Anxious Modernisms, Experimentation in Postwar Architectural Culture

by Sarah Williams Goldhagen and Réjean Legault

It has recently come to my attention that criticism has made a hasty exit from the world of critical writing. North American cultural adoption of political correctness has severed several qualities that used to provoke and amuse us in the arena of criticism. Cynicism is now usually met with soft disapproval and requests to "be nice." Nowhere is this more evident than in recent works of some architectural historians. Aside from the wit, sarcasm, and insight of Michael Sorkin, the overlooked academic barbs of Adrian Forty, the thorough research and polemic of Mike Davis, or the critical rigor of Beatrice Colomina, most current writing on architecture reads like it was an arduous task to produce, perhaps a necessity to fulfill tenure requirements.

Criticism, like cynicism, is dying a slow and under-reported death.

Derived from a joint symposium at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and the Canadian Center for Architecture, Anxious Modernisms, Experimentation in Postwar Architectural Culture, is a problematic entry into the arena of architectural history. Jointly edited by Sarah Williams Goldhagen and Réjean Legault, the volume catalogs architects and designers active during the First and Second World Wars. Focusing on both well known figures such as Alison and Peter Smithson, Richard Neutra and Eero Saarinen as well as some overlooked by the canon, like the urbanist interventions of ATBAT-Afrique and the Japanese Metabolists, the editors and contributors attempt to demarcate an historical experimental period. Thoroughly modern in its orientation, they argue that this space on the time line expanded and extended architectural critique and debate from 1945 to the beginnings of postmodernism, marked by the publishing of Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture in 1966.

To their credit, the authors’ research is enjoyably precise and well documented. Each author footnotes extensively, often citing several rare primary sources that the authors are now able to gain access to. Regardless of, and perhaps because of, this emphasis on complete documentation, much of the writing lacks a sense of both humor and excitement, or as a friend is eager to point out, its distance does not allow a little bit of the ugly that informed much of the architecture and criticism of the period in question to seep in. When an author such as Timothy Rohan evokes the work of both William Jordy and Reyner Banham in his piece on Paul Rudolph’s Jewett Arts Center at Wellesley College, he does so in a way that is stoic and academic. Banham and Jordy’s emphasis on a cutting critique has somehow been lost in the translation to the doctoral dissertation. Rohan’s argument that the decorative fenestration on the Jewett Arts Center was related to Rudolph’s homosexuality, and that the later Brutalist strain of his work was an effort to repress the effeminate, comes across as a translation of facts, rather than the provocative argument that it suggests. Rohan’s article is, however, one of the more successful essays in the book, as he does manage to simultaneously frame his argument around the architecture of the Jewett Arts Center itself and to convincingly evokes the cultural climate of the period.

Goldhagen’s article on the Smithson’s domestic sensibility is one of the more initially interesting investigations into the postwar anxiety alluded to in the title of the book. Her article "Freedom’s Domiciles" examines the Smithson’s responses to the art, philosophy and architecture of the time, and the separate accounts of Alison and Peter Smithson’s reaction to their own work several decades later. Goldhagen, whose writing here resembles stage directions for an imagined play, introduces the reader to a large cast of characters that bring personal recollection, theoretical analysis, and thoughts on art and architecture into the discussion. Heavily footnoted and cross referenced, Goldhagen’s cast members include the Independent Groups’ Nigel Henderson and Eduardo Paolozzi, Martin Heidigger and Jean Paul Sartre, Reyner Banham and Manfredo Tafuri, as well as a who’s who of the European avant garde elite. Goldhagen paints these years as bound together in a loose critical agreement. As she notes several times, after the horror and trauma of the war, Existentialist ideas were inescapable. Particularly influential was the Sartrean notion of the authentic rooted itself in an examination of materiality that refuted the mass-produced Machine Aesthetic of the pre-war years. In the Smithson’s hands, this thought was transformed into the surfaces and volume of their architecture. Goldhagen argues that in the Smithson’s preference for heaviness over light structure, and dirt over steel, there exists an underlying consistency between the pop leanings evident in the House of the Future and the Art Brut-ness of their built work. Other critics, such as Kenneth Frampton and Reyner Banham have tended to separate these as distinct strains within their work. Ultimately the length of the essay, short at twenty-two pages, does not allow Goldhagen to fully realize the complexities and nuances of her argument.

Some of the more successful portions of the book are those that respond not to architecture directly, but rather to a formulation of Modernism that is not commodified at its roots. Felicity Scott’s article regarding Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture without Architects show at the MoMA is a breath of fresh air. Scott’s chapter focuses on one of the primary anxieties of a theoretical modernism that is not evident in other chapters of the book: an inherent philosophical state of displacement and homelessness. In the photography that Rudofsky presented in the exhibition and accompanying catalogue of "non-pedigreed architecture," he visibly argued that the modern subject was confronted by the psychological difference between his contrasting concepts of "house" and "home." "Home," as Rudofsky explains, is the unrestricted movement through national boundaries and political territories via the methods and technologies that modernism produced - the car, the boat and the tent. The construction of "house" is not the reconciliation of modernism with architecture: indeed it is through the house that architecture and imagination become restricted and tied to a system of commodification. This is, he argues, can be seen in the post-war creation and settlement of large suburban developments. Post-War modernism’s attempt to confront the reality of this theory was answered in part by the retreat to form noted in the emergence of an architectural Postmodernism.

This anxiety of the modern experience points to one of the disconcerting aspects raised by Anxious Modernisms: the conflict between the necessity of theory, and the reality of practice. If theory is indeed dead (as was proclaimed by Peter Eisenman and Architecture magazine last year), then practice must be following closely on its heels. Anxious Modernisms wants to open a dialog between these two traditionally opposed ideologies and reconcile them in a manner that is neither convincing or provocative.

The ultimate shallowness of this reconciliatory effort occurs in Goldhagen’s coda. She outlines her argument for the reformulation of the universal modernism into a new, tri-partite association. This set as consisting of consentualist, negativist and reformist tendencies, their ideologies divide into that of political partisanship, all appearing within one loosely defined political system. Goldhagen focuses her description on the centrist reformists who account for largest group of Modern architects working after W.W.II that includes Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier and Richard Neutra. This group is further divided on phenomenological terms, including such architects as Alvar Aalto, Eileen Gray, Hans Scharoun and Bruno Taut, whom she christens ’situated modernists.’

These practitioners, as Goldhagen describes them, figure within what this critic calls ’good liberalism.’ (The writers of many of the pieces in this collection could be similarly categorized.) These architects and writers do not want to disrupt the freedom of the political, primarily capitalist democratic systems in which they live. Indeed, Goldhagen emphasizes that her use of the ’situated’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the revolutionary tactics of the Situationist International, whose praxis dislocated and disrupted our understanding and interpretation of both our cities and the spectacles within them (and who are only perfunctorily outlined in another chapter in the book). Rather the situated is embedded in the desire to "situate the users of the building socially and historically." This politic, whose ultimate effect is the maintenance of the status quo, sits easily on the fence, operating comfortably within the confines of acceptable criticism. In fact, the "situated," whose provenance in Kenneth Frampton’s Critical Regionalism is clear, collapses into the same aesthetic dispositions that have been criticized in Frampton’s formulation of an arrière-garde. It is this lack of a real and extended commitment to a political stance that makes the academicism of Anxious Modernisms read not as an exciting new history of modern architecture in relation to the emergence of post-modernism, but unfortunately as an exercise in describing a new canon.