Postmodernism and the uncivil city

Do we expect 21st-century cities to be pleasantly inhabitable, or increasingly dark, windy, and deprived of amenities? Eminent architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable, champion of the modernist architects who built the elegant glass-box office buildings of the 1950s and '60s, predicts the latter development, if the current fashions in skyscraper design continue.

In The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered (Pantheon Books, 128 pp., $21.95), a revised and enlarged version of her 1983 Hitchcock lectures at the University of California, Berkeley, Ms. Huxtable virulently criticizes postmodernist architecture and its effect on the American city. Unfortunately, her polemical tone -- perhaps partly retained from the lecture hall -- may deprive her of the audience that could benefit most from her insights -- the postmodernists whom she attacks.

Most critics date the break between the post-World War II modernists and the so-called postmodernists to 1966, when the Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi published his book ``Complexity and Contradiction.'' Venturi argued against simplicity, geometric purity, and the modernist notion that the steel girders which support the skyscraper should be the inspiration for any decorative ornament on the building. As he says in his new book of collected essays, ``A View from the Campidoglio'': ``We called for an architecture that promotes richness and ambiguity over unity and clarity, contradiction and redundancy over harmony and simplicity.''

To bolster her argument against the postmodernists, Huxtable reviews, in the first half of the text, the history of the skyscraper. She goes back to the architectural norms of Louis Sullivan, the father of the American skyscraper. His late 19th- and early 20th-century skyscrapers, such as the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, were scaled to the pedestrian, and they expressed the building's interior forces through lyrical, art nouveau exterior ornament. Sullivan's measure for the beauty of a building: ``Form ever follows function.''

Huxtable is less appreciative of the generation of skyscrapers that followed Sullivan's, which included such buildings as the cathedral-topped Woolworth Building in New York. She prefers the type that came from Germany with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe after World War II. Mies's elegant glass office buildings, such as the Seagram Building on Park Avenue in New York, were marked by exquisite exterior details inspired by the steel girders inside. Huxtable calls Mies's work ``structural symbolism as a high art for a technological age.''

She also praises the designers in the firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill for transforming, in the early 1950s, Mies's art into an everyday language, a vernacular she thinks is ``probably the handsomest and most useful set of architectural conventions since the Georgian row house.''

Huxtable's strong rhetorical style serves her well, but perhaps too well in the second half of the book, as she constructs memorable but inflammatory phrases to describe the postmodernist buildings of the present. The postmodernist skyscraper is to her a cloaked building, an ``enormous package that can be decorated for status, symbolism, and style'' through an ``elite checklist of aesthetic references'' -- by which she means references to classical, medieval, Renaissance, or Baroque architectural forms. Because this type of skyscraper does not follow the modernist definition, she refuses to call it art.

Furthermore, she uses political associations -- ``the antiliberal snobbism of the new, and young, far Right'' -- to make the point that the postmodernists are not considering the social implications of their buildings. Instead of making the lower portion of the faade and its detailing relate to the scale of the pedestrian, or setting the building back from the sidewalk to allow for air and light in the streets, as the modernists did, the postmodernists have been concerned with manipulating historical style above all else, she asserts.

Then she asks the hard questions that are the real core of her message:

What is the social impact of the aggressive new scale of building and the density of the new superskyscrapers?

``At what moment does the city cross the line where it ceases to be magnificent and becomes insupportable?''

``Is there a line where economic density can no longer be distinguished from pure greed?''

For Huxtable, these are rhetorical questions. She unquestionably believes the line has been crossed already. She thinks the cost has already been too high in the loss of sunlight, in the increase in street-level wind velocity, in the strain on the city's already antiquated support systems. The superskyscrapers, she suggests, have increased the city's impersonality and diminished its civility.

As examples of buildings that are ``preposterous'' in scale, she cites the pink granite AT&T Building in New York, by Philip Johnson and John Burgee (1978-83), and its more refined, more street-sensitive monolithic neighbor, the IBM Building, by Edward L. Barnes Associates (1977-83), on the next block. She considers this scale such an ``assault'' on the city that she also refuses to allow these buildings to be called works of art.

From these remarks it seems Huxtable regards the modernist system as a closed one: If its rules are violated, the resulting building becomes ``non-art.'' The fact that someone of Ada Louise Huxtable's stature (she is winner of both the first Pulitzer Prize for architectural criticism and a MacArthur fellowship, and was the first full-time architectural critic for the New York Times) could engage in such polarizations shows the intensity of the problem. Nevertheless, her insights can be separated from her antagonism toward those whom she finds guilty of both destroying modernism and ruining the city.

Since the postmodernists have been getting most of the commissions, winning most of the competitions, and sometimes skirting the zoning rules -- as in the Times Square redevelopment plan -- the blame is laid on them.

Huxtable closes her book by suggesting that the winners of the 1983 Syracuse University intercollegiate competition, patterned on the Times Square renewal project, have surpassed the postmodernists in the quality of design, even though the buildings would still be tremendously oversized.

Obeying the zoning codes, and using forms she finds closer to ``revolutionary Russian Constructivism'' than to the more mainline historical styles used by the postmodernists, they have initiated what she hopes is a new phase beyond the ``post-modernist debate.''

Let us hope that the postmodernists, who are so accustomed to debate, will, in recognition of Huxtable's accomplishments, respond good-naturedly to her heated commentary. While they will certainly not go back to a modernism, they might more openly acknowledge their real debt to the modernists and include their achievements in the historical architecture worth learning from.

Margaret Muther D'Evelyn is a free-lance architectural historian.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Postmodernism and the uncivil city
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today