PRINT Summer 1986


Taking Liberty with Symbols.

THE STATUE OF LIBERTY and Mies van der Rohe came into the world together one hundred years ago. What an odd birthday couple they make: the colossal present from France, a monument to the 19th-century belief that history, in this case the classical past, could be quarried for architectural forms appropriate for democracy, and the architect who revealed a Modern classicism by stripping away overt historical associations. Yet the two are fraternal twins. Both embodied ideas arising from the Enlightenment. The Statue stood for the freedom of the individual from despotism, for the protection of individual rights in a society governed not so much by men as by laws; Mies championed the liberation of architecture from forms associated with despotism and esthetic caprice. The recent show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, reminded us that Mies’ cause was not a vain abstraction. In his great buildings he turned the materials and methods of Modern architecture—glass and steel construction—into a factual representation of the belief that the architectural franchise should be extended to all.

The contradiction between the original dream of the tabula rasa and the reality of what Modern progress actually produced leaves us where we are now, with plenty of open ground for surprise resurrections, the most recent of which is the architectural use of symbols from history. According to Charles Jencks, the polemicist of Postmodern historicism, this is the project to which young architects should address themselves in order to combat the sterility of formalism. Jencks’ latest coffee-table book, Towards a Symbolic Architecture (primarily a photographically illustrated story of three houses he has designed for himself over the past decade), recapitulates in popular form the argument William Letha by set forth in his 1891 book, Architecture, Mysticism and Myth. “If we would have architecture excite an interest, real and general,” Lethaby insisted, “we must have a symbolism, immediately comprehensible by the great majority of spectators.” But Lethaby, recognizing that the symbols with which viewers were familiar were coded with the messages of ancient dogmas which crush the imagination and block the path out of mental slavery, called upon architects to create new symbols to exalt the independence of the Modern mind. He gave no indication of what these should be; Jencks, on the other hand, urges us to look backward.

To Jencks, pyramids and ziggurats are glowing landmarks of a once and (he hopes) future golden age, in which everybody leads “a charmed life because everything they do, no matter how insignificant, or even wicked, is part of some larger story.” In this blessed land, where dissenters presumably sing joyously because at least they know their place in the Master Plan, “the great subconscious fear of mankind, both collectively and individually, that all action and belief are in vain, is dispelled.” Symbolic content, the Postmodern guru writes, “must command assent” from the beholder. The intent is to curb potential for mutable symbolism or semantic ambiguity: “The people who build the environment—client, architect, artist and craftsman—[must] consciously agree on the substance of the shared meanings and on the language in which they are to be expressed. . . . in our pluralist society this means devising a conscious symbolic programme and affirming it as part of the legal contract.” Are we really reading this?

Few would argue with Jencks that the problem of content is a major issue for architecture. It’s been the issue since the Enlightenment bumped God from the center, dissolving the social contract that had fixed meaning to images such as the cross, the eye at the apex of the pyramid, and every other symbol whose position was established by the belief in a central authority. Neither the 19th-century solution of reviving old historical styles nor the 20th-century one of a technological utopia filled the void, and eventually, with few exceptions, architecture became an office building people couldn’t wait to flee or a house they couldn’t wait to sell. Postmodernist architects such as Jencks try to resolve this emptiness by decorating surfaces with symbols from memory, in the hope of creating in us a feeling of connection with our buildings. The symbolism isn’t the problem—symbols can be used critically, idealistically, ironically, decoratively, or be made to stand retroactively for ideas quite different from the intentions of their designers. Only after it had been standing for some time, for instance, did the Statue of Liberty assume its present identity as a symbol of American hospitality to the oppressed of foreign lands; and the use of glass curtain walls, now symbols of corporate prestige, was initially proposed as a means of architecturally abolishing the barriers between the privileged and the outsider. Ordering symbols to have a fixed content, however, assumes there is only one narrative and gets us back on our knees.

Today, the working models we have for the art of commanding viewer assent are located on Madison Avenue, where fortunes and careers are spent devising hollow symbols of mass persuasion, where recognition factor is the highest criterion of success and mental enslavement is the bottom line. Like Ralph Lauren pitching an image of the eternal classic on the knit picture of a polo player, Jencks wants to restore content to architecture with iron-on status symbols. There are alternatives, offered by those—John Hejduk, Bernard Tschumi, Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, Henry Smith-Miller, Laurie Hawkinson, SITE, Patricia Knobloch, Lars Lerup, and Rem Koolhaas, to name just a few—who are willing to relinquish the desire to command the viewer’s assent, and who are trying to generate contemporary forms that empower us to construct our own narratives, to write our own scripts, and to throw these scripts away when they won’t let us step out of character. That was the point of the Enlightenment, of the Statue of Liberty, and of the neutral Miesian ground.

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