PRINT May 1966

New Forms in Architecture

THE SIGN LANGUAGE OF 20th-century architecture during the first forty-odd years of its existence was predominantly concerned with flat surfaces and cubic volumes—and, for a while, the simpler the combination the better. There were at least three basic motivations on the form-finding level: First came the desire to slough off the unwieldy decorative accretions of eclecticism and even of such early modernist movements as Art Nouveau, thereby initiating a search for a least common denominator. Second was the adoption of certain formal and spatial devices from post-Cubist and abstract painting, which gave a basically negative movement a more positive, questing orientation. The third motivation was a matter of content and iconography for the new architecture: it was a widespread fascination with the forms of industrially produced goods ranging from simple, everyday utensils to the most complex of mechanically “alive” organisms, such as automobiles and aircraft, together with the theoretical principles implied in their production, principles which were oriented more towards creating working mechanisms than mere works of art.

Since 1940 there has been a gradual change, and in the last five years it has ceased being gradual. While basic principles and goals remain roughly the same, a wide variety of new forms has come into existence. This new set of signs is not a fundamental change in the syntax of modern architecture, but more like the introduction of a new alphabet for writing out some of the familiar thoughts and phrases, and, in some cases the change is no more than the introduction of a new script or type-face. The basic goals and sentiments remain the same;it is the forms that change. Sometimes, as in the late work of Wright or Le Corbusier, the process has been one of metamorphosis. Shapes and configurations from earlier buildings and projects appear, as if by transmigration, in later works, but now realized with greater freedom and daring. In other cases the expansion of the modernist idiom takes place as the result of conscious or unconscious archaisms, or by willful scholastic or academic refining of ideas or forms from almost anywhere. In place of the smooth-finished, four-square buildings of a generation ago, or their more recent romantic or academic derivatives, we now find a growing tendency towards exteriorized structures and the use of diagonal or “X”-shaped buttressing forms which, in turn, result in triangular or polyhedral forms whose flavor is basically ungainly, even ugly, although usually functionally efficient in one way or another. This new tendency to stress linear, constructive contours at the expense of planar, often concealing surfaces represents on one level a considerable disenchantment with the familiar Bauhaus or De Stijl types of composition, and, on another, a return to pre-20th-century concepts and archaic, proto-modern forms. While this new movement (to describe it in a somewhat more cohesive term than is actually the case) has no consciously chosen culture-hero in the recent past, many of its distinctive shapes bring to mind the concepts of an architectural scholiast of a century ago, the medieval archaeologist, Viollet-Le-Duc, giving new relevance to his theories which have already formed a major part of contemporary architecture’s Old Testament since his death in 1879.

Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc was born in 1814 into a family of high civil servants with a penchant for the arts, and grew up in the Paris of the Romantic era. Old enough to have witnessed but too young to have participated in this artistic insurrection, he belongs to the gifted, productive, yet ultimately bitter and frustrated generation of Flaubert, Saint Beuve, Berlioz and Courbet. His fame was assured by the late 1840’s, thanks to his famous restorations of Romanesque Vezelay and of Gothic Notre-Dame de Paris, both of which are, in a sense, totally Romantic architectural works by virtue of their escape from contemporary reality into a legendary past. Yet, in fact, the restorations themselves were not creative acts in any basic way, and the buildings most drastically affected by this preservation process ceased to be works of art both in the immediate and in the historical sense—and became instead archaeological documents or “specimens” partly of first and partly of second hand. This vandalism of good will did, of course, preserve the mortal remains of certain crucial monuments that, untended, would have shortly vanished without a trace, or else would have been more drastically “restored” by other, more vain and less sympathetic hands. Hence there is absolutely no question of criticizing the principle of Viollet-le-Duc’s restorations or his practice of its craft. The point is to recognize the degree to which this extraordinarily gifted artist was the victim of the circumstances that surrounded his career, his creative energies stifled by work that required more in the way of cleverness than of genius. On the basis of this evidence it would be easy to dismiss these works of preservation as irrelevant to the evolution of modern architecture, and yet, ironically, they were an important, perhaps indispensable threshold for the new tradition.

For the last 25 or 30 years of Viollet-le-Duc’s active, varied life, his interests shifted, paradoxically and imperceptibly, to the problems of contemporary building. His study and restoration of various medieval works had brought him into closer contact with everyday constructive matters—problems of simple statics which had to be dealt with simply, quickly and economically—than was the case with the typical academic-classic architect of the day. Furthermore, the fumblings of various “official” architects, with their general indifference to material and constructive problems, when confronted with the challenge of restoring or even maintaining in satisfactory health the fragile structures of the middle ages, struck Viollet-le-Duc as an acute symptom of contemporary architecture’s basic malady. Called upon to justify the rationale of Gothic structures to the academic cynics who, believing them to be childishly irrational houses of cards, taunted and ridiculed his admiration for medieval skeletal systems, and goaded by the archaeological piety of his few loyal supporters, he propounded an interpretation of the Gothic system in which every form was explained and justified by its unique functioning role in the actual structural workings of the building—a structural system which he insisted was dynamic and elastic rather than inert and static (the case with Greek and Roman architecture). Not content with simply reviving the spirit and forms of a tradition which had expired at the beginning of the 16th century, he determined to search out ways of applying the lessons of the medieval mason to modern situations and contemporary materials, thinking along evolutionary lines into a future in which a new, characteristically modern style might be formed, Eve-like, from a rib of the Gothic tradition.

His polemics on Gothic structure, and his convictions concerning the need for reform and innovation in contemporary architectural practice led to the publication of the Entretiens sur l’Architecture of 1863–72, a collection of loosely-related essays in which his rational theories were extracted from their archaeological context and applied to the immediate problems of the day. Not surprisingly, the resulting doctrine was half-traditional and half “modern.” According to Viollet le Duc, the architecture of the past was the great font of wisdom for contemporary designers and builders—on the face of it, an assertion that any academician might have subscribed to. What seemed most revolutionary to his contemporaries was that he put special emphasis upon the relevance of medieval structural practices to modern situations and materials, whereas the academic mind was generally closed if not actively hostile to anything that was not of the classic tradition. However, for subsequent generations, the most valuable lesson offered by Viollet-le-Duc was his stressing of pure principles at the expense of mere forms. For him, it was more important that a building be constructed according to a rational method, and that it respond to its functions, than that it be gratuitously beautiful or otherwise alluring. Therefore, the various periods of the past must be scoured to discover basic principles of a general sort, applicable in parallel circumstances, and which are in effect universal notions that exist quite apart from their transient, momentary formal manifestation. In this manner, he was the first architect to lead a search for the least common denominator. In his view, the basic fault of the academic system was not simply its narrowness in choice of models from past styles, but its superficial, eclectic manipulation of these forms without consideration of their rationale. During his own lifetime, these ideas of Viollet-le-Duc met with little welcome, but suddenly, in the last years of the 19th century, young architects in many and remote places turned to his ideas (and to his projects) for encouragement in the creation of a new art.

His search for the architectural “mot juste” was, at first glance, far less successful than his critical ability to diagnose the ills of contemporary architecture in his often-acerbic writings. His few actually-constructed original buildings are modest in size and stylistically unambitious. Only in a scant half-dozen projects does a provocatively original manner appear. The two schemes reproduced here—projects for a concert hall interior and for an open-air public market—were invented to illustrate specific passages in his “Entretiens.” They are not intended as formal models for a new architecture, but as illustrations of the author’s rational method. Moreover, these designs are fragmentary, emphasizing in an awkwardly forthright way constructive notions of a skeletal type in which the principle but not the contour of the gothic rib, its diagonal thrust transformed from arch to straight line, is metamorphosed into iron struts whose advantages are clearly more of a practical than of a conventionally esthetic order.

There is a temptation to pass over these ungainly, bombastically labored efforts at creating a new architectural hieroglyphic as the understandable aberrations of an exclusively analytical temperament. Indeed, so long as our notions of “modern style” in building were restricted to the forms of the International Style, its immediate sources and direct descendants, a summary dismissal was in order. However, numerous buildings of more recent years have suddenly transformed our once-limited impressions of modernism, and have thereby rehabilitated these designs of Viollet-Le-Duc, with their expressive if abrupt contrasts of form and material and frequent use of irregular, diagonally slashing contours. Whereas it once seemed roughly correct to identify his major contribution to the new tradition with his theories alone, it now has become apparent that the style of his once-puzzling projects is, at the very least, of equal prophetic significance.

This boldly-jointed structural style of Viollet-Le-Duc is, of course, not his exclusively, nor is it simply restricted to the language of architecture. Two unrelated instances taken from the realm of technology might be cited, virtually at random, as significant stylistic parallels: the famous railway bridge over the Firth of Forth by John Fowler and Benjamin Baker, 1881–87, and the bi-winged, quadri-motored “Horatius” flown by the British Imperial Airways in the early ’30s. Both of these monuments for the conquest of space display awkwardly integrated forms which, in each instance, can be accounted for by the relatively primitive state of their respective arts at the time of their conception. The complex, “rayonnant”* silhouettes of these examples are in contrast to the simpler, seemingly more efficient technological forms habitually cited by the masters and apologists of the International Style, such as Eiffel’s more spidery (and much smaller) Garabit Viaduct, 1880–84, cited in Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture, or the marvelously clean, almost Ionic contours of the bi-motored Farman Goliath (likewise smaller) illustrated in detail by Le Corbusier in Vers Une Architecture.

Indeed, this “rayonnant” vocabulary presently asserting itself in contemporary building was not only anticipated in various isolated works of engineering or mechanical design. It is present, though in a somewhat restricted fashion, in the works of certain architects active around 1900 whose names are often associated with Art Nouveau. Certain early works of H. P. Berlage and of Victor Horta, respectively the outstanding Dutch and Belgian architects of that period, are among the most obvious direct lineal descendants from Viollet-le-Duc. In particular, an interior such as a galleried, brick-vaulted foyer of an 1898 house by Berlage in The Hague points directly to the formal idiosyncrasies of Viollet-le-Duc’s iron-ribbed concert hall project. Although Berlage has used brick rather than iron ribs for his miniature vaulted space, its polyhedral network of segmental arches was obviously suggested not just by the ideas but by the actual forms proposed by the medievalist. Similarly, in Victor Horta’s recently destroyed Maison du Peuple, Brussels, 1897–99, a large, spacious restaurant-cafe is covered with an iron-framed ceiling whose star-pattern of Tetal beams would seem to be a flat, two-dimensional adaptation of the same Viollet-le-Duc scheme. Horta, whose designs of this period are for the most part more sinuously curved and literally Art Nouveau in contour, here reveals himself to be as complete a disciple of the French rationalist as his Dutch contemporary.

Nor does the matter stop here. In Spain we find numerous instances in the work of Antoni Gaudi where the form as well as the thought of Viollet-Le-Duc has found a sympathetic response. Gaudi’s exceptional constructive knowledge made possible, indeed often suggested the emotional, hysterical-seeming shapes of his buildings, shapes that are often and incorrectly taken as the irrational inventions of a mystic visionary—dream-like forms that were, however, founded in a cool, practical knowledge of every aspect of his art and craft. In the vaults of his small, incomplete church of Santa Coloma de Cervello, begun in 1898, the Catalan master transformed into his own unique manner certain of the basic Viollet-le-Duc themes: slanted, diagonal supports and a complex, irregularly divided ribbed vault surface. All of these fin de siecle schemes display a structural expressiveness that is faintly, implicitly Gothic. In a sense their predecessor’s projects of a generation before were the crucial filter whereby their own individual manners could be separated from the waning stream of late 19th-century revivalism.

The history of structural expression in the architecture of the first half of the 20th century follows a circuitous path, somewhat remote from the major formal and even ideological concerns of the time. However, if it is difficult to relate the formalistic trends of this period with visual and demonstrative structural skeletons, there have been, nonetheless, major figures during this half-century, from Maillart to Nervi, Wachsmann and Le Ricolais who have made potentially remarkable contributions to the art of building in terms of structurally provoked forms. Nevertheless, for much of this period their efforts have seemed ancillary rather than central to the new architectural movements. True, structural contours are not invariably concealed in the works of a Le Corbusier or a Mies van der Rohe, especially in their post-1945 works, but, on the other hand, these considerations have not played a generative role in their works either.

An early premonition of a change in design-orientation in more recent architecture is to be found in a widely-published Louis Kahn project of the mid-1950’s for a multi-faceted, prismatic tall building, whose structural frame abandoned the conventional horizontal-and-vertical grid of skyscraper construction in exchange for slashing diagonal lines, triangular surfaces and tetrahedral volumes. While this particular geometry has not played an important role in Kahn’s subsequent successes of the 1960’s, many of the latter possess a blunt, terse structural honesty in which vertical columns and horizontal floor-ceiling slabs become an integral part of the exterior elevation. Parallel with Kahn’s evolution, the vast firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, whose designs of ten and fifteen years ago were paragons of weightlessness whose structural and mechanical workings were artfully concealed behind insubstantial-seeming glass skins, have recently produced numerous buildings and projects in which the skeleton becomes a frank, sometimes even obtruded part of the exterior volume. Their Banque Lambert, Brussels, 1958–63 and more recent John Hancock skyscraper project, Chicago, 1965, are good instances of an elegant, somewhat academic approach to the new spirit. A decorative, virtually neo-Art Nouveau stylization of trunk-and-branch forms was employed by Eero Saarinen Associates in their IBM pavilion at the New York Fair of 1964–65, where sinuously bent steel ribs called to mind the characteristic, somewhat feminine elegance of Horta’s Art Nouveau.

However, if the new structuralism in architecture in the 1960’s has its academic and even decorative manifestations, its most important examples are conceived and executed with a greater feeling for the more gutty concerns of building, almost but not quite at the expense of surface glitter. Representative of this more profound approach to architectural design in the field of monumental public buildings is Hans Scharoun’s Berlin Philharmonia Hall, designed in 1956 but completed only in 1963. The work of an architect whose career was begun during the Expressionist and Utopian uproar of post-1918 Germany, this spectacular public hall offers a series of access spaces, with stairs and ramps rising to the various levels of the auditorium proper, in which the romantic awe of Piranesi is wedded to the jagged, irregular forms familiar to devotees of German experimental cinema of the ’20s. In the midst of this foyer we find a quartet of four diagonally-upthrust columns supporting the weight of the auditorium floor above—devices that recall the Viollet-le-Duc market hall project in which a considerable masonry load is carried by spindly iron tubes.

This kind of aptly-employed structural virtuosity in a monumental space through which a large public passes is still somewhat romantic and self-indulgent in comparison with many other instances of recent skeletally-revealed building. In James Stirling’s widely admired Engineering Laboratories at Leicester University, the third floor of the low machine-shop wing protrudes past the lower wall plane, in order to facilitate the handling of heavy machinery to these upper levels by means of traps in its exposed floor. Forty-five degree angled struts were employed to buttress this projection not simply because they accorded with the other diagonal contours or triangular figures present in this design, but primarily because it was more economical to support the out-thrust form in this awkward, Viollet-le-Duc like fashion than to employ a neater but more costly cantilever built into the thickness of the floor. In Stirling’s new project (1965–66) for an office building for the Dorman Long Steel Works at Middlesbrough (Yorkshire) running parallel with and at the end of five miles of steel rolling mills, the functional requirements may not have explicitly demanded a complete exteriorization of the structure, notably the vertical and slanting columns of the principal facade facing the road. Nonetheless, the interior will be free of these customary encumbrances, and, furthermore, the exterior mass of the building will be visibly strengthened by the presence of this “permanent scaffolding,” thus allowing the building to compete with the monumentality and formal interest of the adjacent shops and mills.

Stirling’s Dorman Long project is not the first instance in which a systematic exteriorization of structural columns has been essayed in post-mid-20th century architecture. In Wurster Hall (the new home of the school of architecture) at the University of California, Berkeley, Joseph Esherick and his collaborators, Donald Olsen and Vernon DeMars, have almost consistently used a skeletal rather than a membranous facade in a building largely constructed of pre-cast, pre-stressed reinforced concrete. Although the architect readily admits a prior bias towards concrete, the particular system of pre-stressing was chosen for this building since it produces an initially more weather-tight, ultimately more maintenance-free structure straight off (without need for covering over the concrete core either inside or out with some other concealing material) than would a cast-in-place concrete system. The basic repetitive element in the building’s exterior, pre-cast columnar elements two stories high, were designed on the basis of the chosen means of building-assembly in which these elements were systematically fixed to the cast-in-place floor slabs. Since the resulting assemblage was not covered or veneered, the structure itself is the building’s own decoration. It was not outwardly enriched or refined by some foreign substance, nor is the result gratuitously or athletically demonstrative in its visible constructive logic. Its expressive vocabulary does, however, differ from the other buildings under consideration here, chiefly because the architect is skeptical of diagonal supports and related forms, holding that the same notions can easily be realized in a rectilinear frame which he feels is fundamentally less expensive.

Houses, which were once the bread-and-butter of the 20th-century avant-garde, by and large have not reflected the new constructively aggressive aspect of third-quarter 20th-century architecture, probably because these effects lend themselves more readily to large buildings. An exception to this rule is to be found in a sequence of projects and realizations in the domestic sphere by Charles Moore, working in partnership with William Turnbull, Donlyn Lyndon and Richard Whitaker. Drawing a certain amount of inspiration from such West Coast architectural heroes as Bernard Maybeck and Rudolph Schindler, their house designs of the past six or seven years have stressed ruggedly-braced interior structures of timber supporting rough exterior sheaths of shingle and wood siding. Slanting, high-pitched hip roofs and up-thrust lanterns dominate the silhouettes and masses of these structures, all but obscuring the relatively insignificant areas of wall and window. These beveled, sloping forms, which parallel (however coincidentally) the glass and brick prismatic forms of Stirling’s university or industrial buildings, are the exterior reflections of aggressively ordered, yet almost never completely subdivided interior spaces, where struts, columns and beams of wood are bolted or otherwise fitted together in awkward, angular relationships. The interior of a two-story living area from their recent Sea Ranch Condominium, a carefully planned vacation community on the rugged California coast, is an excellent instance of the unsentimental yet expressively melancholic way in which this new pioneer idiom eschews the brittle, radiant elegance of that kind of West Coast villa popularized thirty years ago by Richard Neutra. Moore’s 1964 Tabert house project, Oakland, with its outflaring profile, is an almost exaggerated instance of the move toward massive, sheltering, even top-heavy forms in this new style, the most recent sequel to the vernacular Bay Region traditions of wood-framed, “stick” style dwellings whose historical roots are peculiarly American, reaching back to the cottage and villa architecture of the Jacksonian Era popularized by A. J. Downing. As with the other buildings presented in this article, the influence of Viollet-le-Duc is not explicit, yet his ghost seems surely to have passed these many ways.

Not only has its spell touched a number of architects on both sides of the Atlantic, working variously on domestic, industrial and public buildings but it has also seemingly affected numerous young designers whose efforts have been concentrated in the realm of visionary urban projects—radical designs that tackle the formidable problems of city design in a bold, analytical way. It is useful to cite at least one instance of this calculated, propositionary architecture which is too often and incorrectly labeled as either fantastic or utopian. A proposed center of urban exchange by the young English architects, Ron Herron and Warren Chalk is typical of the aggressive schemes published in the current “underground” periodical “Archigram.” The various levels and numerous vertical towers of this 1963 project are tied together, tentacle-like, by a series of inclined ducts, thereby producing a revolutionary concept of the city-organism that goes far beyond even the most advanced, large-scale arterial highway and urban reconstruction programs currently under actual consideration or construction. The formal vocabulary of the International Style and its derivatives seems anemic in the face of this and other “Archigram” proposals, and indeed these now-anachronistic forms are totally inadequate to cope with the levels of integration sought for here. Only an even more liberated geometry than that which prevailed in the post-Cubist era of 1920–40, together with a more structurally-integrated sign language than has been employed in architecture since the close of the middle ages will respond to the situations for which these revolutionary designs are offered. This new vocabulary of modernism—a total revamping of 20th-century forms which is currently being undertaken without, however, a concomitant rejection of the ideals of that tradition—is the common goal towards which the various solutions illustrated in this article are pointed.

John Jacobus



*Conventionally this word is used to characterize the refined, linear elaborations of Gothic tracery beginning around the middle of the 13th century. In the present context the word does not imply so much refinement as it does elaboration pure and simple of skeletal forms radiating from numerous nuclei.