PRINT October 1976

The New Architectural Supremacists

IN THE ’60s, THE DOMINANT late International Style architecture came under attack by artists and younger architects. They found it devoid of art or imagination; it seemed to repeat mindlessly the technological, functional and social formulae of earlier decades. Artists disputed the claim of architecture to public scale and setting. Proposing his windshield-wiper monument, Oldenburg wrote: “If it proves to be impossible [to build], I ask how then will architects honor their vow of instrumenting the imagination.”1 Among architects this reaction also took Pop forms, and these encouraged commentary on the growing social concerns of the period: the best-known example is the work of Robert Venturi, such as his missile nose-cone fountain project for Fairmount Park, Philadelphia.

But by the end of the decade, still younger architects, including principally, in the U.S., Peter Eisenman, John Hejduk, Michael Graves and Richard Meier of the so-called New York Five, turned to the more purely formal aspects of architecture present in works of the 1920s and 1930s.2 They rejected the architectural recognition granted in the ’60s to commercial, consumer and science-fiction imagery and to the empirical conditions of the city and environment, as well as to the clients and users of buildings. Their work is patently “modernist,” in a Greenbergian sense, and this has brought about a sharp divergence from the art world, where modernism has become one variation among many, with little of its earlier power.

At a symposium held last spring at the Rhode Island School of Design, with the evocative title of “Positions in Architecture,” some of the by now well known representatives of these esthetic attitudes debated this nascent architectural modernism in a polemical mood which more clearly illuminated the differences from the current situation in art. These were chiefly due to the still unavoidable social claims of architecture. I should add that I listened to the symposium as an architectural historian with hopes of seeing once again an architecture of some social significance, which also might have some of the architectural strengths of the work of the participants.

The debate over modernism was forced by Eisenman, first among equals at the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies in New York, and active as a critic as well as an architect. Eisenman divided the members of the symposium into opposing camps, a false avant-garde of the ’60s, and a true modernism of the ’70s. He included himself in the latter. It was a performance which few American architects have attempted since Philip Johnson read Art Deco out of the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s.

Among the men of the ’60s at the symposium, by this definition if not by theirs, were Peter Cook and Michael Webb, of London, and Hans Hollein and Friedrich St. Florian (organizer of the symposium), from Vienna. Their work from that period bears comparison with Pop. Cook in those days was an editor of Archigram, the now-defunct English journal for the promotion of the mildly ironic enjoyment of technology and its services, as in his “Plug-In City,” which offered a metropolis in the form of a machine for all to consume.3 Since then Cook has surrendered architecture to nature instead of technology: at the symposium he showed “Sponge City” and other colored drawings of architectural elements overgrown by greenery. Hans Hollein began by making lustral rooms or ritual mortuaries of sleek materials for art or furnishings, as in the ex-Feigen Gallery on 79th Street or the Retti Candleshop in Vienna. Around the time of Oldenburg’s monuments, he loosed images of aircraft carriers onto the landscape, saying “Alles ist Architektur.” Now he is to build a museum of modern art, in Mönchengladbach in the Rheinland, which he has nestled into an urban hillside with the ingenuity of Aalto but no longer with his own former swagger.4 The metaphorical intensities of both artists’ earlier proposals have subsided, leaving little architecture behind. They have been replaced by resignations to the environment, whether urban or natural.

Against this work, Eisenman opposed “modernist” architecture as the only true architecture. His idea of modernism derives generally from Greenberg and specifically from an interpretation of an article by Colin Rowe, his teacher. Rowe divided modern architecture into the literally and the phenomenally transparent.5 The former, represented by Gropius’ Bauhaus, could be mere glass; the latter, exemplified by Le Corbusier’s Villa Stein at Garches, is a function of the mind, which comprehends the planes as transparent though they aren’t. Architecture can thus be understood as a conception of layered planes, as in a Cubist painting. Structure, materials, walls, doors, etc. might mark the planes for the eye, but need not be otherwise significant. The functional and technological (and by a simple extension, the social) dogmas which had oppressed modern architecture could be forgotten.

Metaphor, delight and concord with the surroundings were not similarly excluded. They have been invoked in varying degrees by Graves, Hejduk and Meier in their work, and Rowe in his criticism. But Eisenman has tried to eliminate every cultural or experiential reference in order to uncover what he thinks is the “nature” of architecture. He has sought that nature in (to paraphrase his words) an order sufficient for a real construction to imply an idea of space. For example, in Le Corbusier’s diagram of the Domino Houses, which consists of columns and slabs, the placement of the columns is by itself enough to imply a frontal layering of space and a lateral extension of it, according to Eisenman, without the need of facades, walls, doorways, windows, or any other sign or experience to get these spatial ideas across.

The difficulty with Eisenman’s theory is that he does not ask whether these supposedly self-evident architectural ideas could derive from culturally determined ones. In the example of the Domino diagram, we may comprehend the frontal layering and lateral extension because the diagram is the skeleton of the Villa Stein at Garches which in turn served as the model for Rowe’s analysis of Corbu’s space—that is, we may read back into the diagram what we have learned from the critic and the building.

The contrast proposed in theory between experience and conception is most strongly exemplified in the sixth and most recently completed of the series of Eisenman’s houses, built for an architectural historian and her husband in Connecticut. No conventional architectural attention is given here to materials, structure, site, entrance, some standard conveniences or even, for the first time in Eisenman’s work, space in the usual modern sense of openness and continuity. Plastic paint hides the materials, steel beams lie concealed, rooms jut out above the ground, the door is a hatch to one side, the main bedroom is split by the glazed cut of an abstract plane, and the interior seems like a rookery. The building cannot be understood by looking at it, walking around or through it, or even, I would think, by living in it.

As in Eisenman’s earlier work, the house is based on the grid of planes deduced by Rowe from the design of the Villa Stein. But now the planes and volumes are organized by a single concept: an axis running diagonally between upper right and lower left, as suggested by the axonometric projection looking down onto the design. The elements of the house are topologically symmetrical about this axis, not in size, that is, but in relative position—the two rooms on the upper right relate to the major crosswise plane as the two on the lower left do to the rear of the lengthwise plane, and so forth. If the building were turned upside down, it would remain the same as architecture, in Eisenman’s sense of the term.

Theoretically, the observer can emerge from his experiential confusion and make the leap to the generating conception by means of such clues as the false upside-down stairs at right angles and in complementary colors to the real stairs. If not, then some words from Eisenman and a study of the axonometric drawing looking down on the axis would no doubt be of help.6 By arriving at the conception of the building, the observer becomes the equivalent of the architect. Only the architect (in this sense) can know and possess the building. Here for once the architect rules supreme, but only over the constructs of his own mind.

This procedure raises sharper questions about the meaning and value of architecture than much work of recent years. The issues are not veiled by the topical references of Pop-related architecture, nor by the visual elegance of other work by the New York Five. Here comparison might be made with buildings of Richard Meier, such as the Smith House in Darien, which also derives from Rowe’s analysis of the Villa Stein. Like much of Meier’s architecture, this building depends for its content less on its formal structure than on a quasi-theatrical experience. The interior is like an auditorium for the entrances, exits and gatherings of its inhabitants, and like a proscenium stage, with layered planes for wings, to frame the view of nature beyond. It is much more “human” than Eisenman’s work, but also shallower.

But Eisenman’s new house is of necessity awkward and confusing. His work remains in the realm of invention and diagrams, despite the fact that he has succeeded in executing quite a number of houses. It is similar in this to the architectural projects of Malevich and Van Doesburg, the two other radical modernist inventors to whom he can most readily be compared. Critical to this limitation is Eisenman’s. inability to acknowledge the brutality of his architectural logic. LeWitt, discussing his Conceptual art of the late ’60s, to which Eisenman’s architecture is closely related, emphasizes its uselessness to distinguish it from architecture.7 His work may cause esthetic discomfort, but nothing worse. Eisenman, attempting to distinguish his work from Conceptual art, recognized that “there is no conceptual aspect in architecture which can be thought of without the concept of pragmatic and functional objects [i.e. walls, bathrooms, closets, doors, ceilings, etc.]; otherwise it is not an architectural conception.”8 But he can’t give emotional or metaphorical value to the suppression or subordination of these aspects lest he obscure the claim of his ideas to universality and perfect rationality. Rosalind Krauss has written of David Smith, to draw a distant but still useful contrast, that he achieved a union of his modernist destruction of tradition and his violent feelings about human aggression through metaphors of war and rape.9 As if to recognize Eisenman’s brutality for him, Gordon Matta-Clark in his Datum Cuts of 1973—“datum plane” is a favorite term of Eisenman’s—sawed a horizontal plane of reference through an old house, destroying it.10 Both Smith and Matta-Clark rely on the much richer traditions of self-awareness in art, as compared with architecture.

The destructiveness of Eisenman’s modernism becomes clearest in his criticism. In a recent issue of Oppositions, a journal published by the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, he has a long article on James Stirling’s Leicester University Engineering Building of the early 1960s. This building is probably the most significant attempt of the post-World War II period to give a new life of forms to the materialistic concerns of the 1920s and 1930s. It articulates work, concourse and human movement with industrial materials and structures in crystalline forms that break free of gravity and confinement. Yet Eisenman ignores Stirling’s own functional and all-metaphorical appraisals to argue instead that the architect really contended here with the esthetics of the “mainstream modern movement”: he is said to have done this by conceiving of the vertical plane as a fulcrum to opposing volumes, instead of the container of a layered space.

Eisenman believes that conflicting readings of materials and structures force a truer understanding of them as such fulcrum planes. The brick wall of the shed, for example, is supposedly seen as a plane rather than a structure, because it doesn’t appear to support the slab above it, and because the solid-looking polyhedrons of the skylight project across it, deemphasizing its materiality. But the wall can be more simply construed as a brick fence, a boundary wall like the others which define industrial property and areas in England and northern Europe. That is how the brick wall is used in the spandrels of the laboratory tower at Leicester, where it signifies the enclosure of the instruments behind it, or more conspicuously, beneath Stirling’s Florey Building at Oxford, where it is separated from the supporting structure as the claustral wall of an English university. Structurally the brick rests upon the ground or floorplates, in contrast to the tile cladding of other surfaces. Its meaning is cultural and structural, not geometric. Vertical datum planes have more to do with Connecticut than Leicester.

At RISD, Arata Isozaki presented a body of work broad enough so that he could elect (not too seriously) affinities with Eisenman and yet could be claimed by Cook and Hollein as one of their own. I confess that I understood little of what he said, and have seen none of his buildings. But in photographs and drawings they appeared to have a diversity and imagistic force almost unequalled in the past decade.11 Banks, libraries, museums, offices, medical buildings, clubhouses, city plans, private houses and exhibition displays of grand scale and ingenuity have issued forth in that short time. Their imagery has shifted from more aggressive, complex and technological forms in the ’60s to quieter and more architectonic ones, often developed from cubic frames or cylindrical shells and vault’s.

But his architecture usually assumes a totemic aura which expropriates life from men and nature. It seems to rise on stilts or to slither and coil, and to defeat human by architectural movement, especially on stairs. Daylight is disputed by artificial light; the sky below submits to vaults above. Technology, too, yields to architecture—electric bulbs to the squares of a grid on a wall, ventilators to adjacent columns. His architecture wants to invest itself with references to the relics of Western culture: Stirling and the Italian Renaissance, Louis Kahn and Adolph Loos, or (Isozaki said) Marilyn Monroe and Magritte.

His Gumma Prefectural Museum of Modern Art recalls the frigid hollow cubes of Adolfo Natalini of Superstudio, an Italian group. But it is given architectural life by great beams and piers as well as small angles and deflections, and other metaphorical existences are extended by the range of its allusions. The grand staircase leads to the bend of a small one floating above in memory both of Le Corbusier and the Winged Victory at the entrance to the Louvre. A long hall opens below to an illusionistic “stair-wall-sculpture” (to give it a name), reminiscent of Bramante’s staircase to the museum of the Belvedere. Sculpturally, it steals the show from the sculpture placed in front of it. Outside, a pavilion for older Japanese art moves off at an angle on pillars above a pond, like an ancient Japanese temple or treasury. Either this pavilion does not belong here, or the modern museum building doesn’t. In the Fujimi Country Club, the golfers sit under the barrel vault looking out on a landscape unrolling like a Japanese scroll, as if the landscape were a painting in Kahn’s vaulted museum in Fort Worth, or perhaps an ad in the London Tube. Externally it is like a villa, fort or whale, which last turns the landscape into the sea. In Isozaki’s small house called the “Y residence,” a vaulted pavilion for a bedroom and study, rising within a shell of U-shaped plan, recalls a Japanese ritual alcove or tokonoma and the stagey baldachin structures of Charles Moore’s American country houses. The bedroom peers through the tunnel of the vault at the sky far away; a ladder leads from the study to the door in this window on the sky; and below a window flanked by electric bulbs like suns frames the sky and tree tops of a Japanese painting. Surely it must be one of the most disquieting, beautiful images of recent architecture.

Alone among the speakers, Colin Rowe talked about architecture in its conjunction with politics. He wished to redeem architecture as the chief symbol of the polis, the city as the setting of political activity. For that he found it useful to discredit the utopian designs of early modern architecture. He went out of his way to turn Bruno Taut’s vision of communal dwellings in the Alps into omens of Auschwitz,12 and to derogate Le Corbusier’s cities as, somehow, Marxist. Yet he wished to save utopia as a metaphor, after destroying it as a guide for action.

How is this to be done? By “Collage City,” in a term used by Rowe in a recent article in Architectural Review, an abridgment of a promised book.13 That is, by fragments of utopias juxtaposed over time to form new contexts in which each fragment would limit the next, as reifications of Karl Popper’s “piecemeal social engineering.” This is to be the setting for a government of laws and of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as Rowe told his audience at RISD. For example (with all due seriousness and irony), he referred to such collagelike structures as Rome of the emperors, in which new fora, baths, temples, monuments, etc. jostled one another from reign to reign, and Hadrian’s play upon that Rome in his villa at Tivoli, and, exploded to freer densities, Houston and Los Angeles. (Not, however, Paris, Manhattan, Timgad, Split and all other gridirons.) With this structure of collage, the now standard but un-architectural ideal of complex diversified planning generally associated with the name of Jane Jacobs can be brought back to the drawing board and design classes. It assures architects that their “pluralism,” in the current jargon, can be made both concrete and modernist. But “Collage City” makes, no provision for the economic and technological changes beyond political control which have preoccupied planners for a century or more. Rowe seems to think that Los Angeles and Houston are the accretions of our choices, the realizations of our competing wills. In his obligatory irony one senses the most utopian of optimists.

With this proposal, Rowe has sought to ease what at RISD he called the ravages of guilt over the conviction that architecture is superfluous, and to diminish the anxieties of modernism’s “simultaneous insistence on the gratuitousness of art and of its divine importance.” His earlier article on transparency eliminated concerns such as structure and function. But it left the prospect of buildings scattered about with little context and significance, like haphazard monuments. The collage technique of planning would permit us “the enjoyment of Utopian poetics without being obliged to suffer the embarrassment of Utopian politics.” In other words, Rowe wishes to transform programs of social action into an iconography for modern architecture, in order to lend meaning to the form restored by his earlier architectural criticism. He gives us a view of human action as esthetic as any of the early modern architects’, but art historical instead of futurist, as if to make use of Rudolph Wittkower’s Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism or Erwin Panofsky’s Meaning in the Visual Arts as manuals for our architecture.

But Rowe’s torturing of utopia did not suggest a serene conscience or belief in the powers of architecture. Neither did Cook’s invocation to all-creeping nature, Hollein’s suave accommodations, Eisenman’s solipsistic refuges, or Michael Webb’s drolleries in mockery of the rest. (Even Richard Meier, most polished of our architects, has recently protested criticism that his work lacks moral and social content, and insisted that they are among his primary concerns).14

Behind this uneasiness lies a conflict between the traditional social claims of architecture and its obvious failure to accomplish them, especially in the recent years of social unrest. In lieu of significant commissions, the architects of the would-be avant-garde must seek to realize their claims by teaching, and to define themselves before students, rather than other artists. The demonstrations of Eisenman, the rhetoric of Rowe, the doodles of Webb, the projects of Hejduk, belong literally to the classroom. The division postulated by Eisenman between the decades is a reaction to the classroom disruptions of the ’60s, which were more severe in the architectural schools than in the galleries or museums. And the recent emphasis on drawing—exemplified by the exhibitions of student work at the Museum of Modern Art, from Cooper Union in 1971, and from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts earlier this year—is the chief symbol of this reaction.

Precisely this situation seems now to be carrying architecture away from the art world which nourished it only a decade ago. For these academic disputations and pretensions demand polemical and divisory tactics instead of the freer diversity of approaches current in the art world. Eisenman’s institute has done more than other organizations to promote different viewpoints, but always under the rubric of critical oppositions and a hierarchical grading of the variations. I doubt that the conflicts over the social values of architecture which lie behind this can be resolved for a long time, if at all, but they might be more clearly recognized and not glossed over with pretenses to universality, rationality, modernity and similar diversions.

Richard Pommer teaches architecture at Vassar College.



1. Claes Oldenburg, Proposals for Monuments and Buildings 1965–1969, Chicago, 1969, p. 164. See also the remarks on the decline of architecture by Allan Kaprow, Assemblages, Environments and Happenings, New York,1966.

2. Five Architects, New York, 1972. In a talk on “The Grey and White Architects: False Polarizations in Recent Architectural Criticism,” at the Society of Architectural Historians' annual meeting last May, Rosemarie Bletter noted that so-called Whites, chiefly the New York Five, including Charles Gwathmey, and the Greys, chiefly Robert Venturi, Charles Moore, Romaldo Giurgola, and Robert A. M. Stern, have in common their “mannerist” variations on the recent past. But this should not diminish the differences between the modernism of some of the former, especially Eisenman, and the anti-modernism of some of the latter, in particular Venturi. For a similar return to the formalism of the '20s, see the work of Aldo Rossi in Architettura Razionale, Milan, 1973.

3. Summarized in Archigram, New York-Washington, 1973. Cook now edits NET.

4. “Museo Civico in Germany,” Domus, no. 548, July, 1975, pp. 16–19.

5. Colin Rowe and Robert Slutsky, “Transparency, Literal and Phenomenal,” Perspecta, VIII, 1963, pp. 45–54.

6. Significantly, the building is chiefly comprehensible from the axonometric projection, an architect's tool, and not from the plans, which builders and clients must use. On the importance of the axonometric projection in recent architecture see Charles Jencks, Modern Movements in Architecture, Garden City, 1973.

7. Sol LeWilt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” catalogue of an exhibition of LeWitt's work at the Haags Gemeentemuseum July 25–August 30, 1970, pp, 56–57.

8. P. Eisenman, “Notes on Conceptual Architecture: Towards a Definition,” Casabella, nos. 359–360. 1971. pp, 49–58.

9. Terminal Iron Works: The Sculpture of David Smith, Cambridge––London, 1971.

10. Illustrated in Donald Wall, “Gordon Matta-Clark's Building Dissections,” Arts Magazine, L, May, 1976, pp. 75–79.

11. See especially Japan Architect, nos. 229 and 230, March and April 1976.

12. Rowe told the audience that in Taut's Alpine Architektur (actually in his Die Auflösung der Städte: oder . . . Der Weg zur Alpine Architektur), malcontents were branded and expelled. But actually in this particular reference (to the “House of the Wisemen on the Great Star”) only those who had murdered a second time were to receive the mark ofCain on their foreheads so that they could continue to remain in the house––rather far from Auschwitz procedures. Taut was the most humane of modern architects, in his utopian as well as his pragmatic moments.

13. Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, Architectural Review, CLVIII, August, 1975, pp. 6–61. Koetter is partner with Jerry Wells in a firm that built one
of the least collageable intrusions into the American landscape in many a year: Broadway east in Kingston, N.Y. (Progressive Architecture, LV,
October 1974, pp. 62–71).

14. Architecture plus Urbanism, no. 4, 1976: “The primary idea that concerns me and underlies my work is that high art is not necessarily a repressive art: this means that there can be an intellectual altitude about architecture which is not in and of itself elitist––that formal ideas are not a priori antisocial. In fact it is only formal ideas which elevate architecture from mere building, and make it, whether one likes it or not, a cultural artifact––a work of art.”