Modernism: An Old Dogma's New Tricks
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 28, 2003; Page N02
Modern architecture was declared dead not long after the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex, a quintessential modernist failure, was intentionally destroyed in 1972 by the city of St. Louis. But, as it turned out, the death didn't last.
At about the same time Pruitt-Igoe was going down, a rebellious, middle-aged Canadian transplant in Southern California was beginning to sow modest seeds that eventually would signal a mighty modernist rebirth. His name was Frank Gehry, and he went on to become the most famous American architect since Frank Lloyd Wright.
Gehry, in contrast to Wright, let his buildings do most of the talking and, by and large, the buildings spoke in unfamiliar and even aggressive tongues that took some getting used to. Eventually, however, much of the world did get used to them -- embraced them, in fact, with an enthusiasm that eluded even Wright during his lifetime.
My thoughts turn to Gehry at this year's end because, not surprisingly, he created one of the architectural hits of 2003 -- the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, which opened in October to widespread acclaim. The concert hall with the billowing exterior and expressionist interior is a long, long way from the supposed death of modern architecture. (So, too, would be Gehry's design for an addition to the Corcoran Gallery, should it ever get built.)
The triumph of Disney Hall got me thinking about modernism's renaissance. Practically all of the buildings that got my blood pumping during the year would have to be called modernist designs, but, thinking back, the really exciting thing is that they were all so different. Modern architecture came back strong in the last decade or so, and it came back changed. It's freer now, not so dependent on dogma (or perhaps it's just that there are more competing dogmas than ever before).
Take, for instance, the matter of the machine. Most early modernists believed with a passion in the undecorated, honed-down aesthetics of the machine. So, too, do many of today's practitioners, but with the help of new materials and digital design tools they have elevated a belief to a sophisticated level of practice.
In recent years Helmut Jahn of Chicago has begun collaborating so closely with engineers that he gives them equal credit for the designs -- a very unstarlike thing for a so-called starchitect to do. The resulting buildings not only look like elegant machines but, with their high-performance energy systems, also behave somewhat like machines. The beautiful steel-and-glass dormitory at the Illinois Institute of Technology (the campus designed almost entirely by modernist master Ludwig Mies van der Rohe), which opened last summer, is a convincing case in point.
Or, focus on the matter of structure -- the "honest" show of what holds a building up is, of course, one of modernism's founding principles. Here, too, the new architecture raises the old modernist standard to new heights both functionally and aesthetically. With its soaring column-free interior and its cable-supported roof, for example, Rafael Vinoly's new riverside convention center in Pittsburgh is at once innovative, useful and poetic.
Symbolism, too, has made a strong reappearance of late -- it is one of many attributes rescued by traditionalists (or post-modernists) in their 1970s rebellion against modern architecture. Now, however, even avant-gardists are using symbolism all the time -- to varying effect, as we saw in the many proposals that surfaced for rebuilding the World Trade Center. But the winning (and perhaps now endangered) proposal by Daniel Libeskind demonstrated the kind of emotive power abstract architectural symbolism can achieve.
As for sheer originality of form, ours is an unprecedented architectural age. Thanks to the computer, geometric configurations that could hardly be imagined on paper even half a century ago can now actually be constructed in the real world of steel and glass and titanium, or even of stone and brick. Disney Hall is but one such example I encountered this year. Another is the Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona, Calif., designed by Thom Mayne of Morphosis. Characteristically, the school with its sharp angles stands in dramatic contrast to Gehry's surging curves.
What we as a society end up doing with all these technical and aesthetic possibilities remains to be seen. One aspect of the old modernist credo that the new modernists haven't tended to all that inventively is the belief in architecture's duty to help solve social problems. Be that as it may, 2003 proved without a doubt that it is an exciting time to be an architecture critic.
I'm not saying here that we live in a perfect architectural world. If the new modernists would pay more inventive attention to the elevated, or even utopian, social goals of the old modernists, that would be an improvement. But at the very least 2003 proved without doubt that now is an exhilarating time to look at architecture. All in all, the exhilarating possibilities -- and realities -- of today's architecture are something to behold.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company