Robert A M Stern, “Gray Architecture as Post-Modernism, or, Up and Down from Orthodoxy,” 1976.
If all the positions articulated thus far in the 11 Weeks project are confusing, take comfort in the knowledge that their multiplicity was confusing in the 1970s as well. As postmodern movements became increasingly self-aware they seem to have become increasingly anxious to explicitly define the shape of the postmodern era. Hence, we have Hays’s uncharacteristically simple and historical introduction to Stern’s essay: “The richness of architectural practice in the late 1970s, particularly in the United States, demanded articulation of the postmodern. Yet, at this relatively early stage in theorizing…architecture seemed ineluctably partitioned into binary oppositions variously labeled modern/postmodern, rationalist/realist, exclusivist/inclusivist, New York/Yale-Penn, white/gray, and the like.”
In terms of “white” and “gray” architecture, it seems we can take Colin Rowe’s Five Architects, especially Peter Eisenman, to represent the “white” contingent—also including Richard Meier and Werner Seligmann. Meanwhile, Stern seems to place himself as the corresponding theorists for the “gray” architects—amongst whom Charles Moore, Robert Venturi, and presumably Denise Scott Brown can be counted, along with Giovanni Pasanella, Jaquelin Robertson, Richard Weinstein, and T Merrill Prentice—corresponding to Eisenman’s role as “principal theorists among the “white” architects.” “Gray Architecture as Post-Modernism” and Hays’s introduction are incredibly valuable and accessible in terms of a map or lineage of architects, schools, magazines, and basic groups in the mid-70s. (It incorporates relationships between Rowe, Stern, Eisenman, Venturi, Kahn, Yale, Penn State, UCLA, Harvard, various journals, Vincent Scully, Neil Levine, and George Hersey.) Below is simply a breakdown of Stern’s thesis about these people and the state of postmodern movements.
Again we are brought up to speed with a relieved declaration of the end of Modernism (“the Modern Movement” in architecture, or “orthodox Modernism”). It is in this postmodern miasma that the dialogue between Stern and Eisenman, gray and white, is taking place. And while both gray and white architects are working to define the nature and/or role of architecture in a postmodern recovery period, it is Stern’s belief that only gray architecture constitutes the nature of a real Post-Modernism, while Eisenman’s Post-Functionalism is merely a postmodern movement, with the implication that Post-Functionalism is inadequate in some way.
Both gray and white (Post-Modernism and Post-Functionalism) predicate themselves on the closure of orthodox Modernism, both believe architecture’s future lies in form, and both believe the formal status quo needs “freshness.” Their distinction lies in the source of that formal freshness. Post-Functionalism—as we know from Eisenman’s syntactic architecture and the essay “Post-Functionalism”—is concerned with finding form within architecture itself, with creating a cognitive theoretical object that is and represents its own process. In Stern’s words, Post-Functionalism seeks “formal compositional themes as independent entities freed from cultural connotations.” Post-Functionalism is autonomous and self-reflexive architectural form, unconcerned with extra-architectural context.
Gray architecture is “more responsive to and visually cognizant of its own history, the physical context in which a given work of architecture is set, and the social, cultural, and political milieu which calls it into being.” In short, Gray architecture’s mission is the opposite of White’s, and is the definition of what we still call “Post-Modernism:” historically referential, culturally allusive, contextual. It “affirms that architecture is made for the eye as well as for the mind, and that it includes both the conceptual formation of space and the circumstantial modifications that program can make this space undergo.”
This is a fascinating move on Stern’s part, collaging bits of theory from many sources with whom we are already acquainted. Notably, Stern’s Post-Modernism is expressly not the same as the contextualism of the 1960s when a nascent postmodern architecture was “the sociology of the constructed.” He has amputated the Structuralist weight of 60s theory while incorporating a ghost of “architecture is representation” (“architecture is made for the eye,” he says). Meanwhile he has grafted Tschumi’s (and possibly Lefebvre’s) criticism of architectural theory’s oversight in terms of a definition of space in the 20th century, as well as co-opting some of Eisenman’s own form-function discussion. Stern also develops the populist thread to which we were introduced in his excerpt to the MoMA Beaux-Arts exhibit, articulating a Post-Modernism that is also populist and pluralist, reflecting a pragmatic recognition of the state of things. (This is a populism shared by noted Gray architects and familiar to us from Denise Scott Brown.) What is that state of things? Contextualism. For Stern’s Post-Modernism, architecture is part of a whole that cannot be divided, hence introducing the work of Vinceny Scully.
The variety of Post-Modernist strategies toward this architecture are cited by Hays from a 1980 article by Stern: 1) history, 2) cultural allusionism, 3)anti-utopianism (“what ‘is’ rather than what ‘should be’”), 4) urban design and contextualism, and 5) formal concerns, “all of which is presumed to lead to 6) referential form (‘that is, the search for meaning’).” Further distilled, we have ornament, allusion, context, and form—or, all the things we are now taught made up Post-Modernism proper.
It is important to observe that the collective movements of the postmodern period (1960s-70s) were still divided over one point: the distinction between outside or inside, reference or cognizance, symbol or object, semantics or syntax, signs of the external or of architecture itself. The specific camps of postmodern theories could all be mapped from this division, and it is the quintessential division between gray and white architecture, between moving “up or down from orthodox [modernism].” The liminal space of this division is the façade, on which the game of Post-Modernism plays itself out. The Post-Modernist façade “[is] not the diaphanous veil of orthodox Modern architecture,” nor the Post-Functionalist “affirmation of deep structural secrets.” It is instead the project of context, and therefore the very medium to distinguish Post-Modernism’s extroversion from white architecture’s introversion.