Boston College, April 1997
Each age needs to redefine for itself what constitutes a meaningful architecture. In this age of accelerating change, we appear to need to engage in this exercise every couple of generations. Architecture, as is obvious to all, even non-architects, is once again in turmoil and transition. Therefore, it should not surprise us that architects have also been caught up in this anxious and confusing debate. However, I do not believe that as architects we need to defend ourselves so much with respect to issues of design as to understand what is happening in the world of architecture (and the arts in general) and to understand ourselves in relationship to the design trends manifested currently in the profession.
First, we must return to a fundamental question: What is Architecture? Architecture quite clearly is not merely building. Building is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. The distinction is largely a matter of intention and motives. Building aims solely at utility in a relatively narrow practical sense, whereas architecture aims to meet the total needs of man including intellectual, aesthetic and spiritual. I would like to advance an exaggerated claim, the theory of a highly regarded teacher of modem dance, Barbara Mettler, who boldly stated that in human culture there are only two "basic" and "root" arts.
The first is:
Dance-from which springs music, theater, epic, poetry and the
The other is:
Architecture -from which springs sculpture, painting and the visual arts.
Dance involves the giving of form and order to space through the art of body movement; while Architecture involves the giving of form and order to space through the art of building.
There is, I believe, some considerable element of truth in this claim. Some similar perception was probably the basis of Philip Johnson's purposely outrageous remark that "Architecture is a fine art and all the rest is propaganda."
Richard Meier in his lecture at Harvard in 1980 expressed very beautifully what architecture is:
"Architecture is vital and enduring because it contains us; it describes space, space we move through, exist in and use. I work with surface and volume, I manipulate forms in light, changes of scale and view, movement and status. My primary ordering principles have to do with a purity that derives, in part, from the inherent distinction between the man-made and the natural, a distinction that serves to reunite the two in a complementary relationship. I see man's intervention as an aesthetic organization of the environment. I seek to establish a coherent system of mutually dependent values, a harmonious relationship of parts. By this I mean a resolution of all the interlocking issues of forms, function, and fitness. Above all, there has to be a reciprocal relationship between the concept for a building and its physical manifestation."
Yet Architecture has never been a "pure" art. It has always been subject to limits, of economic resources, of technical means and materials, of setting, of social function and need. It was in this sense I believe that Grope asserted that Architecture was not its own justification.
In thinking or speaking about Architecture we must never lose sight of the fact that Architecture and architectural expression are a part of what the Philosophers Ernst Cassirer and Suzanne Langer call the symbolic midworld of language. The midworld of language, which includes mathematics, music, art, as well as the written word, mediates between the subject, you and I, and the otherwise unknowable objective worid. Architecture is therefore a highly developed symbol system and as in any symbol system, as Suzanne Langer points out in "Philosophy in a New Key", "The questions one asks are at least as important as the answers one expects." The importance of the nature of language, including Architectural language is that it sets limits to and frames the range and nature of the discourse, indeed limits what questions may be posed. Each age asks a series of questions focused on those issues or concepts central to and of greatest importance for that time and place. Ultimately, these questions become mooted or exhausted rather than definitively answered and new questions emerge signaling the advent of a new age. It is a kind of dialectic process and this brings us to today's debate between "Modernism" and Post-Modernism". Modernism arose as we know in the late 19th century as a reaction to the Beaux Arts movement and it asked a whole new set of architectural questions. Modernism emerged initially as a healthy, vigorous and apt critique of the Beaux Arts and historical revivalist movements. The battle raged through the 1920's and the 1930's both here and in Europe and could only be considered to be finally won by modernism in the 1950's. The consensus of shared belief, and modernism was never monolithic, began to dissolve even before the battle was won. At TAC, where I worked for 26 years, the first few with Walter Gropius, which was part of the cutting edge of Modernism in the United States and in the profession generally, the fruits of victory were short. Culture and its generative ideas are never static and the modernist consensus soon found itself, in turn, under attack. It was not long before the consensus shattered into many divergent directions and architectural dialects, if not languages. In hindsight, we can now see that, despite its vision, fresh concerns and vigor, Modernism, at least in many of its diverse manifestations, particularly in the hands of its most intellectual and doctrinaire practitioners, lost sight of or rejected some very important issues and aspects of architecture. These included history and historical reference, symbolism, the "street', respect for neighboring buildings, detail, color, complexity and drawing. The inevitable reaction, criticism of Modernism's excesses and limitations arose. Post-Modernism initially posed in essence a thoroughgoing, consistent and trenchant critique of Modernism. It is perhaps useful to view Post-Modernism's critique of modernism as analogous to Marxism's critique of Capitalism. Post-Modernism like Marxism framed a brilliant and incisive critique of it's historic predecessor, however, as a prescription for the future, both now appear to be severely flawed and not as useful or successful as originally believed. The values, issues and even language which frame the discourse for each movement are so radically opposed that is difficult to understand one in terms of the other and I think that this fact is the source of a good deal of our current confusion and the difficulties that have arisen in us individually as architects, and in the practice of architecture in general. This opposition in world view came home to me most powerfully when I attempted to list some of the differences, as I perceived them, between the two movements. As has been expressed so trenchantly, where the modern movement was idealistic in outlook and sensibility, the post-modern movement is heavily ironic and self-mocking, what in the Socratic dialogue was called 'the simulation of ignorance."
The modern movement was utopian in its vision of man and his ability to shape a better world. The post-modern movement in dramatic contrast is highly skeptical in its outlook. In fact, much of the discourse (not just architectural discourse since Post-Modernism is manifest in all the arts, particularly literature) is framed in the language of a literary theory referred to as "Deconstmctionism" formulated by the French literary critic and theorist, Jacques Derrida. In this theory all artistic artifacts whether a novel or a building are treated as "texts" to be analyzed and understood in terms of semiotics, that is as signs or systems of signs. One needs to understand the underlying philosophy of "Deconstructionism" in order to fully comprehend what is happening in the arts, including architecture, today. Derrida maintains that the meanings of a text can no longer be limited on one meaning, or even set of meanings, but have exploded. Meanings have rather become infinite and in becoming infinite lose their meaning. This is the unsettling anarchistic message that the Deconstructionists including architects like Peter Eisenmann leave with us. A set of contradictions and tensions are raised which cannot be resolved. The whole enterprise involved in the creative act for the artist and the corresponding critical act for the audience has come unglued. This is, I believe, an accurate reflection of an age which can no longer find its center. While a strong center of belief existed for "Modernism" there is no discernible center for "Post-Modernism" or "De-Constructivism" as it is now termed.
Modernism was socially committed, it was, engaged, whereas Post-Modernism is largely socially neutral, it is degage' - Modernism was very broadly focused whereas Post-Modernism is very narrowly focused. Post Modernism is largely concerned with the aesthetics of surface or skin, the "decorated box", Modernism, however, was concerned with the fundamental inner workings and structure of things. The modern movement was focused on the real, the humanistic and the practical. As we read these days in the architectural press there is a strong element of the surreal in Post-Modernist work; one of its professed aims is to be unsettling. Post Modernism and De-Constructivism does not aim to clarify or resolve. What was stressed most often in the modern movement was simplicity, in the post-modern movement what is striven for is complexity. Where the Modernists desired and worked for forms and solutions which were clear and unambiguous, the Post-Modernists search for ambiguity of form. The Modernists wanted to create an architecture which was rational (or, at least, rationalistic) while the Post-Modernists want to create an architecture which is highly formal or formalistic. The Modernists were at heart quite moral in their outlook, the Post-Modernists are, if anything, fairly hedonistic.
Now I do not know how this debate is to be resolved nor where the answers which will frame the next age of architecture will come from but unless and until we truly understand the fundamental philosophical opposition which underlies these to movements and the discussions which surround the struggle between them we will not be able to arrive at answers which can help us reshape the language of architecture.
A critique of a system, movement or institution may be accurate and valid but the system often retains considerable vitality and the capacity to change and row, accommodating much of the criticism in the process. This has proved true for Capitalism under the lash of the critique of Marxism. Capitalism, responding to many of the valid Marxist criticisms and moderating many of its excesses, continues it appears now in retrospect to have provided a better model for organizing a society than Marxism. More people derive more goods and benefits overall from a society structured along Capitalist lines than from one organized along Marxist ones. Each of us therefore has an obligation to search out individually, and collectively as a firm, what for us is valid and what is invalid in the Post-Modernist critique of Modernism. While we do not have to accept all aspects of the critique, we do need to determine which elements can be usefully incorporated in a rejuvenated "Modern" architecture and in what ways. We also need to make a judgement of what portions in the critique should be rejected, but be clear in our minds the reasons for rejecting them. Out of this individual and collective soul searching we will develop our own personal, fresh consensus from which we will need to articulate a new consensus for architecture. Architects should resume an active role in the architectural thinking of the day, but it will not be easy as we have never before experience such diversity of architectural thought within our midst. We as Architects today reflect the architectural and artistic culture that surrounds us. We share the same confusions and ambiguities that the rest of the culture experience. Why should we be exempt? Indeed we are not.
We can forge our new direction and rediscover our full potential in time. It will not be arrived at easily or soon. But a new consensus for architecture can emerge through the dialectic process. Out of the opposition and struggle of Modernism, the thesis, and Post-Modernism and De-Constructivism, the antithesis, a new synthesis will emerge. Architects can and must be part of that struggle and part of the new synthesis. Let me conclude with another quote from Meier's lecture:
"Finally, and again, mine is an attempt to find and redefine a sense of order, to understand, then, a relationship between what has been and what can be, to extract from our culture both what has been and what can be, to extract from our culture both the timeless and the topical.
This, to me, is the basis of style, the decision to include or exclude, choice, the final exercise of the individual will and intellect. In this way, my style is something that is born out of culture, and yet is profoundly connected with personal experience. But to gain any sense of my involvement, it is necessary to consult my work. Fundamentally, my meditations are on space, from, light and how to make them. My goal is presence, not illusion. I pursue it with unrelenting vigor. I believe it is the heart and soul of architecture."
As architects today at the end of the twentieth century, I believe steadfastness a refusal to be deflected from a pursuit of fundamentals while still retaining flexibility to absorb new and valid ideas, should be our guiding principle.