Someone is always standing around to yell that the party is over the sky is falling, the era has ended. From time to time we hear that rock is dead, the postwar era is over, and, now, that Modern architecture is finished.
In this case, it is the architects themselves and their camp followers who have been going around recently sounding the death knell of the Modern or International Style of architecture. That is, the folks who brought us those buildings that stab the sky and the glass walls that mirror the earth.
This week, about 300 practicing architects, students and critics of architecture met here to hold a sort of glorified wake over the corpus deliciti under the auspices of the American Insitute of Architects and the National Endowment for the Arts. Running the show were two of the great figures of mid century Modern: George Nelson, a designer, architect and writer, and Philip Johnson an architect and architectural philosopher, who gave the International Style its name.
At the end of the two days, it might be fair to say that Modern architecture may be dead but it won't lie down, and a dozen other styles are being born, but painfully.
Nelson, in the keynote speech, set the stage for the program by observing that it would take a miracle to produce any answers from the conference, that the most that could be hoped for was entertainment.
There were in the discussions very real differences between those Nelson and Johnson called "humanes," who count architecture as art and "technoes" who call it a technology.
Johnson said architecture is "exuberance, like sex or taste . . . " Nelson said the first thing he thought when he saw the Pompidous Center in Paris covered with a symetrical arrangement of pipes - what he called "a lot of stuff" - was "My God, how will they ever dust it."
"Is architecture art?" and if it is, should a building's form override considerations such as "Does it work" or "Will it fit?" These are the questions that reoccured during the session.
Robert Gutman, a professor of sociology at Rutgers and architecture at Princeton, told of a house designed by Peter Eisenman of New York. Gutman said dummy columns constricted the dining table and the baby's room had no wall for the crib. He told of a building, designed by Louis Kahn for a University of Pennysylvania medical laboratory that could not easily be made sterile. But in both cases, Gutman said, the buildings were much admired and great successes as architecture, and even their users enjoyed the beauty of the design. One user, however, offered to help Gutman crate the Kahn laboratory and ship it to the Smithsonian.
Current questioning of hitherto accepted design principals is part of a general dissatisfaction with technological society, according to Joseph Esherick, a San Francisco architect who is also chairman of the architecture faculty at the University of California at Berkeley.
Esherick who seemed firmly against architecture as art, at least in his speech, said he and most other people no longer believe in architecture as a cure-all for society's ills "We no longer think that planting trees will cure juvenile delinquency."
Nelson (who 25-odd years ago in a book satirized architects who equipped all their houses to be photographed with a rubber tree, a Japanese lantern and a butterfly chair) said that today's buildings have become a cliche - a highrise, set in a plaza, made respectable by an art work "of rusty discs." He added that in Portland he had seen an exception, "a fountain that was a statue of a girl with all that stuff, and it was really nice to see her getting cool."
Architect Joe Clancy, from Canton, Ohio, argued that architecture is different for those super architects than for us in Canton. We don't have any choice; we have to design for our clients. They are the ones who have the money." Clancy went on to complain about the "lunacy" of AIA giving an award to the Hancock Building in Boston by I.M. Pei Associates. "Damage is done to all of us when the wind blows the windows out of the Hancock."
Nelson replied that "Spring Green, Wis. (the home of Frank Lloyd Wright) is a lot smaller than Canton, Ohio, and Wright made out all right. Most of the failures come because people look at a solution and say it is impossible because no one has done it."
At one point, slide presentations of their work were presented by Norman Foster of England and Arata Isozaki of Japan. Foster showed an innovative building made of huge glass sections, with a glass elevator, a pool for employees and a glass roof. Isozaki's sculptural buildings included one set in a waterscape, because, he explained, among other things water is cheaper than a garden.
Somewhere along the line, William Becker from Philadelphia got up to ask ""Philip Johnson, who gave us the International School, has come along and taken it away. What we are going to replace it with?"
Johnson said that speaking as one "who preached at Wright for using pitched roofs - I was so narrow I thought we'd be only saved by flat roofs" - he now felt as if he had "broken loose and realized you can't design without history. I believe in complexity, not flexibility.
"Let's accept the freedom of pluralism. We are liberated. We can be regional, romantic, classical. W e should realize that architecture is not a problem to solve, but an act of creation."
Nelson added that he thinks technology's "thing-ifying of people" will eventually result in its downfall, before "they learn how to turn people into ballbearings." He pointed to the popularity of bicycles, mason jars and gardens as evidence of a radical shift toward "a more humanistic, mystical, juicier society."