Architecture (Development of Signature Architecture in the 1980s)

By Kay, Jane Holtz | The Nation, January 1, 1990 | Go to article overview

Architecture (Development of Signature Architecture in the 1980s)


Kay, Jane Holtz, The Nation


ARCHITECTURE

If the 1980s--with their promotion of the superscale and their destruction of the human scale, with their pride of Trump (Donald) and their surfeit of Johnson (Philip), with their endorsement of privacy and their dissolution of community--were to have an architectural signature, it would be the emergence of "signature architecture."

Signature architecture was a mediagenic, mesomorphic form of design. It was a product in which cosmetics mattered most and design's first order was style and surface. It was architecture for The Art of the Deal. Developers, glowing in the bonfire of their own vanities, sought architecture as a selling tool. Architects-for-hire became more concerned about making a statement than planning a city.

Looking back from the cusp of the 1990s it is clear that style reigned and the star system dominated. As architects became celebrities, Michael Graves designed teapots and shoes. Social concerns--from saving energy to serving broader human needs--were as remote as the Woodstock Nation.

What can you make of a decade that went atwitter about a Chippendale top on a building (A.T.&T.'s) or whose prime patron was a pizza king (Thomas Monaghan of Domino's) who alternated between bolstering architects and undermining abortion clinics? It was a two-tier society, one architect told me: those who bought their homes before 1980 and those who didn't. The split went deeper. It was an age in which the homeless went without shelter while the house-entitled adorned their architecture with a bric-a-brac of excess. Consider the following as symbols (or as semiotic notations, in 1980s lingo):

[section] the white corporate palace designed for General Foods in Rye, New York, a vulgar dinosaur so eerie that it might have housed the Evil Empire;

[section] the pharaonic swimming pool by Robert A.M. Stern in a New Jersey mansion;

[section] the wraparound marble chambers from coast to coast--Trump Tower by Der Scutt is a conspicuous example--in an imperial style that looks like the forecourt where Julius Caesar was stabbed. Is it any wonder that a royalist, Prince Charles, became the populist of the 1980s in denouncing architecture's excess of commercial display?

Like everything else in Reagan's America, less was no longer more. Only more was more, and postmodernism was its name. The big bland box of modernism that assaulted the landscape wasn't reduced; it was simply covered with a candy-box muchness. There was, as Mae West put it, no such thing as too much of a good thing. You want classical? We'll give you classical. Palladian windows on ground-hugging mansions. Columns on cumbersome high-rises. You want ornament? We'll give you Steven Spielberg Egyptoid--sconces, pilasters and like debris out of central casting. Again: What kind of egotist could unblushingly shape a megalithic design to shadow Central Park?

A designer I know calls all this "seance architecture." By that she means copycat buildings that invoke the ghosts of the past. Buildings or places like Charles Moore's Piazza d'Italia in New Orleans, one of the best of the breed, replicate the bit parts of the past with some style. Most simply shoot their motifs full of steroids. Graves's addition to the Whitney or Philip Johnson's International Place in Boston inflate the form on their facades and diminish the true style, meaning and context of the buildings beside them. Given a real golden oldie--the Guggenheim, for instance, or Louis Kahn's Fort Worth museum--architects and the so-called cultural institutions that hired them tampered willy-nilly with the architectural past while giving it lip service. A historical America could only relate to bygone buildings as cover-up or irony.

"A society based on hope originates," architect Stanley Tigerman put it. "A society based on despair reiterates." When a talented designer like Kevin Roche felt compelled to replicate the work of nineteenth-century architect Cass Gilbert for his addition to New York's Jewish Museum, it was indeed time to wonder about the aesthetics of our age. …

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