"All Sail, No Anchor": Architecture after Modernism

By Lewis, Michael J. | New Criterion, December 2003 | Go to article overview

"All Sail, No Anchor": Architecture after Modernism


Lewis, Michael J., New Criterion


When architecture gets a hall of fame, it needs to find a niche for a certain amiable rogue I will refer to as Palladio of the Wastepaper Basket. He made his mark during the 1960s at Yale's school of architecture. There it is the monthly task of students to design a hypothetical building, for which they make a model out of cardboard and foam core in a notoriously time-consuming operation. The process culminates in the crit, the stressful and often prickly review session in which visiting critics inspect the models and question the students, unfailingly finding the weak points of both. It is often the case that a verbally nimble student makes a better impression than an inarticulate designer, even one with a better design.

Our Palladio of the Wastepaper Basket found it more congenial to talk than cut cardboard. He prowled the halls of the architecture school at night, ransacking the trash for old models that had been discarded by their makers when the concept failed to stick. These he dusted off and submitted as his own work, often for a different class and a different assignment. A model of a circular drive-in restaurant might do duty as a church, for example, or--shifting the scale--a one-room beach house. Students watched their jetsam float back into the classroom but no one took it amiss. It seemed to fit the anarchic spirit of the times. But it also fits the spirit of our time, perhaps in a deeper way, when the words that fly around architecture seem fundamentally independent of it, and have precious little to do with its vital essence.

Fifty years ago there was no such split: architecture and the words written about it stood in harmonious concord. This is seldom true in art, where theory and practice normally race wildly after one another. But modern architecture reconciled the opposites of book and building to an astonishing degree and achieved a surpassing programmatic unity. Modernism's founding figures, especially Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, were themselves theorists, and both wrote and designed. And the principles carefully spelled out in Le Corbusier's Vers une architecture (1923)--the open plan, the elimination of ornament, the rational use of modern materials--lent themselves to programmatic abstraction in a way that those of neoclassicism or the Baroque could not. This was more than mere intellectual consistency. It was the broad and comprehensive unity of the Modern Movement itself, of which architecture was but one lobe, and in which painting and sculpture, music and poetry aspired to the same radical emancipation from traditional structures of form and authority.

We take for granted the conquest of America by this high modernism, as something that was in the course of things inevitable, but in many ways it was quite alien to the American experience. A man of the 1920s would have scoffed at the notion that America needed a radical modernism, for America already was modern. Jazz, cinema, the radio (a national craze since 1925), and the affordable automobile were all quintessentially modern phenomena. So was the fanciful Art Deco skyscraper: the Chrysler Building with its winged chrome sentinels or the Empire State Building, whose soaring spire was to be a mooring mast for zeppelins, yet another modern phenomenon.

But this American modernism was organic rather than programmatic, and was accomplished without benefit of theory and manifesto; it was modernism without program. Its achievements were made possible by modern engineering and science, manufactured by the modern assembly line, and disseminated through mass-marketing (likewise modern), without central coordination. Its most striking aspect was its unpremeditated, even inadvertent character. Some of its accomplishments were not even the product of conscious thought, let alone theory. For example, the new skyscrapers: Prior to 1916, skyscrapers were permitted to rise without limit, to blacken the streets below and to cast their neighbors to the north into permanent shadow. …

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