How Architecture Became Attitude

Sylvia Lavin introduces Architecture Itself

In 1947, Henry-Russell Hitchcock declared that architecture could no longer be evaluated in terms of being more or less up-to-date with technical advances, as it had been during the first decades of the twentieth century, because modernization had “at last” succeeded in producing only one “contemporary way of building.” According to Hitchcock, the consolidation of “the basic conditions of the times as they control architecture” was not, however, leading to stylistic uniformity that reflected these standardized modes of building production but rather to new divisions determined by differences in the organization of architectural work. Recognizing changes taking place both in what he called “the bureaucratic set up of construction” rather than within construction methods as well as in the psychology of the architect rather than the physiognomy of buildings, Hitchcock anticipated that architects, particularly those practicing in the United States, would increasingly divide into two separate categories: one large group of bureaucrats, mostly anonymous workers operating collectively in ways designed to suppress personal expression in favour of expeditious results, and another smaller group of geniuses, working as creative individuals and seeking to maximize the expression of imaginative and artistic qualities. Nowhere in the essay does Hitchcock predict the formal and stylistic attributes that would dominate the architectural discourse of the future that he was speculating about and that would be held together until the 1990s by the word “postmodernism”—colour and decoration, linguistic games using irony and double coding, historical and figurative references, regional and vernacular revivalisms—but he was describing the postmodernizing conditions of their production, nonetheless.

Pelli Clark Pelli, Façade panel, Pacific Design Center, ca. 1975

Charles Moore et al., Mantle object, Tempchin Residence, 1967-1975

Within two decades of Hitchcock making his argument for the balance between the two categories, which would be needed to produce a robust architectural culture and well-operating cities, the balance had already tipped toward the libraries, museums, municipal buildings, focal structures, and monuments that he had considered to be the exclusive purview of geniuses. More and more architectural work concentrated on finding the vigour and richness of expression and forms of symbolic meaning that Hitchcock promised would “raise [buildings] out of the world of amenity into the world of art.”1 Eventually, even schools, housing, and hospitals were drawn into that world. Though Hitchcock had warned that this effort was a gamble that would likely produce failed monuments, it had other effects that he had not anticipated, including the entrance of architecture not only into the world of art but into the art market, the possibility that a suburban house could be conceived of as an architectural monument, the extension of architectural work into new domains of research, and the establishment of a network of historical, theoretical, and critical institutions and discourses that focused almost exclusively on “the special expressive power that can be legitimately provided only by architects of genius working as individuals.” “Architecture beyond amenity” expanded into a proliferation of individual expressions that relied on the appearance of stylistic heterogeneity, precisely in order to identify and protect the architect as individual, while also concentrating critical attention such that what had previously been seen as a subset of building would come to stand in for and constitute architecture itself. In other words, Hitchcock did not anticipate that the basic conditions of postwar architectural work would eventually produce postmodernism, which was not a style or even a collection of styles but the effect of efforts to protect architecture itself from the forms of social, technical, and epistemological organization embedded in the bureaucracies of information that seemed to put it at risk.

In retrospect, it might appear inevitable that offering architects the choice of becoming bureaucrats or geniuses would lead to a profession in which every architect aspires to be recognized as a genius. However, the more consequential limitation of Hitchcockʼs argument is that he defined the two categories as stable and opposed to one another. In fact, he used “the public monuments of Nazidom” as a warning of what might result if the categories were allowed to intersect and collectivism was permitted to override individualism.2 The politics of his commitment to categorical stability notwithstanding, the categories were, in fact, increasingly mixed, with bureaucratic systems becoming more and more deeply embedded in the work of geniuses and new forms of imagination and expression eventually becoming required by those very systems. On the one hand, Hitchcockʼs argument remains useful because of the way it points to the importance of recognizing that the architect operated at the nexus of the military, industrial, and academic complexes, which would structure the emerging information society. The ways in which architects worked—and what was expected of the results—were increasingly destabilized by this complex, to the point that architects often expressed anxiety over their own personhood being at stake, which helps explain why they often responded with the compensatory reassertion of authorial control. On the other hand, Hitchcockʼs opposition and implicit valorization of high against low culture also reinforced the cult of autonomy and authorship that still surrounds postmodernism and distracted focus from the very conditions of postmodernization that Hitchcock did much to identify. Today, it is necessary to recognize first that postmodernism was the effect of efforts to defend architecture itself and, through it, architects themselves from things seen to put their authority at risk, and second that what was seen to put them at risk was the impact of the forces of postmodernization on work, intellection, and creativity.

  1. Henry-Russell Hitchcock, “The Architecture of Bureaucracy and the Architecture of Genius,” The Architectural Review 101, no. 601 (January 1947): 3–6. 

  2. Hitchcock, “The Architecture of Bureaucracy and the Architecture of Genius,” 6. 

Sussman/Prejza & Company, Venue sonotubes, L.A. Olympics, 1983-1984

Rather than opposing or isolating, this project examines the exchanges between bureaucrats and geniuses and between postmodernization and postmodernism that took place between roughly 1965 and 1990. I use the term “postmodernism” in the way it has been historically used in architecture: “postmodernism” first began to appear in the mid-1960s to refer to the critique of modernism as dogma but eventually became a catch-all for the heterogeneous formal and stylistic attributes that were held together by the notion that architectural work expressed the unique imagination of a single architect. Despite the fact that the endlessly recursive activity of defining the term occupied much of architectural discourse until the 1990s when various techno-naturalist discourses came to the fore, the most consistent attribute of the term “postmodernism” was not its definition but rather its effect, which was to establish as unarguable that architectureʼs fundamental character was as an independent art form and discipline with an autonomous and ahistorical essence. It is because of the success of this conversion of idea into fact that I argue postmodernism turned architecture into the myth of architecture itself, a myth that endures today, both among those who still celebrate the hero figures the myth produced as well as among those who would be surprised, if not horrified, to consider that their belief that architecture is defined not through forms of work but by individuals with what Thierry de Duve called “attitude” is itself a legacy of postmodernism.1

Here, postmodernization refers to the “set up,” as Hitchcock deemed it, which shaped both architectural attitudes and work, preconditions that were necessarily excluded from the discourses on postmodernism: emerging communication and information technologies, economies specific to the circulation and valuation of architecture, and materials through which architectural institutions, axonometric drawings, and building façades were produced. In recent years, there has been tremendous growth in literatures on the architecture of bureaucracy, corporate forms of work, institutional networks, and on certain kinds of architectural production during the years with which I am concerned.2 For the most part, however, these studies avoid the figures, concepts, and products of the postmodernist dominant, both in order to correct the imbalanced historical attention to author-driven accounts of architectural production and, more importantly, as a form of critique through omission. My interest in the dynamic between postmodernism and postmodernization precludes exclusion as historical method, as such exclusions ultimately allow prevailing definitions of postmodernism to remain intact—definitions which were established by the often still-active historical figures of the period and which are being rapidly reanimated by a surprisingly large number of young architects and scholars who come to the topic less with questions than with already established assumptions of what postmodernism was. In this sense, postmodernism is producing more postmodernism and avoiding this present development is as trivializing to the historical record as is merely repeating it.

  1. In assessing the contemporary ideological and historical situation of art education, Thierry de Duve argues that while some contemporary artists conceive of a critical attitude as precisely critical of the postmodern paradigm, it is actually the same, “minus faith plus suspicion. See Thierry de Duve, “When Form Has Become Attitude—And Beyond,” in The Artist and the Academy: Issues in Fine Art Education and the Wider Cultural Context, eds. Stephen Poster and Nicholas de Ville (Southampton, UK: John Hansard Gallery, 1994), 23–40. 

  2. See Michael Kubo, “The Concept of the Architectural Corporation,” in OfficeUS Agenda, eds. Eva Franch i Gilabert, Amanda Reeser Lawrence, Ana Miljacki, and Ashley Schafer (Zürich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2014), 37–48, to refer to just one example that specifically discusses Hitchcockʼs essay in detail. 

Peter Eisenman, Stairs, House VI, 1971-1989

In order to counter the persistent mythologizing of postmodernism and also the anonymizing of architectural production that correlates with the historiography of the “set up,” this project offers a history that rests closely on empirically driven accounts of concrete examples of exchange between postmodernism and postmodernization. It is not a survey nor does it claim the completeness that the term implies; rather, I hope this to be a statistically significant sampling of intersections between the unclaimed acts of imagination embedded within engagements with bureaucratic procedures and the complex of tools, regulations, and economies that shaped the conditions of possibility for the so-called genius. The specific examples were sometimes found, rather than selected, within a terrain bounded by four principal features. First, the focus is on work that took place in North America or through the auspices of the United States, not because it operated in the ways typical of a modern-state actor but because the range of persons, institutions, and technologies that intersected there offered both an unusually varied research territory as well as one that revealed the early formation of mechanisms that would eventually propel architecture toward a global dynamic. Second, some examples were selected because they allowed the most fulsome description of the extraordinary normal procedures that anchored architecture itself to the world of things.1 Moreover, unlike the widely studied massive steel frames and continuous concrete constructions of modern industrial production, these were often small but data-rich things, like TV antennas, handrails, logbooks, and research notes, generally disregarded by architecture historians and curators. As much as possible, the evidence of these intersections is presented directly with the expectation that it will be used to generate additional and different accounts. Third, other samples were taken in order to introduce swerves into standard accounts of well-known things: scholarly institutions that mishandled materials in ways that altered the historical record, architects and projects associated with authenticity and social fairness that knowingly “soft-pedalled” politically charged aspects of their work, and computers that appeared in highly unexpected places—all forms of anomaly that enabled attention to the dynamic feedback between the work of particular persons and the impersonal systems at work in their efforts.

  1. This phrase is adapted from Carlo Ginzburgʼs description of the characteristics of objects that lend themselves to microhistorical analysis. Citing Edoardo Grendi, Ginzburg argues that due to the improbable, “exceptional normal,” and therefore anomalous, objects offer potentially rich forms of documentation. See Carlo Ginzburg, “Microhistory: Two or Three Things That I Know about It,” trans. John Tedeschi and Anne C. Tedeschi, Critical Inquiry 20, no. 1 (Autumn 1993): 10–35. 

Michael Reynolds, Beer can building block, Earthship Biotecture, 1973

Stanley Tigerman, Shingles, Frog Hollow, 1972

Finally, and most importantly, this project is organized around found objects, architectural fragments cast off as postmodern buildings began to decay, drawings left unnoticed because they had been filed as paperwork, and photographs unseen because of their representing places without architectural standing. Not only did the accidental discovery of objects defamiliarized by estrangement from their “natural place” in the historical record play a strategic role in avoiding the repetition of standard narratives, but their decidedly material qualities refuted the still prevalent conviction that postmodernism introduced an inevitable and ineluctable triumph of image over matter. Instead, in their very strange and obdurate materiality, they indicated that if postmodernism sought to produce the unarguable certainty of myths, postmodernization generated increasing instability in the understanding of what architecture was and what it might do. Roland Barthes likened the perfect postmodern object to Argo, the ship in the mythic tale of Jason and the Argonauts, of which each aging timber was replaced during its long odyssey until nothing was left of the original but its name and its image. The architectural fragments do the reverse as each crumpled beer can and asphalt shingle erodes the autonomy of the name through which it entered architecture and calls attention to the many often anonymous material and logistical systems deployed in their production. My hope is that as a result of closely examining the dynamic between the narrow fantasies of postmodernism and the growing command of postmodernization, bureaucrats and geniuses alike may eventually be turned back into architects.


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