PRINT December 1985



ARCHITECTURE IS OFTEN viewed as an art of space, but for two centuries architects have also been practicing an art of time, clothing their structures in the costumes of an epic architectural Dance of the Hours. The performance thus far has transpired in three scenes; a program note might read:

Modern Times. Synopsis. I. Mid 18th to late 19th centuries. Architecture dons period attire to reenact the architectural pageantry of ancient Greece, medieval Christendom, and other ceremonies of a symbolic past. II. Early to mid 20th century. Architecture blasts out of the past to dwell in a fictive future of white walls, pure geometry, universal forms, and perpetual tomorrow. III. The present. Architecture recalls the past (Postmodern historicism), remembers the future (high tech), but inhabits the present tense, the contemporary city of come-as-you-are.

A program might be a useful thing to have just now, for the present is not an easy tense in which to get your bearings; it confounds our inherited belief that to be contemporary is to look ahead rather than around. That inheritance is not easily renounced. We still scan the horizon for tomorrow’s Form-Givers, while architecture has already proceeded to the era of the Form-Takers. Or we complain that contemporary architecture is captive to the passing whim of fashion or to the media’s interest in novelty failing to hear in such complaints an echo of the futurist’s demand that architects accurately forecast the form of the world to come—a demand itself an echo of the revivalist’s call for the authority of tradition. It is we who are captive to our expectations of authority, and of our willingness to let an architectural order be conferred upon us as though from the Great Beyond, from deities or emperors.

Architecture today occupies the space of memory and anticipation in unstable balance, the pause in space between the exchanges in a conversation, the moment of doubt about who’s going to say what next, the space between the last building and the next where the hole sits while the developers and the community activists dispute what ought to go there. That hole is the present’s architectural symbol no less than the Roman arch represented the turn-of-the-century City Beautiful’s desire for an imagined past or the white box embodied the Modern movement’s projected future.

To the Modernist, the future was uninhabitable unless it was completely planned; the present, for most, is uninhabitable unless it’s full of surprises, which is why the Modern utopia collapsed the moment we got to walk around inside one. The towering crane that was intended to be a permanent fixture in so many unbuilt megastructures in the ’60s symbolized the architect’s aspiration to design buildings capable of responding to the changing needs of the moment. The idea it signified continues in force. Real estate developers advertise forthcoming towers as instant landmarks, but dread the designation of landmark status that would prevent the alteration or demolition of properties they already own. Older buildings must Recycle or Die. Architecture students are taught to expect that most of their jobs will be interior renovations of limited lifespan. “Contextual” guidelines require new buildings to relate visually to old ones that may be torn down before the new building rises. Venice has become salvageable only by becoming the work-in-progress of saving Venice. Gallery exhibition of architectural drawings allows the architect to star in the ephemeral event. Construction methods insure the ephemerality of buildings, dressed up though they may be in the Postmodern duds of the eternal classic. These are the signs of architecture today, the place the eye should look for meaning.

The effect of the Post-modern polemic has been to neutralize our sacred images of past and future in an oxymoronic provocation (Are you keeping up to date or have we left you behind in the future?) that lands us—finally—in the present. The concept of eternal time has been converted to the quick-thinking of timing. This conversion of time to timing signifies the chance for the withdrawal of our investment from the eternal past and future and from the evasions of responsibility to the present that eternalism allows. We’re in the present and we need the cash to live here, to put a down payment on the house pledged to the modern mind at its birth. Voltaire threw a glittering shower for this brilliant baby, Jean Jacques Rousseau tossed its toys out of the crib, John Ruskin rapped its wrists when it neglected to learn its lessons, Le Corbusier yelled its adolescent claims upon the future, and Frank Gehry has taken it to California to get some rest and do a little shopping.

Herbert Muschamp directs the Criticism Workshop at the Parsons School of Design, NY, and writes a column on architecture for Artforum.