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Chapter Nine— Conclusion
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Chapter Nine—

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the revision of architectural discourse coincided with challenges waged from inside the profession against the architect's subservience to power. The coincidence came from different groups of architect-activists taking dogmatic modernism (which had made architecture part and parcel of the relentless modernization of cities) as a common enemy.[1]

In the United States, modernism-as-modernization primarily referred to the large-scale urban renewal that started in the 1950s. In the late 1970s, an extraordinary wave of real estate speculation succeeded the momentous economic crisis and spurred on architectural revisionism (at least of one kind). Clients with more credit than capital wanted their buildings to look rich, playful, and different. Developers' much-vaunted discovery of design contributed to the fame of a few "signature architects," but their main criterion in selecting design was and continues to be product differentiation. Postmodernism was bound to become tainted by its alliance with invidious status distinction, "image-making," and mere visual variety.

Architects' commissions and the glamor associated with the profession in the 1980s registered the effects of financial deregulation and the redistribution of income from poor and middle strata to the wealthiest. When architects and critics scoff at traditional postmodernism as an architecture "for the age of Regan," they refer mainly to style . Few architects identify an age by the types of commissions that became prevalent or extinct. Yet


the architectural sign of the period was less a style than the overabundance of office and retail space, luxury hotels, rich men's homes, and cultural institutions for the elite.

During the revision of the modern, divergent ideals clustered around the conflict between "image" and the "reality" of architecture. These terms can be read as transpositions of the basic disjunction between conception and execution in architects' work, for architects always design images (plans and working drawings are technical images of the building to be) while others do the building. That image and reality occupied a central place in the postmodern contest suggests that something was perceived to be changing (by will or by chance) in the architect's basic social identity.

The problematic relations of architectural image and reality call into question the place of aesthetic conception in the economy of building. If, indeed, architects are increasingly and primarily hired to embellish buildings and attract customers with images and symbols, their social function has changed. In Scott Lash's words, symbols have "a purchase on meaning but not on reality"; unlike signs, symbols have no referents. Buildings (or cities) do not refer to anything, they are. They can function as symbols, but their reality is overwhelmingly material and utilitarian. They are not circulating goods (cultural or material) but the primary stage of life and commerce on which goods are exchanged and consumed.[2]

If the best architcctural work becomes the projection of symbolic and cultural significance, then architects are resigned to abandon to others the material design of the environment. It may, of course, be argued that they have never designed but a very small part of it. At issue, however, is their collective intention to provide the keynote.

Architectural supremacism, a professional ideology that extolled design for design's sake, rose in the mid-1970s on a contested and insecure professional scene. In the beginning, it had attempted a return to the imperious and autonomous self-definition of modernism, but it was too late. Not only did supremacism abandon earlier efforts to rethink cities gutted by modernism-as-modernization; its proponents did not have the professional power to restore modernism by a "working through" of partially developed aesthetic possibilities. Yet tacitly admitting all building types to the legitimacy of architecture in reality functioned as a reconstructive strategy.

At the same time, an ideal of environmental "nondisturbance" was inspiring a powerful middle-class movement, risen to preserve what was left of the ravaged urban fabric. This movement was also in part too late.


The precedent of massive urban displacement and the explosive protest of poor residents cast a different retrospective light on the preservation movement.

Its goals transposed the urgency of urban protest into an aesthetic and nostalgic ideological key, dear to cultivated and politically empowered professionals. In turn, the historicist or populist styles of architectural revisionism transposed the concerns of preservation—care for the old, the meaningful, the picturesque, the layered diversity of the urban fabric—into eclectic allusions to the remote or recent past of architecture. The resulting pastiches often collate fragments that never had a historical existence together, with disturbing effect. Perhaps more disturbing is the dim sense that pastiche harbors a double reversal of collective concerns: First, pastiche reverses the concern with security and a decent life into concern for the old neighborhoods in which these people live; second, it reverses the concern for preservation into a preoccupation with cute historical allusions.

Rejecting traditional postmodernism became de rigueur among professionals in the second part of the 1980s, but this should not conceal other facts. First, any style can be impressed in the service of speculative profit. Second, the urban working class and the poor suffered more from renewal than from remodeling and restoration. Third, the emphasis on context, the respect for the labyrinthine streets and motley construction of living cities is one of traditional postmodernism's most positive and significant contributions. Fourth, the proponents of contextualism can help invest even preservation with oppositional force. Last, at the level of the architectural objects themselves, the essence of postmodernism is not one style but the tolerance of multiple languages.

If "a thousand flowers bloomed," it is because the growing numbers of architects found (with difficulty) increasingly diverse clients for a great variety of projects. Either these diverse clients wanted stylistic novelty and excitement, or they could be convinced to accept new and momentarily different architectural idioms. A recession that aggravated the perennial structural problems of the profession pressed all but the most recalcitrant dogmatists to accept, even to encourage, the blooming. When postmodern pluralism is expressed in these terms, the situation after 1980 becomes clearer.

Architecture emerged from its double crisis with a restorative professional ideology—the formalist emphasis on pure design—and a pluralism that applied both to styles and building types. Having reconstructed the


traditional identity of the architect-as-artist, formalism helped designers to effect a strategic retreat toward the individualism of one-of-a-kind commissions.

In the United States of the 1980s, social commissions and democratically oriented public architecture had all but vanished. The ideological comfort that formalism tendered to architects was excellence for excellence's sake, in either the playful or the rigorous delights of an eclectic discourse. The profession of architecture thus entered the speculative boom of the 1980s with new gatekeepers and a varied design elite but neither a common style nor a common vision. No group had enough power or enough influence to propose a direction, much less enforce common standards for the disparate professional enterprise. Yet the adoption of traditional postmodernism as favored style of the real estate boom made it easy to take it for a dominant style and blame it for what was happening to architecture.

Denying legitimacy to the use of architects as scenographers or stylists and of architecture as "packaging" matches the revaluation of craftmanship and service, which architects emphasized when aesthetic standards became uncertain. But despite their importance, constructional and pragmatic standards cannot define what architecture will look like (except multiple in form).

In sum, in our century architectural modernism went from technocratic social engineering to the service of corporate power. With the loss of social impetus, the aesthetic vision became routine. Strains and revisions multiplied at the level of discourse, quickening aesthetic disintegration. When an activist generation ignited political dissent and criticism inside the profession, the primacy of practice forced the symbolic gatekeepers to admit the ineradicable de facto diversity of architects' work.

Viewed from this angle, postmodern pluralism is a legacy of the antiauthoritarian politics of the 1960s, but the transformative impulses were contained within the specialized limits of a still weak and basically untransformed profession. The most substantial change was therefore in architecture's official discourse. The oppositional content of postmodernism (its emphasis on urban community, its advocacy of accessible design and authentic symbolism) struggles on within practices perforce devoted to the places of work, life, and leisure of the new urban middle class.

Architecture and Cultural Transitions

I have shown throughout this study that architecture is special, both as an intellectual discipline and as a professional practice. Despite this overde-


termined specificity, its recent evolution suggests that transitions in the production of culture may have some common traits. I submit them as tentative hypotheses.

First of all, the study of architecture indicates that change in specific cultural discourses has local origins. This goes further than the well-established notion that modern cultural practices are "self-legislating."[3] Identifiable impulses toward change start within the specialized practices of identifiable agents and within specific circles of producers. Thus, what I was able to show about postmodern revisionism concerns the specialized discourse of architecture in the United States in a specific period.[4] The post-modern accent on relativism and particularism agrees with the localism of architecture, the practice of which begins in a concrete locality, even if it can go international after that.[5]

Second, discontinuities within specialist discourses do not necessarily respond to much more vast external discontinuities. World War II's awesome sequence of stasis, destruction, and reconstruction brought the Modern Movement from a minority position (already past its prime in the mid-1930s) to a universal and totalizing style. In turn, the global triumph of a banal and impoverished modernism compelled architects to react. The monotony and dreary sameness they call "exhaustion of forms" set in early, crying for aesthetic innovation and theoretical rearticulation. Not the catastrophic discontinuity of war but a later movement of young and educated people meant that a younger generation did both tasks.

Third, youth and education would not have been as significant without large numbers. The pressure of numbers within a delimited field deserves special attention for it is likely to engender competition for finite rewards. Competition, in turn, has been related to cultural innovation in settings as diverse as Islamic religion, nineteenth-century French painting, and twentieth-century American science.[6]

The booming economy probably absorbed most of the fast-growing numbers of architects produced by American schools in the 1950s and 1960s. Nevertheless, pressure for elite standing was bound to increase in the narrow and self-contained circles that make up the "scene" in major art centers, the "circuit" of elite graduate schools, the boards of major journals, and the juries of major contests. Moreover, the strongest push for aesthetic innovation and typological diversity coincided with the mounting pressure of "overproduced" architects on a field beset by the economic crisis of the 1970s. Without prejudging in any way the form or the content of cultural innovation, I expect that a larger number of players makes it more likely to emerge. Architectural postmodernism thus reinforces the


rough correlations between numbers, competition, and innovation in the narrow ranks of specialized producers of culture.

Fourth, the partial overlap of personnel creates concrete connections between specialized cultural fields and larger political and social movements. The latter inspire and sustain within the former homologous actions of dissent, the objective of which is to redefine dominant intellectual paradigms and prescriptions about the specialists' roles.

Postmodernism could not have replicated the deliberate and fiery merger of artistic and political avant-gardism of the 1920s, for the revolutionary conditions of 1918 were not present in the 1960s in countries rich enough to afford an architecture. Yet what oppositional content there is in architectural postmodernism derives from the phase when, on both sides of the Atlantic, the New Left was raising its antitechnocratic banner.[7]

Implicit in the above points is a fifth one, the most important corollary of cultural specialization: The interaction between producers of culture and their potential audiences (and even, if one so wishes, the expression of the Zeitgeist ) is always mediated by conditions of the producers' practices and by the historical circumstances that surround them. From this sociological position, it follows that bypassing the specific and localized analysis of cultural practice is unsound. Rushing to determine what cultural objects "say," one risks ignoring the experience of those by whom culture is "spoken" and of those to whom it "speaks."

Two things stand out in the practice of the American design elite during the postmodern transition. One is the sheer complexity of the architectural task, a good part of which is the economic and organizational difficulty of keeping the business of architecture going. To paraphrase Joseph Esherick, there is no time at all to think of the Zeitgeist .

Besides, even if an architect conveys a personal vision of the times, polysemic objects are always open to multiple and conflicting interpretations. Yet in architecture one interpretation clearly prevails upon any designer's message. Although building type is understood through and by means of stylistic conventions, the social function that type denotes is more broadly and immediately accessible than style or aesthetics. The idea that significance can be exhaustively explained by the author's intention is thus conspicuously doubtful in architecture.

The second thing that stands out is the convergence of parts of architectural work with parts of the culture industries. The material base of this convergence is clearer than its moral and social implications, and I will limit myself to sketching the former.[8]


Postmodernism has marked the ascendancy of small- and medium-sized idea firms within the discourse, not the business, of American architecture.[9] Their relations with organizational clients recall those of the creative technical producers with the organizational and managerial core of the culture industries. Like musicians for record companies or independent producers for television, architectural firms have no tenure beyond their project contracts. Because the smaller firms organize production in an almost artisanal way, overhead costs tend to be relatively low. If costs are reliably controlled, the firms enjoy full autonomy: The high level of professional competence (for which architects are presumably hired) makes it too costly for the sponsor to deny them responsibility.

Product selection occurs in architecture, as in the culture industries, at the "input boundary." Architects propose a range of alternatives (much expanded by postmodernism) to clients; like managers in the culture industries, large clients sponsor a selected sample for realization. In the large developers' offices, there is increasing professionalization of both "talent scouts" and marketing personnel, charged with co-opting the "mass media gatekeepers" (although in a minor way, compared to the culture industries). In the culture industries, book, music, film, or TV critics can strategically block or facilitate the "diffusion of particular fads and fashions."[10] In architecture, media critics have probably less power.

Elite designers do their own marketing to find clients, but big commercial clients market the architects, their names, and their personas as part of the commercial packaging of a new project. However, star architects' access to reputedly autonomous critics (and, for some exceptional designers like Robert Stern, access to their own television programs) does not sell more products. It can "sell" a project to users and the architect's ideas to the vast ranks of followers in schools and offices across the land. Therefore, in architecture, the "diffusion of fads and fashions" does not depend as much on the general media as on the organized profession, the specialist press, and especially the system of training institutions. The design process is still too complex and too highly professionalized, and, above all, building is still too expensive for clients and banks to permit momentary fads.

These caveats suggest that elite architects see image-making as a qualitative jump, more than just a further loss of control over the construction process. The decrease in the fiscal life of buildings, the multiplication of images from which clients can choose, and the increase in the media's emphasis on the architect as "culture hero," all conspire to subject stylistic


conventions (the most noticeable sign of a building's architectural aspiration) to rapidly exhausted trends. Architects have not only moved closer to providing images instead of buildings; the life cycles of the images themselves have moved closer to those of the fashion and culture industries. The providers of these images can run after newness or imitation, for the decisive factor is what each can add to rental or resale values.

As an activity, postmodern architecture epitomizes material forces that tend to erase the differences between "high" and "mass" cultural production. Hired for their creativity and granted freedom to innovate, specialized cultural producers constrict their creative autonomy in anticipation of the client's choice. A subtler and more pervasive heteronomy channels cultural practices in the general direction of what sponsors can accept. This is in marked contrast with the autonomy of discourse.

Indeed, in most cultural fields, academic expansion and the continued growth of educated audiences allow increasing theoretical sophistication to develop in discourse. Architecture reveals a dialectic that appears with variations in many cultural fields: The autonomy of discourse encourages technical producers to take risks in cultural practice, while the costs of realization (a good indicator of producers' dependence on markets and funding) hold them back. This general condition helps us understand why theorists and philosophers take architecture as a pivotal allegory of post-modernism.

Architecture and the Postmodern Allegory

Postmodernism has been presented as a period, a new aesthetics, a theory, a philosophy, a new epistemology (by Lyotard), a "structure of feeling" (borrowing Raymond Williams's expression), a "regime of signification" (by Lash), a dominant in the cultural logic of late capitalism (by Jameson), or its fragmented consciousness (by Harvey).[11] In all these versions, the shift is of concern mainly for the intellectuals who theorize it. Yet the "over-theorized" phenomenon of postmodernism is in fact not theorized at all. A phenomenon for which each theorist provides a disparate objective basis, if not a different theory, is incomprehensible as a whole.[12] If postmodernism indeed represents an ongoing transformation of culture, it should be approached modestly, part by empirical part.

In this discordant chorus, however, a minimal consensus seems to form around architecture. Philosophers like Habermas and Lyotard take opposite stands on the universality of rational claims yet concur in making archi-


tecture a parable of the postmodern moment. They give modernism, not postmodernism, as the reason for architecture's conspicuous place in their theories.

Lyotard understands the modernist project as "a last rebuilding of the whole space occupied by humanity." Its abandonment is the first step in Lyotard's definition of the postmodern.[13] His second, more-developed point is that postmodern means "incredulity toward metanarratives." The great philosophical justifications from which Western knowledge drew sustenance and legitimation have become unnecessary. In particular, the metanarrative of universal emancipation through science has become untenable; there need be no more proof than a list of names—Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Vietnam.[14] Architecture, intimately linking modernism to modernization understood as social progress, points to this terrible discontinuity.

Habermas, more precise than Lyotard, disentangles modernism from its consequences. Everyone deplores "the soulless 'container' architecture, . . . the solitary arrogance of the unarticulated office block, of the monstrous department stores, universities and congress centers, . . . the lack of urbanity and the misanthropy of the satellite towns," but the Modern Movement is "still the first and only unifying style since the days of classicism," a style born from the avant-garde spirit, powerful enough to create its own models and itself become classic, from the outset international, from the outset aiming to penetrate everyday life.[15]

The valence is different but the diagnosis is the same. The program of architectural modernism in the 1920s was so strong and (Habermas fails to add) its co-optation by capitalist democracies after the war so complete that the challenge against it acquires emblematic clarity.

Yet how can architecture so readily become an emblem of change? No other art (except film) is as expensive, which means that new ideas take longest to materialize. And no other recognized art is as useful and as intimately linked to economic investment and the fate of cities. The two attributes are at odds yet concur in lending architecture allegorical power.

First, change in architecture takes much longer to become visible than in other arts; as a corollary, architects become famous (and, to clients, trustworthy) late in life. The mid-fifties is an advanced age for a "young Turk." Ideas are therefore expressed on paper, in words and drawings, with a kind of extremism that would be unthinkable (if not undoable) in cement and steel. The debates and battles are not only more vehement on paper: They last longer than in other visual arts, insofar as it takes much longer to get to the "real thing."


Habermas, Lyotard, Jameson, Derrida, and others are theoreticians: they follow discourse more closely than any other medium. "Paper" architecture captivates them both by the starkness of the modernist project and the fervor of the challenge. Architectural discourse, moreover, is free to dress itself up with all the important words that populate their philosophical and literary debates: postmodern, poststructuralism, deconstruction, marginalization, estrangement, "the unconscious of pure form."[16] Is it any wonder that they should ignore how little the structure of dominant building types has changed or how the architect's intervention is circumscribed to "facade and lobbies?"[17] Architectural change, for the philosophers, happens in words as much as in built exemplars.

The exemplars, long as it takes to build them and hard as it is to build them as designed, give architecture the opposite kind of force: the presence of ineluctable materiality. Indeed, these are not words, not paper, not merely texts, but buildings. They must (even by law) be sound. Formidable or modest, they occupy a place, they transform a landscape, they loom in front of our eyes, they can be inhabited. They are the stage of power, commerce, worship, toil, love, life. The art of architecture has never abandoned the "sphere of our sorrow," has never moved into the rarefied domain that art occupies in bourgeois ideology. It is among us.

Against the overintellectual discourse of postmodernism (by which I mean a debate addressed to intellectuals alone), we experience architecture sensuously, holistically, and, as Benjamin pointed out, habitually and in a state of distraction.[18] In an intellectual culture governed by the abstraction of the linguistic metaphor, the materiality of architecture is inescapable. This is the art that does not represent and does not signify but is .

It is, in part, the environment, a formidable capital investment, the archetypal durable good, not a commodity but the container of commodities. What happens in architecture will be received, in due time and distractedly, by people who will not have access to other arts. As the stage of social life, architecture (good or bad) becomes the embodiment of a historical period.

A Personal Closure

The sociologist's job is in large part analysis and demystification, but this should not rule out deeper meanings and experiences. So, in the end, I will state my own perplexity about our architecture. Throughout the book I have avoided passing any judgment on its products; yet, I could not hide my sympathy for those architects who try hard to find opportunities for a


social practice. Equally, I find in the modernist architecture of Germany and Holland in the 1920s the promise, for lack of a better word, of democratic and egalitarian aesthetics: The decent, dignified housing exudes repose and sometimes attains beauty. Moreover, it makes the great monuments legitimate.

Architecture is praised as a knowledge combining aesthetics and technique, theory and practice. It is often praised today for its distinctive, critical, and holistic pedagogy. From the modernist phase onward, it has also presented a model for the enlightened exercise of expertise. The high-rise buildings and the postwar new towns have tarnished that model, although there too the case is neither one-dimensional nor closed.

In the commons and winding rows of cottages in a lower-income Swedish suburb, for example, the signs of careful planning are almost moving: playgrounds, sand boxes ready for the icy winter, bike paths, common laundry facilities, meeting rooms, sheds where people keep the tools for painting, cleaning, gardening together. Only on such a background, I thought, can architectural monuments cease to be at the same time "documents of civilization and barbarism."[19] But I am fully aware that works of beauty often seem to require quite a different soil to rise. Architecture's ritual and aesthetic power can exceed the social circumstances of its production.

Vincent Scully notes that the most beloved and visited architectural work of the profligate 1980s was not a hotel nor a museum but the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Its designer was not a famous architect but a young woman, Maya Lin, still an undergraduate, who rose from a vast field to win the 1981 competition with a black marble wall inscribed with the names of the dead. Today, crowds walk silently along the wall, reading names, looking for the one they know, touching it. The arrow-shaped wall points at one end to the obelisk and at the other to the Lincoln Memorial. The pomp of the monuments to great men dissolves into fifty thousand or so names; the wall shimmers with the dark light of grief, sloping imperceptibly toward the open sky. Memory has found a lasting form.


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