More on Morphing Modernism

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My trip to Philip Johnson’s Glass House last week sent me back to Franz Schulze’s indispensable 1994 biography, Philip Johnson: Life and Work, where I was interested to find that as early as 1941/42, Johnson, then still the arch Modernist, the chief American disciple of Mies van der Rohe, had written an essay in which he had nothing but good things to say about the historical-revivalist Beaux Art architecture that Modernism would sweep away after the war. Why does that matter? Because as both a curator and an architect Johnson played such an important role in ensuring the predominance for a while of the Miesian version of Modernism, which, to put it mildly, had no interest in historic revivalism.

We’ve long since escaped from the grip of High Modernism. But the mere recollection of its world wide domination in the 1950s through ’70s can still stir up passions. Late last year I was in the U.K. to profile Jan Kaplicky, the Czech-born, London-based architect whose firm Future Systems made a big impression a few years ago with its design for a Selfridges department store in Birmingham, England that resembles a large bean covered with blue disks. I was struck by the fact that when I first sat down to interview him what he wanted most to talk about was how much he hated the show called “Modernism” which had been mounted earlier in the year at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (and which is now settled in at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C.) In a nutshell, Kaplicky felt that, at least in its architectural sections, the show persisted in the error of defining Modernism narrowly through the work of a few architects like Mies, Gerrit Rietveld, Le Corbusier and so on, a definition that left out Expressionist architects like Erich Mendelssohn whose work was important to him. (By implication, it was also a definition that excluded Kaplicky, who thinks of his curving Jetsons-ish designs as being every bit as modern as any glass box Mies ever did.)

And it’s true, the narrow reading of Modernism that Johnson once promoted — and was very soon backing away from, until he had backed all the way into his silly Postmodern phase — left very little room for architects like Mendelssohn or Eero Saarinen, whose TWA Terminal at JFK airport was a typical (and now beloved) departure from Modernist principles.

All of this came to mind yesterday when I happened to walk by the construction site of what used to be Two Columbus Circle. That’s the 1964 building by Edward Durrell Stone that’s now being converted (and swallowed up) into the Museum of Arts and Design in a scheme by the architect Brad Cloepfil that he says preserves the essence of the building. Doesn’t look that way to me, but I’ll reserve judgment until we see the finished product. I’ll be the first to admit that Stone’s somewhat grandiloquent building, which the critic Ada Louise Huxtable once called a “palazzo on lollipops”, has never been a favorite of mine. (For the record, she rather liked it.) But I was very sorry last year when the last attempts to gain it some kind of landmark status fell through. I never pass that construction site now without thinking that very often it’s the buildings we don’t love that we eventually learn the most from. Stone’s building, with its white marble and its references to Venetian Gothic, certainly didn’t play by the standard Modernist rules. But his search for a way to bring the past back into architecture is something that we now understand as a legitimate part of the 20th century story, even if he didn’t always produce results that we can appreciate — yet. His forays into historicism may look kitschy to us now. Beaux Arts, Victorian and Art Deco architecture all once looked disposable, too. Now we cherish them all. Which is why I suspect the day will come when we’ll wish we had that palazzo back, lollipops and all.

Two Columbus Circle/Edward Durrell Stone — 
Photo:Ezra Stoller © Esto