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Explain more, describe less: Mallgrave and Goodman's Architectural Theory

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A new survey of 40 years of architectural theory opts to document, rather than unpack its subjects, writes Stephen Games

An Introduction to Architectural Theory from 1968 to the Present
Harry Francis Mallgraveand David Goodman

Even after last year’s extensive coverage, the rise of Postmodernism in the late 20th century continues to baffle. In their new reader on the last 40 years of architectural theory, An Introduction to Architectural Theory from 1968 to the Present, David Goodman and Harry Francis Mallgrave provide an informal chronology of how Postmodernism burst upon the scene in the 1970s and what happened afterwards, but even they have to admit defeat in explaining some of the continuing uncertainties that Postmodern language gives rise to, and whether Postmodernism even accounts for what architects got up to under its rubric. That’s a big concession, given that one of the writers, Mallgrave, is a theory specialist, author of a companion survey of theory from 1673 to this book’s starting date, and co-editor of a two-volume anthology of theoretical literature from Vitruvius to 2005.

Postmodernism was a massively important change of direction for academic thinking, not just in architecture but throughout the humanities and to observe, as the authors do, that ‘confusion, rather than clarity, was the keynote of the time’ is striking. Postmodernism was centrifugal, driving people apart at least as much as
it brought them together. This was the difficulty that Charles Jencks faced when trying to define it: he wished to nail down a system that he had a particularly comprehensive grasp of at just the time when architects were wanting to be free. Jencks even asked architects to accept his definitions while congratulating them
on their pluralism, a paradox he’s still not solved. Examples of architects whose positions were ambiguous – Hans Hollein, James Stirling, Frank Gehry – are useful, but Postmodern confusion is a phenomenon, and one that needs to be examined and explained not just noted and illustrated.

Mallgrave and Goodman go some way to doing this when they match architects to key borrowings.They cite Joseph Rykwert arguing for ‘a semantic
study of the environment’ as early as 1960, George Baird quoting linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s langueand parole in 1966, Peter Eisenman referencing Noam Chomsky’s ‘deep structures’ in his 1967 House I, Colin Rowe adopting bricolagefrom Levi-Strauss in 1970, and Kenneth Frampton writing ‘On reading Heidegger’
in the first volume of the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies’ (IAUS) house magazine Oppositions in 1973. That’s a good start: but it doesn’t go anything like far enough.

The authors don’t go further because they don’t take a theoretical view of theory. They chart the comings and goings of the theoretical movements that excited attention in the late 20th century but they don’t look at them objectively. At the same time, they miss a variety of theoretical approaches that didn’t coalesce into a broad movement but deserve attention, such as the mathematical approach to theory that Lionel March and others worked on at Cambridge in the early 1970s, or the work of Paul Ritter in Perth.

In spite of these reservations, there is much in this book that is useful for the beginner. The authors show how the use of the word ‘Postmodern’ lurked in the background for 30 years as a general term before it acquired its present meaning. The dean of Harvard Graduate School described humanist alternatives to Walter Gropius’ industrial housing as ‘Post-modern’ in 1945 and Nikolaus Pevsner used the term pejoratively in 1966 to mean wilful attention-seeking. What led to the birth of Postmodernism as we now know it was, suggest Mallgrave and Goodman, the impact of the so-called ‘rationalist’ architects of the Italian Tendenza (not included by Jencks because of their lack of ambiguity and symbolism) and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown’s interest in the mannerisms of Americana.

The text examines the evolution of these phenomena up to the post-theoretical free-for-all that coincided with the arrival of Rem Koolhaas in the mid 1990s and the ‘pragmatism’, ‘post-criticality’, Neo-minimalism and green-urbanism that then ensued. In doing so, it documents the literal revivalism promoted in the 1980s by the New Urbanists in America, by Leon Krier in the UK, by Ricardo Bofill and Christian de Portzamparc in France, and by Bruno Reichlin and Fabio Reinhart in Italy and Switzerland. It also notes the debates over quasi-regionalism and critical regionalism in America, Aldo van Eyck’s and Vittorio Gregotti’s opposition to Postmodernism, and, more generally, the way in which Jencks’ preoccupation with what buildings ‘said’ by virtue of their appearance was challenged by Poststructuralism’s more conceptual interest in ideas on self-deformation and subversion.

In this account of the victory of the Greys over the Whites in America and the events that followed, the most notable figure is that of Jencks’ nemesis, Peter Eisenman. He crops up repeatedly as American architecture’s number-one fixer and power-broker, co-founding the Conference of Architects for the Study of the Environment (CASE) on his appointment to Princeton in 1964, getting MOMA to back his IAUS on moving to the Cooper Union in 1967, and launching, editing and writing for Oppositions, the IAUS magazine (1973-84), described here as ‘the first American journal of critical substance’.

The authors see Eisenman as Postmodernism’s éminence grise, constantly renegotiating his position to stay ahead of the pack. Starting off as an advocate
of Giuseppe Terragni (architect of the Fascist Party’s headquarters in Como (1933-36) at a time when Fascist Modernism was still untouchable), Eisenman redefined himself as a Postmodernist when two of his backers , Colin Rowe and MOMA’s Arthur Drexler, defected to historicism. When Postmodernism became too vulgar, he then leveraged his interest in abstraction by teaming up in the 1980s with Jacques Derrida on a number of joint projects that explored the built potential of Derrida’s creation: Deconstruction.

For Mallgrave and Goodman, this makes Eisenman an emblem of theory-based practice: a man committed to making architectural statements that paralleled those of philosophy and insisting on theory’s capacity as a creative, as well as critical, tool. America’s tragedy, they say, is that Eisenmen couldn’t do what he tried to do without enlisting European thinking.

British intellectuals were complicit in this conspiracy. By the early 1970s, Reyner Banham, Anthony Vidler, Kenneth Frampton, Alan Colquhoun and, above all,
Colin Rowe were all teaching at leading schools in the north-east. There was also an important Cambridge link, with Eisenman and Christopher Alexander both taking PhDs there, Eisenman under Rowe during Rowe’s four-year interval between Texas and Cornell, 1968-72. Perhaps because the British didn’t practise architecture in America, they weren’t in a position to generate new ideas in built form. Instead, their creativity had to be channelled into the proxy activity of bringing over theoretical ideas, ancient and postmodern, from philosophy to architecture and from the Continent to the US. The institutionalising of architecture as
a university discipline supported this trend.

Of particular interest is the home-grown rabbit that the authors pull out of their hat: the little known figure of Charles W. Morris. Morris taught philosophy at the University of Chicago from 1931-47, developed his own model of linguistic analysis in opposition to de Saussure’s of 1916, became involved in an American movement known as ‘Unified Science’, and was brought into Chicago’s School of Design by Moholy-Nagy to educate students about ‘intellectual integration’.
Along with Lewis Mumford, Harwell Harris at Texas, and Jane Jacobs, Morris was one of several people who, according to the authors, could have led the US towards a theoretical position all of its own. An Introduction to Architectural Theory, written as it is by two lecturers from the institution (the Illinois Institute of Technology) that swallowed up Moholy-Nagy’s school, is in some ways a lament for an America that once again sold out to Europe.

In spite of that, it’s not clear by the end of the book whether the authors have been writing for, or against, or merely about, theory. This uncertainty, in a book that should be addressing uncertainty, is complicated further by their wish for a happy ending, which sees them going back on their praise for Manfredo Tafuri’s criticism of such tactics at the start of the book and abandoning themselves to propaganda. Having begun by observing the first cracks in what they see as the outmoded idea that new technology will make society better in the 1950s and 60s, they finish by promoting what they see as the novel idea that new technology will make society better in the 2010s.

Such advocacy is ill-advised, not least in claims made for technologies that haven’t yet been tested, such as Arup’s late-1990s design for Dongtan, China’s first eco-city, which, though now ‘unlikely [to] be built in its original form’, will ‘no doubt have a major influence on future planning’, or Foster’s new city of Masdar ‘now being constructed on the outskirts of downtown Abu Dhabi’ and already ‘the gold standard of sustainable urban ventures’. The authors make similarly gushy promises about the impact of women entering the senior ranks of the profession and of ‘the bounty of new insights into the psychological and physiological nature of the human organism’ that ‘the architect now has at his or her command’.

One hopes, of course, that architecture is becoming more enlightened. Whether it is, and whether this type of theory has anything meaningful to say or valuable
to teach, is clearly still open to question.

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