American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader

By Keith L. Eggener | Go to book overview

Part 5
Shifting scenes: modernism and postmodernism

After World War II, the pre-war trickle of International Style modern architecture in the US burst into the mainstream. Corporations built gleaming new minimalist factories and office towers; modernists designed airports, schools, hospitals, hotels, churches, museums, concert halls, and government buildings. Yet, in the domestic sphere—however enthusiastically they embraced modern technology and convenience, and the cost savings brought on by mass production and distribution—most Americans continued to favor more traditional design approaches. It was, for the most part, the unconventional client who obtained for him or herself an unconventional house.

Two such unconventional clients are at the center of Alice T. Friedman’s comparative essay. Drawing on reception aesthetics, feminist theory, and queer studies, Friedman presents a cultural and social history of Mies van der Rohe’s house for Edith Farnsworth and Philip Johnson’s own Glass House. Friedman probes the often-fraught realm of architect-client relations and the persistence in American architecture of traditional notions of family, gender, morality, and domesticity. On this last score her article provides an especially productive comparison with Gwendolyn Wright’s earlier piece on nineteenth-century cottage design.

In another sort of comparative study, Joan Ockman considers the design choices made by more conventional post-war clients. The “symbiotic social relationship” between the public-masculine-productive-modern sphere of downtown (as represented by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill’s Lever House) and the private-feminine-consumptive-traditional one of suburbia (as in the case of Levittown) were, in fact, two sides of the same capitalist coin. They differed mainly in the image they projected—and this in a time and a place when image was becoming a paramount social and economic concern. Ockman ends by arguing that with the basis of modern architecture shifting in this period from one of social idealism to image—“architecture as a system of arbitrary signs … design [used for] purposes of ‘corporate identity’ and ‘marketing strategy’”—we observe the transition from modernity to postmodernity.

While modernist-style housing might not have been the first choice of most Americans, in post-war public housing projects such as St Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe, it became the reality for thousands of the poorest and most powerless members of society. By the time Pruitt-Igoe was demolished in the 1970s, it had become a symbol for the presumptive failure and demise of modern architecture, a key marker of postmodernity’s emergence. Yet, as Katharine G. Bristol shows in her look at Pruitt-Igoe’s critical reception, contrary

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