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The Death of the Moderns

Modern architecture died on April 21, 1972. Few architects noticed. The public did not care. No one mourned. It was never popular.

The end was not unexpected. The International Style—as the architecture conceived by Walter Gropius at the Bauhaus in Weimar and by Le Corbusier in his atelier in Paris, came to be known—had long been feverish, erratic and contradictory. There had been a lot of doctoring. But no one got at the basic affliction, which was that Modern architecture is an abstract art—an abstraction that failed to meet practical human needs.

This affliction caused the authorities in St. Louis, that April morning five years ago, to do the only thing left to do with the modern highrise slabs of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project. They blew them up. With dynamite. The first of the 33 identical human filing cabinets collapsed in 20 seconds flat.

Pruitt-Igoe, much praised when it was built in 1957, was designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who later gave us New York City’s 100-story, twintowered World Trade Center. It was inspired by Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse. a concept proposed in the early ‘20s which was to lift people out of the misery of crowded streets and tenaments and stack them in widely spaced apartment towers. The towers were to be planted in beautiful parks and the parks were to be traversed by high speed freeways. The Parisians who saw Le Corbusier’s exhibit angrily ridiculed the proposal to plow up their city and turn it into a park studded with skyscrapers. City planners all over the world adopted the idea. It is the essence of International Style urbanism or, rather, antiurbanism, and came with an architecture to match.

The Ville Radieuse scheme has some plausibility. Like most revolutions, the architectural revolution of the 1920s was more concerned with destroying the old order than with creating a new one. The modern avant-garde was revolted by the slums and squalor of the industrial city, all smothered, as the avant-garde saw it, in hypocritical, bourgeois Victorian gimcrackery. The Moderns wanted people to live high up in sunshine and fresh air. They wanted “honest” structures witfiout ornament. And they were possessed by a giddy idolatry of machinery and the promise of what mass production might produce for the masses.

In the machine age, Le Corbusier declared in 1923 in his tract Vers Une Architecture, “the human animal stands breathless and panting before a tool that he cannot take hold of. Progress appears to him as hateful as it is praiseworthy. All is confusion within his mind. He feels himself to be the slave of a frantic state of things and experiences no sense of liberation or comfort...”

Calm yourself, human animal, Le Corbusier said in effect. A new architecture will build a bridge to progress for you. We will build a better world for all mankind, particularly the working class. We will—and to this day architects like to use this phrase on exalted occasions- design the total man-made environment.

“Architecture or revolution,” shouted Le Corbusier.

Hubris? Chutzpah? The claim on totality lacks modesty. Yet, on reflection, the idea is not entirely unreasonable. As Le Corbusier noted, it required, first of all, “a revolution in the conception of what architecture is.” Before him, architecture was the art and science of designing buildings for the greater glory of prelates, princes, and potentates. The masses fended for themselves.

While Palladio was busy designing exquisite country houses for the Italian nobility, the peasants were quite capable of building their own habitat, using the accumulated skill and wisdom of centuries as their blueprint. “Architecture without arthitects as we all know, adds up to lovely villages and towns and can be as delightful as the architecture of great masters—and is frequently more commodious.

Mechanization, however, put an end to do-it-yourself folk architecture, at least in industrial cities. We have all stood “breathless and panting” before a leaking pipe, to say nothing of a stalled elevator. And it is clear that in industrialized society, everything from the machine-made tooth pick to the entire metropolitan region, must somehow be designed. It must, furthermore, be well designed, coordinated and largely standardized, lest the advantages of mechanization are cancelled out or even reversed by distressing disadvantages. They often are. For lack of proper urban design, for instance, it takes the average motorist three times as long to get to work in the morning than it took the average horse-drawn streetcar rider.

While it is true, then, that the total man-made environment must be designed, it is also somewhat frightening. One wonders who the designers arc and what their purposes might be. Total design for total perfection becomes inevitably totalitarian. It does not often dare risk freedom and individual creativity. The residents in Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago, for instance, may not hang curtains of their own choosing. That would spoil the Modern esthetic. In Eero Saarinen’s CBS Building, even high executives can’t change a waste basket or ashtray, let alone a painting, in the totally designed interior. It is for their own good, of course.

The Moderns inherited the notion that architecture has the power of redemption—and total architecture the power of total redemption—from the English arts and crafts movement of John Ruskin and William Morris. Much like Gropius and Le Corbusier, Morris promised that “the glorious art of architecture, now for some time slain by commercial greed, would be born again and flourish.” At that point, he said, “millions of those who now sit in darkness will be enlightened by an art made by the people and for the people.” The art Morris had in mind was that of medieval craftsmen and the saccharine neo-Gothic of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Modern architecture was created in the image of abstract art: the Cubism of Picasso, Braque, Juan Gris and Leger; de Stijl as represented by Mondrian and van Doesburg; Abstract Expressionism as taught by Paul Klee and Kandinsky at the Bauhaus; and, most of all, the Constructivism of the Russians El Lissitzky, Tatlin, Melnikov, and the Vesnin brothers and the Hungarian Moholy-Nagy, who also taught at the Bauhaus. Constructivism had its heyday in the Soviet Union between Lenin’s NEP (New Economic Order) and Stalin’s assumption of power, between 1928 and 1931. We never knew how much influence it had on the West European avant-garde until the Soviets recently began to open their collections to Western art historical research. Stalin had not only surpressed art be disliked, but also all memory of it. And the Western avant-garde, smarting under Nazi accusations of “cultural bolshevism,” saw no reason to brag about the red sheep in the flock, even after Cropius, Mies, Moholy-Nagy and others had come to America.

But you see the influence if you compare Konstantin Melnikov’s Rusakov Club with Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum. Melnikov’s Const ructivist building in Moscow was completed in 1928- Breuer’s post-Bauhaus buildmg in New York City was completed in I^bb. With their brutal, angular protrusions and provocatively angular window openings, they are almost alike. Both contemptuously upstage their older neighbors.

Like Gropius, Mies (who succeeded Gropius as director of the Bauhaus in Germany), Le Corbusier, and the rest of the Western avant-garde, the Russian Constructivists did not construct very much. Times were terrible and there was no money for buildings. Architects drew visions on paper. Mies drew his glass skyscrapers and El Lissitzky drew “cloud props” and no engineer questioned how they would stand up, no contractor asked how they were to be built, and no one had to live in them.

It was a time not to build but to talk. Architects talked bravely of reforming not only architecture and the total man- made environment, but also of reforming society. They talked about their social responsibilities and agreed, in countless manifesttis and charters, that the artist must control over-mechanized mass production, that there must be a marriage uf art and technology. There was to be no new style, “Style” was a dirty word. There was to be pragmatic “problem solving,” Furm was to folluw function. Ornament was crime. And history, they said at the Bauhaus, “is bunk,” Until a few years agtt, American architecture schools offered no courses in architectural history.

Without ItHiking back where architecture had been, the avant-garde had no guide to where it was going. It was mesmerized by abstract art, by the tension of interlocking cubes, the wit of well-arranged geometry, the shape of dreams and the dream of shapeless buildings, “Less is more,” said Mies, the classicist of the movement, “Architecture is the correct play of light and shadow under the sun,” said Le Corbusier, the romantic.

Mies, in the end, reduced his Gallery of Twentieth Century Art in Berlin to a roof with four pillars, covering an invisible, glass enclosed space. It is architecture reduced to the absurd, much as Malevich, in his “White on White” canvas, had reduced painting to the absurd.

Le Corbusier, on the other extreme, gave up the struggle for anything faintly rational, anything that might help or house people, anything that might bring rampant technology under contol. In 1950, impulsively and without warning, he created Ronchamp, a small chapel in the Vosges Mountains that separate France from Germany. It was a work of abstract sculpture, “not a building, but a monument,” as Le Corbusier put it. It was not so much a building to worship in, as a shrine to be worshiped.

And worshiped it was by tbe critics, curators, experts, cognicenti, connoisseurs and teachers of architecture— as devoutly worshiped as the Miesean glass box on the other end of that total, man-made envirimment. The common folk still seemed confused. It seems doubtful that the breathless and panting human animal experienced any sense of liberation or comfort. But then, nobody asked.

The marriage of art and technology was never consummated. To this day, building remains the industry tbe industrial revolution has overlooked. We still have a chronic and desperate shortage of decent housing, although there never seems to be a shortage of automobiles.

Try as they would, the Modernists could never get houses to roll off the assembly line. Not their houses. Le Corbusier’s attempt in 1922 to mass produce his Citrohan house and Walter Gropius’s “series” houses of 1*32’’, never got beyond impassionate write-ups in the Sunday supplements, giggles and smirks. Workers who spent all day with noisy machinery were in no mood to come home to ^’’machine h habiter” and drink their beer in a contraption of bent chrome pipes. The poor felt deprived enough without being deprived of their bourgeois aspiration for doilies and overstuffed chairs.

To be fair, George Romney also failed a few years ago, when he was US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, to break through the frustrations of the fragmented building industry to achieve lower cost and higher productivity. Nothing came of his much-touted “Operation Breakthrough” except the realization that there is no point in mass producing anything unless it can be shipped cheaply to the consumer either in one piece or in easily assembled ctimponents. To make the components fit, they must be standardized, which is difficult to do in a country in whicb some 5000 political jurisdictions have 5000 different building codes, calling for different specifications. Industrial production, furthermore, requires highly paid union labor, while most “stick building” of suburban homes is done by lower paid non-union labor. Besides, even if you save lO or 20 percent of the construction cost, you do not save much on the total cost of the house. Construction accounts for only about 48 percent. The rest is paid for land, the cost of borrowing money, and sewers and other utilities.

We do have inexpensively prefabricated houses, however, that serve people of moderate means so well that they now account for three out of every 10 new houses sold in this country. They used to be called trailers and are now called “mobile homes,” Modern architecture, nor George Romney, for that matter, can claim neither pride nor credit for them.

Being frustrated in evolving its own, new building technology—as the Gothic style had done — the Moderns substituted a machine esthetic that was mostly symbolic. Mies’s glossy, machine-precise, modular buildings are painstakingly and expensively handcrafted to look mechanical and machine made, Mies insisted on designing different steel beams for practically every one of his buildings The romantic wing uf the Modern movement, led by Le Corbusier, soon tired even of machine-made materials, such as glass and metal components and sculptured its bizarre forms mostly in rough, “organic”-looking concrete.

The only new building technologies we have seen in our century are structures supported by tensile rather than compressive strength, such as space frames, geodesic domes, concrete shells, cable supports and balloon structures. They were all developed by engineers, rather than architects and, with few exceptions, remain isolated buildings for limited purposes—exhibit pavilions, sport arenas, airplane hangars—outside the mainstream of Modern architecture, They contribute nothing tu bring “architecture back to earth and make a new home for man,”as Lewis Mumford urged 14 years ago.