Urban Architecture Awakens from a Bad Dream
However horrible these thirty years have been in architecture, they’ve also been a period of liberation.
However horrible these thirty years have been in architecture, they’ve also been a period of liberation. That liberation has been a slow, progressive waking from a dream—from the mad dream of Robespierrean purity, of an architecture which had no debt to the past, no respect for the existing urban fabric, which regarded all of that as inessential, which rewrote history and changed our memories. As with so many revolutions, from the French to the Soviet, intolerance—and, in the end, totalitarian thinking—directed the fundamental urban planning ideas of high modernism as it developed in the 1950s.
From that dream we’ve awakened, and those of us from my generation who were deeply marinated in modernism can hardly believe what has happened to us. Today most of us can hardly remember some of the things we believed as gospel thirty years ago.
In those thirty years, we’ve had a revival of the vernacular and the classical traditions and their reintegration into the mainstream of modern architecture. Even as late as 1960, that was totally unimagined. Then, as the natural culmination of that revival, has come a revival of traditional urbanism, which perceives architecture at its proper scale. It is not an architecture of individual buildings, lined up like paintings in a gallery, free of urban context, intended to be admired for their own special inventiveness. It is an architecture of the community as a whole, architecture as it has always been—culture’s basic stratagem, mediating between the individual and the terrors of nature’s law.
Predating all those developments in architecture came the only mass popular movement that has fundamentally affected the development of architecture in the twentieth century, the historic preservation movement. Indeed, the changes that took place in architecture over the last thirty years owe as much to the popular movement toward historic preservation as to the professional concerns of architects. In fact, the people took architecture back. The high modernist architects felt that the people really didn’t know what they wanted: they didn’t even know how they should live. They had to be told; they had to be guided.
But all of a sudden, a mass popular movement was able to make architects and planners do what it wanted. It was able to affect politicians and so to affect the fundamental route through which all important urban architecture comes about, and that is through the law. The preservation movement is preoccupied with the preservation of communities as a whole rather than simply with individual buildings. Through the development of preservation law, and especially the first great ordinance of 1965, a code took form through which we now see architecture as a coherent urban structure.
In those same years, the major political revival has been the liberation of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and David Remnick, in his beautiful book, Lenin’s Tomb, makes clear that that liberation is basically a liberation of memory, a liberation of history. He builds his whole book around that idea, stressing the fact that Gorbachev’s very first talk initiating perestroika was about the necessity of reviving history and rehabilitating its martyrs. That is just what historic preservation has done. It has given us back our memory. Without memory one is a slave; only through memory can one be free. And certainly only through memory can one create cities as a whole.
The martyrology of preservation is a very important part of what we know. The first great martyr is Penn Station. It’s inconceivable today that it could have been torn down as it was in 1963. We remember the indifference, even the hostility, of many members of the profession, because it wasn’t a modern building, because in its great waiting room the steel arches were covered with another material. How that wonderful ascent into the open from the trains below, going through that great forest, and then coming out finally into that wonderful waiting room, with vaults so high over one’s head—how that could have been allowed to go is something we can’t understand today, and that is an indication of how far we have come. All that wonder was just taken away, and a rat-like warren succeeded it.
Out of that loss came the ordinance of 1965, so that New York City had the power, moving into the early Seventies, to save the great waiting room in Grand Central Station. However, it was too late to save that wonderful free space of Park Avenue, with its beautiful running of the traffic around Grand Central’s office tower. It was too late to save that from the Pan Am Building, which was sited the wrong way, should have been turned in the other direction, and is primitively detailed in a manner that’s very difficult for us really to understand now.
Even before that, Lever House, as a very special new kind of building set off by the buildings around it, broke the rule of the street—that the avenue was defined by the planes of buildings that ran along with it. Instead, it cut a hole through the wall of the avenue and began to destroy its definition. Now all the towers have been covered with glass. Only the Racquet Club still stands, solid and warm, defining the space.
We began to learn that there were difficulties in defining urban volumes with glass. We began to learn that it wasn’t only a question of saving buildings, but of saving the urban environment as a whole. We began to see that the streets were themselves buildings, and had to be thought of in that way. We learned back in 1967 that it was the relationship of buildings to each other to make an urban place that counted as a principle: we later came to call it contextuality.
The architect who most developed this in his own work, who learned the lessons of preservation and preservation law, though he might sometimes deny that himself, is Robert Venturi. One of his earliest works, the Guild House, tries very hard, with its red brick and its white trim, to get along with the preexisting, rather common buildings on its street. It tries to make its particular place as a whole a little better on the place’s own terms. And it’s just at this time that Venturi is writing in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture that Main Street is almost all right. To say so in 1966 was an absolute break with the puristic, cataclysmic planning principles of the International style.
Contrast that with the high modernism of the Whitney Museum, which tries in every way to outrage the scale of the little buildings around it and indeed shields itself from them with a thin concrete wall to the south. Even when one looks at a more genial building like the Guggenheim, one realizes that it depends on the civility of the buildings around it. Though Wright constantly said that we should think of the museum as being in the park rather than on the street, he is nevertheless exploiting the civility of the other buildings along the street. If those buildings were torn down and everybody put Guggenheims there, the street would become a strip.
Venturi does the opposite with Guild House, though the forms he uses come directly from Louis Kahn, who didn’t care a rap about preservation or contextuality. Kahn wanted to be a hero; he wanted to reinvent the wheel in every building he designed. But the reason that everything new began to come out of Kahn was that he went to the absolute basic structure. Exactly like Piranesi and the romantic classic architects before him, he went to the ruins of Rome, and built his ruins without glass.
Venturi learned to get along with what preexisted. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries had been preoccupied with the invention of style. And this is difficult; the result, as with the International style, necessarily reductive. It’s a little like creating religion: and in this context I’m reminded of the story about Talleyrand. A young man came up to him and said, “Mr. Talleyrand, I would like to start a new religion: how do I go about it?” Talleyrand said, “It’s not difficult; all you have to do is die and rise again on the third day.”
All this preoccupation with pure style may well have been modern architecture’s worst mistake. What we should have been thinking about was contextuality. If the modern era has anything that’s good for us as against other periods, it is the fact that it provides more choices and that our culture can be pluralistic. Since we have more possibilities than ever before, why insist that it all has to be one? Why not say architecture should be eclectic, should be many?
That’s what Venturi does with Wu Hall at Princeton University. He designs the building clearly as a modern building, even almost an International style building. It employs a curtain wall, but Venturi inflects it to get along with the preexisting Tudorish buildings of the 1920s. In other words, he opts for improving the place just a little on its own terms, to heal it and complete it as an environment rather than to outrage it with a building different from it. He does the same thing in Philadelphia in the Institute for Scientific Information, which is more or less International style because the context is.
In the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square in London, Venturi starts with the very best thing that poor old Wilkins’s building has—his colossal pilasters. He makes what he calls a cadenza with them, and then stretches them out across the surface of his diagonal wall. As he does so, the pilasters get fewer and fewer, and the windows progressively disappear, but as the wall reaches the street, a big full column stands out and breasts the space of the square in front of it and echoes Nelson’s column in the center. But the element that holds the building together and is most powerful on the square is the big, abstract modern black void that opens it up.
The English criticism was vicious. One critic, not understanding the principle of contextual design, called the metamorphosis of surface elements “slime.” Another critic, completely confused, said he would have embraced it all if Venturi had come riding in like a crazy American from the plains, shooting off his six-shooter. Venturi had already done that when he built his fire station in Columbus, Indiana, to gesture toward the fast road in front of it. This was a different place—Trafalgar Square, in fact. Contextually, the column finally calls to Nelson’s, and beneath all the play of pilasters, it is the great black void that is stronger than any other form along that wall and which finally shapes the square. Here it’s clear how closely the idea of contextuality is connected to the idea of community, because the individual building must relate to the other elements that make up the town as a whole.
Thirty years ago we hardly thought of community at all. In architecture, we thought of the individual alone—how the individual could be released to nature. Philip Johnson’s glass house is the absolute apogee of modern architecture in that form. It looks as if it is, in fact, just a way to plug the individual into this society’s basic amenities, such as electricity, and to surround him with glass walls through which he can see the seasons change. It is the perfect image of the liberated individual, totally released from community and from restraints. It is modernism at its height.
When I came to build my own house in 1950, I wanted it to be like that, even though I didn’t have any money. It was intended to be a poor man’s Johnson, a big open volume with a central cinderblock core and as much glass as possible, set in the woods so I wouldn’t have to look at any of the other houses that might be built around it. I couldn’t stand to look at them at that time because they weren’t pure, they weren’t modern; they were colonial.
I had already written about the American vernacular in The Shingle Style and the Stick Style, but it never occurred to me that you could use it. It never occurred to me that you could break the membrane between what was past and what we could do today. So it never occurred to me that one could take the Low House and its shingles and have a gable roof and mullioned windows. I couldn’t have drawn any of that anyway—nor could most people at that time—so it never occurred to me at all.
But it occurred to Venturi in 1959. His Beach House project clearly grows directly from Low House’s shingles and big gable shape. He is the first of the modern architects who says, I will not invent. Aldo Rossi, in Italy, was soon to do much the same thing. His teacher, Rossi tells us, looked at his early work and said, “Aldo, your work looks like that of any dumb mason that comes down out of the mountains.” And Rossi said, in effect: Now you understand; that’s it—that’s what I’m trying to do. All of a sudden, the architect did not have to invent. Robert Stern, for example, has often said that he is not, and has never pretended to be, the kind of form-giver that the modern architectural heroes were. Instead, he wanted to learn how to build correctly, or at least finally came to do so.
Stern was Venturi’s first backer outside of Philadelphia. He dragged me, protesting, down to Philadelphia to see Venturi’s work in 1964 or so. Like all of my generation, my first reaction was anger. But it’s not the only time that students have made me see things, made me go and look.
When Stern himself came to design, he based his work very closely on the Shingle Style. Then he took that idea of using the vernacular and projected it one step more, in what I think is almost his most important project: his Subway Suburb for the South Bronx of 1976.
This goes right to the question of how to handle destroyed urban areas. In the burned-out South Bronx, where the land is worth nothing, where nobody wants to be, all the utilities are there underground. Stern says, these people want what all Americans want. They want a single family house, and they want it in traditional groupings on streets, with perhaps a green in the middle. So he lays it out that way, exactly the opposite of the International style grouping. Where, for example, the International style planning that destroyed so much of New Haven ignored the vernacular frontal gable houses and the streets that were so well shaped, Stern exploits them-using the gables facing the street, the porches, the strip of grass, and the trees.
Working for Stern, just before he designed this in 1976, was Andres Duany, who once led my Yale seminar down the streets of New Haven showing how, to my amazement, there really was no reason whatsoever that you could not do it again—that, in fact, there was no membrane between us and the past. Duany said, “Once we did architecture right in America, and now we’re doing it wrong,” and he was influenced here by Stern. It’s out of this mixture of traditional housing, traditional planning types, and the vernacular, that the famous town of Seaside in the Florida panhandle on the “redneck riviera” took shape throughout the 1980s right up to the present time.
There is a wonderful feeling of architecture mediating between the individual and the vastness of nature in all our greatest works, whatever their scale: at Seaside and in Battery Park City, where Cesar Pelli and the others bring the intractable World Trade Towers down into Lower Manhattan’s pyramidal grouping of skyscrapers again, and where the streets with housing run visually right into the heart of the city. You really feel a community is developed there, with the splendor and grandeur of nature around it.
Battery Park City is state-owned, so that the developers ultimately have to obey the laws of the community. The fundamental way in which any city is made is through the law, especially through the zoning code. Seaside is a conspicuous example of the success of a strict zoning code. It is required to give a community a sense of the relationship of everything to everything else. A good many architects, the persistently “modern” architects, hate the code and try to get around it. But it is fundamental, and it’s touching how important that code is.
The best image of the city and the law is shaped around exactly that: it’s the so-called Allegory of Good Government in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena and was painted in the 1330s and 1340s, just before the Black Death. There is the city, all hard-edged and cubical, with all the buildings laid out in a close vernacular relationship to each other. Then there is the landscape. The hard edge of the city wall cuts—as Homer felt, hubristically—into the softness and gentleness of the land, but they balance each other. And above the two, right at the moment of balance, is the fundamental image of law, of security and good government, which makes it possible for the peasants to beat the grain in peace down in the fields, and for the townsfolk to walk safely through their town and to dance in the square on the foreground.
In the accompanying fresco, an Allegory of Bad Government—which looks like most of our cities today—everything is falling apart in the background, and the citizens are getting mugged in the foreground. So architecture is correctly seen as the expression of society’s capacity to protect the individual by community structures. And this includes of course preservation law. This is the law that has triumphed over all attempts to make preservation and zoning impossible. So in Siena the commune is shown seated in majesty holding a long cord, onto which each citizen of the town holds. That cord is the law, to which all voluntarily acquiesce, in order that they can live together in peace which is the figure in white who dominates the center of the wall. As in all communities, the law is the fundamental basis for the freedom of the individual within it.
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