The severe judgments of Rudolf M. Schindler’s architecture by Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson are well known. Hitchcock said of Schindler’s work that it revealed an “immense vitality” that seemed in general to lead to “arbitrary and brutal effects.” Johnson deemed it unworthy of inclusion in the 1932 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, because it failed to reflect the essential characteristics of the International Style. In relation to the major trends in twentieth-century international architecture, Schindler has in fact been consigned to the margins. As a result, there is still an inadequate appreciation of the unique qualities of his work, which is marked on the one hand by an effort to establish the predominance of spatial concerns over those relating to construction and tectonics, and on the other hand by a searching investigation of the origins of architectural modernity.
In the era of the paperless office, which the computer has introduced, the place of drawing in the creation of buildings seems to require renewed and close attention. Because drawing is not merely an expressive but also a cognitive activity. English sculptor Eric Gill wrote about a child who made some very nice drawings; when asked why they were so good, the child said: “First I think and then I draw my think.” Gill opposed that response to the art student’s approach: “First I look and then I draw my look.” The opposition is factitious, since what you think would never have got into your thinking if you had not looked first. The look and the think are tightly interdependent.
But Gill’s aphorism has its use if you wish to understand why drawing is an essential process, one that has given its name to a large body of human activity, the “arti del disegno,” “les arts du dessin”—unfortunately called the “visual arts” in English, thus divorcing the drawing from the intention. The French language did the same in the nineteenth century: the noun dessin was derived from the verb dessiner to signify a drawing and separated from dessein, defined by the dictionary of the Academy as “intention de faire quelque chose, projet, resolution.” It is that intentionality of drawing that interests me—the intention of the draftsman towards an end other than the drawing: a painting, a sculpture, a building. Drawing as the statement of intention towards some artefact other than itself.
The fate of Plato’s polis, or ideal city, has haunted almost every attempt to envisage utopian societies and their proper environments, from his death until the present. I have always been fascinated by the way architects seem impelled to create a model of an ideal city that at one didactically informs, frames, and contextualises their work at every scale. Urban models conceived of as ideal since the Renaissance, have come under heavy fire in the second half of the twentieth century, as examples of the architect’s hubris, as representing an unwanted imposition on the existing city and on society. However, despite their critical attitude toward the effects of ideal modernism, new urbanism and pastiche postmodernism are equally prey to false nostalgia and open to the vagaries of developer kitsch.
In tackling the question of Plato, I wish to open up once more the question of a necessary utopia out of the conviction that the present state of urban thought demands more than scepticism toward grand schemes, more than what is being called a post-critical attitude that seems to be no less than accommodation of the constraints of the real, and more than impossible nostalgia for a cosy past that never existed and that is little else than reinforced class, ethnic, and economic divisions.
The CCA Mellon Foundation Senior Fellowship Program was established in 2001 to encourage advanced research in architectural history and thought. With the generous support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the CCA has welcomed distinguished scholars for residencies of one to eight months, culminating in a public lecture.