Sunday, October 16, 2011

Frampton & Vidler on the 1960s

Kenneth Frampton and Anthony VIdler (currently Dean of Architecture at Cooper Union in New York) have published two fascinating glimpses into the 1960s English background that led to the highpoint of New York architecture and theory in the 1970s and 80s, a story in which they themselves played major roles.

In a Columbia architecture school publication, Frampton recalls his early years as technical editor of Architectural Design (AD) under Monica Pidgeon in London (1962 - 65), offering a view into his formative years before arriving at Princeton in 1966 on the invitation of Peter Eisenman, whom he had met while Peter was doing his PhD. at Cambridge.

It's essential background for understanding Frampton's American phase; I wish I'd known something of all this when I studied under him in the 1970's.

Here we find:
  • Frampton taking measured drawings of Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre; 
  • Stirling and Gowan’s Leicester Engineering Building, source of a memorable cover design in 1964; 
  • Atelier 5's Siedling Halen in Switzerland, where he stayed for a period;
  • His "ideal model",  Ernesto Rogers’ Casabella Continuita. "Needless to say, I could not come close to this ideal, above all because the publisher’s rather fixed ideas as to economic paper sizes.... This was hardly the only impediment ... since I lacked both the graphic flair and the mature cultivation that emanated from its pages;"
  • His interest in "a critical stance ... which went beyond [a] transatlantic Anglo-American cultural agenda" -- Gino Valle, Aris Konstandtinidis, Mangiaroti and Morasutti (Milan), Max Bill, Frei Otto, Jean Prouvé. "In retrospect I feel that my subsequent preoccupation with Critical Regionalism had some of its root origins in this moment, when I first began to look upon the culture of the European 'city state' with a different eye;"
  • His aim "to turn the emphasis of the magazine more towards a latter-day humanist line as was represented, say, by Joseph Rykwert’s translation of Giulio Carlo Argan’s seminal essay 'On Typology in Architecture' which we published in December 1963;"
  • Constant Neuewenhuy’s Situationist thesis 'New Babylon, An Urbanism of the Future', published in June 1964;
  • The "emerging semiotic line" of Peter Eisenman’s Cambridge thesis 'Towards an Understanding of Form in Architecture' excerpted in AD;
  • A "special issue ... devoted to the work of Pietro Lingeri and Giuseppe Terragni with a critical overview of Italian Rationalism... This was, in effect, the first attempt at recovering this lost wing of the Modern Movement since the end of the Second World War;"
  • "A soirée at the British Museum with Nigel Henderson where I first met Camilla Gray, the author of The Great Experiment, with whom I shared an enthusiasm for Russian Constructivism. This was the same Camilla in whose company five years later I would witness Berthold Lubetkin in tears before a private showing of Lutz Becker’s 1971 assembly of archival documentary excerpts of the revolution in action. Camilla would later marry the son of Prokoviev and tragically lose her life, giving birth to their child in the Soviet Union;"
  • Claude Schnaidt, "a committed left wing Swiss architect and historian whose early documentation of the work of Hannes Meyer remains unsurpassed to this day;"
  • "Being invited to tea by Hans Scharoun in Charlottenberg;"
  • "Frequent contact with Le Corbusier at 35 rue de Sevres;"
  • And Yona Friedman: "Friedman was a member of the Franco-German Group d’Etudes de l’Architecture Mobile, otherwise known as GEAM; an anarchic connection that I thought was somehow at odds with his African fairy tales, his Boolean logic and his skepticism as to the role of modern art, about which he had the provocative habit of saying, 'I think there is one art and that is cooking.' ”
He closes with a reminiscence on his successor, Robin Middleton, who as acquisitions editor for Thames & Hudson commissioned Modern Architecture: A Critical History in 1970. The book "took me a decade to complete and ... would never have been brought to its final form had it not been for the specialist scholars he linked me up with and for his own testy but pertinent editorial voice, interjecting from time to time, 'You don’t need this sentence, you’ve said it already, you don’t need this adjective, it adds nothing.' In the end, I internalized this voice and hereafter my writing owes whatever conciseness and pertinence it has to his perennial presence whenever I pick up a pen."

A more densely-packed memoir of the era is difficult to imagine, with the extraordinary range of interests Frampton brought with him to Columbia.

Peter and the 60s also come up in the first part of Anthony Vidler's overiew in the October Architectural Review of the demand for a "unified field theory" of architecture. In his brisk trot through the postwar period, he pauses long enough to offer this on Eisenman in Cambridge in 1963, already a familiar portrait:

"The most radical departure from the Vitruvian triad, however, was that proposed by a young PhD student at Cambridge, Peter D Eisenman, who in 1963 propounded his faith in ‘the formal basis of modern architecture’ in a short article in AD...."
"In his formal Dantonism, Eisenman ... went on to refuse all outside reference for meaning in architecture, exorcising symbolic, iconographic and perceptual influences or interpretation. Instead he looked at the ‘primary configurations’ of buildings considered as structures of logical discourse − their internal spatial and volumetric considerations deriving the formal ‘linguistics’ of his understanding of architectural systems from Le Corbusier’s ‘Four Compositions’, and making their implications explicit. If for Summerson form was considered only in relation to proportional systems, or for Banham it was no more than a dead (academic) language, Eisenman saw all formal systems as communicative, based on the properties of form itself: this was the only criterion through which architecture could be thought a discipline."
 Stay tuned for the second and third parts:
‘Part II: Postmodernism to Post-Criticism’ (January 2012)
‘Part III: The Global Context: New Critical Paradigms’ (spring 2011)

Both Frampton and Vidler left cold post-postwar England for well-paid faculty posts in the US, together with James Stirling, Colin Rowe, Reyner Banham, Joseph Rykwert and Alan Colquhoun
-- a major swath of the elite of British architecture (Norman Foster very nearly did the same in those tough years, he once told me in an interview), all to my very good luck as a student, and almost as important to American architecture in the long run as the wartime arrival of the continental elite -- Gropius, Giedion, Mies, Sert, Moholy-Nagy, etc.

Kenneth Frampton 
"Homage a Monica Pidgeon: An AD Memoir"
CC: Global Report
Columbia University
Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP)

Anthony Vidler
"Troubles in Theory Part 1: The State of the Art 1945-2000"
The Architectural Review
September 11, 2011
(Free registration required)

Photos: Covers designed by Frampton during his tenure as AD's Technical Editor.
From "Homage a Monica Pidgeon"

See my update on Vidler's second installment:
The Postwar Picturesque
Jan. 8, 2012

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