Pillars of the 20th Century

Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

It's fair to say that 20th century architecture--and the Modernist ideology that dominated it--never achieved its stated aim of creating a better society. But few moments in history have produced such an array of splendid failures.

What Modernism has left us is a collection of fragmentary visions, incomplete experiments and isolated monuments to an idealized world. Nonetheless, many of those experiments retain a remarkable freshness. In seeking to challenge prevailing notions about our social and cultural structures, these designs offered a lens through which we could gaze at the future. And if they failed to transform society, they remain--at their best--idealized moments in a flawed world.

Culture, of course, grows by asking questions. The notion of a radical avant-garde capable of building a smoothly functioning new society may be dead, but the social fabric of modern life continues to shift uneasily forward. How, for example, do we define the relationships that make up contemporary domestic life? How do we shape the postindustrial urban landscape? The world of architecture today is once again sifting through the wreckage of the past to find ways of expressing a new set of values. The idea that architecture can continue to test those values in the real world is still a valid one. The task now is to locate where that sort of experimentation is still possible.

The aim of "At the End of the Century: One Hundred Years of Architecture," an exhibition that opened last week at this city's Museum of Contemporary Art, is to sum up what was without doubt the most volatile century in the history of architecture in one big, sprawling show. It is a wildly ambitious undertaking--never before has such a wide representation of 20th century architecture been collected together in one place. Curated by Richard Koshalek, director of Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art, with L.A. MOCA curator Elizabeth Smith, the exhibition includes more than 1,200 photographs, models, films and original drawings. From here, the exhibition will travel to Mexico City; Cologne, Germany; Sa~o Paolo, Brazil; and arrive at L.A.'s Geffen Contemporary in April 2000, before closing at New York's Guggenheim Museum in 2001.

The exhibition's greatest achievement, in fact, is that it covers so many of the major themes of 20th century architecture, from vast master-planning schemes to utopian visions of mass housing and aestheticized modern villas. Visionary works by the radical avant-garde as well as government-sponsored public works and large commercial developments all can be seen here in the much broader context of the century's myriad achievements.

In this light, Modernism, it turns out, doesn't look so bad after all.

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There is so much here, in fact, that it's difficult to weave your way through it. And that's where the exhibition falters. Many of Modernism's central themes--particularly its penchant for heroic urban plans and for smaller domestic experiments--are scattered throughout the show. Nor is the exhibition able to sustain a strong narrative voice that leads us into the present. The result is that those who are unfamiliar with the shifting trends of Modernist history may find it difficult to follow the debate. More important, there is little sense of how that legacy continues to resonate today. So here's a guide.

The exhibition begins with a blow-up of a 1909 rendering of Otto Wagner's proposed urban scheme for Karlsplatz, Vienna, a monument of abstracted classicism. From here, it moves quickly to various projects of the avant-garde: the machine-obsessed aesthetics of the Italian Futurists, the social experiments of the Soviet Constructivists, the more rational German Bauhaus and various housing schemes. These early visions were united by a delirious faith in the birth of a new age that would be dominated by speeding cars and roaring airplanes. Architecture, it was thought, would liberate us from the squalor of the 19th century city. And what better antidote to urban blight could there be than light, air and order? Technology and the machine would save us all.

But despite moments of confluence, Modernism was never a cohesive movement. Scattered throughout this representation are projects that display a range of architectural values, often even within the context of a single career. One such case can be seen in the muscular works of Soviet avant-gardist Konstantin Melnikov. A precious small model of Melnikov's 1930 design for his own house--one of the show's highlights--displays a single-family home made up of two interlocking concrete cylinders, its surface pierced by rows of hexagonal windows. The structure's aura of tranquillity evokes a monastic solitude, echoing a theme that recurs in many of the works of the great Swiss Modernist Le Corbusier.

Yet Melnikov's 1934 unrealized design for the Commissariat of Heavy Industry--one of many proposals for gargantuan state buildings--has a megalomaniac bent. In a remarkable drawing of the project, two giant crouching figures sit atop the building's thrusting forms, each flanked by a piece of machinery. A giant gear frames the entire picture, revealing an enormous stair that climbs up ominously toward the building's blank facade. Here, the solitude of the individual is buried under the weight of a state-sanctioned monumentality.

These deeply contested architectural strategies reached across cultural boundaries. The Soviet Moisei Ginzburg's 1929 Narkomfin communal housing, for example, is a model of functionalism and social engineering, a horizontal housing block whose corridors function as subtle social condensers. But its stripped-down aesthetic has more in common with the work of the German Bauhaus, than, say, with the dynamic futuristic forms of his fellow countryman Vladimir Tatlin's "Monument to the Third International," a theoretical proposal from 1919-20 for a twisting steel tower that would have dominated the Moscow skyline.

Another of the show's high points is the number of lesser-known works collected here that represent architects working outside the Western mainstream. There are many unexpected surprises, such as the 1929 Casa Kahlo and Rivera--designed for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera by Mexican Modernist Juan O'Gorman--a tautly composed example of the formalism of the International Style. Or Sutemi Horiguchi's 1933 Okada residence, whose traditional Japanese plan and clean abstract forms reflect both a deep sensitivity to local context and to Modernism's appeal as a symbolic link to the industrialized world.

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These projects represent a radical attempt to come to terms with the rapidly shifting conditions of modern life. They reflect the pressing need to negotiate growing tensions between past and future, the individual and the collective, suburban and urban values.

This struggle has also been explored on every scale. The Modernist infatuation with the assembly-line techniques of Henry Ford and the related theory of Frederick Taylor led to grandiose urban schemes for multilevel cities in an attempt to integrate the speed of the automobile with the pedestrian masses. The most famous of these is Le Corbusier's 1925 Plan Voisin for Paris, which proposed replacing the center of the city with a grid of shimmering "Cartesian" towers. Not to be outdone, Frank Lloyd Wright designed Broadacre City, a proposal for a vast grid of large rural plots linked together by the automobile and sprinkled with a few needle-like towers that was meant as a suburban-minded antidote to such abstracted urban utopias.

These projects were never built, yet fragments of these visions exist in various large-scale urban projects. As such, the issues they raised continue to resonate. Think of New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's recent campaign to clean up the chaos of New York City life, which offers traditional suburban values as an alternative to the frictions--cultural and otherwise--that until now have defined urban existence. Or Los Angeles' repeated attempts to establish a downtown core, an idea that reverts to a medieval concept of what a city should be. Each, in a way, is an extension of a century-long effort to create a humane urban model.

The show succeeds best, however, when it begins to question the ways in which architecture expresses our cultural values. A section titled "Politics and Monumentality in the Thirties," for example, focuses on several projects built as symbols of state--and totalitarian--power. Two projects in particular--Albert Speer's 1939-40 Great Hall proposal for Berlin and Boris Iofan's unbuilt 1931-34 design for the Palace of the Soviets--are ideals for an architecture of oppression. A model of Speer's colossal Fascist hall dwarfs a nearby replica of the Reichstag, an apt testament to the erasure of the individual in Hitler's Germany. The scale of Iofan's Palace of the Soviets--designed in the form of a classical column with a towering statue of Lenin perched on top--was equally overblown. Had it been built, it would have cast a shadow across the entire city of Moscow. Both revert to classical form to evoke the state's symbolic power.

Yet by matching these buildings with other massive infrastructure projects from the same period, the show questions our definitions of an architecture of power. Compare a 1935 photo of Adolf Hitler gleefully driving down the German autobahn to a 1941 rendering by Hugh Ferris of Gordon Kaufman's design for the Hoover Dam. Both images evoke the heroic era of the postindustrial age. But both can also be read as expressions of political stability in the face of the economic depression. Likewise, is the grandeur of Moscow's neoclassical metro an expression of state power, or a great civic monument?

Questions such as these--about scale, about the often destructive nature of technology--strike at the core of Modernist thought. During the 1960s, for example, the machine reemerges as an object of fetishistic appeal. This can be seen in works produced by a circle of technologically driven architects then based in London. In Michael Webb's 1963-66 project for a Drive-in House, a pod-shaped car locks directly into the house, where a spider-like mechanism folds it into the space, transforming it into part of the house's structure. A drawing of Ron Herron's "Walking City" from the same period depicts a giant mechanized building standing against a blank backdrop on spindly legs. The machine has become a refuge from an apocalyptic wasteland.

But by these later years, the show begins to unravel. Many of the most articulate challenges to Modernism are simply passed over. Architects such as the British team of Peter and Alison Smithson, who began to challenge Modernism's disregard for the existing urban fabric in the '50s, are buried in the show, while flashier projects are played up. The pseudo-classical work of Postmodernism--even in its most thoughtful incarnations, such as in the theoretical works of Aldo Rossi--barely gets a nod.

Instead, the show's final sections drift through a loose collection of homes from the '50s to the present, ending with a sampling of 20th century skyscrapers. Missing is a sense of the chorus of competing voices that mark current architectural practice. The omission of the work of the contemporary Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas--at 53, the most influential architect of his generation--is glaring, as is the absence of the work of Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza.

Koolhaas' work would seem particularly relevant here, because he seeks to compress urban forms into the scale of a single building. Koolhaas is also one of the few architects attempting to make the position of the avant-garde viable again, in part by designing buildings that seek to reveal the underlying political and psychological forces that truly shape them.

Clearly, it would have been impossible to end the show with a broad survey of contemporary work, but why not include a sampling that would invite discussion about the contested values that dominate architecture today?

In fact, architecture is still in a process of reinventing itself. The notion of the avant-garde--of a critical architecture that can challenge our notions of the urban landscape--is still a central theme among architects, as is the struggle to come to grips with Modernism's most glaring failures. Like it or not, the Modern experiment laid the groundwork for our future.

In a healthy culture, architecture allows us to test those contested values in the real world. Inevitably, many fall short. What's important here is the breadth of the debate, the range of those visions. Perhaps during no other time in history has architecture been so open to new possibilities as it is now. What better place to see those values on display than in a show that covers a century of architectural invention? That would have done much to show architecture's continuing relevance to the social and cultural landscape of our cities.

There's still time for fine-tuning before the show arrives in Los Angeles for the millennium.

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Sunday August 2, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction Russian tower--Vladimir Tatlin's "Monument to the Third International" was planned for St. Petersburg, not Moscow, as a July 19 article reported.
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