Identities—What Are They Good For?   /   Summer 2018   /    Essays

The Flasher of the Arts

Witold Rybczynski

The Oculus, World Trade Center transportation hub, designed by Santiago Calatrava, Lower Manhattan; trav- elpix/Alamy Stock Photo.

Investigating architecture’s wrong turn.

In the past, most buildings, unless they were beach pavilions or garden follies, were designed to convey a sense of dignity and permanence. That is no longer the case. A recent apartment building appears to have been cleaved asunder by a seismic shift; a skyscraper twists and turns like a giant corkscrew, while another resembles a Jenga game in midplay. A boxy museum teeters precariously—whatever holds it up? A crystalline glass addition collides with an old building to the benefit of neither.11xReaders may recognize the buildings: David Adjaye’s Sugar Hill apartment building in Harlem; Santiago Calatrava’s Twisting Torso in Malmö, Sweden; Herzog & de Meuron’s 56 Leonard in Tribeca; Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston; and Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Architecture, once the staid Mother of the Arts, has become a lurid exhibitionist, the Flasher of the Arts.

To understand how this happened, it’s necessary to go back to the Europe of the 1920s. Architects, like other creative persons, had been shattered by the experience of the Great War; business as usual was out of the question. Change was in the air, most dramatically in the newly formed Soviet Union. Writers, playwrights, composers, and painters had already radically pushed the boundaries of their arts. Now it was the architects’ turn.

The main rationale for an architectural overhaul was that the Modern Age—always capitalized—demanded a modern way of building, “an image of its accelerated grimace,” as Ezra Pound put it. In truth, many of the defining characteristics of modern life, such as electrification, mass production, and mass communications, were products of the previous century. So were glass and reinforced-concrete buildings, prefabrication, and steel-framed skyscrapers.22xSheet glass was developed in 1832 and used to cover London’s Crystal Palace in 1851. François Coignet, a French industrialist, built an iron-reinforced concrete house in 1853; the first patent for steel-reinforced concrete was granted in 1877. In the 1870s, Gustave Eiffel built prefabricated metal buildings—houses, schools, and markets—in Africa and Latin America. The first steel-framed skyscraper was the Home Insurance Building in Chicago, designed by William Le Baron Jenney in 1884. Moreover, most of the new machines that avant-garde architects admired, such as dirigibles, ocean liners, flying boats, steam locomotives, and luxury touring cars, would be extinct in a few decades. Never mind. As Ludwig Mies van der Rohe proclaimed, “Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space.”33xQuoted in Alden Whitman, Mies van der Rohe obituary, New York Times, August, 19, 1969; Also, Philip C. Johnson, Mies van der Rohe (New York, NY: Museum of Modern Art, 1947). And what the epoch demanded, according to Mies and the other architectural tyros, was nothing less than a revolution.

Historically the most conservative of the arts, architecture was an unlikely candidate to carry the red banner of insurrection. Buildings cost a lot of money, and they were traditionally built by the establishment: the church, the aristocracy, the moneyed merchant class, and, most recently, industrialists—hardly a revolutionary group. Nor was the architectural profession generally marked by radicalism. A painter could test ideas in the studio, a writer could fill a notebook with new prose, but an architect experimented in public, and one failure could scuttle a career. As a result, the profession tended to be cautious: creative when the occasion demanded, but generally leaning toward the tried and true.

Architects used technology, but architecture was not a science. As that early Modernist gadfly, the Viennese architect Josef Frank, put it, “The formal rules of art have been preserved through tradition, even though their validity cannot be proven. For that reason, there can be no art without recourse to tradition.”44xJosef Frank, “Accidentism” (1958), trans. Christopher Long, Places (blog), February 2018, Since buildings lasted a long time, architects were surrounded by the achievements of their forebears, which meant that new buildings tended to derive from what came before. Of course, from time to time something novel and unexpected appeared. When the Abbot Suger introduced exotic pointed arches in the Basilica of Saint-Denis in the early twelfth century, the style that came to be known as Gothic swept ecclesiastical architecture across Europe. But such innovations were never total. Gothic cathedrals, for example, retained many of their Romanesque features: the nave-and-aisle transept invoking the Christian cross, bundles of columns supporting a stone ceiling, ribbed construction, stained glass. The Renaissance was another upheaval, with architects turning away from Gothic and, taking a cue from the other arts, looking to ancient Rome. Again, the change was not total; old forms did not disappear. Brunelleschi was the first architect to make a clear reference to classical antiquity, in the loggia of the Foundling Hospital in Florence, but when he built the great dome of Florence Cathedral, he gave it ribs and a medieval profile. In cities like Venice, buildings with pointed arches continued to be built, and “Venetian Gothic” remained a popular style until well into the fifteenth century.

But the impatient Modernist firebrands wanted wholesale change. Their suggestion that changing times required new solutions was not without merit. As the architect Ralph Adams Cram wrote in 1936, it would have been as foolish to look for historical models for garages, cinemas, and skyscrapers as it would have been to design “a Greek railroad train, a Byzantine motor car, a Gothic battleship or a Renaissance airplane.”55xRalph Adams Cram, My Life in Architecture (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1936), 267. Cram is not well remembered today, but he was probably the best-known American architect of the first third of the twentieth century—and, in 1926, the first architect to grace the cover of Time.66xA rare architectural monograph on the work of Cram is Ethan Anthony’s The Architecture of Ralph Adams Cram and His Office (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2007). He was the campus architect at Princeton, designed West Point and Rice University, and built scores of chapels, churches, and cathedrals nationwide, including the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Although he was a devoted—and devout—Gothicist, Cram recognized the need to accommodate new functions, and he argued that the principle of novelty cut both ways:

Just as I think it would be absurd to build a school of mechanical engineering or a chemical laboratory after the stylistic fashion of an Oxford college, or a gymnasium like a Medieval abbey, so I hold it is equally absurd and perfectly pointless and ungrammatical to couch a school of liberal arts, a library, or a college chapel in the terms of a garage, a department store, or a skyscraper office building.77xIbid., 274.

Cram’s reasoned argument fell on deaf ears. Revolutions demand simple slogans, not nuanced judgment, and implacable adherence to principles is needed to force wholesale change. The Modernists insisted that the new minimal style they advocated could—and should—be applied indiscriminately to all buildings. That meant white walls, horizontal windows, flat roofs, and buildings raised on stilts. This was christened the International Style, although it might as well have been called the Teutonic Style since so many of its leading lights were Germans.88xThe best-known of these being Peter Behrens, Bruno Taut, Hans Poelzig, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Hannes Meyer, Erich Mendelsohn, and Ernst May. The term “International Style” was coined by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson in 1932 for a Museum of Modern Art exhibition.

The International Style discarded moldings, decoration, and ornament—the entire apparatus of what, since the ancient Greeks, had constituted architecture. This was done in the name of modernization: After all, the argument went, functional machines such as ocean liners weren’t ornamented. In fact, the Art Deco interiors of the SS Normandie, realized under the supervision of the wonderfully named Roger-Henri Expert, an École des Beaux-Arts architect, were profusely decorated.99xThe Normandie was scrapped in 1946 after a fire. There have been many books about the ship, a recent one being John Maxtone-Graham’s Normandie: France’s Legendary Art Deco Ocean Liner (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2007). But Modernists were interested only in the vessel’s white-painted superstructure, whose ribbon windows and steep-pipe handrails they mimicked in their buildings.

Modernists considered ornament to be a wasteful indulgence, but ornament had long played an important role in building. On a mundane level, decorative patterns animated blank surfaces, and moldings concealed awkward junctions and transitions. A skilled architect could use ornament to lead the eye—or to arrest it. A delicate finial made a spire soar, whereas a swelling torus molding visually anchored a column to its base. Like the volume knob on a radio, ornament could be turned up or down: This is a fancy front door; that is a less fancy back door; over there is a plain service door. Ornament could also be iconographic. The sculpted bosses of the hammerhead beams in the grand dining hall of Princeton’s Graduate College, designed by Cram in 1913, portray university donors, each holding an object that symbolizes the source of his wealth; for instance, William Henry Procter of Procter & Gamble, after whom the hall is named, grasps a lab beaker. Cram included contemporary themes among the carved stone gargoyles of the college. The most famous of these, nicknamed “Joy Ride,” portrays a devil-may-care Princeton student driving with his bobbed-hair girlfriend, a squealing goose scuttling out from under the wheels of their convertible.

When Cram designed the University Chapel at Princeton in 1921, he used different ornament from what he had in the Graduate College. Even though the style of both buildings was Collegiate Gothic, the stained-glass iconography of the chapel was clearly religious. Like most architects, Cram followed the long-standing principle of architectural propriety: A building should suit its purpose not only in terms of functionality but also in terms of architectural expression. Modernism was different. Because ornament was done away with, such nuance was no longer possible. Henceforth, a window was simply a glass pane; a column was just a steel or concrete post, whether it was supporting the ceiling of a cathedral or a carport.

Less than thirty years after the completion of the Princeton chapel, Walter Gropius, one of the founding fathers of the International Style, designed Harvard’s Graduate Center, the first Modernist building at a major American university. Needless to say, it featured no gargoyles. Gropius even ridiculed the surrounding university buildings. “Not Gothic but Modern,” he wrote in the New York Times. “The student needs the real thing, not buildings in disguise.”1010xWalter A. Gropius, “Not Gothic but Modern for Our Colleges,” New York Times, October 23, 1949, 37. No one would describe the Graduate Center, with its plain brick—buff, not Harvard red—flat roofs, strip windows, and concrete posts, as wearing a historical disguise. Gropius, who taught at Harvard, claimed that his design continued the university’s tradition of academic quadrangles, but the Graduate Center’s utilitarian architecture, never popular with students, conjured up a very different image. As Martin Peretz, the controversial former owner and editor in chief of The New Republic, wrote in the pages of his publication, “I lived in one of the dorms for three weeks in my first year of graduate work. Gropius must have imitated an archetypal prison for this student housing[:] long corridors, cinder block, tiny rooms, windows that looked out on other windows, shower and bathroom for everyone on the floor, together.”1111xMartin Peretz, “A List of Buildings to Demolish in Cambridge, Massachusetts,” The New Republic, June 29, 2008, The Harvard alumni magazine seemed unsure how to describe the Graduate Center, calling it a “barracks, or rather garage.”1212xQuoted by Jill E. Pearlman in Inventing American Modernism: Joseph Hudnut, Walter Gropius, and the Bauhaus Legacy at Harvard (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2007), 215. That was the problem with the International Style. You couldn’t tell buildings apart. They tended to look the same, regardless of their function. When Mies van der Rohe designed the Illinois Institute of Technology campus in Chicago, for example, he used the same architectural language of steel, brick, and glass in the memorial chapel and the boiler plant.

You would not have guessed from Harvard’s Graduate Center that there was an American model for a modern architecture. I don’t mean Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work, despite its originality, was too idiosyncratic, too marginal. I am referring to mainstream architects of only a few decades earlier who designed buildings that were “of their time” without entirely discarding tradition. Cram’s old partner, Bertram Goodhue, was responsible for the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln, and the Los Angeles Central Library; Raymond Hood was the designer of some of the most memorable skyscrapers in Manhattan, including the McGraw-Hill Building in Midtown West, and the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center; and Paul Philippe Cret was architect of the memorable Folger Shakespeare Library and the Federal Reserve Bank Building in Washington, DC. These are only the best-known names; in addition, there were scores of regional talents such as John and Donald Parkinson (City Hall and Union Station in Los Angeles), Gilbert Stanley Underwood (Union Station in Omaha and the San Francisco Mint), and Joseph Finger (Houston City Hall). These architects, responsible for large public buildings—larger than anything the European Modernists were building at that time—included ornament, but with a light touch, sometimes using regional motifs. They also incorporated murals, bas-reliefs, and sculptural figures. When classical features such as columns and pilasters were included, these were generally simplified or “stripped.” Even Cram, in later projects such as the Doheny Memorial Library at the University of Southern California and the US Post Office and Courthouse in Boston, set aside his beloved Gothic in favor of a plainer, more abstract style. Decorative motifs were sometimes influenced by streamlining, which had become a part of everyday American life in decor, furniture, appliances, automobiles, and trains. (Cret actually designed streamlined Pullman sleeper cars for the Santa Fe’s Super Chief train.) Glamorous Art Deco was another influence. What is sometimes called Art Moderne was stylish, sophisticated, urbane—and urban. Unlike Modernism, whose products tended to look uncomfortable in urban surroundings, Art Moderne suited the fast-paced American city.

Architectural expertise is fragile—it can be lost in a single generation. That is precisely what happened to Art Moderne. During the two decades between the stock market crash and the end of World War II, building construction in the United States virtually ceased, with devastating effect on architectural firms. Commissions dried up, and scores of architects closed up shop or took early retirement. Young architects lost the opportunity to learn their craft by apprenticing with a master. The practice-based knowledge acquired over decades disappeared, as did the networks of craftsmen and artisans who contributed to these buildings. And many just left the scene: Goodhue and Hood died in their early fifties; Cram and Cret did not outlive World War II. Although Art Moderne buildings were cherished by the public—most are historic landmarks today—their architects were forgotten. Neither they nor their brand of evolutionary American Modernism influenced postwar building, which came largely under the sway of the International Style.

It is ironic that the United States adopted a European-inflected architectural style just at the height of the so-called American Century. Was this due to a lack of confidence? Turning to Europe does demonstrate what Tom Wolfe called a “colonial complex,” the American tendency to be unduly influenced by European culture and art.1313xThe term “colonial complex,” borrowed from the radical intellectual V.F. Calverton, is one of Tom Wolfe’s themes in From Bauhaus to Our House (New York, NY: Picador/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981), 7. This was especially so in architecture. For instance, the École des Beaux-Arts had long been a sort of finishing school for leading American architects, and the principal architecture programs were explicitly patterned on the French model. The Bauhaus likewise had a domestic impact, particularly after some of its members fled Nazi Germany and set up as the New Bauhaus in Chicago in 1937. So it was not unusual when Gropius was invited to teach at Harvard. His influence was soon felt, and in short order other American architecture schools adopted Modernist curricula.

Another factor was that the International Style was…international. After all, this was the era of the founding of the United Nations and such organizations as the International Monetary Fund and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The idea that the character of buildings would be national, let alone regional, didn’t fit the cosmopolitan times. The rugged national park lodges Underwood had designed in the 1920s—Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone and Ahwahnee in Yosemite—now appeared hopelessly parochial. So did the California history mural in the Los Angeles Library, and the fresco of local industries—piano making and meatpacking—in Cret’s Cincinnati Union Terminal.

Lastly, politics played a role. The Nazi and Fascist regimes—and later the Soviet Union—favored a stripped form of classical building (that bore some resemblance to the earlier Art Moderne), which bolstered the Modernists’ claim that their approach was antitotalitarian. This view was supported by liberal intellectuals and critics, who saw Modernism as left leaning, despite the fact that its faceless uniformity and standardization exhibited authoritarian tendencies. During the ensuing Cold War, “clean” and “transparent” modern buildings, unencumbered by history and bereft of traditional symbolism, seemed like the perfect expression of universal democracy. I write “seemed” because, as we have seen from the reactions to the Harvard Graduate Center, the built reality was somewhat different.

It is one of the history’s imponderables: What if the Depression and World War II had not interrupted the development of American architecture? What if the Art Moderne evolution had continued, and the Teutonic contingent had stayed in Europe? Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building, and the Empire State Building might have been the beginning of something, rather than its end.

The International Style turned out to be short-lived. Architects eventually found its uniformity too restrictive, but, lacking ornament, they could only differentiate buildings by making them, well, different. That was apparent in another Harvard building, built only a dozen years after the Graduate Center, in 1963—the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, designed by Le Corbusier. The reinforced-concrete building is undecorated, but it is the opposite of generic: Its kidney-shaped studios and curved ramp are without precedent, both in architecture generally and in Le Corbusier’s own work. “Form follows imagination” had replaced the Modernist mantra “Form follows function.” Because the Swiss-French architect was a founding father of the Modernist movement, his example gave other architects permission to explore increasingly unusual shapes. They accepted it gleefully.

Revolutions breed counterrevolutions, and architecture was no different. In 1966, Robert Venturi published Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, in which he questioned many of the underlying principles of freewheeling Modernism. “Less is a bore” he wrote cheekily, poking fun at Mies van der Rohe’s dictum “Less is more.”1414xRobert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York, NY: Museum of Modern Art, 1966), 17. Venturi criticized the tendency to make buildings into large sculptures, called for a return to applied decoration, and encouraged reconsideration of the Modernist proscription on figural decoration and historical references. Venturi’s book launched what would become known as Postmodernism. By the mid-1980s, the movement was in full swing. Michael Graves’s Humana Building in Louisville and James Stirling and Michael Wilford’s Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart are prominent examples. So is the Chippendale-topped AT&T Building in New York, designed by the chameleon-like Philip Johnson, who had been an early champion of the International Style.

Although Johnson claimed that the AT&T Building drew on the tradition of Manhattan skyscrapers, the cartoonish top was more a caricature than a serious design. Postmodernists seemed unsure exactly how far the counterrevolution should go, and while their buildings were definitely not conventionally Modernist, they weren’t really traditional either. The Postmodernists’ timid allusions to ornament had a tongue-in-cheek quality. Venturi would sometimes use classical columns, but he would change their proportions or, in the case of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London, would make the pilasters appear to fade into the wall. After barely a decade of such intellectual posturing, Postmodernism ran out of steam.1515xPostmodernism also ran out of clients, who proved resistant to spending money on what Moshe Safdie famously called “private jokes in public places.” Quoted in Rybczynski, “Northern Lights,” Moshe Safdie I (Victoria, Australia: Images Publishing, 2009), 30.. What was next? Not a return to the International Style—the austerity promoted by the early pioneers of Modernism no longer appealed. But the freedom to invent persisted, encouraged by a consumer culture that privileged novelty. The result has been buildings that question not only tradition but even stability, gravity, and structural logic. Hence the pirouetting skyscrapers and the crystalline monstrosities. “What are you rebelling against?” someone asks the character played by Marlon Brando in The Wild One. “Whadda ya got?” he answers. There’s a problem with nonstop rebellion. The unexpected can be a shock—the first time. Repeated over and over, it becomes a predictable nuisance—or worse, a bore.