In a preface to the catalogue for a now-famous exhibition of "International Style" architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932, Alfred Barr, the first director of the then-young institution, confidently pronounced the show to be "an assertion that the confusion of the past 40 years, or rather of the past century, may shortly come to an end."
A stellar assortment of historians, critics and architects gathered at the Harvard Graduate School of Design over the weekend to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the exhibition and yet again to thrash through arguments concerning the importance of the show, the nature of its influence and the motivations of its organizers. The 1932 show was the first great event bringing modern architecture, with its wholesale rejection of the past, to the United States.
No one involved in the Harvard get-together was unaware of the irony that after half a century confusion again reigns in the world of architecture. In one way or another every speaker admitted that we seem to be farther than ever from the nirvana promised by early modern architecture.
The organizers of the conference piquantly underlined this situation by inviting architect Robert Venturi to deliver the annual Walter Gropius lecture the day before the conference got under way. Venturi's 1966 book, "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture," was a seminal work in the gradual dismantling of modern archictecture's underlying assumptions.
Appearing at Harvard earlier in the week, Tom Wolfe, author of the scathing, popular attack on modern architecture, "From Bauhaus to Our House," was said to have compared the conference to "a convention of aging nudists." Two of the principal forces behind the original event were present--architect Philip Johnson, 75, and writer Lewis Mumford, 86. (A third key progenitor of the show, historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock, 78, was unable to attend.)
Johnson and Mumford sat through a barrage of explication and criticism delivered for the most part by younger, revisionist historians, but they didn't exactly sit still for it. Mumford approached the podium only once but, after a rousing, heartfelt, spontaneous standing ovation, he made his moment count. The man whose lifework has made him the passionately articulate conscience of the architectural profession said, yes, indeed, we need a new definition of the word international.
"I believe we are in the deepest crisis mankind has yet faced, and we don't know whether we can survive the unnecessary forces of destruction," he told the suddenly hushed crowd packed into the auditorium of Harvard's Gund Hall. "We have to become very ruthless with our habits of life, with our outmoded habits of thinking . . . Whether it can be made in time, I don't know."
Johnson later commented that Mumford's chilling assessment was characteristic of the change between then and now. "Today," he said, "we're all pessimistic. We're not sure we're going to be around 10 years from now." But 50 years ago, he assured the audience, "all of us were convinced that we were going to be better."
In 1932 the world was enmeshed in a global economic depression. The National Socialists became the majority party in German elections. Socialist Realism was adopted as the official art style of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. Modern architecture, which had come together in Europe during the weary aftermath of World War I, offered itself to the world as a new beginning, a source of energy and imagination galvanized by the possibilities of new technology and untainted by association with the past.
It was in this atmosphere that Barr (who died last year), Hitchcock and Johnson conceived the exhibition, which consisted of photographs and models by nine leading modernists, a section on the worldwide extent of the new movement, and a section on housing organized by Mumford. The show was seen by 33,000 people in New York and traveled to a dozen other American cities, stimulating controversy at each stop.
Although arguments persist about the precise extent of the show's influence, there is little question that the exhibit and the accompanying book by Hitchcock and Johnson, "The International Style: Architecture Since 1922," had a significant impact not only upon high-style architecture but also, and even more importantly, on the look and feel of cities around the world. Much of this impact was delayed by economic depression and World War II, but thereafter it became apparent almost everywhere as cheap, speculative office buildings and hotels, bargain-basement rip-offs of the International Style and succeeding versions of modernism, came to dominate the urban landscape.
The Harvard conference simply continued the ongoing argument about the effects of this architectural revolution. It was frequently pointed out that Johnson and Hitchcock, young, ambitious, brilliant and Harvard-trained--Hitchcock was 28 and Johnson but 25 when the show opened--made no bones about their likes and dislikes.
They enunciated three specific principles of the new style ("architecture as volume rather than mass," "regularity rather than axial symmetry," and elimination of "arbitrary applied ornament") and they rigorously selected out anything that didn't match. The Russian constructivists and the Dutch de Stijl people got short shrift. So did architects such as Erich Mendelsohn, whose expressionistic, sculptural buildings didn't comfortably fit the preconceptions of the young Americans.
In effect, as many panelists and speakers said in different ways, Johnson and Hitchcock redefined modern architecture as mainly a stylistic, instead of urbanistic, phenomenon. At least in part this accounts for the way in which, afterWorld War II, flat, unornamented International Style buildings with their horizontal window courses were so readily adopted as official signatures by American corporations.
Issues such as these are at the heart of today's debate about modernism and post-modernism. As Venturi pointed out, architectural attitudes embracing "sensitivity to place, time and culture" and recognizing the "multiplicity and relativity of tastes" have become part of today's accepted wisdom.
But Venturi also distanced himself from an all-encompassing rejection of modernism by stating that "our architecture should, in many ways, evolve out of modernism, not revolt from it." Architects and theorists who reject modernism in toto are simply mimicking the excessive zeal of the early modernists, who wanted to wipe out the past. "Its too easy to hate our fathers by attempting to transcend them," he said.
Or, as Mumford wrote in the 1940s in protest of the "restrictive definition" of modernism popularized by the 1932 show, "Modern architecture is an inclusive name for an effort which has a single trunk but has many branches." That this telling quote was delivered to the conference by Robert Stern, one of the leading lights of the post-modernist movement, was but another irony in an event filled with them.
Philip Johnson, a mean hand with an epigram, actually contrived to have the last word in spirit if not in fact. Johnson, after all, is an architect who dramatically abandoned his own sleek International Style in recent projects such as his Chippendale-topped AT&T skyscraper in New York.
Admitting that Hitchcock and he were narrow in their judgments, he said, "Yes, we decided to sweep everything under the rug in order to make an effect. And we made an effect. You are here still talking about it 50 years later."