Modern is dead! Long live . . .


The answer is "Post-Modern Architecture," and that is no answer, I fear.

It only means that while the hacks keep hacking away at our cities and sensibilities, and while three stars - Phillip Johnson, I. M. Pei and Kevin Roche - continue to glitter alone in the darkening night of our architecture, a few, sometimes talented young architects try to build something new.

Not too new. The posties still need that hyphen to link them to the Modern International Style. It is their umbilical cord to Mother Bauhaus. They are really just rebellious kids.

In fact a few Post-Modernists - Richard Meier and Peter Eisenman, for example - are merely naughty. Like many painters and sculptors today, they try to cope with the modern chaos by shocking people rather than sheltering them - le choc pour le choc. Only an affluent society can afford such archtects.

Post-Modernism as yet is nothing much you can look at. It is something you must mostly listen to.

It is not a coherent movement, let alone a coherent style like Art Nouveau. It is a number of architects doing their thing And that is a few private houses or small projects, too scattered across the country to make an impact. One knows about them from arty photographs in the architectural magazines.

They make an "ism" not because of similar appearance, but because they propose to be expressions of a similar, verbose philosophy espoused in architectural magazine articles, lectures, and panel discussions.

The best known Post-Modernists are probably Robert Venturi and Charles Moore, who have been around for a good many years, and Robert A.M. Stern, a relative newcomer and also, in my view, the most interesting architect in the group.

Venturi talks a marvelous line. He says architects should make some concession to what people like and need. Hear, hear! But then he ruins it all by asserting that people like and need the Las Vegas strip on Route 66. That just isn't true. People fight neon lights and gaudy roadside stands in every zoning hearing.

Venturi ruins his own good line even more when he designs anything himself. His buildings are deliberately clumsy and ugly and tacky. I suspect that is based on the same misunderstanding. He thinks people like ugly and tacky buildings because the gods of commerce give us so many of them.

Charles Moore, who seems to me the better architect by far, has also observed that people like old buildings and nostalgia better than modern buildings and pseudo-functionalism. Moore himself likes German Baroque.

To please people he designs highly intellectualized and abstracted distillations of past styles, producing strange, irrational forms. To satisfy his cravings for Baroque, he puts plywood walls where nobody needs them - "to create interesting spaces" - and cuts round holes into the plywood in lieu of those fat little angles.

In contrast to these mannerisms, Robert Stern dares some heresies. "We don't need interesting spaces," he says, "we need livable rooms." (Good homebuilders have known this for years, but they only build homes, they don't create Architecture with a capital "A".)

Stern, who practices in New York City, teaches at Columbia University and recently lectured at the Smith-sonian here, is, to my knowledge, the first practicing architect to get to the guts of what is esthetically wrong with Modern architecture.

He has made a list.

First, he says, in contrast ot the cherished orthodoxy of the Modern movement. "Ornament is no crime."

Second (to summarize in my own words), building which recall past architectural styles have greater meaning to people than buildings which do not. This used to be called "electicism."" says Stern, and there is nothing worng with it.

Third, Stern asserts, buildings which refer and defer to their neighbors are more pleasing than buildings which stick out and noisily call attention to themselves.

Fourth, buildings should convey what they are all about and what goes on within them. Stern calls architecture "a communicative art."

Sound principles, I think, and, if you think about them, more revolutionary, in terms of Modern orthodoxy, than even Stern himself realizes.

"Realizes" in both meanings of the word, "to comprehend" and "to make real."

Stern's buildings are pretty, which is to says they seem to strain for effect; they look suspiciously like buildings designed by an interior decorator.

But revolutionary they are not, although you can just see him rather nervously referring to his manifesto as he designed them.

To show that ornament is no crime.Stern nailed a white molding all across the ochre facade of a country house. To show that he was not merely decriminalizing decoration, he also added whimsical curves and capricious false fronts.

The false fronts, joyous curves and hinted gables and towers in Stern's buildings also make his second point. They subtly remind you of historic styles, mainly Baroque. But Stern's eclecticism looks to me no less Modern than Philip Johnson's "historicism" - vague allusions which may prompt a knowing smile form a connoisseur, but will escape the layman.

The one chance Stern had to refer and deter to neighboring buildings, a three-story townhouse in a highrise row on New York's Park Avenue, neither refers nor deters. It is stark, rather eccentric Modern, making up for its small size among giants by the assertiveness of its window walls and glaring white color.

The New York townhouse is an interesting house. It is a well-designed house. But integrate with its neighbors it does not. And the facade shows nothing "post" about its modernity.

The interior of the townhouse is more special. The client, Stern told me, did not want to have to rely on expensive art works to decorate the house, because no matter how much money he spent on a Picasso painting, his friends would only call it "that beautiful Matisse". Stern was to decorate the house architecturally.

He did so with a vengeance - curving walls, eccentric nooks and cranmes, three-dimensional wall patterns, indirect light - both natural and electric.


It struck me like the interior of a Viennese cafe designed by the romantic Modernist Eric Mendelsohn in 1925. This is not to say that it is bad. It is, in fact, quite charming. I would love to see a fresh, new Art Deco cafe designed by Eric Mendelsohn.

Unfortunately, Mendelsohn never designed one. And if he did, it would be torn down by now.

As to "communicative architecture," Stern showed me slides of a Modern Baroque house he designed for a musicologist who is particularly enamored of Mozart. It is lovable and precious.

This is not to say that Stern is deliberately precious and unaware of the social failures of the Modern movement. He quotes Charles Jencks, an American living in England, who has written extensively about Post-Modern architecture, to the effect that the Modern movement has betrayed its own, original ideals to create "a social architecture" and healthier and better environment for the working classes. Instead, says Jencks, the International Style of the ruling class and its bureaucracy."

Post-Modernism so far offers nothing inherently better. It offers nothing to promise better housing or better cities. In fact, it seems to me little more than an affectation. I hate to say this in the face of Robert Stern's obvious and witty creative talent.