PRINT April 1972

Notes from Underground

You see, if it were not a palace but a chicken coop and rain started, I might creep into the chicken coop to avoid getting wet and yet I would not call the chicken coop a palace out of gratitude to it for sheltering me from the rain. You laugh, you even say that in such circumstances a chicken coop is as good as a mansion. Yes, I answer, if one had to live simply to avoid getting wet.
—Fydor Dostoevsky, 1864

Perspective was the original sin of Western painting.
—Andre Bazin, 1945

IN TIMES OF TRANSITION, in architecture at least, the true academy is to be found, if at all, underground. There it persists, largely unacknowledged; a residual memory, fortuitously embalmed in the passé craft and technical institutions of the 19th century. Conversely, a school of architecture where a coherent system is presented, both in theory and praxis, is scarcely to be found today in the elite university. Having recently experienced first, a heyday of value-free affluence (post-Sputnik) and second, a briefer but more challenging period of political confrontation (culminating in Cambodia and Kent State), the university now appears to exist in a climate of artificially induced normality. In this it presents the illusion of having made a successful and rational adjustment to reality; even though its faculties of art and schools of social science still remain equally at a loss for a convincing value system upon which to structure their separate, yet related, vocations. These institutions seem to have become crystallized into pseudo-academic fields, as unsure of the subject of their contemplation, as they are of the proper object of their practice. Thus today we find architecture suspended between applied art and social science; as a field of concern, more alienated than any other from a satisfactory rapport with both society at large and the university in particular. The underground academy, on the other hand, while being just as removed from significant connections to the society, nonetheless escapes the daily abrasions of interdisciplinary contact and comparative assessment, by virtue of its exclusion from the university. This isolation affords it a certain space, in which to vegetate or alternatively to create its own methodology, depending on how one comes to regard the value of its product. Such a school is Cooper Union, New York; a school whose work was recently exhibited with appropriate irony in the basement of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. This elegant exhibition served at the outset to impress the visitor with evidence of a remarkable pragmatic ability, since it was both designed and prefabricated by the students themselves and then erected by them in the space of only two days.

The vicissitudes of 20th-century art in America are by now adequately documented and interpreted. This cannot be claimed for the rise and fall of American architecture over the same period, for architecture has largely escaped both that sustained act of stringent external public criticism suffered by fine art, as well as that internal process of intradisciplinary autocriticism characterized by Clement Greenberg as being central to the regenerative program of modernism.1 As a result of this overall critical neglect, architecture is today largely the “sport” of an academic open season, where various interests, both within and without the discipline, lay constant and extravagant rival claims to its territory. Depending on the nature of the disciplines in question these claims would fain bring it in, once and for all, as an applied science; as the joint determinism of a never-ending technical process, or alternatively as an applied art; that is, as decoration or the styling up of this process, for a kitsch stimulation of culture. Outside academia various imaginative strategies have been adopted over the past decade for the circumvention of this ontological dilemma. From l’Architecture Mobile to Archizoom, from Ant Farm to Drop City, from Archigram to Fuller’s Dymaxion World, they have all tended to end up as compendia in The Whole Earth Catalogue. Such strategies have masqueraded therein as everything from graphics to publicity, from mathematics to metaphysics, from cultural detritus to fabulous science fiction. In short, as anything except architecture defined “as the act of erecting edifices for human use.”2

Inside academia, in apposition to these fashionable models for action or inaction (as the case may be), one may identify today two predominant rival camps. Both of these may possibly be more properly characterized as opposed yet dissenting subcultures. On the one hand there are the historically oriented formalists, who are willfully determined to evoke the grandeur of pioneer modern architecture and to reiterate and manipulate the forms of an already well-used vocabulary; an “art for art’s sake” position to which Cooper Union comes invidiously close. This stance can no doubt be preemptorily discredited as being inherently alien to the creation of a vital culture. Yet such a prima facie dismissal refuses to fully examine the cultural predicament on which such work is based. On the other hand there are the participationists who regard all professionalism as reactionary class warfare and who can only conceive of a valid architecture as that which has been confirmed through the consensus sanction of those it will eventually house, however ephemeral this consensus might prove to be. Beyond these polarities lie the elite interest, the managerial technocracy of systems analysis; that instrumental prodigy of the prestigious university and the paramilitary corporation—a nemesis ever ready to foreclose on culture once and for all, by the simple overnight conversion of departments of architecture into schools of planning. This imminent transformation of the house of culture into the school of management would no doubt be effected through the “default” of the former.

Against this unpropitious climate, now of fairly long standing, few men have been either innocent or timorous enough to ask themselves the central modernist question, namely, what is of the very essence of architecture? Or to employ Marxist terminology, what is its proper object? Such a man, however, is John Hejduk, who since 1964 has been director of the department of architecture at Cooper Union: an intuitive teacher and an architect of dedication and genuine originality, without whom these notes would not have cause to be written.

To begin to understand the work of Cooper Union one must recognize the quasi-syntheticist viewpoint which distinguishes Hejduk’s approach to architecture. Hejduk first publicly declared this position six years ago as “post de Stijl” in an exhibition staged with Robert Slutsky under the title “The Diamond in Painting and Architecture.”3 At that time Hejduk and Slutsky seemed to be asserting the minimum and well-worn program that art and architecture should cease to maintain their independent identities; with the more significant corollary that in reworking certain European spatial innovations of the ’20s and ’30s, architecture should reconstitute itself, as an art, beyond the lingua franca of mere good design. With this as an intrinsic program it is no surprise to find that the main teaching thrust in the first years at Cooper Union should be carried out by artists and not by architects: that is, by Robert Slutsky and Irwin Rubin, both of whom were trained under Albers at Yale within the Black Mountain College “lore” of objectivity and logically consequent visual expression. However, in strong contrast to the Slutsky-Rubin Vorkurs, Hejduk’s beginners’ exercise, his neo-Palladian Nine Square problem, appears to be directed towards the repostulation and conscious manipulation of the basic elements of architecture. Against the discipline of a symmetrical orthogonal grid of 16 columns, demarking 9 squares within a square, students gradually learn to address themselves to the exigencies of consistent architectonic construction. If, at first glance, this problem with its latent Palladianism appears as being crypto-classical, it must also be interpreted, with equal cause, as being modernist in the Greenbergian sense since it uses “the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself—not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.”4 Hejduk’s terse course description can hardly be bettered as a simple account of this pedagogical intent:

The Nine-Square problem is used as a pedagogical tool in the introduction of architecture to new students. Working within this problem, the student begins to discover and understand the elements of architecture. Grid, frame, post, beam, panel, center, periphery, field, edge, line, plane, volume, extension, compression, tension, shear, etc. The student begins to probe the meaning of plan, elevation, section and details. He learns to draw. He begins to comprehend the relationships between two-dimensional drawings, axonometric projections, and three-dimensional (model) form. The student studies and draws his scheme in plan and in axonometric and searches out the three-dimensional implications in the model. An understanding of the elements is revealed—an idea of fabrication emerges.5

Thus the Nine Square problem is modernist to the degree that it represents disciplined choice and posits the creation of artifactual elements and limits such as grid, field, center, edge, volume, panel, plane, etc., which are to be demonstrated solely in terms of consistent three-dimensional spatial operations. This literally spatial bankunst intent is clearly tangentially removed from the intrinsic illusionism of the so-called Juan Gris problem, set in the fourth year. In this exercise the student is urged to design a building in the intention of Juan Gris. As Hejduk’s disarming text makes clear, this task could hardly be more problematic nor patently further removed, at least as a method, from the conceivable proper object of a modernist architecture: namely, the manifest and consistent creation of literal space. Hejduk writes:

There are deep reservations about using Juan Gris in such a manner. The problem is perhaps one of the most difficult ones to present. Most students reject it outright—some become interested in its implications. A few using it as a foundation for movement produce a work. For those who do choose this problem, a very thorough analysis into the generating ideas within the paintings of Juan Gris and within the work of the Cubists—Picasso, Braque, and Léger—is made. Relationships between the ideas and work of architects and painters are discovered. An understanding of the organic links is revealed. The pursuit is more than just an historical analysis—for the student produces a work. He finds that the initial statement of the problem launches him into the world of re-creation and finally creation. This, of course, could be the illusionary view of the teacher—the student’s reality may be elsewhere. The above does depend on the belief that “Juan Gris” is important to architects and to the issues of today.6

It is surely no accident that Gris rather than Picasso, Braque, or Léger should be chosen as the fountainhead of form, since within the Cubist canon Gris made a unique and atypical use of both collage and isometric projection, in order to create an esthetic that (as it happened) could be assimilated to syntheticist considerations lying outside the province of painting as such. Gris’ inversion of the method of Cézanne7 brought him, amongst other things, to organize the thematic of his art within classically ordered geometric grids, thereby conflating the subject matter of his painting—the intimate object as found—with the Platonic structure of his picture surface. Gris’ internal critique of Analytical Cubism was finally to be extended in both painting and writing by the Purists. Amédée Ozenfant and Le Corbusier not only translated the projected objects and profiles of Gris’ synthetic Cubism into the objets types of their Purist art, but also posited these selfsame objects, these Purist bottles, glasses, guitars, plates, pipes, cutlery, books, dice, dominoes, etc., as the socially (that is, naturally) selected anti-kitsch constituent parts of a true machine-age civilization. These unselfconscious mass-produced domestic elements, inherited from the late 19th century, the literal content of both Cubism and Purism, such as standard French café tableware and the Thonet bentwood chair, were seen to possess contours and associational attributes which could be esthetically and symbolically related to an architecture of Platonic form; an architecture wherein the more organic aspects of these objects would function as anthropomorphic ciphers. By this ingenuous semantic elision the hermetic alienation of the 19th-century Gesamtkunstwerk was supposedly superseded.

On the face of it, isometric and elevational projections are used by Cooper Union students, for the express purpose of avoiding a perspectival, not to say pictorial, representation of a three-dimensional complex, from a singular and arbitrary vantage point. Yet a particular graphic projection is as revealing of the inherent intention of an object, of its intrinsic content, as is language a fundamental determinant of thought. Projection is far from being a neutral method. It is by no means inconsequent that different forms of projection should be used, at Cooper Union, for different architectural conceptions. Therefore the Nine Square problem is invariably represented through an axonometric projection, where either the verticals or the orthogonal plan are projected diagonally in depth, at 45 degrees, while the Juan Gris exercise is always a direct vertical projection on the surface of the plan into elevation. Although these two types are equally antipicturesque in themselves, nonetheless they each display fundamentally different conceptions as to both the nature and the method of the architecture projected. They each render manifest intrinsically different architectonic entities and opposed conceptions of space. The one reveals the full development of three-dimensional space, the other compresses the artifact into a layer or layers of shallow illusionistic space. Where the one proffers the conceivable object of a modernist architecture, the other intends architecture as illusionistic space, i.e., ultimately as painting. The normative axonometric projection of the Nine Square problem presupposes the consistent generation of symmetrical, bilateral space—space that can be centralized, articulated, and delimited through the orthogonal coordinates of a clear modular structure—whereas elevational projection presents, first and foremost, the spinal wall or armature that in the Juan Gris problem seems to emerge as the essential surrogate of the synthetic Cubist picture plane. Thus Gris’ work of the years 1912 to 1915, taken as a formal point of departure, appear necessarily to predicate works which, while they may be effectively centralized about one axis, are extremely attenuated about the other. This consequent emphasis on frontality naturally incurs the need to reassert the three-dimensional essence of architecture, thereby recapitulating the dilemma of Cubist sculpture, which found itself virtually subverted as sculpture by the willful adoption of essentially frontal formal constituents. An extravagant solution to this dilemma is to treat the surrogate picture plane as a corridor of movement—as a causeway that at one and the same time links and divides polarized living spaces located either at its extremities or on either side of a spine. The latter, of course, recalls Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Art Center at Harvard and is particularly evident as the parti of the “Gris” house designed by John Colamarino, where the spine is consciously elevated as an enclosed corridor or bridge, with the apparent intent of reconfirming through the resultant open ground plane, the essential three-dimensional and inhabitable attributes of architecture. An alternative strategy, anticipated in Hejduk’s own “wall house” project, is to treat the frontal plane as a wall against which are implanted, as in post-Cubist relief, the major spaces of the house. The prime example of this, within the exhibited work, is Paul Amatuzzo’s project which, with considerable irony, given its affiliations to Synthetic Cubism, recalls Frank Lloyd Wright’s frequent recourse to a similar horizontal format. One cannot fail to be reminded by these works of Wright’s Yahara Yacht Club project of 1902, of his Goetsch and Lloyd Lewis, Usonian houses of 1939.

The Purist approach to architecture as typified in Le Corbusier’s Villa Garches precipitates frontality on to, or close to, the actual facade of a building (i.e., onto its public level), thereby reserving for the privacy of its interior the full depth and plasticity which a free plan naturally confers. By contrast, the “wall house” parti tends to establish frontality in or close to the central spine of the building, i.e., at the inherent private level, thereby exfoliating at random, as it were, its programmatically differentiated spaces, over the full extent of its frontalized yet fragmented elevation.

In assessing all this it is necessary to bear in mind that architecture (unlike the other arts) is contingent upon the social production of space and mutatis mutandis on the hierarchical differentiation and use of space by the society. Since society distinguishes at an overriding level of generality between the public and the private, architecture must fundamentally depend upon an adequate propriety of formal expression which is capable of responding as a coherent system to the fact of these basic distinctions. Unfortunately for the Cooper Union approach, this propriety seems to be equally absent from both the Nine Square problem and from the Gris exercise; for whereas the former insists on public decorum in the correctness of its all pervasive geometry, almost to the exclusion of differentiated hierarchy and private accommodation, the latter tends to disperse itself in empirical gestures which lack sufficient aggregate form for the adequate consolidation of elements into an identifiable public realm.

These projects are, of course, only academic exercises and are therefore relatively free from the constraints of an actual program. Yet the evident incapacity of these works to differentiate adequately between the public and the private reappears in some of the more programmatic works of the school which are ostensibly projected to serve the society at a much larger scale. I am thinking in particular of Alfonso Rodriguez’ 60-story apartment block designed under the tutorship of Myron Goldsmith in Chicago. As one might expect, given the Goldsmith line, the structural ingenuity of this mega-building is self-evident. The warp of its facade is a direct function of the tapering of its structural mullions;—a device which permits the infill windows to be maintained as standard throughout. The project description makes it clear that its author was simply not interested in the hierarchical differentiation of the building into public and private domains, nor for that matter in the issue as to why one should build apartments to 60 floors in the first place:

The building expresses in its form and structural elements the wind and gravity forces that act upon it. Bulk and height do not necessarily go together. The solution suggests that a structure can be large without becoming oppressive, playful without becoming arbitrary, respect economic realities without succumbing to them, and seek beauty without resorting to cosmetics.8

This statement not only ignores the whole issue of hierarchy but turns on the assertion of a statically expressive structure, which is to be regarded as an inherently beautiful “natural” act, an act solely determined by the forces of wind and gravity. The argument for the work’s beauty thus depends upon a natural force’s esthetic, which is as far removed from the aims of modernism in its simpleminded positivism as any of the geodesic domes projected by Buckminster Fuller. Art, needless to say, is not natural. As architecture, it is above all else a socially contingent product, dependent in its very essence upon the existence of a significant hierarchy. By contrast, such a hierarchy, however arbitrary, is at least attempted in the housing project designed by Manuel Fernandez, where something in the nature of a hierarchic public communal space is at least attempted, even if naively, under a glass roof inclined against one side of the block.

The whole development of modern architecture has forever been permeated by this tendency towards a structural positivism, despite the fact that architecture, through its dependence on society, inevitably implicates activity sets and spatial complexities which cannot be accommodated without conflict in pure, prismatically consistent structures. The differentiation of public and private, the provision of ingress and egress, necessitate hierarchical organizations and interjections that compromise structural purity. Modernist architecture can no more predicate itself on a purity of structural expression than it can legitimize itself through a simpleminded functionalism. Where the former is pragmatically not amenable to content and to hierarchic expression, the latter is culturally impoverished.

Despite the exacting precision of its presentation and the outstanding rigor of its craft-oriented professional training, for all the pyrotechnics of its formal invention and re-invention, Cooper Union’s method paradoxically serves to alienate its work from the essential precondition of architecture: a revelatory, designatory symbolic function in respect of the society. The elevational projection method adopted by Cooper Union is significant in itself since, despite its a pictorial objectivity, it has the property of re-presenting three-dimensional space as a layered two-dimensional graphic matrix wherein volume is rendered as flat and shallow, that is, as possessing exactly that illusionist spatial quality which was, and presumably still is, the preoccupation of modernism in painting. Here the re-presentation of architecture as art literally terminates in art. An unconscious and hybrid modernist intent may be attributed to the Cooper Union position solely on the grounds that the work in general tends to orient itself, in its basic pedagogical method, to the reconstitution of architecture as an art, either through the exercise of consistent spatial operations in a gridded field, irrespective of content (the Nine Square problem) or through an ultimate recourse to means and methods of illusionism (the Juan Gris problem). Such pedagogical intentions conscious or otherwise will eventually be confronted with two critical issues at the same time, namely, 1) what is or was the nature of the modernist project in general, and 2) to what extent can this nature be reconciled with the proper object of architecture?

The origin of modernism in general has been characterized by Clement Greenberg as follows: “Having been denied by the Enlightenment of all tasks they could take seriously” (Greenberg does not choose to countenance the cultural impact of utilitarian mass production as such) the arts strove to “save themselves from this leveling down only by demonstrating that the kind of experience they provided was valuable in its own right and not to be obtained from any other kind of activity.”9 To this end modernist painting stressed, to quote Greenberg again, “the ineluctable flatness of the support that remained most fundamental in the processes by which pictorial art criticized and defined itself under Modernism.”10 Yet of this modernist flatness and delimitation of flatness Greenberg later wrote in 1962 that “. . . the observance of merely these two norms is enough to create an object that can be experienced as a picture: thus a stretched tacked-up canvas already exists as a picture—though not necessarily as a successful one.”11

Here, over a decade ago, Greenberg all but acknowledged that an autocritical process may logically presuppose not only entrenchment in the area of competence but also the possibility of the ultimate disillusion of the field criticized. Thus, while Modernism now seems to maintain only a precarious hold on painting, the problem of content once again obtrudes and modernism, having successfully challenged the synthesizing ideals of the 19th-century Gesamtkunstwerk, now begins to lose its own capacity to sustain the boundaries between the arts. At this juncture modernist painting escapes into film or even into theater, into fields which, although simultaneously transformed in themselves, are no longer the proper area of its competence as initially defined by media. Architecture, irrespective of modernism, is excluded from such an escape since both literally and metaphorically its domain lies outside the traditional boundaries separating the arts; for, as properly constituted, it either is, or it subtends, the “space of public appearance” in itself. The proper object of a modernist architecture seems to demand as an ultimate precondition the evident celebration of the significant occupation of space by man, an occupation in which man’s own self-awareness is made virtual and manifest through his presence in space and by the reciprocal impact that the presence of space exerts upon him, both as space per se, and as a culturally contingent, hierarchically determined artifact. An architecture whose main purport is the iteration and configuration of elements and plastic gestures through syntactic or pictorial composition can hardly initiate such an occupation of space, since iteration and composition concern themselves exclusively by definition with objects and modulated surfaces, suspended within or on the periphery of space, and not with space itself as the medium of man’s existence and possession.

In contrast to the graphic work of Cooper Union, Alvar Aalto’s drawings for the Technical University at Otanemi are but coordinates on paper which, however well-crafted in themselves, exist only to schematically indicate that particular juxtaposition of physical elements on which the space must be contingent. For all their intrinsic craft character, such drawings diffuse any latent gestalt which would invite their assimilation as art, and more importantly for the final product, the conversion of the object itself into an illusionistic artifact. This conscious restraint is integral to the process they constitute. The information these drawings encode for the purposes of construction gives no indication whatsoever as to the phenomenological attributes of the resultant space. Apart from its genesis as a social product, spatial presence is inherently dependent upon mass, surface, and light in their primordial states; that is, in a primal condition that must depend on factors other than modulation and composition. To reveal and maintain such a condition demands a Minimalist attitude toward the resources of built form to which Mies van der Rohe came close from time to time, but never fully embraced. I am thinking of Mies’ Glass Skyscraper projects of the early ’20s and of his Silk Industry Exhibit of 1927 designed with Lily Reich. I am also thinking of the pioneer Russian architect Ivan Leonidov who seemed to complement these intentions in a series of remarkable projects that were never realized or fully developed. In this context the recent culture of Minimalist art, that critical antithesis of modernism, poses for architecture a challenge which it has yet to take up.

Hejduk, amongst the formalists of his generation, has perhaps come closest to answering this challenge. His remarkable wall house project of 1970, for all its metaphorical limitations, avoids both the undifferentiated rigidity of the Nine Square problem and the insignificant manipulations and empty illusionism of the Juan Gris exercise. Instead, despite its evident theatricality, it postulates an architecture which celebrates, in existential terms, the penetration and occupation of space. The change of state, implied in this instance by the “wall” itself (between the separate acts of entering and occupation) is patently reinforced by the architect’s intention to finish one side of the wall in chrome and the other in black. It is clearly the regrettable paradox of the Cooper Union position that, while an imagination like Hejduk’s may rise to the occasion of meeting such a challenge, the School, despite its brilliant recreative exercises, entrenches itself further in a labyrinth of cultural historicity from which there is little possibility of immediate escape.

Kenneth Frampton


1. Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” The New Art, ed. Gregory Battcock, New York, 1966, pp. 100–110.

2. The Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions for architecture: 1. The art and science of constructing edifices for human use (a definition which emphasizes definition and permanence). 2. The action and process of building (a definition which emphasizes impermanence).

3. “The Diamond in Painting and Architecture,” an exhibition held at the Architectural League, 41 East 65th Street, New York, November 2–24, 1967.

4. Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” p. 101.

5. See catalogue Education of an Architect: A Point of View, from an exhibition by the Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, November, 1971, p. 7.

6. Ibid., p. 163.

7. For Juan Gris his inversion of the method of Cézanne involved him in a move away from architecture. He was to write in 1921: “I consider that the architectural element in painting is mathematics, the abstract side; I want to humanize it. Cézanne turns a bottle into a cylinder, but I begin with a cylinder and create an individual of a special type: I make a bottle—a particular bottle—out of a cylinder. Cézanne tends toward architecture, I tend away from it.” See Edward Fry, Cubism, New York, 1970, p. 162.

8. Catalogue, Cooper Union exhibition, p. 294.

9. Greenberg, pp. 101–2.

10. Greenberg, p. 103.

11. Clement Greenberg, “After Abstract Expressionism,” Art International, October, 1962, p. 30.