should also come as a cautionary tale about what happens when visionary architects start taking the future for granted.
I recognize that the Modern is now on hiatus. I've come to think of MoMA/Queens as MoMA/Spa. Perhaps they should hand out blue terry cloth robes, bottles of spring water and little bento boxes with low-calorie cuisine. We could all get really relaxed and comfortable.
Unfortunately, architecture is not on hiatus. Architecture is on a roll right now, but it is also feeling somewhat anxious, particularly in New York, a city where architecture is only beginning to reassert its own authority after years of displacement by retrograde real estate development. I hope it won't be too long before the Modern re-establishes its leadership in these changing times.