PRINT January 1966

Beyond the Seagram Building . . . ARCHITECTURE NOW

THE PASSING OF GREAT ARTISTS or architects (I have in mind the death of Le Corbusier last summer) does not, strictly speaking, mark the end of an era or the beginning of a new one, except, perhaps in the fervid imagination of melodramatic critics. Far more important as stylistic landmarks are the passages from creative adolescence to maturity in the careers of such heroic figures. In this connection, the major threshold over which Le Corbusier significantly assisted modern architecture was crossed in the late 1920s with the maturing of his “machine era” manner of stucco and glass—a vital component of the European movement known ever since as the International Style. Subsequently, around 1950, when approaching our traditional retirement age of sixty-five, an older but no less acerbic Le Corbusier unleashed a similarly memorable sequence of buildings and projects, beginning with the apartments known as the “Unite d’Habitation” at Marseilles (the first of a considerable series), finished in 1952, and the inimitable Pilgrimage Chapel, Notre-Damedu-Haut, at Ronchamp, finished in 1955. These events, and the delayed reaction that their liberating influence has subsequently wrought upon younger designers around the world, are of greater weight in assessing the condition of architecture in the mid-1960s than the simple, negative fact of his recent death. That tragic loss merely helps the critic to focus upon the new movement that has been slowly forming under his gaze for some time, its shape and meaning having remained unclear until very recently.

Le Corbusier, along with, but not in the company of, Wright, was the most completely personal, self-contained, inwardly-oriented creator of architectural form in our time. This is not to say that he never fell under the sway of others, and even, occasionally, stooped to quote from precedent. However, more important than his extraordinarily significant sources are the astounding things that his imagination wrought out of them. Living in an industrial age, he was devoted to the creation of standardized buildings and components, to such a degree that the casual glance of the layman will hardly suffice to distinguish between the original Marseilles “Unite d’Habitation” of ’52 and the most recent version of the same residential philosophy (perhaps we should call it the Mark IV Unite) at Briey-en-Foret, only just completed. Yet, unlike certain architects of our day Le Corbusier never made himself a high priest of standardization and regularity as ends in themselves, as his brilliant contemporary, Mies van der Rohe, so successfully did. By great good fortune Le Corbusier, in the last fifteen years of his life, received several unusual ecclesiastical commissions together with a major governmental one. These left him free to meditate over the site, program and other local circumstances in such a way that a series of unique, symbolic monumental forms resulted. Ronchamp, La Tourette, Chandigarh—these are names that have barely receded into history. To that list can be added the recent project for a church at Firminy, a small town in the industrial center of France, near St. Etienne. While all of these distinctively shaped buildings are of the same family, it is their individuality that leaves the strongest impression. During the 1950s, at a time when uniformity and anonymity were much more prized in advanced architectural circles than they are today, these buildings seemed almost bizarre. In the last few years, however, they have served as the vanguard of a vast liberating movement, providing, as it were, new license for invention—even for architects whose characteristic forms have absolutely nothing to do with the specific vocabulary of Le Corbusier. In this way he has served as midwife if not more to the most recent evolution of contemporary architectural design. Indeed, because his influence has been in the nature of providing an example, and not merely in the spreading of a limited personal manner, it is likely that his imprint upon the future will prove more durable than that enjoyed by most major artists immediately after their passing—a time when reputations traditionally suffer unjustly.

His “influence” in the narrow, bookish sense of the word, begins, of course with the founding of the Brazilian school of contemporary architecture in the 1930s, and, likewise, Le Corbusier’s influence upon the new Japanese architecture of the late 1950s is equally powerful. Outside of a few young men working in North Africa a decade ago, his direct, literal influence upon the French architectural community has been negligible. The only remaining country where we can trace the impact of his works through specific formal resemblance is in Britain. There the influence of Le Corbusier began quietly, almost surreptitiously, first manifesting itself in certain housing estates designed a decade and more ago by architectural staffs attached to local government authorities—with results more sober than the flamboyantly Corbusian projects of the Brazilians and Japanese, some of which have sadly paled with the passing of a few years.

But in the United States, where architectural leadership was concentrated during the 1950s, the Franco-Swiss master never influenced the common garden variety of commercial architecture, then in the firm grip of the glass and steel manner that had been crystallized by the taciturn Mies van der Rohe on the eve of the mid-century mark. Some of the most perceptive opinion of that era held that while Le Corbusier’s designs were outstandingly brilliant, they did not readily lend themselves to adaptation in the works of others. The future was, in those days, supposed to belong to Mies and his school of fierce, loyal admirers—and in any event his supposedly simple, rational design was easier to copy and more applicable to a greater variety of contemporary programs. Or so it was thought.

Today, a decade later, these bland assumptions seem faintly ridiculous. Predictably, the most loyal Miesian has been Mies himself, and his most recently completed tall building in Chicago’s Loop—The Federal Building—could, but for its most minute features, have been designed fifteen or eighteen years ago. There are indeed, numerous and distinguished Miesian buildings of the most recent vintage (and in a longer study the new works of C. F. Murphy Associates in Chicago would merit attention), but the most prominent members of his “kapelle” a decade ago are presently hard on another tack. Philip Johnson is perhaps the best case in point. His research center, the Henry L. Moses Institute of Montefiore Hospital in The Bronx, finished in 1965, is but one of several recent designs that concisely summarizes the evolution, over the past decade, of one of the most fastidious and alert of contemporary architects.

It is now very difficult to understand why it was once, a decade ago, automatically assumed that Johnson and other architects of his conviction would continue forever in the lean, exacting discipline of Mies’s glass box style, why any departures from the straight-and-narrow caused consternation. However, in retrospect, it seems probable that the question of further evolution seemed closed because of the nature of the style then commonly practiced. Johnson’s own Glass House, finished in 1949, and soon followed by a group of houses and projects in a similar vein, suggested, by the very classicism of their simple prismatic forms, a kind of finality. They implied that the major goal of at least one branch of 20th century architectural pioneering had been reached. What was true of Johnson’s work at this time was equally true of the big urban commercial buildings by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and by their imitators across the land.

However, by the late ’50s a search was on, led by those very architects who had been first to place themselves under the Miesian banner. I think it too strong—in fact, misleading—to hold that Johnson “broke” with the official Miesian mode. What was happening was a growth or evolution. Boredom is often advanced as an explanation for some of the formalistic aimlessness of the late ’50s and early ’60s—aimlessness which degenerated into shiftlessness with architects less perceptive and severely self-critical than Johnson. New York’s Lincoln Center, only now approaching completion, although designed in the late ’50s, or Eero Saarinen’s Yale Colleges, Stiles and Morse, completed in 1962, are especially representative of the transition that intervenes between the high Miesian Moment of ’55 (completion of the Seagram Building) and the establishment of a new era of creative confidence and security in the mid-1960s. The Lincoln Center ensemble is too aggressively neo-classic, and although Johnson’s New York State Theatre offers a series of delights in certain of its aspects, the group as a whole (comprising Max Abramovitz’s Philharmonic Hall, Wallace Harrison’s Metropolitan Opera, and the Repertoire Theater jointly designed by Saarinen and Gordon Bunshaft, one of the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill partners) is a stiff, self-conscious and only partly successful effort to exchange the brittle, fragile qualities of Mies for a revived monumentality. Different as day is to night, Saarinen’s Yale colleges offer a neo-medieval complement to the academicism of Lincoln Center. With their meandering passages, cosy courtyards, and willful irregularity at every turn, they are equally pedantic in their search for stylistic change, though in many ways visually delightful.

However, in subsequent designs that were already on the drawing boards in the early ’60s and which are just now being finished, such as Johnson’s above-mentioned Montefiore Hospital addition, one encounters an authentic monumentality in the controlled richness of form and mass. This effortlessness is in distinct contrast to the artificiality prevalent a short while before, during the difficult period of transition from over-literal Miesianism to the new and as yet unnamed style of today. Noteworthy in both plan and elevation of this pocket skyscraper is the forceful articulation of elements, a quality foreign to the unadorned cubes of the mid-1950s whose uniform envelope usually hid a variety of function and structure behind unvarying curtains of glass. Now, however, in Johnson’s Montefiore plan there is a distinct, recognizable circulation core (stairs and elevators) surrounded by a variety of work spaces. These distinct elements in the plan make their presence clearly known by their projections on the exterior. The glass wall of old (sic!) has now shrunk back to the proportions of an individual window—but one designed in a most original way as a three-sided prism of glass projecting in vertical piers from the principal wall plane. These and related details effectively increase the apparent monumentality of the exterior. Consistent with this robustness is the visual emphasis given to the structure through the distinctive articulation of the corner piers. While many of the effects in this building are adapted from the works of others (notably Louis Kahn), they are handled with a discipline that, for Johnson, must of course, be traced back to his Miesian heritage.

Similar features are discoverable in recent works by both American and British architects; designers who a decade ago helped spread far and wide the glass and steel mode of that bygone era. Eero Saarinen’s last posthumous building, the C. B. S. office, New York, designed on the eve of his death in 1961 and completed last year, is certainly the finest new commercial tower seen in New York in a decade, though tragically dwarfed on its 6th Avenue site by some of the most vulgar, elephantine glass-walled skyscrapers ever conceived. As with Johnson’s tower, structural emphasis is brought to the surface, and the exterior envelope of C. B. S. is thus broken up into vertical stripes of individual windows. While not as precisely or robustly articulated throughout as Montefiore, clearly the Saarinen design was pointed in that direction.

In London, an ensemble of three related but not connected buildings for The Economist, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson, completed in 1964, represent one segment of this development towards articulation and differentiation of form in contemporary British architecture. Much more traditionally “glassy” than the two American buildings just discussed (indeed, glass continues to play a major role with British architects at the moment, in contrast with current U. S. developments), the group is composed of one pocket-skyscraper (15 stories) and two smaller buildings that respect the traditional heights of the neighborhood near St. James Park. The Economist ensemble has been especially admired for the way in which its uncompromisingly contemporary shape fits snugly into a pre-established environment of historical and pseudo-historical buildings. Notable in this respect are the open passages between the various separate parts of the Smithson’s ensemble, spaces which preserve the scale and flavor of the narrow, somewhat irregular streets of the quarter, making, indeed, a positive and definitive contribution to the site and its surroundings.

While different in many respects from both the Johnson and Saarinen towers, the Smithson Economist does make common cause with them in discarding two cardinal aspects of hallowed 20th century tradition. Most obviously rejected is the under-scaled, virtually invisible detailing and neatly prismatic geometry of the mid-50s. However, the most important casualty apparent in all of these designs concerns the rejections of the characteristic post-Cubist attitude towards form and space, an innovation of the greatest significance in the supposedly “functional” architecture of the International Style during the ’20s. The three-dimensional, interlocking rectangular puzzles popularized by the Dutch painters and architects of De Stijl, and perfected in Europe by innumerable architects during the interwar period, have been periodically reviled by new movements since. However, heretofore no one had offered something to replace the International Style’s characteristic ambiguities of space and form. Today, however, its strivings towards flux and continuity of interpenetrations of exterior form and interior space, seem definitively to have given way to a new and sturdier kind of massing, in which forms, often with their angles blunted, remain separate and individual. Artfully contrived interconnections between one element and another in a given ensemble (as, for example, in the classic Bauhaus of 1925–6) are now replaced by a desire to isolate, to let the individual building draw back into itself. The extroverted dialogue between the site and the building, the rule of the day a generation ago, has now been replaced by a kind of solid, taciturn massing of forms which, in the hands of the most sensitive architects, becomes almost melancholy. Complete and distinctive characterization of the building parts, and, beyond this, of the building as a separate entity confronting its neighbors as an individual, has become the order of the day. True, it is possible to find anticipation of this new clarity of articulation in certain buildings of the ’50s; nonetheless this new compositional principle seems not to have been employed with any purposefulness until very recently—within the last four or five years—and then with considerable variety of personal manner.

One of the most potent motivators, even prophet, of this forcefully articulated style has been Louis I. Kahn, a sage-like figure to a whole generation of young American architects who have grown up in the past decade. Much more than Le Corbusier, Kahn has seemed to offer them a doctrine and example that was germane to their practical interests and immediate emotional needs. In fact, on first contact, it would seem that Kahn more than Le Corbusier is the direct, effective progenitor of the new architecture, especially in the U. S., though up to the present his impact abroad has been relatively minor. Kahn’s background is academic in the old fashioned sense of the word, and he has never shown the slightest inclination to design in the orthodox modernist mode of the ’20s and ’30s, with its impalpable surfaces and Cubist-inspired spaces. Indeed, partly as a consequence of this attitude, he enjoyed no material success until the 1950s, and it was not until late in the decade that his unique stylistic contribution was clearly perceptible. With his recently completed buildings, the Unitarian Church, Rochester, finished in 1962 and the dormitory at Bryn Mawr College, finished in 1965, his paramount role in the evolution of architecture in the second half of the twentieth century becomes unmistakable. Both are boldly shaped, with original, startling, yet absolutely justifiable shapes on the exterior, shapes that either correspond to specific spaces within, or reflect the presence of certain structural or mechanical devices. These sturdy, prosaic forms have an imprint all their own, and their homeliness unmistakably contrasts with the alternately lyric and epic qualities radiated by the more effusive forms of Le Corbusier’s late work.

For one thing, Kahn’s plans are stiffer, more foursquare than are Le Corbusier’s, for whom improvised-seeming curves have come to play a telling role. These distinctive qualities are logically projected into the three dimensions of mass and space, thus providing their respective designs with highly personal imprint. The assembled masses of Kahn’s buildings, punctuated by tower-like projections, are among the most staccato manifestations of our new architecture, with its emphasis upon an elaborate, squarish articulation, and separation rather than coalescence of parts. His clarity of expression arises from his inborn antipathy to the older twentieth century movements centering on the International Style. Alternatively, Le Corbusier’s verve, and his persistent combinations of curved with planar surfaces, evolved slowly out of his original allegiance to exactly those orthodoxies to which Kahn has always been averse. Kahn arrived at his style by remaining stubbornly in opposition; Le Corbusier at his by process of slow, patient evolution.

If one looks for further documentation for the trend outlined above, the number of important, provocative new buildings is remarkable. Two further American examples will have to suffice: Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building, Yale University, finished in 1963, and the new quarters for the School of Architecture (College of Environmental Design) at the University of California, Berkeley, the creation of Joseph Esherick in collaboration with Vernon DeMars and Donald Olsen. The two buildings, though destined for similar functions, spring from vastly different attitudes towards the creation of architectural form: the former stressing the manipulation of space in a theatrical, virtually Baroque way, the latter taking a more hard-headed, utilitarian, constructive attitude. In the complex massing of both of these rough-surfaced concrete piles, one can find survivals of orthodox International Style composition. However, these features are virtually submerged by the weightiness of mass, the strident separation of main elements, and by the rhythmic articulation of both detail and ensemble.

British architects of the last few years have kept pace with their American colleagues, not through duplication of effort, but by major and distinctive contributions. The recent Economist ensemble by the Smithsons has been discussed earlier. These same architects were among the most articulate in the discussions and polemics that dominated British architectural activity in the ’50s, and were responsible for the concept “New Brutalism.” In the mid-’50s, the wave of Corbusian influence in public housing, together with the stimulating climate of debate soon led to buildings pointed towards the future. A cluster block of duplex or “maisonette” apartments designed in 1955 by Denys Lasdun in Clarendale Street, Bethnal Green, London, with its distinctively rugged massing and unusual organization of tower components, is an especially telling instance of the premonitory nature of British architecture at this time. Lasdun, born in 1914, had been, in the ’30s, a member of Tecton, a partnership that pioneered in the introduction of then-new continental modes to the British Isles. However, the titular leadership of the new architecture in Britain was destined to fall to a much younger man, one educated since the war, and whose private practice dated only from the late ’50s. James Stirling, in partnership with James Gowan, had to his credit principally two apartment structures (and, significantly, some perceptive critical articles on Le Corbusier) before embarking on the construction of the red brick and glass Engineering Laboratories of Leicester University, completed in the autumn of 1963. Their spontaneous success was remarkable, extending beyond the professional magazines (one of which devoted an entire issue to the building) to the mass-circulation Sunday press (where a color photograph on a supplement cover attested to widespread interest). Such recognition bespeaks one of two things: a timely hit destined to evaporate with the changing winds of taste, or else a serious, profound achievement in the art of building—one of novelty and panache which genuinely deserves the admiration of a younger generation in need of a conspicuous guiding banner.

The seriousness of Stirling and Gowan’s achievement at Leicester is documented by the specifications provided by the building’s future occupants, themselves engineers, and the persistence with which the architects applied their energies to these narrow, confining demands. The novel, but far from capricious forms of this complicated, multi-faced building emerge directly, indeed almost compulsively, from the naked specifications of the client. The high tower with its offices poised astride the two lecture halls (the projecting beveled forms whose slopes accurately reflect the rising rows of seats inside), with various detached elements serving as stair and elevator shaft, is set alongside the lower and more extensive machine shops. The jagged, glazed roof of this last component is nothing more than the appropriate but also expressive incorporation into this contemporary building of a form commonly used in ordinary factory buildings. However, any description of this building can only inadequately convey an impression of Leicester’s pure and abstract quality as architecture per se. The instinctive compositional mastery with which Stirling and Gowan have formulated this building out of the terse, inescapable demands of their engineer-clients is the factor which brings this building alive. The architects may point with justifiable pride to the manner in which they have realized a building which satisfies the needs for a working environment. Contrarily, the critic may entertain his readers in pointing out Leicester’s significant antecedents in the works of several earlier 20th century architects. However, in its ultimate sense, architecture begins rather than ends with these prosaic, conversational considerations. The surprising and unfamiliar contrast of glass with red brick and tile, the vital, positive shapes, varied yet appropriately of a single species, help elevate Leicester Engineering into something exceptional. Beyond that the wit, genius and taste of the architect are accountable for its incisive impact.

James Stirling now has other large projects of a residential as well as of an educational nature under design or construction, yet this single effort at Leicester has served to thrust him into the center of architectural activity. His towers must stand beside those by Kahn, Johnson, Esherick, Rudolph and the Smithsons, pointing the way to the architecture of the late 20th century. While there are other architects of equally serious and profound achievement whose works have gone unmentioned here (and for which I have deep regret), it does not seem unjust to make of this discordant, virtuoso sextet the pathfinders of architecture now.

––John Jacobus