PRINT October 1985


Architects take leave of their senses; Arata Isozaki takes his along.

FORTY YEARS AGO, as the vigor of early Modern architecture was subsiding into the anemia of the International Style, the historian John Summerson offered a diagnosis and a prescription still useful today. The Modern architect, Summerson wrote, has

taken a look at the scene around him and then become obsessed with the importance not of architecture, but of the relation of architecture to other things. . . . He has walked out of himself, rather like a second personality is seen to walk out of the first in a psychological film. He has . . . left the first personality at the drawing board and taken the second (the “live” personality) on a world-tour of contemporary life—scientific research, sociology, psychology, engineering, the arts and a great many other things. Returning to the drawing board he finds the first personality embarrassing and profoundly unattractive. There he stubbornly sits, smelling slightly of “the styles.”

Summerson deplored the immediate consequences of the architect’s personality split. The “live,” inquisitive personality had rendered the draftsman inarticulate, reducing architecture to a mechanized diagram of minimum spatial requirements. True, architects had temporarily conquered an addiction to the historical architectural styles, but their travels in the wider sphere of culture left no mind behind to animate the draftsman’s hand. The result was the Modern environment that surrounds us today, in which the mind has abdicated in favor of prefabrication (both material and mental).

Summerson cautioned, however, that nothing would be solved when the second (live) personality retreated back into the first. He prescribed instead

a drawing of the first into the second. It is time for the architect to take a new and positive view of his functions, to learn to study not merely minimum requirements, but maximum possibilities; to learn not only how to economize space but how to be extravagant with it . . . not only to use space but to play with space.

These influential passages offer a prescient understanding of the ideals by which many contemporary architects view their functions, anticipating by several decades the ubiquitous double-coding that now allows them to appropriate historical styles while sustaining an active interest in contemporary culture. Compared to the formal reductions of the International Style, current work exhibits considerable playfulness, extravagance, and curiosity. But if we peer beneath the surface of much of this work we find the schism still much in evidence. On the one hand we see that new buildings exhibit a far greater range of references than those Modern functionalism allowed the architect to express. Less happily, we discover that individual architects have barely begun to take advantage of this freedom. It is as though the “live” personality, the roving mind, limits the draftsman to one or two measly day-trips—to Pop art, say, and Palladio—allowing the purchase of a meager set of postcards and a few frosted cupcakes, and sends him back to the post-Modernist drawing board to copy the souvenirs. What may initially resemble an uproarious license of imagery turns out to be a kind of ornamented minimalism. We are back with the styles, no longer drawing on the prestige of vanished cultures but banking instead on the ability of living architects to devise recognizable signatures of their own; these styles smell stale, too, after a time.

It was Robert Venturi who, in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), first expanded the theoretical premise of Summerson’s metaphor into a fully developed conceptual ,blueprint. Venturi’s curiosity about his culture took the form of a dialogue between the two 20th-century architectural personalities Summerson had identified; architects have been quoting fragments from this conversation ever since. But a statement in the preface to Venturi’s book suggests why the project has rarely progressed beyond talk. Citing Summerson, Venturi claims, “I make no special attempt to relate architecture to other things” and expresses the hope that “the architect’s ever diminishing power and his growing ineffectualness in shaping the whole environment can perhaps be reversed, ironically, by narrowing his concerns and concentrating on his own job.” Venturi’s linguistic shoring up of the narrow boundaries of “the job” is precisely the regression Summerson cautioned against. Defensible as an argument against the academic charge that he had abandoned the architect’s high calling (“shaping the whole environment”) for the pop wasteland (“is not Main Street almost all right?”), Venturi’s disclaimer of what made his book so valuable unfortunately helps to explain why he has sometimes seemed to lag behind other architects who have followed his brilliantly roving mind so attentively.

Modern architecture opened a process of discovering (not simply reflecting or reforming) the contemporary world; Summerson advised that it remain so. Michael Graves and Arata Isozaki are two architects who have given the draftsman freer range of mind and whose projects often exhibit that freedom to an exhilarating degree. With Graves, the integration of the two personalities has evidently been a difficult process, as yet but partially realized. The stubborn persistence of the schism is reflected in the contrast between his drawings and his buildings. While a generation of architecture students has been borne aloft on the power of Graves’ drawings to conjure plausible, sensitive public buildings out of intensely private souvenirs, the buildings themselves bring us down to earth with a bump. It is as though his “live” personality is strong enough to lift a pencil but not a drawing board; to design a “real” building it must regress to the draftsman’s domain, rendering forms that, like Graves’ proposed addition to the Whitney Museum of American Art, smell more than slightly of the styles.

The ideal of an organically reunited mind and hand may inevitably be shattered by the forces that remind architecture of gravity (clients, community boards), though perhaps the ingenious architect will manage to include that shattering process as part of an organic whole. Isozaki comes very close to this in the Palladium. While you expect the designer of a $10 million discotheque to play with space, to be extravagant with it, the Palladium’s crumbling Manhattan facade doesn’t prepare you for the possibilities Isozaki has wrested from what could have turned out just another weekend art pass stamped with the necessary visas.

Isozaki is sometimes accused of cribbing from his contemporaries; it is equally plausible that he has exposed himself to the same sources as other architects but has declined to commit himself to any of them, preferring an open eye to a signature style, absorbing the sights he likes within his frankly Modernist structural grids. His relaxed extension of the Modernist expression of structure, underscored in the silk screens he often uses, confirms Summerson’s suggestion that to go beyond the constraints of functionalist minimalism requires an organic process of integration that may be disrupted by a rejection of Modernism itself. Thus the polemics of post-Modernism, like the word itself, may actually preserve the split many of its most gifted practitioners hope to mend.

At the Palladium, the draftsman sits up to join the traveler on a ramble through New York after dark, past empty lots choked off by hurricane fence, past appliance-store windows, past bad girls and lost boys, through the fraying infrastructure beneath our tall, pristine towers. The coalescence of these tawdry images has produced this city’s noblest public interior since Philip Johnson quarried his travertine promenade at the New York State Theatre, Lincoln Center, in 1964. Edwin Denby described that space as "the fantasy of a sociable city square’: and that’s the effect Isozaki, his collaborators, and his infamous patrons have updated here, an architectural visualization of the magnetic image that has been drawing New Yorkers east to Tompkins Square Park each Sunday. Isozaki’s square won’t last as long as Johnson’s, but disintegration is a part of the Palladium’s design. For the time being, it gives a critic a rare pleasure not just to look at but also to dance inside the work of an architect he admires.

Herbert Muschamp directs the Criticism Workshop at the Parsons School of Design, New York. He is a columnist on architecture for Artforum.