Colin Rowe, “Introduction” to Five Architects, 1972.
The sixth essay in 11 Weeks is Colin Rowe’s “Introduction” to his book Five Architects. The structure of the text is a brief history of Modernism, then a massive critique of Modernist theory bordering on the paranoid and obsessive, followed by a small conclusion explaining his thesis. That thesis is mostly simple: Modernism’s dual fundamental elements, Forma and Content, were destined to fail, but the specific forms of Modernism possess enormous unexplored potential for architecture.
Presumably, the book that follows is an account of five architects—Eisenman, Hejduk, Graves, Gwathmey, Meier—interpreting their work as a return to the more potent formal systems of Modernism. For now let me point out that the accusation of Modernism’s secret formal interests echoes what we heard from Denise Scott Brown but is more articulated by Rowe. Like Scott Brown, he uses a formal interpretation of modernism to permit post-modern architecture’s attention to form over social content.
In his introduction to Rowe’s text, Hays gives us a critical tidbit about 20th century architectural thought: while Modernism shared social ideologies with Marxism it also shared a Marxist desire “to interfuse form and word—variously articulated as expression and content, system and concept, practice and theory, building and politics.” While mention of Marxism freaks me out—because I’m not ever 100% sure I understand it—its social revolution is easily understood as analogous to Modernism’s (if not to be one and the same). But this split between Form and Content is identified easily enough in architectural terms.
The importance of this is two fold: firstly, Colin Rowe lays out a pretty clear interpretation of Modernism as having been equally concerned with both Form and Content. (Note that whenever ‘theory’ or ‘content’ refer to Modernism they refer to Modernism’s social agenda, summarized in Tafuri’s narrative.) While Modernism professed to be solely concerned with social revolution and relegated the specific aesthetics of its buildings to purely scientific, functionalist and empirical ‘investigations’, it was equally concerned with formal issues. For proof Rowe points to Modernism’s conflicted relationship with history, which punished the use of precedents or historical references and therefore raised formal creativity and newness.
Consequently, Modernism became “a style which is not a style” because it was “created by the accumulation of objective reactions”—in theory. In practice the majority of us could recognize a Modernist building by its white walls, surfaces, cubism, and a characteristically production-based aesthetic. This, in turn, is important because of the obvious growing trend (c. late 1960s-70s) to see architecture as expressly not theory and not technology. But the formal breakthroughs that Modernism made because of the extreme premium on “discovery” or ‘creativity’ were bound up and obstructed by its social crusade to bring about a new society, an enlightened population.
Secondly, the eventual distance between Modernism’s unresolved Form and Content led to its failure as Modernism became the International Style and spread around the world. Its undeclared Form was integrally part of bringing about enlightened social revolution, but the international success of its Form paradoxically proved the failure of its Content—social revolution was not following its Form around the world. When Modernism’s failure as a social agenda became pronounced, “a variety of alternatives” appeared, presumably in the late 1950s-early 70s. (For those interested, he lists “Miesian neo-classicism…New Brutalism…Futurist Revival…and the neo-art nouveau.”)
For architecture to move forward, Rowe advocates embracing Form—specifically the form of the Modernists that were hitherto inhibited by social theory—and relegating Content to the wayside, something to be invoked but that should not get in the way. As exemplars of this approach to architecture, Rowe offers Eisenman, Hejduk, Graves, Gwathmey, and Meier. These are the “neo-avant-garde” who recognize their secondary role. They are not forging ahead; they are meditating, gestating something new out of the precedents of Modernism. They are “belligerently second hand.” Annoyingly, Rowe equates their new mission with poetry: “lacking any transcendental sociological or political faith, their objective…is to alleviate the present by the interjection of a quasi-Utopian vein of poetry.” Vomit, I know. But this is not the social utopia of modernism; it is the poetry that follows the “hypnotic solitude” of architecture that is only concerned with itself, an architecture that Tafuri predicted in 1969.
What we are seeing—from Baird’s “shimmering metonymic surface” to Scott Brown’s ‘formal analyses’ to Rowe’s Form free of Content, and maybe even including Rossi’s ridiculous but decidedly visual metaphor—is a slow freeing of architecture from the vilification of form. From Rowe’s paranoiac hedging and compulsion to preempt any attacks on his thesis we understand that this modernist credo was still very much a part of the architecture establishment.
Along with form comes something else, evidently: intelligibility. These two seem to be inextricably linked across the board. Hays, narrating Rowe’s “Introduction”, tells us “it is through acceptance of [being second hand] and the repetition of simulacra that the architect aspires to be intelligible. From this position, the true potential of architecture lies not in the prospect of its popular or technological relevance [read: modernism], but in the possibility in its autonomy.” This is super critical: it implies that this endeavor to free architecture from (social) content is actually the campaign for architectural autonomy. In short, Modernism so thoroughly integrated architecture and social content, so thoroughly demonized history and retrospection, and so thoroughly destroyed the idea of freedom of form, that in the 1970s architects, critics and theorists were still fighting to restore and justify architecture’s artistic autonomy. This is, I think, the central transition of which we must be aware, as we should remain aware that form, intelligibility, and communication are ways to achieve that for the writers we have read and will continue to read in this project.