Ruins of Modernity: The Failure of Revolutionary Architecture in the Twentieth Century
A panel discussion organized by the Platypus Affiliated Society on February 7th, 2013 at New York University.
“Let us not deceive ourselves,” Victor Hugo once advised, in his iconic Hunchback of Notre Dame. “Architecture is dead, and will never come to life again; it is destroyed by the power of the printed book.” Both as a discipline and a profession, architecture lagged behind the other applied arts. Even when measures toward modernization were finally instituted, many of the most innovative, technically reproducible designs were hived off from the realm of architecture proper as mere works of “engineering.” Toward the beginning of the twentieth century, however, fresh currents of thought arose within the field to lend architecture a new lease on life. Avant-garde architects emulated developments that had been taking place in both the visual arts (Cubism, Futurism) and scientific management of labor (Taylorism, psychotechnics), advocating geometric simplicity and ergonomic efficiency in order to tear down the rigid barrier dividing art from life. Most of the militant members of the architectural avant-garde sought to match in aesthetics the historical dynamism the Industrial Revolution had introduced into society. Machine-art was born the moment that art pour l’art died. “Art is dead! Long live the machine-art of Tatlin!” announced the Dadaists George Grosz and John Heartfield in 1920.
The modernists’ project consisted in giving shape to an inseparable duality, wherein the role of architecture was deduced as simultaneously a reflection of modern society as well as an attempt to transform it. Amidst the tumult and chaos that shook European society from the Great War up through the Great Depression, revolutionary architects of all countries united in opposition to the crumbling order of bourgeois civilization, attaching themselves to radical political movements. Forced out of Europe by fascism and subsequently out of the USSR by Stalinism, the architectural avant-garde fled to North America. Following a second global conflagration — transposed into the postwar boom context of America with the GI Bill, Europe under the Marshall Plan, and Japan under McArthur — the modernists now reneged on their prior commitment to spur on social change. Abandoning what Colin Rowe had called “that mishmash of millennialistic illusions, chiliastic excitements, and quasi-Marxist fantasies,” they instead accommodated themselves to the planning agencies and bureaucratic superstructures of Fordism. “European modern architecture came to infiltrate the United States, largely purged of its ideological or societal content; where it became available, not as an evident manifestation or cause of socialism,” he wrote, “but rather as décor de la vie for Greenwich, Connecticut or as a suitable veneer for the corporate activities of enlightened capitalism.” Indeed, the International Style that premiered in 1932 at MoMA under Johnson and Hitchcock’s highly selective curatorial oversight had already been stripped down to its barest formal elements. Looking to revitalize revolutionary modernism, Reyner Banham thus declared in 1962: “Even when modern architecture seemed plunged in its worst confusions it could still summon up a burst of creative energy that gave the lie to the premature reports of its demise. Modern architecture is dead; long live modern architecture!”
Only a decade later, however, Charles Jencks calculated in his book on Post-Modern Architecture that it was possible “to date the death of Modern Architecture to a precise moment in time” (July 15, 1972 at 3:32 pm, with the detonation of Yamasaki’s much-maligned Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis). Today it is postmodernism that appears to be aging badly. But if postmodernism, which stood for “the end of the end” (Eisenman), is itself at an end, does this mean the end of “the end of the end”? Just another stop along the way in an endless cycle of endings? — Or might it portend the beginning of a modernist renaissance? This prospect could prove bleaker yet. “In architecture,” writes Owen Hatherley, addressing the issue of “post-postmodernism,” “typically postmodernist devices seem to have entered a terminal decline, as historical eclecticism and glib ironies have been replaced by rediscoveries of modernist forms — albeit emptied of political or theoretical content. But does this trend represent a break with postmodernism — or does it merely mark the arrival of the pseudomodernism of contemporary architecture?”
In light of these considerations, Platypus thus asks:
Where does architecture stand at present, in terms of its history?
Are we still — were we ever — postmodern?
What social and political tasks yet remain unfulfilled, carried over from the twentieth century, in a world scattered with the ruins of modernity?
Does “utopia’s ghost” (Martin), the specter of modernism, still haunt contemporary building?
How can architecture be responsibly practiced today?
Is revolutionary architecture even possible?
Peter Eisenman is design principal of Eisenman Architects in New York. His current projects include the City of Culture of Galicia in Spain; a master plan for Pozzuoli, Italy, and a residential condominium in Milan. His award-winning projects include the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin and the Wexner Center for the Visual Arts in Ohio. In 2010, he received the international Wolf Prize in Architecture, and in 2004 the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Architecture Biennale. He is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Among his many books are Written Into the Void: Selected Writings, 1990-2004 and Ten Canonical Buildings, 1950-2000, on the work of ten architects. He is also the Charles Gwathmey Professor in Practice at the Yale School of Architecture.
Reinhold Martin is Associate Professor of Architecture in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University, where he directs the PhD program in architecture and the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture. He is also a member of Columbia’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society and the Committee on Global Thought. Martin is a founding co-editor of the journal Grey Room and has published widely on the history and theory of modern and contemporary architecture. He is the author of The Organizational Complex: Architecture, Media, and Corporate Space (MIT Press, 2003), and Utopia’s Ghost: Architecture and Postmodernism, Again (Minnesota, 2010), as well as the co-author, with Kadambari Baxi, of Multi-National City: Architectural Itineraries (Actar, 2007). Currently, he is working on two books: a history of the nineteenth century American university as a media complex, and a study of the contemporary city at the intersection of aesthetics and politics.
Joan Ockman is Distinguished Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. Before this, she served as Director of the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University from 1994 to 2008 and was a member of the faculty of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation for over two decades. In addition to Columbia and Penn, she has also taught at Yale, Cornell, Graduate Center of City University of New York, and the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam. She began her career at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York, where she was an editor of the legendary Oppositions journal and was responsible for the Oppositions Books series. Her most recent book is Architecture School: Three Centuries of Educating Architects in North America. A twentieth-anniversary edition of her book Architecture Culture 1943-1968: A Documentary Anthology will appear in 2013.
Bernard Tschumi is widely recognized as one of today’s foremost architects. In 1983, he won the prestigious competition for the Parc de La Villette. Since then, he has designed buildings such as the new Acropolis Museum; Le Fresnoy National Studio for the Contemporary Arts; the Vacheron-Constantin Headquarters; The Richard E. Lindner Athletics Center at the University of Cincinnati; and architecture schools in Marne-la-Vallée, France and Miami, Florida. Tschumi’s many books include the three-part Event-Cities series; The Manhattan Transcripts; and Architecture and Disjunction. Tschumi was awarded France’s Grand Prix National d’Architecture in 1996 as well as numerous awards from the American Institute of Architects and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is an international fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in England and a member of the Collège International de Philosophie and the Académie d’Architecture in France.