International Style -- in perspective; After 50 years, what?

''Architects -- ahoy,'' screamed the headline.

''Whither are we whithering in this field. We are broken from our moorings, '' sighed the writer.

''Here we have houses flat as a pancake, sprawling over immense areas of surface . . . business blocks with no windows at all, depending on artificial illumination and 'air conditioning' throughout.''

It was 1932. The writer looked at the buildings in the show of ''Modern Architecture: International Exhibition'' and knew the drift. The International Style had arrived.

He was saying ''good-bye to all that'' in traditional architecture.

Gone was the forest imagery of Corinthian capitals, he wrote, with acanthus leaves curling gracefully in carved twirls. ''Gone are gables, turrets, spires, domes, regular window arches, buttresses, pillars, and almost 100 other familiarities.''

The same was true of materials. ''Exit marble, limestone, oak. Enter metal.''

Looking at the times - the time of the traveling show of the International Style - his and other words seem histrionic today and as overblown as the claims of architects that the designers imported from Europe were ''mere opportunists and fashion mongers,'' as George Howe charged.

How excessive to write of ''dizzy chicken coops''; to fret that nobody could discover ''whether this building is a church, a school, a factory, a housing development, or just a house,'' as the secretary of the Wisconsin American Institute of Architects put it.

Or was it? With modern architecture now under assault, the International Style exhibition which introduced it -- first as a Museum of Modern Art show, then as a book -- can be blamed for the right angle-ization of the American landscape, for the severing of structures from their past, for the ills of contemporary architecture.

At the least, the show stamped a revolutionary style on American design.

As the International Style exhibition's 50th birthday is celebrated this weekend (April 16-17), that ideological and artistic impact is being examined anew.

''The Crimson Connection,'' one observer called the links of the show to Harvard University. The university's Graduate School of Design now is holding an exhibition and seminar to assess the design that would emanate from such universities.

For two days, the aging young Turks who brought the 1932 show and their followers will speak. Architect Philip Johnson and historian Henry Russell Hitchcock, who assembled the International Style exhibition, will be on hand. Younger historians and architects will reappraise the influence of their polemic on architecture.

Polemic it was -- and is. The original exhibition was deliberately selective and instructive -- a missionary effort put together by zealots in search of a clean slate, freeing design of past symbols and weary eclecticism.

The reappraisal is also a polemic. The show curated by David Handlin and Margaret Reeve at Harvard through April underscores the biases of the original.

The current exhibition, entitled ''International Style in Perspective'' and offering the old architectural photographs, plus new ones and notes, is a broadsheet.

''Making propaganda in America for modern architecture,'' wrote Johnson. ''Making propaganda against modern architecture,'' the new appraisers of the International Style would probably admit.

The 1982 exhibition stresses the faulty emphasis of its predecessor exhibition. Albert Kahn was adopted as a modernist despite his intentions, it observes. Raymond Hood, also a reluctant disciple, was mislabeled an International Stylist.

The Schocken Department Store in Chemnitz, Germany, was photographed by Hitchcock/Johnson and shown as a freestanding object, denying its urban context. And housing, central to the European modernists' socialist dogma, was set aside. Lewis Mumford was invited to insert a segment on housing for the exhibition almost as an aftemath, a side box to the central text.

Handlin (and assuredly the assembled speakers) points out the promoting, the discrepancies. The subverting of the Europeans' causism is especially disturbing to these historians; and Mumford will be on hand at the conference as point and counterpoint.

Whatever the partial nature of the Hitchcock/Johnson view of modern architecture, however, no one will deny that their show was a watershed, a cultural landmark the likes of which has not come again in half a century.

At the least it was a semantic triumph; for though another sort of architecture seemed clearly at hand, bearing titles such as ''the new manner'' or ''the new architecture,'' it took until 1928 to codify the name International Style.

The show in 1932 made all these trends seem a visible, and hence transportable, communicable, buildable style.

A lag followed the 1932 introduction. After the show toured 11 US cities, its samples did not immediately come off other drawing boards and onto the US landscape. Building languished until after World War II.

By the 1940s, however, new immigrants, new ideas, and the modern architecture introduced a decade before became the die stamp of design.

Today, the Harvard session, ''From Avant Garde to Official Style,'' describes the standing of '30s modernism. Their pioneer labors have become old guard; work that seemed venturesome or visionary and a great advance became conventional.

Gropius's white house turned to fieldstone; the workers' cottages became glass castles for capitalist corporations. And for all the heated polemics then and since, the work on view now looks bland -- the establishment mode of boxy dress that bores and offends both architects and ordinary observers.

On the anniversary eve, then, we see that the 50-year-old International Style in itself, and in its landmark show, was as much denial as endorsement.

The exhibitors and the designers dismissed the now more-appealing modernism in the organic contours of Alvar Aalto, the earthbound strivings of Frank Lloyd Wright, or the urbanistic exercises of Rockefeller Center, also celebrating a 50 th birthday.

Historians have started to look at the landscape for signs of ''evolution, not revolution'' in the work of Eero Saarinen, the revivalism of Colonial Williamsburg, or the art deco styles of the skyscraper.

That, of course, is what anniversaries allow and why the current re-exhibition itself could well become another cultural landmark.

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