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Architecture and the New Package Style

TODAY, some 20 years after the apparent unlamented demise of Technocracy, that doctrine is only just coming into its own—in our architecture. Architects, in collaboration with numerous home owners, businesses and universities (not to mention the U N), are producing numberless permanent monuments to the theory. Harvard University’s Graduate Student Dormitory, Illinois Tech’s Campus, Lever Brothers New York headquarters, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s new auditorium are only our premiere examples. Nearly all modern, and, oddly enough, many traditional houses, also exhibit symptoms of the same ideological disease.

In retrospect, it seems inevitable that technocratic doctrine should have swept the building business. Science and engineering pervade every aspect of our lives. Their prestige is supreme. In such an age—so the theory goes—our economic resources, and thus our entire society, should be controlled by scientists and engineers. Architects as a group are particularly sensitive to the charm of such notions. They are, in part, technicians. If engineering techniques lead to control, they want to be led in that direction too, along with their purer, brethren. Americans tend to derogate the element ART in architecture. Esthetic values are immeasurable, and argument about them lead to undignified rhubarbs. Livability is a vastly complex problem, also involving highly imponderable factors. To be caught floundering in such realms is to have to admit that one’s vocation is out of step with the times—it is to lose face. Why not, then, limit the criteria for design to objective, technical provable tests?

This attitude might result in nothing more than a serious limitation were it not for the fact that architecture inevitably mirrors the attitudes on which it is based. The architect and client bent on achieving a “scientific” architecture badly want it to look—obviously—that way. This characteristic look is imparted by means of artistic, and therefore irrational devices and, as soon as they are employed, the whole concept collapses. The average technocratic architect uses artistic means to achieve a pseudo-scientific look, and pseudo-scientific thinking to rationalize the resulting lapses from common sense.

The most interesting current example of the scientific approach is undoubtedly MIT’s new auditorium. The building’s envelope is a triangular segment of a sphere, supported at ground level on three points. This form is as arbitrary as it is startling. The architects quite consciously excluded the ability to hear as a factor influencing the building’s shape. To be able to see was as much utility as the spherical segment had to offer. The acoustic properties of the hall were then approached as a separate engineering problem, to be solved in such secondary terms as absorptive veneers, baffles and reflectors—all elements essentially draped within the basic structure. In such cases the acoustic engineer (a physicist and thus a true scientist) becomes, in every sense, an architect. He must not only fix it, as he has always done. He must be highly creative, if the building is not to fall esthetically as well as in its primary purpose. Where this approach is followed consistently, all of those problems which can be met by the engineer are set aside for separate solution, thus reducing to a minimum the number of criteria the envelope must satisfy. This might be called fracturing, as opposed to the classical architectural endeavor to synthesize.

To fracture implies either ultimate faith in and complete acceptance of engineering, or a new situation so complex that the synthesizing method no longer works. In this particular case the building’s design is such that the problems, and the mechanisms used to solve, them are, in a sense, advertised. They have been exposed rather than, as is usual, absorbed. The effect is fascinating in the extreme. One can see, figuratively, the wheels going around, the gears meshing, the pistons pumping—a great display of extraordinary technical skill and ingenuity. Not the least factor in the building’s fascination is the suspicion that all of this bother might have been avoided. How much of it, one wonders, is made necessary by the original arbitrary choice of an envelope? And, in its turn, how defensible is this shape, from the standpoint of the human uses which are the real functions a building is designed to serve? The ability to hear is the essence of an auditorium. A shape which fails to further that ability, and to express its acoustic intent, would seem to be merely a package, not architecture. The MIT auditorium is so brilliant an example of the technocratic approach that it transcends the doctrine. It is architecture. Because of this, perhaps, it excellently exemplifies the style’s characteristics. A building’s form is first very arbitrary and very clear. Its functions are then, more or less ingeniously, stuffed inside that envelope. And, finally, the resulting somewhat unsatisfactory spaces are ameliorated by technical means. The UN Secretariat, with its west facing wall of heat-reflecting glass and huge air-conditioning load is such an example, as are the glass boxes which serve variously as offices, libraries, laboratories and class rooms at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Building in this guise presents very real technical, financial, human and esthetic hazards. It is not safe and sound in the sense that an imitation of the Parthenon appears to be. Why, then, has it been so largely accepted? One reason surely lies in the fact that while the technocratic style is a product of specifically architectural imagination, its doctrinal overtones are generally accepted by engineers and businessmen. Where science is equated with control, each example of the technocratic style is a symbol of its owner’s participation in that control. The institutes of technology are expressing their real leadership in science and engineering. The fact that they are content with a pseudo-scientific device is not surprising. For the past hundred years, our culture has taken very little stock of architecture. As a group, engineers are architects’ most famously unsympathetic clients. The engineers and engineering-oriented businessmen who commission such buildings are obviously responding to their technicality, under the impression, perhaps, that they are experiencing a true architectural expression. But while these reasons for the style’s success are probably the fundamental ones, they do not make anyone the richer. The practical utility of the technocratic approach is in its publicity value, with all this entails in terms of prestige, and in the ability to raise funds, sell Soap or attract brilliant students. The MIT auditorium has been the sensation of the architectural profession since the day it was announced. It will surely be the sensation of the newspaper and magazine world now that it is finished. Like the trylon and perisphere of the late New York World’s Fair, it is ideally suited to function as a trade mark.

Because publicity and prestige are so important, management has come to look upon its buildings not only as shelter, but also as managerial tools for the achievement of these benefits. The technocratic style is closely adapted to this function. It is new, startling, and dearly connected with the sources of power. As such it is far more appropriate to the general purposes of management than the classical revival styles, which the robber barons of the past century had perforce to be content with. As this function is more and more evident, the living functions become less and less important. Thus inadequacies in livability are tolerated which would heretofore have been considered scandalous. The technocrat in building must toe a very fine line. The non-functionalism and blatant phallic symbolism of the trylon and perisphere must be avoided. On the other hand, his “functional” building must not fail to communicate an exciting and easily understood message.

This puts a demand on the technocratic style to be fully visible, in the shortest possible length of time, with the least possible amount of effort. There must be no wondering about what’s around the corner. There must be no question about what the next room is like. There must be no diminution with night, or weather, or age. The style must do for architecture what the Reader’s Digest does for literature. The message—that this is a scientific building, for a leader of science, in a scientific age, must be absolutely obvious. An architecture which solved a variety of living problems in a variety of ways would not be so recognizable. It would be, in fact, scientific, or the architectural equivalent thereof, and would thus involve time, effort and sophistication in order to be appreciated.

In order to perform adequately as symbolic shorthand, the technocratic style must limit itself to absolutely clear, simple and pristine shapes. Thus the universally used abstract forms which, from no matter what angle they are seen, leave one in no doubt as to their whole development. Startling shapes are also of tremendous value, as long as they are simple enough to be grasped instantly. The Greeks, who endlessly refined the temple form, or the New Englanders who teased the salt box, were fascinated by detail and content with their standardized envelope. The technocrat reverses these fields of interest. His details tend to be standardized, while he must search endlessly for novelty in the total envelope. By great good luck all of Euclid is at his disposal—each form well known to every high school graduate, each as recognizable as a symbol of mathematics, geometry, science and technology as the words here used to symbolize them. Between the helical ramps of the much publicized Guggenheim Museum and the tetrahedrons of the equally well publicized Dymaxion domes, there are an almost unlimited series of shapes, all with the right message already built in.

The Euclidian forms are more expressive of power as they are physically larger. But regardless of their absolute size, they are intrinsically appropriate to die requirements of big and scientific business, research and education. Where a house is the question, they are somewhat pretentious. Since the Victorian age it has been considered undue conspicuousness of consumption to force the scale of houses. Extreme simplicity is also pretentious. The absolute necessity to co-operate, typical of complex business, research and educational enterprises, places a new burden on the individual to behave “other directedly,” i.e. to submerge himself in his group. It is becoming increasingly difficult to persuade most house clients that the slightest variation from the modern house formula is anything but an admission of ignorance—than which nothing could he more demeaning. The current house must avoid suggesting personal power, predatory predilections or a willingness to deviate. Its function is to suggest the fact that its owners belong to or wish to associate themselves with that group closest to the matrix of technology.

Standardization’s essential to the symbolic utility of a style. If it were always in flux, if new kinds of houses were mushrooming everywhere, no one would know what they meant, or more immediately, what kind of people lived in them. On the other hand science, in its constant activity “at the frontiers of knowledge,” is by definition avant garde. Thus the technocratic style must produce a uniform product, which at the same time appears to be very new and fresh and forward looking. These conflicting requirements are satisfied by means of a receipt which allows a wide variety of form, while maintaining an absolutely uniform look. Each of its standard ingredients, the glass wall for example, must always be present. It matters not whether the glass faces the street, or the west, as long as it is there. It is a symbol, not a utility. Thus modern in Louisiana and modern in Vermont are indistinguishable—a degree of standardization which even the immensely popular Greek Revival managed to avoid, for the best technical reasons.

The technocratic style so well fulfills the status and prestige functions demanded of our buildings that it will surely be with us for a long time. It could not, with any suddenness, be abandoned in favor of the classic, dulcet, but difficult art of architecture. For it is not architecture. It is a carrying over into building of industrial design—of the same techniques and goals which produce breakfast food cartons, automobiles, kitchen appliances and radios. It is packaging. The acceptance of packaging is so total that one wonders whether that old “art or science of building for urban use” can survive at all. How long will the remaining architects be able to sell their wares? On the evidence of the East Coast alone, their days are numbered. The technocratic sweep is virtually complete. The West Coast has not only not yet succumbed—it appears to be a stronghold for die-hards. The Ford Foundation Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Palo Alto, for example, is as humane as Illinois Tech is mechanistic. The geographic distance separating the two groups of buildings seems minute in comparison to their differences of feeling.

The susceptibility of the East to technocratic doctrine would seem to be due, in some part, to its European orientation. The first examples of the style were in German, French and Dutch Functionalism. Its most famous professional exponent is Le Corbusier. The great European architects who settled in the East just before World War II were not only technocratic in approach, they were well organized, highly publicized and well connected modernism, which having suffered a sea change became our package style, captured the imagination of the architectural and dream-house press. The architects themselves captured the principal Eastern architectural schools. The movement was not only physically located on the East Coast. It could only, in its early stages, have found sustenance in the peculiar, in-the-know, intellectual, and architecturally devitalized climate of the East. The West Coast was protected by distance and by the fact that it had already germinated a distinct new style of its own. Just as, 50 years ago, Chicago was the locus of our most dynamic architecture, so the San Francisco Bay region is in our day.

While Technocracy has swept the East, the historic balance between real and pseudo architecture is not thereby altered. The switch to packaging is not a switch from architecture to non-architecture. It is a switch from the non-architecture which was the nostalgic romanticism of the 1920s to the non-architecture which will be known, perhaps, as the futuristic romanticism of the 1950s. Nothing has been lost that was not lost long, long ago. And, as the strengths and weaknesses of nostalgia influenced our great contemporary architects—Sullivan, Wright, Wurster, Harriss—so the strengths and weaknesses of futurism will surely affect the next group of architects able to face the present.

Robert Woods Kennedy, a Cambridge architect, is the author of  The House and the Art of its Design.

This article appeared in the April 4, 1955 issue of the magazine.