Doing Their Own Thing

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

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know history"; and last June, when accepting the American Institute of Architects' gold medal, he gave a kind of official blessing to it: old Bernini patting heads in the studio. "We stand at an enormous watershed," he remarked. "We stand at a place where maybe we haven't stood for 50 years, and that is a shift in sensibility so revolutionary that it is hard to grasp because we are right in the middle of it. It is the watershed between what we have all been brought up with as the Modern, and something new, uncharted, uncertain and absolutely delightful." But to understand the newness of this terrain one must first grasp the culture out of which Johnson came: the attitudes of the International Style.

The essence of the International Style, or the Modern Movement (the two phrases are almost synonymous by now), was its dogmatism. The years 1900 to 1930 bristle with formulas and coercive epigrams: "Form follows function," "The house is a machine for living in," and so forth. Mies van der Rohe's "Less is more" was prefigured by the Viennese architect Adolf Loos' belief, published in Vienna in 1908, that ornament was crime: "We have outgrown ornament!" Loos exclaimed. "See, the time is nigh, freedom awaits us. Soon the streets of the City will glisten like white walls, like Zion, the holy city, the capital of heaven! Then fulfillment will come!"

The masters of the Modern Movement all tended to share this messianic tone. Architecture would produce the millennium: a perfect society, implicitly legislated by architects. In Le Corbusier's view, architecture would transcend even politics. "Architecture or revolution!" he wrote, at the turbulent beginning of the '20s. Consequently men like Mies, Gropius and Le Corbusier were prone to see themselves not only as prophets but as lawgivers, and their tracts were filled with a lofty utopianism. The dream was neatly parodied by John Betjeman:

I have a vision of the future, chum:

The workers flats infields of soya beans

Towering up like silver pencils, score on score,

While surging millions hear the challenge come

From microphones in communal canteens:

"No right! No wrong! All's perfect, ever more."

One might say that the essential subject matter of the International Style was the end of history. Its "functionalism," which correctly saw that mass production was destroying handcraft and, with it, ornament, was always colored by this millenarian fantasy. Johnson, whose relationship to Mies van der Rohe is complicated and Oedipal, argues that "Mies believed in the ultimate truth of architecture, especially of his architecture: that it was closer to the truth than anyone else's because it was simpler and could be learned. He felt it could be adapted on and on into the centuries, until architecture bloomed into the great science he thought it should be, and all our cities would look like a series of Mies buildings—a poor man's Chicago. He lost. But he didn't know he had."

Influenced (as it profoundly was) by the chaos of World War I and the Utopian dreams of postwar social reorganization, internationalism and communality, Modernist architecture was obsessed with the blank slate. Le Corbusier was thus able to dream up one of the

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