Not since Le Corbusier surprised them with his chapel at Ronchamp have Modern architects been as upset as they are by Philip Johnson's recent proposal for what someone dubbed "a Chippendale skyscraper."
Ronchamp, which was dedicated in 1955, is an abstract pray-in sculpture in the Vosges mountains of France. It is also Le Corbusier's sudden, inpulsive defiance of the "rational" and "functional" Cubic architecture he helped invent.
Hate it or love it (and most people have seen it find it beautiful), you can't possible "read" from the and structure is the canon of orthodox Modernism.
Le Corbusier, who could not get many of his legible, honest structures built, said the hell with it and de-outside what takes place inside the building or how it is constructed. Yet, such "honest" legibility of function signed illegible, irrational Ronchamp. The Modern movement, that is to say 20th-century architecture, has been schizophrenic ever since - torn between Le Corbusier's romantic expressionism and Mics van der Rohe's classic functionalism.
Johnson's act of defiance is just as drastic and, in the short run, possibly just as divisive.
But in contrast to the suddenness of Le Coubusier's reversal, Johnson's was long in coming. And if Johnson's new historicism proves as popular as I think it will, the Modernists, post Modernists, ex-Modernists and assorted stylistic schizophrenics, who now giggle derisively about the "Chippendale skyuscraper" will in the long run come around and get together on a common, architectural esthetic and philosophy.
In short, I believe Johnson may well unite contemporary architecture again and lead it out of both the glass box and the concrete sculpture to a new ecumenic gentility.
The "Chippendale" is a 37-story headquarters tower the American Telephone and Telegraph Company plans to erect on New York City's Madison Avenue between 55th and 56th Streets.
As designed by Philip Johnson and his partner John Burgee, in association with Harry Simons, it evokes strong historic associations without imitating any past style. It continues the esthetic evolution of the American skyscraper from William LeBeron Jenny and Louis Sullivan to McKim, Mead & White and William Van Alen (the architect of the Chrysler Building), as though there had never been a Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson to slice off the top and give the facades a smooth, machine finish.
In the disrupted skhscraper tradition of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the A. T. & T. tower is built of stone - a rough textured granite - conveying confidence and strength, a feeling that humans built this thing to stand up against time.
Also in the disrupted tradition, the tower has a base, a body and a top. It stands firmly on the ground and its vertical window bays and ribs stretch and strain upward to hold up a proud crown.
This crown, this finial, this trumpet flourish ending, if you will, takes the shape of a broken pediment. The triangle of the gently pitched any nicely hemmed roof is split at its apex by a concave hollow.
This - to me, very attractive - shape does, to be sure, occur in Chippendale bureaus of 1920s-era radios as my colleagues in New York reminded us. But since we are dealing with granite of a sizable dimension, some 645 feet above the street, I think it more likely that the crown of the tower was inspired by Roman or baroque architecure in whichbroken pediments are a frequent motif.
Architecture buffs may amuse themselves speculating just who and what might have spared this shape in Philip Johnson's mind. Some suggests Etienne-Louis Boullee's powerfud architectural fantasies during the French Revolution. I am more inclined that visions of Francesco Baromini's passionate baroque work in 17th-century Rome might have flashed through Johnson's mind. Barromini, too, broke all the rules of classical architecture. At any rate, i am sure Johnson would be delighted to partici. The hollow in the pediment was diclor game.
I would reject only one hypothesis: pate in the "What-Strvck-Philip?" partated by technical considerations; to wit, that it makes an ideal air exhaust for the building's sophisticated heat recovery system. Nonsense.
The Modern movement deceived us with far too many of these silly rationalizations and we should all face up to the fact that you can't, and shouldn't have to, justify that part of architecture that is and must be art. The truth is that Philip Johnson, bless him, wants to put the romance back into the Manhattan skyline.
Where Modern, to which Johnson, after all, devoted the better part of his life, came him in good stead, is the building's contribution to the city-scape. McKim, Mead & White would have been content with the strong base and its arched portal and romantic round windows. Johnson opened all this up to the people on the street in a happy modification of the Modern idea of putting buildings on stilts so as to create more urban space.
The A T & T has a generous lobby that amounts to a covered plaza with what promises to be an exciting sense of spaciousness. This sort of thing is always fun all too rare in our cities.
In addition ther is to be a glass-covered arcade with shops along the side of the building. This is part of the new urban game: Under new zoning amendments, devised by the city's clever Urban Design Group, a builder may pay the city such tribute in return for added and profitable bulk.
The A T & T design has been calle "a momument to Post-modern-ism." That seems to me a misnomer. "Post-modernism," as Post-modernists have explained it to me, is a pragmatic manner (or mannerism?) of dealing phrenia. It is nailing moldings on Modern Boxes.
Philip Johnson's latest design does no such thing. It is not "post" anything. It is a beginning.