Doing Their Own Thing

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

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extreme lie the clear, exquisitely modulated voids and surfaces of post-Corbusian designers like Richard Meier, 44, and Charles Gwathmey, 40. In between fall still more manners and interests: the glass caverns of Cesar Pelli, 42; the complicated linguistic play with Pop and history practiced by Robert Venturi, 53, and his firm in Philadelphia; the no less complex, but somewhat less ironic and more playful historicism of Charles Moore, 53, and Robert Stern, 39; the slangy, "high-tech" flexibility of Hugh Hardy, 46, and his firm, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer; the outright jokiness of Stanley Tigerman, 48.

Most of these architects are under 50, which is young in a profession whose only guarantee of big jobs is the slow growth of practical reputation. Apart from age, the main thing they have in common is a fascination with architecture as language. When tradition (including the Modernist tradition) appears in their work, it is quoted rather than adhered to. There is no common style. Above all, they have no uniting ideology, as the Bauhaus or, on a less exalted level, the corporate American architects of the '50s had. Yet they are regularly grouped under one umbrella phrase: Post-Modernism.

The very phrase recognizes the end of a tradition. Its main definer, if not exactly its inventor (it is one of those phrases that crept out of the woodwork in the art world in the middle '70s and attached itself to buildings), is the English architecture critic Charles Jencks. In his latest book, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977), Jencks complains that "any building with funny kinks in it, or sensuous imagery" has come to be labeled Post-Modern, and suggests that the term should be restricted to hybrid, "impure" buildings that are designed around historical memory, local context, metaphor, spatial ambiguity and an intense concern with architectural linguistics. That, obviously, excludes the glass-cliff builders like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and Minoru Yamasaki of the World Trade Center, or spokesmen of cultural grandeur like I.M. Pei. Indeed, given the architecture Americans have had for 40 years, such a description virtually deprives Post-Modernism of living father figures. There are, of course, dead grandfathers, from the Catalan master of Art Nouveau, Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), to the English imperial architect Sir Edward Lutyens, whose richly coded and sometimes wildly illogical structures were left wherever the British army marched, from the Somme battlefields to New Delhi.

The nearest man Post-Modernism has to a senior partner is, in fact, the leading American architect of his generation: Philip Cortelyou Johnson. The firm of Johnson-Burgee has become to American architecture what McKim, Mead & White was 80 years before: the voice of authority, flavored with luxury. Johnson's critics see him as a brilliant opportunist capable of adapting to any regime of taste: in effect, the Anastas Mikoyan of architectural ideology. Certainly Johnson has, with dazzling skill, traversed the whole range of 20th century manners: from the idealistic severities of the International Style (whose name, as an architecture critic in tandem with Henry-Russell Hitchcock, he coined in 1932), through various essays in neo-historicism, to Post-Modernism.

He pointed to Post-Modernism 20 years ago, with his famous dictum "You cannot not

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