Gwathmey and the New York Five

October 19, 2009

The appreciation of Charles Gwathmey by Nicolai Ouroussoff titled “As Heroes Disappear, the City Needs More”, published in the New York Times about two months ago, highlighted Gwathmey’s association with the “New York Five” and the white-gray debate in the early 1970s.[1]  Nice to see some attention to that transitional period, when Modernism in architecture was turning into something else, not yet named.

Ouroussoff is right to tie the NY5’s focus on “architecture as art form” to the sense that Modernism as a project of social reform had failed.

The group’s greatest contribution, in retrospect, was its assertion that architecture had not reached a dead end. The architects saw themselves as artists and thinkers — not activists — and this was particularly true of Peter Eisenman, sometimes to a fault. The distorted grids of his early houses, with their references to Renaissance precedents and Structuralist theory, were not only a way to thumb a nose gleefully at [Jane] Jacobs-style populism; they also elevated conceptual ideas above material and structure, the life of the mind over the life of the body.

But this narrative, while not uncritical of the conceptual move, glosses over an obvious question.

Architecture is not art (in the modern sense of art) in any number of ways:  it is more embedded in the social realm, necessarily collaborative, requires a client and money, exists in a particular place, etc.   Architecture is always heavily dependent on social structures (especially economic), and much of the built environment is arguably more a product of those structures than of an architect. The “crisis in the profession” of the 1960s was not just about “failed urban housing projects, soulless government buildings and sterile concrete plazas,” although that is how it might have appeared from the outside. Within the profession the crisis had more to do with a realization that the architect could do little other than further the interests of existing economic power.  The housing projects were not Le Corbusier’s ville contemporaine or ville radieuse (as portrayed in popular critiques of Modernism) but products of certain stage of capitalism.  This critique[2] was aimed at not just the Modernist project but at the very idea that architecture could make any claim to independence.

Did the strategy of draining the socio-political content from Modernist form actually show that architecture had not reached a dead end?  It rather seems to have itself been a dead end, a conclusion supported by Ouroussoff’s point that by the 1980s Los Angeles became a center of architectural innovation.[3]

And what of these architects ostensible pursuit of “the life of the mind”?  That characterization conveniently elides consideration of the particular social realms in which they operated.  One such realm is indicated by the nature of the work, mostly luxurious houses for wealthy clients, on large lots that allow the building to be cast against a neutral background to appear as an independent object (and make it easier to think of them as products of the mind).[4]  Another, seen more easily in retrospect, is how this work initiated an academic discourse, centered on elite schools in the Northeast, with associated apparatus of publications and faculty positions.  Related to both is the way the MoMA show and related publications were a form of publicity and professional marketing (especially the invention of an opposition between whites and grays).  And at a time when little was being built, architectural drawings were turned into a new marketable commodity, endorsed by the hegemon of the art establishment, MoMA.

Not that intellectual content was absent, on the contrary it was sophisticated,  too complex to fit into neat categories, and of lasting import.  The point is that these ideas ought to be approached with an awareness of the overlapping social fields from which they emerged.

[1] The 1973 MoMA exhibition “Five Architects” and catalog, especially the introduction by Colin Rowe, and various subsequent publications that elaborated and responded.  The work mostly dates to the late 1960s, the discussion to the early 1970s.

[2] Most forcefully articulated by Manfredo Tafuri, but present in Colin Rowe’s introduction to the “Five Architects” exhibition catalog (in an oblique way, as Rowe’s agenda is rather different).

[3] A point I generally agree with, although I think he overstates the centrality of New York in the earlier period, especially when considered from a global and not U.S.-centered perspective.

[4] Hedjuck’s unbuilt, more conceptual work is more literally so.

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