Looking at the end sheet of Architect magazine, the successor of Architecture, which in turn devoured Progressive Architecture, which in turn created the Progressive Architecture, or P/A, Awards “back in the day,” I began to, once again, think out loud about where the creative brain latches onto its religious beliefs. On that page was the Fargo-Moorhead Bridge, a seminal project by Michael Graves that won a civic competition in Minnesota in the mid-1970s and catalyzed the upbeat sense of color, geometry, material, and allusive aesthetics that were a driving force in creating a new, open sensibility: Post-Modernism.
“Post-Modern” is now a denigrating put-down for most architects. It’s viewed as a quaint temporary delusional fever, soon felled by good taste and transcendent aesthetic theology. In giving a talk about the origins of Post-Modernism, Brutalism, and 1970s solar architecture (appropriately enough for the New Haven Preservation Trust), I was compelled to rethink the origins of these fairly aberrant, brief moments of insurrection against the overwhelming dominant paradigm of Modernist architecture. Modernism’s pre-eminence is now approaching a full century since its breakthrough into academic acceptance.
The Neoclassicism of the L’École des Beaux Arts, the Wrightian riffs of the Taliesin cult, and the International Style–hegemony of midcentury Ivy League architecture schools not only reflected the contemporary professors’ distilled prescriptive wisdom but also applied that prescriptive wisdom at a time when students are at their most impressionable.
Fine arts education combines fact and faith. Those facts and the faith are almost completely blurred, where the canons of whatever theological aesthetic is being taught distorts art-blind facts, such as a belief that a flat roof can be made an effective barrier against water intrusion or that glass walls provide efficient insulation against temperature change.
But it’s not just posturing professors who distort the factual nuts and bolts of buildings into a lockstep harmony of “correct” aesthetics that makes academia such a potent force. Any self-referential, internally buttressing, closed-loop reality, unless challenged, becomes the exclusive input into young minds that are virtually aching for aesthetic direction, confidence, and expression.
New students in design are terrified of looking foolish, unsophisticated, or just plain stupid. When older, wiser heads present an entire system of rationalizing an arbitrary stylistic preference and call it a “movement” (like the International Style), students can “hit the beach” of their aesthetic expression with a zealotry that is virtually akin to the extreme convictions of any military exercise.
Where does that leave my generation? We baby boomers felt, or at least many of us did, that the social wallpaper of racism, sexism, and the white male–dominated Mad Men culture that it served was so heinously distorted that it was virtually a parallel to the absurd historic pastiches applied to iron and steel superstructures so artfully advocated by the last self-sustaining worldwide movement, Neoclassicism.
So it’s with an ironic twinge of self-doubt that when I saw Graves’ Fargo-Moorhead project again recently, my heart fluttered a little bit in gleeful note that at one time, questioning authority was the norm.
Sadly, questioning our present norm—cyber-generated sculptural expression in extremis—is as sacrilegious as the little boy noting that the Emperor was an unwitting nudist. Questioning any academic norm is scandalous when professors invest so heavily in the justification of their advocacy, but in fine arts education where affect grotesquely outweighs objectivity, aesthetically incorrect questions indict the questioner.
Those entrenched in academia make judgments about “aesthetically incorrect” questioners that would be illegal if they were made about those with actual intellectual or physical handicaps. This level of disdain for those who simply have a different aesthetic point of view has a disproportionate impact on students. Given their intellectual infancy, all students are starving for plausible recipes for dining on design, and in the academic Crock-Pot of architecture school, the wholly formed self-reinforcing prejudices of their teachers can have an overwhelming flavor that taints the palate for other gastronomies.
Clearly much of what I do was pre-positioned by geniuses of organic architecture, Ulla and Greg Lesnikowski, and honed in the woodworking shop and by the intricate brain cells of Louis Mackall, but ultimately it was formed with the contrarian counterpoint of being at Cornell University during the 1970s. At Cornell, Richard Meier came back with a triumphant lecture to mass ascent, and dozens of professors still promoted the transcendent virtues of Modernism, even after the “massacre of the Texas Rangers” (three über–International Style Modernist professors who were purged from Cornell the year before I arrived).
Le Corbusier’s Modulor Man was painted, full size, on the wall in the freshman design studio that all our desks faced. Prior to those professors being purged, many students were compelled to create their projects based on Le Corbusier’s dimension/proportion system of the Modulor. In the complete and slavish mimicry of the effects of an architectural style, that style was not just dogma but morphed into the factual, literal Truth, with a capital “T.”
My personal (and now unpopular) truth, a more open, humorous, experientially based truth devoted to the expression of materiality, bobs on the present overwhelming sea of abstracted, formalist sculpture. This present dominant paradigm is as self-referential as any McKim, Mead and White; Frank Lloyd Wright; or Michael Graves design could ever hope to be.
The question for me and every boomer designer remains: Was my being formed in a relatively dynamic, open-ended educational process where the contrarian-contrived expression of paper-thin Post-Modernism was probably given too much credibility worse than having no large-scale, countercultural, oppositional alternative truth for students?
In other words, is it legitimate today for academia and most of aesthetic journalism to conceptually equate Post-Modernism with creationism?
Should the body architecture aggressively assert that any alternative to the status quo is the aesthetic equivalent to intelligent design or geocentricism?
Or is architecture confident enough in its essential truths to embrace a variety of conceptual alternatives equivalent to the Steady State, Expanding Universe, Big Bang, and Dark Matter postulations in astrophysics?
Everyone reading this knows that question is simply not asked.