New York

“Modern Redux: Critical Alternatives for Architecture in the Next Decade”

Grey Art Gallery and Study Center

“Modern Redux” was perplexing. Its inception was greeted with considerable interest and enthusiasm in the architecture community, but its realization was, finally, a disappointment. The premise of this exhibition was a condemnation of Postmodern architecture—not as envisioned by Robert Venturi in 1966, in his Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, but as enacted by mediocre practitioners in the past twenty years—and a presentation of evidence for the reemergence of a Modern idiom in contemporary architectural theory and practice. The curator, Douglas Davis, had an inciting idea, but it was so cautiously developed and presented that it evaporated moments after condensation. This was a difficult starting place for mounting an opposition to the catholicity of current architectural practice. In his fear of becoming as strident as the corrival, Davis sacrificed clarity and verve.

To reinforce the indivisible but often incompatible marriage of word and deed, the exhibition included wall-mounted excerpts from modern texts by theorists and practitioners ranging from Jürgen Habermas to Zaha Hadid, as well as two showcases of architectural books and journals (a pristine presentation that gave these documents a pasty, embalmed look). Adjacent to the vitrines was a lineup of chairs and furniture by Steven Holl, Mario Botta, Mark Mack, and Joe d’Urso. (Processionals of chairs seem to be quite the rage this year.) Adding to the flea market quality of the installation were Michael McDonough’s Semaphores, 1986, folded Formica dividers that were intentionally prosaic if oddly elegant.

The selection of projects (constructed and unrealized) was an international smorgasbord representing the neotenets of neo-Modernism: integrity of materials, structural clarity and the revelation of construction methodology, contextual significance, and a sense of the present. In the curator’s commendable attempt to evade the limiting forces of classification, the exhibition became more like a roundup than an incisive, polemical event. It all felt like a missed opportunity, but still, the show’s importance should not be overlooked. It was democratic in scope and intentions and made a strong case for a future invented without slavish preoccupation with precedent. The failure of Postmodernism is not that it is an architecture of choice or a public art (it is neither of these) but that it has not been an exploration of options carried forward by curious minds. It is simply the most insipid kind of orthodoxy. Hangers-on with the most superficial grasp of Venturi’s radicalism have created a lot of reactionary architecture that rivals the worst of the International Style. Unfortunately, these and other important messages were muffled by the curator’s fair-minded, oppositional intent. In this instance, inclusiveness led to incoherence.

Patricia C. Phillips