PRINT March 1986


the piazza in the living room. Communion by communication.

Faithful Who Watch Pope on Christmas Will Win Release From Sin’s Punishment

Rome, Dec. 18 [1985]—The Vatican, in an unusual shift in Roman Catholic devotional practice, said today that Catholics who follow the Pope’s annual Christmas benediction on television or radio will partake for the first time in the plenary indulgence reserved until now for those who were physically present at the service.
New York Times

IT’S AN OLD STORY by now that the media have usurped much of architecture’s traditional role: the providing of symbolic focus for social ritual. Anyone who has had their spirits deflated by a direct encounter with the architecture of Lincoln Center, and then observed how magnificent that monumental non place can appear when videotaped for public television’s “Live from Lincoln Center” broadcasts, can appreciate why people fear the camera’s ability to relieve architects of the trouble of providing architecture that’s worth a visit. H. S. Goodhart-Rendel once wryly remarked, “the modern architectural drawing is interesting, the photograph is magnificent, the building an unfortunate but necessary stage between the two.”

Thus the Vatican’s recent decision to rescind the requirement of physical presence in St. Peter’s Square surely brought no Christmas joy to those architects and critics now busily constructing a new temple of sanctity around the idea of “place.” The sense of need for this temple arose from the wreckage the Modern tabula rasa has made of urban fabric. Clearly, the city can’t be the repository of memory if we keep tearing it down. Some architects of late have been scavenging the rubble in search of the lost arts by which buildings were once differentiated, how each one was made to appear “of its time” and each person who experienced it made to feel privileged to be there. It’s a popular response, one that jointly satisfies our tourist’s attitude toward the past while paying tribute to the progressive ideal of pluralism.

It is ironic that the Vatican’s accession of St. Peter’s to the airwaves is seen as symbolic of the camera’s influence in reducing “place” to the status of scenery, for Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini’s piazza is a monument to the era that first broke with the way classical architecture articulated sacred places and reconceived them as theatrical scenery From there it was but a short step to the limbo of the International Style sky-scraper plaza, the Postmodern stage set, and the talk-show living room: prefabricated environments that can be plunked down wherever room is found. But is it such a tragic loss for architecture to surrender its power of environmental control to the networks? Renaissance single-point perspective provided a place for everybody provided they knew their place; the function of Baroque scenography, in Rome or in Versailles, was to manipulate mob psychology, to impress the masses into accepting the papal or the royal embrace. Television offers ideologues the strongest tool of all to manipulate a larger mob, a task that architects are well rid of.

But it is folly to avoid dealing with the impact television has already made on architecture, through TV monitors in banks, lobbies, and elevators; giant screens at the local bar; and the icons of place—the White House, the Eiffel Tower, the skyline, the slum—that are herded into our living rooms by the nightly news, the TV movie, and the airline commercial. An opportunity exists for architects to design for this contemporary city instead of trying to confect nostalgic stage sets of town life before the city became its own on-the-spot location.

Instead of taking this opportunity to absorb the visionary potential of television, or to provide opposition to its manipulations, Helmutjahn’s 1985 design for “Television City,” a media-headquarters complex of eight monumental towers proposed for Manhattan’s Upper West Side, resurrects the architecture of mob control. The fascination of Jahn’s project lies precisely in the way it situates television along the Baroque-Modern axis of artificial place. His 150-story centerpiece tower rises heavenward like a temple to the modern god of airwaves, an architectural emblem of the media’s power to flatten minds into attitudes of awe and submission. Compared to this design the camera’s reduction of actual buildings to flattened sets is a paltry threat. Indeed, architects like Jahn could learn a lot from the insights the camera gives us into a contemporary sense of place—how, say, we use visual icons, from picture postcards to film location shots, to locate ourselves in special places. Diana Agrest and Mario Gandelsonas have been developing an architecture from such insights for many years. Their concept of an urban “mise en séquence;” a departure from the theatrical mise en scène, proposes an architecture of perceptual thresholds through which we continuously move in and out of public, semipublic, and private space. In their projects, “place” is not set adrift on the clean slate of Modernism or dissolved in a lie-down-and-play dead contextualism; rather, it emerges from a “critical reading” of the city in which both the tabula rasa and existing buildings contribute elements to a contemporary urban style.

Agrest and Gandelsonas edit but do not eliminate the use of monumental scale. In their 1983 project for the International Center of Communication complex in the Défense district of Paris, they have given the media an architectural treatment as stellar as that proposed for Television City. But they have also recognized the opportunity to tell a story about how our experiences of urban places intersect with and are altered by the experience of modern communications. The project borrows symbolic forms from manipulative architecture of the past but reverses their function to make a place for the contemporary individual. At the core of the complex, the architects have taken the form and scale of the Arc de Triomphe (with which it is aligned on Baron Haussmann’s axis) and extended it structurally and spatially to create a habitable agora, a market and meeting place for the living instead of a tomb for one unknown soldier. Adjacent is an urban shopping mall modeled after Andrea Palladio’s fixed trompe l’oeil stage set for the Teatro Olimpico, Vicenza (begun 1580); but instead of being riveted to fixed seats by Renaissance perspective, the visitor can walk at will inside this icon and do some shopping. The pyramids that top the communications-center towers acknowledge the authority exercised by mass communications, but the towers have been set off axis, displaced by the agora. Together, the agora and towers articulate the positive interaction between physical place and media representation: the Palladian street scene honors the street as the matrix of urban communication through material trade; the towers provide an architectural frame for the sky as the immaterial “market place” of an information economy.

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