What comes after ‘postmodern’ architecture? Actual architecture! says Rafael Vinoly

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Rafael Vinoly. ()
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On Tuesday night, the architect Rafael Viñoly sat on a stage at the Museum of the City of New York in a formal armchair upholstered in royal blue leather, across from Julie Iovine, executive editor of The Architect’s Newspaper. The room in which events are held looks and feels more like a theater than an academic lecture hall. It’s carpeted; it has columns and carved moldings; the ceilings are high, and the stage is a real stage, with velvet curtains that are purplish-brown.

The Uruguay-born, Argentina-raised architect has made his home in New York since the late '70s, but many of his biggest completed projects have been abroad—in Japan and London, Southeast Asia and the Midwest. He's probably best known around here for designing the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex at the Time Warner center and for his bid to design the buildings at the former site of the World Trade Center; and because, as a sharp guy with a sharp wit and a tendency to say what he thinks about the state of architecture in New York, he's an appealing crossover star, neither too academic to be understandable by a smart set of New Yorkers who treat the island like a perpetual Elderhostel lecture-cruise nor so cravenly commercial as to sound like he's constantly selling them his wares. That is, he speaks at this sort of thing a lot.

And so museum director Susan Henshaw Jones said in her introduction: “He is perfect for tonight’s topic because his work is marked by a sustained structural originality that transcends the passing fads of architectural movements.”

And because he was likely to say something interesting on a topic that sounds pretty academic: “What Comes After Postmodernism? A conversation with Rafael Viñoly.”

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Lots about the advance press for the event seemed to be pressing Viñoly to label everything that's come since the postmodern movement in architecture and explain it; what's not in dispute is that postmodernism is over.

In architecture, unlike in other disciplines, "postmodernism" is identified with a pretty specific period, and a pretty specific and identifiable kind of building, that most architects are happy to agree is behind us.

Part of the problem with asking someone like Viñoly what the name is for what's been happening since is his dislike in general for named "movements" or theoretical approaches to architecture. What's more, it is not a given, really, that architecture has movements the way, say, painting or poetry sometimes do. And all practitioners, across all disciplines, profess as a rule to hate these sorts of labels.

Which is not to say they aren't useful. Over time, as bits and pieces of architecture recede historically, labels have been placed on swaths of architecture that, from the point of view of any individual architect so labeled, has little to do with its label-mates. Never mind them: to students of architectural history the labels are instructive, and by the time they are applied, the offended architects are old or dead.

But to ask what to label what's happening now? The set-up was, at first, a little awkward.

“We’re here, Rafael,” Iovine said.

“Here we are,” he said, in that accent that is both lilting and guttural. He was dressed in black, and wore a pair of thin-rimmed glasses on his face, and second pair of rimless sunglasses on his head. (In architecture, eyewear is a "thing," and this solecism is a Viñoly signature.)

“I think we were both stymied by the title of the talk, a little bit,” she said. There was a round antique coffee table with a real glass pitcher and glasses between them.

“The public in general,” Iovine said, “still thinks about post-modernism. While, of course, architects themselves have streaked way past what they do consider, I imagine, a kind of a stylistic blip in the long run. But what do you think about that idea, that the public is hanging onto an idea of postmodernism that architects are really, kind of, embarrassed about at this point. But what do you think about that idea that the public still is hanging onto a term—postmodernism—that architects, really, are kind of embarrassed about at this point?”

"Well,” Viñoly began, “it’s also kind of fueled by a number of uses of the word in philosophy, and, uh, literary criticism. So we have lost the legitimacy of the name that, you know, kind of emerged in architecture with the Institute.”

The Institute to which Viñoly referred, Iovine explained to the audience, was the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, founded as a school and kind-of think tank in the late '60s, and very influential in the 1970s. “I call it the cult,” she said.

“It was a fantastic experiment!” Viñoly said. It was, he said, "a reflection of the idea of history as the repository of knowledge.”

And here he was getting at the peculiarity of the term, in the architectural context, and the way it became identified with particular types of buildings. It was all, he said, about "stylistic quotations."

That is, if postmodernism is about deconstruction, then the project of modernism in architecture did not seem to offer much tradition to deconstruct. Postmodern architecture, as it is commonly thought of, for instance, frequently relied on cladding buildings in traditional materials like red brick, stone, even marble. Think of the "Lipstick Building" at 53rd Street and Third Avenue, a coproduction of John Burgee Architects and Philip Johnson built in 1986; or the AT&T building (now the Sony building) at Madison Avenue and 56th Street, the crown of which looks a little like an old-fashioned telephone base, completed in 1984. It's not what you would call a well-regarded building, among architects today. (Though it has its defenders.)

The architect of that building, Philip Johnson, provided much of the funding for the Institute, Viñoly said.

“I think Philip was probably the main culprit for that turn of events. I always thought of him as the joker.”

This academic approach, which liberalized postmodern art and literature's obsession with reference, deconstruction and pastiche, detached architecture from its contemporary role. And unlike literature and art and philosophy, utility and a certain kind of imperviousness to time are important considerations in architecture. Architecture in the time of the Institute, Viñoly said, “became a subject for publication, for distribution of imagery, for the application of imagery, architecturally, without necessarily having to deal with any of the basic tenets of what architecture is.”

“What I think happened is that taking that approach, and then completely changing it, as if it was another change of clothes, somehow, actually kept the pressure on architects for this idea of ‘branding’ for this idea of association with a particular formal move, is the recovery of formalism.”

That is: There's no percentage anymore in being an architect in a "movement" that translates to the humanities or art, particularly.

“By now form-making is completely out of sync with what architects want to do these days,” Iovine said. “What do you think about architecture as an object, an icon, it seems like that has been left behind.”

“The new generation has learned, the sort of kind of emptiness of the whole thing,” Viñoly said.

Because the architect had to be not just a thinker, but a builder, and a leader. “A the end of the day,” he said. “It is a person’s ability to lead through the process what actually makes it really happen, actually, in a building that is architecture.” “I mean the invention of the studio is something of a concoction,” he said. “When you work for an acronym"—here he means firms like S.O.M., which in those days became a much more glamorous type of firm name than the ancient firm's real one, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—"you might get this enormous job, just because you’ve been employed, you know? I mean, there’s nothing that demonstrates, or that tells the client that, in particular, you’re in charge. The firm is in charge.”

And here, Viñoly wandered into slightly obscure territory: the story of Robert McNamara, who after World War II became one of the Ford Motor Company's "Whiz Kids," who brought massive systems-analysis programs to the company and ultimately became the first president of the company outside the Ford family before taking the post of defense secretary under President John F. Kennedy, “MacNamara invented that manual for one company, and then he transferred it to the U.S. Army. And then you know, S.O.M. kind of got wind of that and created this set of rules.”

So firms that used to be thought of as an artisan-in-chief with a group of disciples and apprentices became, well, assembly lines.

An idea or a brand is not an individual, and Viñoly, whose own firm is called Rafael Viñoly Architects, believes in the individual architect, in a singular signature. Someone had to be responsible, in the end, for the project.

Here the military had something to offer, ironically also by way of the McNamara paradigm.