Tuesday, March 11, 2014 - 44°F
Gropius House, Lincoln, Massachusetts (1938)
Before there could be postmodernism, there had to be a modernism for it to rebel against.
Key players in the emergence of modernism included Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus School in Germany. The Bauhaus promoted rationality, functional forms, and simplicity in design – in stark contrast to the nostalgia and ornamentation of the Beaux Arts style. Later emigrating to the United States, Gropius’ pared-down style, known as International Modernism, was evident in his own home in Massachusetts.
Perhaps the most influential early modernist was Le Corbusier (the pseudonym for the Swiss-born architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris).
Le Corbusier’s theories about simple, functional space gave shape to his clean, white, rectilinear forms such as the Villa Savoye outside of Paris, an archetypal modernist home built in 1928.
Le Corbusier’s idea of the “Radiant City” revealed his utopian view of the built environment. He once said, “Space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep.”
Chicago Federal Center
Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a prominent proponent of the modernist style, came to the U.S. from Germany in 1937 and settled in Chicago. His Chicago Federal Center epitomizes the “less is more” aesthetic: strict geometry, a lack of ornamentation, and overt functionality.
In the middle of the 1960s, few critics were questioning the received orthodoxy of modernist theory. But Robert Venturi’s 1966 book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, served as an early manifesto against strict “black and white” modernism.
Calling for more “richness and ambiguity,” Venturi proposed that architects should consider "black and white and sometimes gray." Rebutting Mies, he declared, “Blatant simplification means bland architecture. Less is a bore."
In the coming years, Venturi would gain allies, but not before modernism’s champions and defenders put up a strong fight.
Participating in the “Conference of Architects for the Study of the Environment” (CASE) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York were architects Michael Graves, Peter Eisenman, Richard Meier, Charles Gwathmey, and John Hejduk – soon known as the “New York Five.”
Growing out of that conference, the book Five Architects set forth the group’s allegiance to serious modernist theories.
Architectural Forum, May 1973
In reaction to Five Architects, a critical essay titled “Five on Five” appeared in the May 1973 Architectural Forum, rejecting the “black and white” worldview of the New York Five – and the abstraction, formalism, and purity of modernist principles.
Summing up the position of the “Grays,” as they were known, Robert A.M. Stern later wrote, “‘Gray’ buildings have facades which tell stories. These facades are not the diaphanous veil of orthodox Modern architecture, nor are they the affirmation of deep structural secrets.” This was in opposition to the ideas of the “Whites,” as the modernists were called.
While the two groups were not completely polar in their views, the lively debate they fostered gained momentum and attracted media attention over the coming years (and may even have helped to establish some of them as future “starchitects”).
Author Tom Wolfe ventured into the debate with From Bauhaus to Our House, in which he denounced the lack of ornamentation in modern architecture and praised the work of architects such as Louis Sullivan. Wolfe lauded Venturi’s “apostasy” and criticized the abstraction and posturing within the architectural world.
Of the New York Five, Wolfe had this to say: “The work of the Whites you could tell at a glance. Their buildings were white … and baffling.”
Stepping away from his earlier work and effectively burning his modernist credentials, Michael Graves’ Portland Building boldly showed what was next: postmodernism, writ large. In this high-rise civic structure, his unorthodox use of color, texture, and classical allusion defied modernist principles – and provoked broad debate.
Architect Philip Johnson – a celebrated champion of modernism who had mentored Graves – joined the postmodern dialogue with his own bold and ironic statement. In his design for the AT&T (now Sony) building in New York, he placed an antique “Chippendale highboy” ornamental element atop a modern high-rise tower.
190 S. LaSalle
In 1987 in Chicago, Johnson’s 190 South LaSalle building continued his postmodern strategy of topping a modern office tower with a classical allusion (in this case, a gothic peaked roof). Some saw this “double coding” as powerful juxtaposition, while others decried the use of antiquarian elements.
Top row from left: Michael Graves, Cesar Pelli, Charles Gwathmey, Peter Eisenman. Bottom row from left: Frank Gehry, Charles Moore, Philip Johnson, Stanley Tigerman, Robert A.M. Stern
Philip Johnson, so often the arbiter of style and architectural theory, had championed modernism and postmodernism. But by 1988, Johnson was exploring new aesthetic frontiers, curating an exhibition of radical "deconstructivist" architecture at MOMA with avant-garde architects including Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry. He wrote: "There are many — and contradictory — trends in our quick-change generation. In architecture, strict-classicism, strict-modernism and all sorts of shades in between, are equally valid."