MoMA Exhibit: “The Architecture of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts,” 1975-76.
Arthur Drexler, Director.
This sixteenth reading in Architecture Theory Since 1968 is a series of excerpts from seven different architecture writers’ evaluations of an exhibit hosted at MoMA 1975-1976. Those listed here are Robin Middleton, Leon Krier, George Baird, Denise Scott Brown, Robert Stern, Anthony Vidler, and Arthur Drexler, the director of MoMA and one of four collaborators on the exhibit. The exhibit consisted of approx. 200 drawings from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the quintessential anti-modernist architectural icon in history. These texts more or less outline the broad constellation of issues and positions in architecture theory c.1976—Modernism v. Post-Modernism v. anti-Post-Modernism; architectural autonomy and historical determinism; pop culture; meaning and communication; politics, social content, and ideology. They are simple and occasionally humorous chunks of only slightly larger essays, and below are some observations about them.
First let me note that these seven excerpts are drawn from only two publications that loosely group them into relatively similar categories. There are the texts from Architectural Design 48—Robin Middleton and Leon Krier—edited by Middleton himself. The other is Oppositions 8, edited by William Ellis, and provides the texts from George Baird, Denise Scott Brown, Robert Stern, Anthony Vidler and Arthur Drexler.
Second, they suggest a very general spectrum into which these excerpts fall. Evidently Arthur Drexler was a one-time disciple of Peter Johnson, the undying, late modernist acolyte of Mies. Presumably because of this the two texts from Architectural Design see the Beaux-Arts exhibit as a revolutionary, controversial critique of Modernism and mid-century positions advocating social, economic, or political roles for architecture. So we have Middleton whose commentary seems more like something you might read on Gizmodo or hear on Fox News—crazy media-mongering by simulating a dramatic event where there is none. (#Shade) He even accuses Drexler of “jumping the modernist ship,” which curiously makes me want to through him off a ship.
Following him we have Krier, whose reading of the Ecole itself reminds me of Tafuri in its historicist, political and economic sense. To Krier, The Ecole represents the domination of people by the bourgeoisie by the tools of culture. Consequently the use of its forms—or the promotion of its practice over the practice of Modernism, or some other ‘socially responsible’ architecture—is egregious to him. However, his own blurb is inconsistent and outdated, first defining architecture as the “art of building” (hello, 1926) then saying it is “concerned with meaning and beauty.” This internal confusion precludes what I consider to be a gross misreading of Beaux-Arts ideas.
Then we move on to Baird and Scott Brown who, hysterically, seem to be bewildered by the exhibition and ‘uproar’ altogether. Baird is calmly skeptical over Ada Louis Huxtable’s pronunciation of the exhibit as a “crisis,” noting only that it implies some useful principles for contemporary architecture but neglects to explicitly say anything about them and so is kind of useless. Scott Brown, though, delivers her casual shade and candor regarding architectural academia: “The bizarre union of MOMA and the Beaux-Arts is spawning misinterpretations of architectural history as individual protagonists realign themselves to meet new alliances.” But for her the problem lies in the misdirection of the exhibit, believing that it allows Drexler a simulacra of a theoretical crusade without dealing with the issues she sees as crucial—Herbert Gans’s populism and learning from Las Vegas.
Opposed to Krier is Robert Stern, whose commentary is absolutely fascinating. He and Krier represent the argument between historical determinism and architecture’s relative autonomy. On the surface, he reads 19th century architecture as struggling toward “semantic articulateness” (reminding me of Gandelsonas’s discussion of semantics and syntax and Peter Eisenman), toward “forms which are meaningful in a broad cultural context.” Underneath this is a mildly surprising revelation: the distinction between historically determinist arguments like Tafuri’s and Krier’s from those for architectural meaning and autonomy is the distinction between cynicism and belief—which is to say hope, conviction, and even optimism. By extension it seems to be the distinction between nihilism and agency.
Moving away from that, let me recount that Stern also points out 19th century architecture was about “appropriateness,” which by another term is typology, which is a lesson Baird also sees in the Beaux-Arts. There is also a gentle populism running parallel to Stern’s belief in a “post-modern” architecture (à la Venturi, Scott Brown, and Charles Moore) that has “symbolic meaning through allusion not only to other moments in architectural history but to historical and contemporary events of a social, political, and cultural nature.” This populism is a color of pragmatism regarding architecture’s as a commodity: “Such seems to be our best hope for capturing the affection of our very disaffected constituency: the public.”
None of these are quite as hysterical as Anthony Vidler’s excerpt, which can be summarized as one big “who the fuck cares” regarding the exhibit. Vidler points out that when Beaux-Arts first came to America it was as a style devoid of ideology, no matter how that ideology was interpreted in Europe. Likewise, when Modernism came to America it was as the International Style and not as the socially revolutionary Modernism that proposed (and failed) to change European class structures. Following that, this reintroduction of Beaux-Arts is also devoid of ideology and cannot form any kind of ideological shift. “Thus the event is not an event,” he says, “merely a confirmation of a situation, a symptom of a mode of conceiving architecture that has always been academic in essence.”
For more by those listed in this entry, here are some links to other essays by them in the Michael Hays anthology:
Leon Krier [x] [x], George Baird [x], Denise Scott-Brown [x], Robert Stern [x], Anthony Vidler [x]