Wednesday, December 1, 1993

After Functionalism

Written December 1993
© David Cohn. All Rights Reserved.

This was my stab at a theory of contemporary architecture, written in 1993, which helped clarify many of my thoughts and intuitions. I proposed it as the introduction to a collection of my articles, for which it could still serve, with some revisions, today.

The revolution in architecture announced by books such as Aldo Rossi's The Architecture of the City and Robert Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (both 1966) changed the course of postwar Modernism. But after twenty years of post-modern movements and styles, from North American Historicism and European Neo-Rationalism through Contextualism, Critical Regionalism, Eclecticism and lately, DeConstructivism, the strongest trend to have emerged in contemporary architecture is the irrepressible return of the Modern. What then in architecture has actually changed?

In retrospect, it is clear that the Modern Movement Rossi and Venturi attacked was a shadow of its prewar self. Compared to the avant-garde manifestos of the beginning of the century, the corporate headquarters, airports and shopping centers of mainstream postwar Modernism represent a notable failure of nerve. The vital energy of early Modernism was fueled by a progressive collective project or vision, be it Marxist or Fascist or ambiguous or self-invented, that after the war --after a war inflamed by such ideas-- was untenable. Postwar architecture joined the other arts in a strategic retreat from collective ideologies -- to an existential uncertainty on the one hand, or to science as the model for a collective, more than individual coherence on the other.

Just as postwar art generally spoke only of agonizing subjective experience (Mark Rothko) or through the alienated, objectified voice of scientific observation and demonstration (John Cage), postwar modern architecture withdrew into the theoretically "scientific" concept of functionalism, the idea that an objective, rational language of architecture could be developed from the clear, logical expression of the functional and structural requirements of a building.

Functionalism was not new to modern architecture, but after the war it was applied with a new single-mindedness. The most sophisticated architects interpreted functionalism in organic sociological terms (Jacob Bakema, Georges Candillis) or used functional elements in dramatic sculptural compositions (James Stirling and other Brutalists, in what we could call a functionalist mannerism, precursor to High Tech), while more conservative American practitioners tended towards a more abstract and geometric formalism. But the general tendency of functionalism, and what made it such an easy target for the first post-modern critics, was to reduce architecture to a purely instrumental status. Between the work of Mies van der Rohe and his postwar Chicago followers such as C. F. Murphy or Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, an essential dimension of architecture had been lost.

Ironically, this situation is comparable in many ways to the historic conditions that gave rise to modern architecture in the first place. The industrialization of England at the end of the 18th century and the philosophical revolution of the Enlightenment gave rise to a rationalization of human work and thought as seen, for example, in the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, a concept which produced the complementary principle, as stated by John Ruskin, of the "inutility" of art.

In the applied arts, the division between utility and art was expressed in the eruption of ornament in the first machine-produced goods, such as those displayed at London's Great Exhibition of 1851. From this point, modern architecture emerged as the effort to reintegrate the concepts of utility and art, from Louis Sullivan's search for the organic nature of the tall building to Adolph Loos' famous essay Ornament is Crime.

What had occurred at the end of the 18th century in England, and re-occurred in the aftermath of the Second World War, was the exile of what we here call "art" from the world of work and reason, or, to put it simply, from the world of fact. The emergence of English Romantic poetry in the same period is perhaps the clearest example of this division. If the project of the Enlightenment in England (with its positivist and empiricist colorings) is taken to mean the secularization and rationalization of thought, the banishment of untested belief and superstition, the reduction of what can be considered "real" to what can be empirically confirmed by the scientific method and deduction, to the laws of nature and logic (a reduction of language, we might say, in favor of fact), then the imaginative realm of Romantic poetry in the 19th century, from William Blake onwards, surges from this radical reduction of the world of meaning like a phantom amputated limb. In Romantic literature, sentiment and desire are displaced to the past, the mythical, the distant and exotic. Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary describes the alienation of romantic displacement, and the corresponding poverty of a "realist" present, the catastrophic consequences of the rupture of language.

In the United States, the first critical reactions to functionalism sought to humanize the overly instrumental and reductive aspects of postwar practice. Charles Moore and his colleagues, in books such as The Place of Houses and Body Memory Architecture (with reading lists, following Nobert-Schultz's Intentions in Architecutre, including Piaget, Bachelard, and Heidegger), sought to construct a humanistic bridge to an apparently abstract formal language, emphasizing the structural polarization of space by the human body, in phenomenological, perceptual, and psychological terms. This work, like the contemporary theories of Aldo van Eyck, Herman Hertzberger or Christopher Alexander, still maintained a "scientific" approach to architecture, seen in terms of sociological insights or in the isolated experimental units of the "human body" and "perception". Architecture was conceived as an instrument of social form, adapting functionalism to a broader, more sensitive view of human necessity.

But the short life of the post-modern movement in the United States, from the actual buildings of Venturi and Moore to Michael Graves and the corporate skyscraper architects of the 1980s, could be attributed to the fact that the Americans sought to realize this humanistic program through the same ornamental strategy used in the 19th century.  The much-celebrated irony of Venturi and Scott Brown's use of pop-scaled "sign" ornament was charged with the same alienation and distrust of non-objective language as the paintings of Jasper Johns or the stacked bricks of Carl André. The scenographic, ephemeral (and poorly constructed) quality of Moore's output failed to engage the real issues of the production of buildings, while at the other extreme, the later work of Graves and the commercial post-modernists abandoned all interest in a critical project. Only Alexander remained faithful to the logical consequences of his theory, as developed in A Pattern Language, a revolutionary design method as appropriate to luxury residential compounds as it is to the Third World.

Aldo Rossi, in the concept of type proposed in The Architecture of the City, challenged functionalism in different terms. Just as in the early formalism of Peter Eisenman or the twelve tone system in music, Rossi's early work could be described as a quasi-scientific investigation into the "constituent elements" of architectonic language. But in his case, the basic elements were determined not so much by the natural laws of physics and geometry as by the laws of memory and the imagination. In the concept of type, Rossi began to address an idea about what we might call the "mental reproduction of images," how images might multiply and transform themselves in the memory and the imagination in a semiotics of nostalgia and desire.

Manfredo Tafuri's harsh criticism of Rossi in the History of Italian Architecture, 1944 - 1985 underlines the radical nature of Rossi's approach and its challenge to the (Enlightenment, Marxist) project of reason:
"The imagined project concerned a new collective need in a universe that was robbing individual action of its element of fantasy. But whoever immerses himself in imaginary realms today --as Blanchot has warned us-- is forced to annul space and time, to send them deep into the nothingness of "literary space". This annulment is indecent and provocative. It has nothing to do with the classical Entsagung; it is based on the amoral principle of abstention." (1)
While Rossi's own architecture seems, as Tafuri observes, to end in a paralyzing reductivism, the radical potential of his idea can be interpreted in terms diametrically opposed to Tafuri's analysis: to open the "imaginary realms" of "literary space" to a world otherwise determined by instrumental reason or functionality, to release the powers of the imagination from an "indecent, provocative" postwar exile.

The parallels between Rossi's architecture of the 1970s and other contemporary movements in art are obvious, from the ritualized stage sets of Robert Wilson to the ideologically-charged paintings of Anselm Kiefer. It is no accident that the image of the theater is a favorite Rossian theme, for theater offers a model of realism diametrically opposed to the factual representations of, say, photography, a realism which can be composed of symbolic rather than literal elements (the type characters of Bertold Brecht, for example, adapted from popular folk literature and employed in a context of social realism). Here symbolism is used not to create imaginary worlds but as a tool in the analysis of the "real", or even, we could say, in the composition of the real.

Behind the figure of Rossi in Europe and Venturi in the United States, the influence of Louis Kahn is of course decisive. Kahn's dialectic of served and serving spaces, developed from the Brutalism of the 1950s, and his formal dialectic of repeated and deformed geometric volumes and patterns, helped to distance his method from functionalism, and provided the essential outlines for Rossian type and Venturian deformation.

More difficult to assimilate at the time, but perhaps equally decisive for the present, was Kahn's disturbing spiritualization of architecture. The elevation of traditional modern values such as light, space and the "honest" use of materials to a transcendent, spiritual plane went against the grain of postwar doubt. Worse, it seemed to echo the fatuous, vaguely Heideggerian exaltation of the everyday which Theodor Adorno denounced in The Jargon of Authenticity. For at the same time that Kahn was asking the brick "what it wanted to be," French post-structuralists were examining the semiotic unmasking of God as an effect of language, the absent referent of an empty sign. But the thought of Heidegger is reflected more concretely in the writings of Rossi, Venturi, and later, Christian Norberg-Schulz and others, where a Kahnian spirituality is rationalized in terms of psychology and semiotics (Rossi, for example, following Gaston Bachelard, calls his childhood reminiscences A Scientific Autobiography).

If we were to substitute the problematic word "spirituality", which comes to us from a broken world of absolute values and faith, for another word, "poetry," which is specifically an attribute of language, we might be able to identify the essential change which the work of Rossi and Venturi, and behind them Kahn, brought to architecture, a change which has not only affected the present, but which has also changed our historical understanding of the first modern architects. Poetry can refer, of course, to many different things. But if we imagine the poet as a sensitized observer of the world, reflecting, comparing, associating, imagining, remembering and feeling through the weave of language, and if we associate these qualities with the architect, who follows the same process through the weave of form and the building's functional circumstances, that is, its role in the entire social sphere, we find ourselves with an architecture which brings a new dimension of meaning to the languages of functionalism and abstract form: the dimension of language in its fullest, most human and relative sense, open to the powers of memory, dream and projection, the power to create a "fiction" of the present and future, of fact and imagination, to propose a (partial, poetic) project as a fundamental dimension of the real.

In this sense, poetry has replaced science at the end of the twentieth century as a model for a cohesive structure of thought, to such a degree that science itself, particularly in advanced areas of physics and mathematics, is often referred to today as a kind of poetics, a concentrated, contingent linguistic weave, without for that reason being any less rigorous or verifiable.

The direct stylistic impact of post-modernism may not be as evident today as it was in the 1970s and 80s. But the more general shift to a poetic concept of language has spread through all the branches of architecture in the past twenty years, from the more obviously poetic work of John Hejduk or Álvaro Siza and signature artists such as Frank Gehry or Richard Meier, to include the architectural invasion of fields previously surrendered to technology: in the city planning theory of Oriol Bohigas, the engineering works of Santiago Calatrava, or the High Tech buildings of Norman Foster. We can speak once again of an architecture that represents public aspirations (the Trés Grands Projets of François Mitterand, the public building programs of new democratic administrations all across Spain), of an architecture that, with the right patrons, can represent a collective project, even in the old Enlightenment terms. And in retrospect, how do we now understand the work of the Russian Constructivists, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Bauhaus, Italian Rationalism or the Dutch Neo-Plasticists but in these same poetic terms?

Architecture meets the needs of the present but also creates the world of the future, consciously or no. To consciously seize the powers of imagining and creating the future world would seem to be the present goal of a renewed public and private architecture, and the most important legacy of the post-modern revolution.

Note 1:
Manfredo Tafuri, History of Italian Architecture, 1944 - 85, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1989, page 137.

Friday, October 1, 1993


db - Deutsche Bauzeitung, October 1993, pages 129 - 132.
© Deutsche Bauzeitung, David Cohn 1993. All rights reserved.

Chicago and New York are the protagonists of two radically different visions of the skyscraper.  In classic histories such as Leonardo Benevolo's Modern Architecture, which define architecture in terms of the "modern project" and industrial rationalization, Chicago figures as the birthplace of the modern skyscraper.  In these accounts, the development of steel frame construction by William LeBaron Jenney in the 1880s is the technological breakthrough which opens the way to the modern office building as it was first conceived by Holabird & Roche, John Root, Louis Sullivan and others.

It is true that the first vital contributions to this evolution proceed from New York and more than a generation earlier  --  the first cast iron building by James Bogardus dates to 1848, and Elisha Graves Otis invented the elevator there in 1853.  But New York is generally excluded from the beginnings of modernism for the perseverance there of an ornamental historicism which is regarded as a regressive denial of the skyscraper's "will-to-form."

With the exception of Cass Gilbert's 1913 Woolworth Building and works by Chicago architects  --Sullivan's 1898 Bayard Building or Daniel Burnham's 1902 Flatiron Building-- New York's skyscrapers scarcely enter the history of modernism until after the Second World War, with the introduction of European models: the United Nations Secretariat (1947-53), Skidmore Owings & Merrill's Lever House (1952), and the Seagram Building (1958), Europe's homage to the Chicago School.

On the other hand, New York is the chief protagonist of an entirely different vision of the skyscraper, which is mythic rather than historical in character.  Our sources for this vision range from the popular media of the 1930s and 40s to the work of certain realist artists, from the monstrous Metropolis of Batman's Gotham City and King Kong to the gritty realism of B-grade detective movies, the paintings of Edward Hopper, or the Manhattan photographs of Andreas Feininger.

Downtown NY in 1934
While the city of these sources is largely imaginary, their vision is based on a concrete group of buildings, built within a remarkably short period of time by unknown commercial architects, which form the legendary image of the New York skyline: the Empire State (Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, 1931), the Chrysler (William Van Alen, 1930), the RCA Tower of Rockefeller Center (Reinhard & Hofmeister; Corbett, Harrison & MacMurray; Hood, Godley & Fouilhoux, 1933), and the anonymous spires that make up the pinnacle of the downtown skyline: the pyramid-topped Bank of Manhattan at 40 Wall, precursor to the Chase Manhattan Bank (Severance & Matsui, 1929), the 57-story City Bank Farmers Trust Company at 22 Williams Street (Cross & Cross, 1931) and the slender tower of the Cities Service Building at 70 Pine (Clinton & Russell, Holton & Georges, 1932).(1)
This more popular vision of the skyscraper was revindicated by post modern critics such as Vincent Scully and Robert Stern in the 1970s and 80s, although the best treatment of the popular myths and subconscious currents associated with these towers is Rem Koolhaas' Delirious New York (1978), the most intriguing conceptual alternative to traditional histories of the modern skyscraper.

Vincent Scully, in American Architecture and Urbanism, traces the architectural development of this vision through the fantastic drawings of Hugh Ferris, which are in turn an artistic assumption of the 1916 New York zoning laws requiring progressive setbacks in building massing for light and air, in the same sense that Sullivan's designs are "rationalizations" of the steel frame.  The nearest built approximation to the mountain-buildings of Ferris is the mayan-gothic-moderne New York Telephone Building at Barclay and Vesey Streets by Ralph Walker of Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker (1926), but all the skyscrapers of the early 1930s share its vision.

The 34 story McGraw-Hill Building by Raymond Hood (with Frederick Godley and Jacques-Andrés Fouilhoux), built on 42nd Street west of Eighth Avenue between 1930 and 1931, has the distinction of being claimed by both of these conflicting visions.  With its ribbon windows and minimal industrial detailing, it was the only New York building to be included in Hitchcock and Johnson's 1932 International Style show, while at the same time its vivid color and profile make it an essential reference for popular works on Art Deco. 

Raymond Hood's career is at the center of the United States' tardy intersection with European modernism.  Born in 1881 in Rhode Island, Hood was educated in the Beaux-Arts tradition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1903), the first school of architecture in the United States.  He worked in the neo-gothic style for the firm of Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson, particularly with Bertram Goodhue on the design of the West Point Military Academy in New York, before finishing his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1908-11).

Hood opened his own office in New York in 1914, but his career did not begin to prosper until he won (with John Howells) the international competition for the Chicago Tribune Tower in 1922, at the age of 41.  The jury chose his conventional neo-gothic spire over the designs of a host of European modernists, including Gropius, Taut, Hilberseimer, and Loos.  But by the end of his short career (he died in 1934 at the age of 53), Hood himself was the leading exponent of a particularly American and commercial brand of modernism that flourished after the war.  (One of Hood's indirect successors is the firm of Harrison & Abramovitz, associates with him on Rockefeller Center; Hood's partner Fouilhoux was an early member of the firm).

The Chicago Tribune competition thus marks a decisive point of transition for American architecture, whose effects were not seen until years later, in McGraw-Hill, Hood's Daily News Building (1930), or Howe and Lescaze's PSFS Tower in Philadelphia (1932).

Hood, The Daily News Building
The Daily News and McGraw-Hill make an interesting pair, two contemporary towers at opposite ends of 42nd Street, one built for a newspaper and the other for a magazine publisher, both designed to house printing plants on their lower floors and editorial offices on the tower floors above.  Between them, they define the future of postwar American skyscraper design.

The vertical organization and asymmetrical massing of The Daily News is a modernist, expressionist abstraction of the neo-gothic style.  Scully notes that The Daily News lacks a crown, and instead "dissipates its mass in an uninterrupted, open-ended dispersion of energy upward.(2) Its design concept was boldly developed in the RCA Tower, and it established a prototype for many postwar towers, from Eero Saarinen's 1965 CBS Building to Yamasaki's 1973 World Trade Center.

The staggered profile of McGraw-Hill steps back symmetrically from 41st and 42nd streets, creating a dramatic silhouette when seen from the heights across the river, where the regular east-west streets of Manhattan, designed in 1811 for townhouses and gardens, cut through the masses of buildings from river to river.  Hood made a similar play on Manhattan's geometry with the contemporary Beaux-Arts Apartments (1930), two symmetrical buildings built face-to-face across East 44th Street.

McGraw-Hill's massing is thus a dated reflection of the 1916 zoning laws, which gave way in 1961 to the tower-in-a-plaza typology inspired by the Seagram Building (and anticipated in the RCA Building).  But in other respects McGraw-Hill is a only an evolutionary step away from the Miesian tower.  Its ribbon windows approach the postwar glass curtain wall  --  according to Hood, only city code requirements for masonry fire separations between the floors led to the use of terra cotta block spandrels below the windows.(3) Similarly, the windows are divided by horizontal mullions, instead of the single sheets of postwar towers, because of code restrictions on maximum glass areas and because the windows are operable  --  the building wasn't air conditioned until 1957.(4)

Hood's architectural philosophy is similar in some ways to Robert Venturi's Learning From Las Vegas, using the pragmatic functionalism of a man of business (rather than a idealized European functionalism) to demolish conventional ideas of architectural design.  He pioneered in the use of plasticene models to study the massing of his towers, replacing the Beaux-Arts shadow studies that assumed construction in deep-relief stonework; at the same time, he claimed that zoning and function determined their form.(5)  He promoted the use of color as "the most simple and direct way to get an effective exterior."(6) As a consequence, he noted to The New York Sun in 1931, "more can be done in decorating a building through the window shades than through any carving in the masonry."(7) Referring to the large rotating globe he designed for the lobby of the Daily News Building, which has entered into popular legend as the model for Superman's Daily Planet or the 1940s detective thriller The Big Clock,  he observed, "...$150,000 spent in one place, at the entrance, might give a satisfying effect; but spread thin over the whole exterior, it would amount to almost nothing."(8)

Hood, American Radiator Building
Hood's 1924 American Radiator Building, a neo-gothic tower on West 40th Street in Manhattan, is thus built of black brick (with gold-painted details) to submerge the windows in the building's mass.  At The Daily News, white brick piers alternate with vertical bands of windows separated by red and black brick spandrels; the original window shades were also red. 

The McGraw-Hill Building, on the other hand, used contrasting colors: blue-green terra cotta and golden window shades.  In Hood's description, the terra cotta is "Dutch blue at the base, with sea green window bands, the blue gradually shading off to a lighter tone the higher the building goes, till it finally blends off into the azure blue of the sky.  The final effect is a shimmery, satin finish, somewhat on the order of the body of an automobile."(9) The metal window frames were also painted with a thin horizontal band of "vermillion" across the top jamb, while the metal column covers were painted a "dark blue-green, almost black."  The entry lobby is finished in alternating horizontal bands of turquoise and dark blue enameled sheet metal, separated by "silver" and "gold" finished metal tubes like automobile trim.(10)  

For the expensive decorative programs of other thirties skyscrapers, Hood substituted large-scale McGraw-Hill signs, one over the entrance and another crowning the building in eleven-foot terra cotta letters, 488 feet above the street  --  in emulation of Times Square electric signs, according to Hood, rather than Russian Constructivism.(11)

Like the dirigible mast of The Empire State and the automotive motifs of The Chrysler, Hood's use of metal, terra cotta and signage distances the building from conventional masonry structures, suggesting something much more dynamic, linking the skyscraper in image, materials and scale to the great trans-Atlantic ships that then still filled the New York harbor. The skyscraper rising out of the lower buildings of the city, like a stationary turbine in the prevailing winds (on gusty days, the building's steel skeleton groans and suspended light fixtures sway on upper floors) and the ocean liner moving majestically through the great space of the crowded harbor are images of a monstrous, fascinating power which captured the popular imagination.

Here we encounter an element in Hood's businesslike philosophy which has nothing to do with Venturian irony.  Hood shared with other architects of his generation a limitless optimism and unfailing belief in the future, which not even the Crash of 1929 had shaken.  The architects of New York's 1930s skyscrapers were riding out the last great wave of the speculative tide of the 1920s.  Like Ferris, Hood published visionary drawings in 1931 of a future Manhattan crowded with skyscrapers at its transportation centers and with skyscraper-bridges crossing its rivers.(12) He affirmed in the same year that buildings would soon be built taller than the Empire State, and that there would be a shortage of office space in a year and a half.(13)  

This apparently innocent and foolish optimism was a normal part of the prevailing boosterism of American capitalism, a by-product of the rapid industrialization of the United States in which cities actively competed to capture future development.  These struggles could effectively determine the triumph of one city over another  --of New York over Philadelphia, Chicago over Saint Louis, or in the 1920s, Los Angeles over San Francisco--  but they also gave rise to feverish cycles of expansion and depression.  Architecture was always an important tool in these struggles  --  we recall the "White City" of Daniel Burnham at the 1893 Chicago Fair, which coincided with the economic Panic of 1893, and his fantastic 1909 project for Chicago's future growth.

McGraw-Hill is thus in many ways an architectural folly, although "sound business principles" were used to pick the site and plan the building.  The company, which had outgrown its nearby headquarters on Tenth Avenue in the 1920s, planned to integrate editorial, production, printing and shipping operations in the new 500,000 square foot structure, with an employee cafeteria on the second floor, a street level retail bookshop, and a small company auditorium on the 34th floor.

City zoning only permitted industrial usage west of Seventh Avenue and east of Second, far from the center of business activity.  But 42nd Street was the principal cross-street of the city at that time.  Grand Central Station was a short walk away from the site, the Eighth Avenue Elevated Subway was on the corner, and an active Hudson River ferry crossing operated from the western end of the street.  It was considered a good bet  --a calculated risk--  that the city's business center would eventually reach the site, despite the tough neighborhood of dockfront tenements which surrounded it (the notorious Hell's Kitchen).(14) 

The budget for the building was in keeping with its modest site.  It was built for the cost of an industrial loft building, at $6.47 per square foot, or a total of 3.3 million dollars.  These costs reflected its true economic value, as it commanded rents of 90 cents per square foot(15) when prime office space near Grand Central went for $4.00.(16) Like other buildings of the time, it was built quickly, in 14 months, to minimize the gap between financing costs and revenue (the Empire State, with two million square feet of space, was built in 18 months).

But the Depression quickly caught up with these projections.  McGraw-Hill sold its printing presses in 1933 for lack of work to justify their maintenance, effectively eliminating the rationale for the site.  By 1939, its occupation of the building had declined from 75 to 34 per cent.  When McGraw-Hill sold the structure thirty years later, in 1970, the city's office center still had not reached it, and it remains underoccupied and marginalized to this day.

The McGraw-Hill's bad luck contrasts with the fate of the Daily News, which was built on the eastern end of 42nd Street in a similar search for industrial zoning.  The Daily News saw the nearby East River slaughterhouses transformed into the United Nations after the war, while McGraw-Hill suffered the decline of the Times Square movie houses and theaters with the flight of the white middle class from the city in the 1960s, and the decline of Hell's Kitchen industries and neighborhoods once Manhattan's piers were abandoned.  The opening of the Lincoln Tunnel in 1937 and the commuter bus terminal at Eighth Avenue and 41st Street in 1950 only contributed to the area's fragmentation over the following decades.
Thus, while the Daily News hired Harrison & Abramovitz to expand its building in 1958, McGraw-Hill sold the adjacent lot it had owned for a possible expansion in 1951.  In 1970, it moved into a 50-story, 175 million dollar building by Harrison & Abramovitz on Sixth Avenue, part of an extension of Rockefeller Center, at what was at that time the western limit of the midtown office district. 

Massive office development only reached Seventh Avenue and Broadway under a special zoning law in 1986 which permitted, for a limited time, the highest construction in the city.  Today almost every available site in the area is filled with a new tower, most of which remain vacant, caught in the massive real estate collapse which soon followed.

At the same time, a 1981 state/private project to restore the 42nd Street theaters and build 4.l million square feet of office space in Times Square (with Philip Johnson as the architect) is on indefinite hold, after 180 million dollars was spent to vacate all the buildings in the area.  In 1992, Robert Stern was hired to install restaurants, shops and other diversions in the empty buildings, to recreate a semblance of the area's former vitality, minus the sleaze, while the developers wait for the market to recover.

Other plans to redevelop the nearby waterfront, with the rebuilt Westside Highway as the animating state investment, are also on hold.  For the moment, the McGraw-Hill building still stands alone, beyond Eighth Avenue, with magnificent views of the forlorn, empty towers lining Broadway.

From this perspective, the reductive functionalism of the postwar American office building could appear to be an act of contrition for the excesses of the 1920s and the nightmare of the succeeding Depression.  At the same time, none of the post modern towers that followed in the 1980s have been able to match the vital energy of the McGraw-Hill Building or its companions, for the simple reason that no one today can share the blind, fervent faith in the future of the builders of that era.  Our nostalgia for the thirties is a symptom of paralysis, of our lack of vision and direction, as is our love for abandoned industrial sites, for ruins and follies, for the spent symbols of past convictions.  In this sense the United States is still suffering for the excesses of the 1920s, still bound to the belief that the only possible faith, the only possible vision of a future, must take a colossal, monstrous form.


  1. This and other information on New York, Elliot Willensky & Norval White, AIA Guide to New York City, Third Edition, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1988.       
  2. Vincent Scully, American Architecture and Urbanism, page 1
  3. David G.Bareuther, "Why Decorate Mountains? Asks Raymond Hood", The Sun (newspaper), New York, January 10, 1931.  My thanks for this and other McGraw-Hill sources to Peter Warner, Nyack, New York. 
  4. Bareuther, "Why Decorate Mountains?" 
  5. Rayne Adams, "Raymond Hood", Architecture, No. 63, March 1931, pages 126-136.
  6. Raymond Hood, "The News Building", Architectural Forum, 53, November 1930, pages 531-532. 
  7. Bareuther, "Why Decorate Mountains?" 
  8.  Hood, "The News Building". 
  9. Raymond Hood, "Comfort, Daylight & Air: Architect's Aim -- Raymond Hood Tells How He Designed New Building," McGraw-Hill News, August 1931. 
  10. Arthur Tappan North, Contemporary American Architects: Raymond M. Hood, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1931, pages 13-14. 
  11. See for example North, Contemporary American Architects, pages 86-87. 
  12. Bareuther, "Why Decorate Mountains?" 
  13. Bareuther, "Why Decorate Mountains?" 
  14. This and following information, New York Landmarks Preservation Commission, McGraw-Hill Building (Report for Landmarks Designation), September 11, 1979. 
  15. This and previous economic data, James D. Morgan, A Tale of Two Towers. 
  16. Bareuther, "Why Decorate Mountains?"

Philip Johnson Looks Ahead

We Can Do Anything

Published in Deutsche Bauzeitung, October 1993, page 176.
© Deutsche Bauzeitung, David Cohn 1993. All rights reserved.

Philip Cortelyou Johnson talks in a clipped telegraphic style, his thin voice pitched in sharp accents and emphases, his famous wit peppered with old-fashioned swear words and archaic contractions, like the voice of another New York society charmer, Truman Capote.

It wasn't an entirely satisfactory interview. In the first place, most of the questions were from Johnson to me: on Spanish architecture ("I think they're the best now," he opined); on Germany ("The Germans are impossible. I don't understand why. After the other war, they were wonderful... Mies and Gropius, everything came out of the defeat. But look, after this war... What comes out of the 50s and 60s? The 70s and 80s? The 90s? I'm working now in Berlin... So stuffy. So intellectually...").

Johnson skimmed over the topics of conversation like someone who has said everything before, someone in a great hurry to move along - the same velocity you see in his last big projects after the A T & T building. His cryptic references and ellipses accelerated the discussion into a verbal repartee, including the interviewer in that knowing, conspiratorial intimacy of New York insiders. A typical exchange, as we leafed through a portfolio of recent projects:

Me: "It looks like..."

Johnson: "It is. I copied it."

Johnson's verbal haste is also the haste of fashion, always a step ahead of his interlocutor, planning a surprise. Johnson had a couple for me. "Right now, I'm most interested in Frank Stella's work," he told me. "Architecture. He's really got something. He's working on Dresden in the park there. Dresden, Germany. He's got the models all over his studio. Studio, hell, he's got a theater." Later, he also enthused over Peter Eisenman's Max Reinhardt Haus project: "The latest thing in Berlin. Forty story tower. You know that one? Well, you go get it!"

Johnson has never claimed to have invented any new ideas, but from the International Style and Mies van der Rohe to Post Modernism and Deconstruction, he has managed to transform his position as wealthy dilettante and patron into that of an architectural power broker. And he has accomplished this precisely through a kind of mental acceleration -what is known in the fashion trade as "a sixth sense" or "a good nose"- that has kept him a step ahead of breaking trends, and made his career a dizzying spiral of changes.

Johnson offered me this laconic summary of the last thirty years: "My interests were awakened by Eisenman and my old friend Frank Gehry. I picked them for the Venice Biennial, as you know. They opened my eyes..."

"No, I'll go back. What opened my eyes was Venturi's book (Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture). I saw it before it came out, in 1962. And this last 30 years I've been working on helping the kids and following along, pitty-pat. I got fed up with my modern training."

"Then I went into Post Modernism, like the A T & T building. But that didn't satisfy me because, really, to pick up these themes today doesn't work."

"And why not?" I asked him.

"I don't really know," he replied. "I just felt dissatisfied with using themes from Ephesus or Romanesque capitals. What ever I would pick [to copy, presumably], I felt that something wasn't right. It was the ambience of course and the knowledge and the craftsmanship of the days when it came out and was real. So I said, `This is perfectly stupid'".

"And so then I got interested in and had a show on Deconstructivism, you'll remember. Silly, silly word. For God's sake, what does it mean? But it did give me a chance to get together with the guys that I think are good."

Arriving at his current interests, we began to get closer to substantial issues: "I think what we're introducing that's different from Modernism is the lack of Euclidian geometry. You'll notice it in the second prize in the Nara Competition, by Bahram Shirdel [then on view at the Museum of Modern Art]. There are other geometries, of course, that can be used. I never paid any attention to geometry. But anyhow, we're all through with Euclid, and the sense of axis, and pure Euclidian Le Corbusian rigidity, the perfect square, and all that."

Together with Euclidian geometry, Johnson's DeConstructivism has also freed itself from typology, functionalism, the Miesian grid and structural order in general: "So we're really in a perfectly marvelous new cycle, where the modern approach to functionality doesn't have to get lost, but it doesn't have to be stressed. And technology. The whole Miesian idea of Less is More is ridiculous, the whole Miesian idea of module, of using a grid. You don't pay any attention to structure whatsoever. You come in later and work it out. Well, sure. We can do anything. We haven't even begun to use technology yet."

At the same time, Johnson's former passions remain alive beneath the surface. He stumbled over his defense of DeConstruction when I mentioned Aldo Rossi: "No, he's good. Very very good. But the freedom that we all have now. I bet he could do that. I would love to see... Well, you should see the Stella project."

And when I asked if he had seen the reconstructed Barcelona Pavilion, he replied, "I should. But I'd be disappointed, you see. The wrong marble. The wrong glass. I know the building too well. I know I wouldn't like it." I later learned he never made it to the original.

Johnson hasn't had much of a chance to build a DeConstructivist design yet. One of his first opportunities and last skyscrapers, the twin-towered Puerta de Europa project in Madrid, escaped from his hands with the breakup of his long-standing partnership with John Burgee.

The two towers, which lean towards each other across the Paseo de la Castellana, the principal axis of modern Madrid, dominating the city's skyline, are to be clad in black glass trimmed in chrome and red stripes, a Johnsonian copy of the gridded skin of Eisenman's Checkpoint Charlie housing for the IBA in Berlin.

Johnson told me that the original idea was much more daring. "I started by taking the diagonal diagram of Rodchenkov. He did a drawing once of a building with a zigzag like that. When we got the job -I got the job- that's how we started out, but then it ended up being more of a classical scheme to fit what the client wanted across the Champs Elysées there. Is that going up now?"

The towers stand half-finished and abandoned (Johnson's reaction: "They must look better that way"); the builder, Prima Inmobilaria, is bankrupt, and its directors, the Spanish managers of the Kuwait Investment Office, are charged with defrauding the Kuwaiti government of thousands of millions of dollars.

John Burgee, the official architect of the buildings, is bankrupt too, in a bizarre drama which saw Johnson ousted from his own architecture firm. Johnson had brought Burgee in as a partner in 1967, to handle project management and the business side of the practice as Johnson launched himself into the commercial office projects of the 70s and 80s.

But in a tragic misjudgment, Burgee nurtured hopes of succeeding Johnson, hopes which were continually frustrated by Johnson's longevity, his unflagging popularity, and Burgee's inability to compete at the same breathtaking level (after all, Johnson made it look so

An absurd struggle took place over a number of years, with successive changes in the name of the firm that saw Johnson first paired with Burgee, then listed separately as a consultant ("My friends think I'm dead," he complained), and finally ousted entirely, in 1991. As clients abandoned Burgee and the recession paralyzed new building, another ousted partner, Raj Ahuja, successfully sued Burgee for his share of the firm's enormous profits from the 80s, with an award of 13.7 million dollars that threw Burgee into personal and corporate bankruptcy.

Johnson emerged from the disaster apparently unscathed, and now, at the age of 86, he is starting over in a new office that simply says "Philip Johnson Architect" on the door. Gone is the top-floor suite in the Seagram Building, the staff of 70, the backlog of huge corporate commissions.

Johnson showed me a portfolio of six current projects: a house addition, some small college buildings, and two small pavilions for the lawns of his Glass House Estate in Connecticut (which he has left to the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a future museum), all DeConstructive works with obvious borrowings from his friends and colleagues.

As we looked over his design for the Law School of the University of Houston, based on a sketch by Malevitch and Daniel Libeskind's project from the DeConstructivism show, Johnson muttered under his breath, "Damn, I wish I had the time to do these things again!" Now, more than ever, Johnson is a man in a hurry.