Doing Their Own Thing

U.S. architects: goodbye to glass boxes and all that

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The 1970s were the decade in which Modernism died. Its Boot Hill turned out to be the U.S., in whose hospitable soil the dreams of the pioneers of modern art and architecture lie buried, toes to the rising sun. Once they hoped the world would be made whole by new paintings and new buildings. It was not, and there is no avant-garde any more; the very phrase has been scrapped, becoming one of the historical curiosities of criticism.

The belief that art could assist social change was a central idea of the Modernist enterprise. It pervaded the revolutionary idealism of the Russian constructivists, the Bauhaus designers, the Dadaists and Surrealists, even the Abstract Expressionists. It has now ended, and instead of the old faith in a heroic future, we have an institution: the Mausoleum of the Briefly New.

In architecture, the end of Modernism is particularly clear. For architecture is the social art: one looks at a painting or sculpture, but people live and work in buildings. It is the most expensive art of all and therefore the slowest to change; for once clients are used to a particular look, a standard method of construction and a conventional system of status-conferring clues, it is hard to wean any but the most adventurous away from them. Architecture is also the most visible of all arts. Buildings shape the environment; painting and sculpture only adorn it. All this has meant that though architecture changes more slowly than painting, its fluctuations mean more. When they occur, clearly something is up. What happened to architecture in the 1970s may turn out to be the largest revision of opinion about buildings—what they mean, what they do, how they should look—since the first third of our century, the "heroic years" of Modernist architecture, when its terms were shaped by such men as Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.

"After a run of a hundred years or so," wrote one of America's leading architecture critics, Peter Blake, in his belligerent text Form Follows Fiasco (1977), "Modern Dogma is worn out. We are now close to the end of one epoch, and well be fore the start of a new one. During this period of transition there will be no moratorium on building ... there will just be more and more architecture without architects." To travel in American cities is to know what he meant; the townscape of the '70s is perfused with cost-accountant buildings that bear no trace of human imagination: three-dimensional graphs of optimum efficiency, seemingly designed by computers for insects. In the whole pattern of American building, real architecture is a minority's activity.

But among the architects themselves there is an undeniable ferment, unlike anything in "classical" Modernist architecture. The receding tide of orthodoxy has left all manner of different organisms exposed on the reef. At one taxonomic extreme is California's Frank Gehry, 49. Gehry prefers materials—corrugated iron, chain-link fence, asbestos shingles, raw plywood—that allude to the commonplace substance of 1960s sculpture, and his formal interests frankly lie with what he calls "a fascination with incoherent and illogical systems, a questioning of orderliness and functionality." At the other

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