Doing Their Own Thing

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

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low cost. "Every cheap architect could copy Mies," says Johnson. "He could go to the client and say, I can do a building cheaper than I did it for you last year, because now I have a religion. We have a flat roof and simple factory-made curtain walls. It was a justification for cheapness that took over our cityscapes, and that is what you see in New York today." The universal glass box, cut-rate Mies (for real Mies was real architecture, and too expensively finished for most developers to tolerate), would cover any function: airport, bank, office block, church, club. It tended to be what the Germans labeled Stempelarchitektur, rubber-stamp building. Thus a debased form of Modernist dogmatism, what Charles Jencks called "the rationalization of taste into clichés based on statistical averages of style and theme," turned out to be the official style of the '50s and '60s. When repeated ad nauseam by architects all over the U.S. during the building boom of the 1950s, to the point where the curtain-wall grid had become the "rational," cost-account face of capitalism itself, it was bound to provoke a reaction.

The first sign of it, not much better than the original malaise, was "historicism,"—the rich, beautiful prose of corporate style, achieved with acres of white marble that somehow always ended up looking like plastic laminate. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art by William Pereira is an early Western example of the genre; its equivalent on the East Coast was Lincoln Center in Manhattan, a large, poor parody of Michelangelo's Campidoglio in Rome, designed by Wallace Harrison, Max Abramovitz and by Philip Johnson, whose building was the New York State Theater. All the historical allusions in this corporate style (and there were plenty of them) were seriously trotted forth as an antidote to International Style purity. But they tended to escape the architects' control. Buildings mean things; sometimes they convey meaning in highly complicated ways, but they can also be very blunt, and unconsciously so. The silliness of many of the biggest recent official architectural projects in America flows from this. No doubt when Gordon Bunshaft and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designed the vast concrete drum of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington they had in mind the "ideal," unbuilt funerary monuments to heroes dreamed up by the French Revolutionary Architect Etienne-Louis BoullĂ©e. That does not stop the thing looking like a set for The Guns of Navarone, minus the guns: an unwitting parody of museum security.

At the end of a tradition, only irony can control quotation; and irony would become one of the main features of Post-Modernism. When Johnson decreed that "you cannot not know history," orthodox Miesians were scandalized. Johnson had allowed himself private ironies when building for himself; the gazebo on his lake in New Canaan, Conn., is scaled down to the proportions of the famous dwarves' quarters in the Gonzaga Palace in Mantua, a complete antifunctionalist joke. But for a long while Johnson was too embedded in the world of high taste and big money to permit himself large public ironies: that is one of the freedoms l'architecte du roi has to abjure.

Thus the work that did most to precipitate the Post-Modernist attitude in America was not by Johnson; nor was it a

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