In Icon November 2017
There is currently a proposal by Snohetta to slice the front off the base of Philip Johnson’s iconic AT&T Building in NYC, and replace its massive, sculpted, shadowy cliff face of granite with a happy glowing wall of undulating glass. There is no real functional need to do this, so why would they?
After its time in the spotlight, after its moment in intellectual and then corporate vogue, it is the fate of every predominant approach to architecture, every style if you will, to go through first a period of precipitous decline in popularity, and then shortly after, a long and unrelenting period of outright disdain, even in some cases, disgust, followed eventually by a critical rediscovery, an historical revaluation in the light of subsequent developments.
The disdain in part comes from a younger generation of architects and designers who inevitably react with vigour against the dogmas, conventions and trends of their elders, and go about actively “slaying their parents”, they take them on in the battle for ideas, taste, and clients, and always -eventually- win.
Hard fought battles can never really be left behind, and this immediately subsequent generation rarely manages to let go of its animosities towards the great design beasts it has slain, never quite manages to look back on their works with anything close to objectivity.
For the third generation there is no such personal animosity. For them the unfashionable works of the no-longer-so-recent past are simply intriguing items of objective historical interest. They look back and see failures, but also all the successes, and above all, see a whole treasure trove of practitioners and works that were inexplicably withheld from them, treated as taboo, by their elders.
In the same way we look in disbelief at photographs of our parents wearing the inscrutably strange and intriguing fashions of their youth, and wish to imagine what could have brought them to dress in such bizarre and amusing ways, younger designers look with a mixture of dispassionate interest, and aesthetic excitement, at the peculiar architectures that were prominent before they began their educations.
When a style is transitioning out of its period of disdain, and into its moment of critical rediscovery and reinterpretation, there is an inescapable phase of conflict. The older generation, those who see only the devils they fought to exorcise from architecture in the buildings now being rediscovered, tussle with the younger generation, who see nothing more nor less, than a historical period like any other, worthy of study and appreciation.
Pomo, PoMo, Postmodernism, Post Modernism, whatever you wish to call the history-incorporating, symbolically-obsessed approach to architecture that briefly rose to international prominence and acceptability in the 1980s, is going through exactly this transition. It’s viscerally hated by those who grew up and studied at university when it was popular, and who are now the establishment, the current crop of big-name architects. At the same time, it is being reclaimed, researched, and in many ways transformed retroactively, by practitioners who have fledgling offices, and students currently coming through university.
As many Pomo buildings start hitting the 30-year mark, a lot of them are coming up for redevelopment, and very often their redevelopments are at the hands of those very same architects who cannot objectively see the positive or significant qualities of those exact buildings they are being commissioned to modify.
Every period, every stylistic approach produces great works of architecture in its own terms. Every era has buildings that are of outstanding quality, whether what they were doing is currently fashionable or not. These examples, these exemplary projects should be protected for posterity, whether they be representative of Pomo, NeoMo, Decon, NeoNeoRationalism or Blob-ism, or whatever.
Currently it is the turn of the great big Pomo buildings to come under existential threat. Fom No1 Poultry in London, by Stirling and Wilford, to the AT&T Building in New York by Johnson Burgee, and the State of Illinois Center in Chicago, by Murphy Jahn, we are seeing battles being fought to save them.
A popular action for architects to take is to “de-stylize” such buildings. To remove the elements that make the buildings of-their-time. Polychromatic facades are painted black. Pediments are boxed in. Splendidly outrageous ornamental entrance sequences are smashed up and binned. Unusual and inexplicable but delightful protuberances are removed.
This effectively neuters the buildings, it denatures them, eviscerating their symbolic and architectural specificity. It is almost always functionally unnecessary, and is often pure spite, a loathing towards what came before. It is architectural revenge, and in the case of Snohetta’s proposal for the AT&T, it is Architectural patricide write large.
The massive arcades, the vast arch, the tonnes and tonnes of granite, the huge surfaces of masonry untouched by a single window, are simply awesome. I use that word in its original sense. It is not an elevation or street presence that is meant to be cosy and fit in. Neither is it meant to be glowing and happy and as open as a shopping centre, or an Apple store -both things Snohetta’s design is straining every muscle to achieve.
It inspires awe, which means it has a sense of grandeur verging on the frightening, a piquant quality that has been entirely rejected by the current batch of starchitects. In titillating contrast to this its top section is humorously whimsical. It is the frisson of the two together that combine to make this building the inscrutable, fascinating, sky-scraping flagship of PoMo.
Cutting it off at the knees might be one generation’s triumph in having finally, physically humiliated the architecture of their elders, but it will be a vicious theft from those who come after. It would be an act of myopic vandalism towards the generations that come after, and who are now looking upon these works with critical, but highly appreciative eyes. Don’t steal our future by smashing up the past, especially not the very best of it.
“Unexpected, enigmatic, slightly disturbing, and thus much like its designer, it will sit around in Manhattan defying the conventions of its neighbours ancient and modern, annoying the mature and established, and-doubtless-fulfilling their worst fears by corrupting the young”
As Reyner Banham put it so prophetically at the time of the building’s opening, long may the AT&T -and others- continue defying expectations, and corrupting the young.