2:33 pm Aug. 11, 2011
University of Hartford architecture professor Michael J. Crosbie has chosen 12 relatively young New York–based architectural firms and named the group The New York Dozen; together they are the subjects of a new book he's written of the same name.
The New York Dozen: Gen X Architecture, it seems from Crosbie's introduction, was partly a callback to another book, the seminal Five Architects, which was the culmination of a series of private conferences for young architects held at the Museum of Modern Art in the mid- to late 1960s; it was published in 1972. (A new edition with a postscript by Philip Johnson was published three years later.)
The architects presented in Crosbie's book do have a set of values that cohere with each other, albeit loosely, as did the Five. And the Dozen's values seem almost diametrically opposed to those presented in Five Architects. In fact Crosbie’s book reads as a kind of repudiation of what the Five believed about what the practice of architecture should look like: They seemed to say that the discipline had been ravaged by a excessively acute sense of architects' social responsibility, and that as important as that might be, it had been allowed to lower the artistic, theoretical and formal ambitions of the form. It's hard to explain exactly what the ethical sensibility of the Dozen is, but social responsibility is all over it, and "pure" architectural theory, of the kind practiced by the Five, isn't.
But Crosbie's book never repudiates The New York Five's position explicitly. It's not in the nature of his book to be very explicit, nor is it in the nature of contemporary architects, least of all his Dozen, to be very explicit. The lack of explicitness is not just a feature of the book. It's a feature of the generation of architects he's writing about. And that is also the reason Crosbie’s book is slippery, the reason it’s hard to get a grip on what exactly it’s doing. It may be that his subject is such a repudiation of traditional form that it can't be a book. But from top to bottom, it is a book: It's a bound stack of pages, but more to the point, it comes from an earlier book. It was a book before it was even a concrete idea; and now it is a book and it is still not a concrete idea.
Concrete ideas are not what the Dozen are about, really; nor are repudiations or philosophical debates.
And those kinds of debates are precisely what the Five hoped to foster with their exercise.
IN THE PREFACE TO THE 1972 BOOK, ARTHUR Drexler attempts to explain what the five architects presented in the book—Richard Meier, Charles Gwathmey, Peter Eisenman, John Hejduk and Michael Graves—had come to believe about what had happened to their discipline, and what needed to change. The book, it is implied, was to be a harbinger of that change: “We are all concerned, one way or another, with social reform. But the concern for reform has flavored all discussion and criticism that claims to be architecture first and social reform second.”
The preface is followed by a critical essay by Colin Rowe; a second introductory essay, by Kenneth Frampton, is technical. Frampton analyzes in somewhat painful detail the projects presented in Five Architects. It’s not entirely complimentary, but it is about the objects—the buildings—themselves, mixed with the theoretical ideas of the Five, and historical references to other architects, and draws connections between them. For example: “The Hanselmann house by Michael Graves is a far less complex structure [than Peter Eisenman’s House I, the Barenholtz Pavilion in Princeton]. Its entry is direct, not secretive like the Hejduk project, nor accidental as the Eisenman pavilion.”
The New York Dozen has a brief foreword by Kristen Richards, a journalist who most recently has worked as the editor of ArchNewsNow.com, and Oculus, the journal of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects. It’s followed by an essay by Michael Crosbie that explains the ideas of his New York Dozen; he does not specifically address, describe or really engage with any of the projects by the 12 firms that forms the following pages of the book.
“Many of the projects in this book are integrated into the existing fabric in New York,” Crosbie writes, “and other cities, and bear out the qualitative challenge of design fabric over object.”
From the beginning, Crosbie’s book evinces an antipathy to discipline; discipline was a hallmark of Five Architects as well as the architects' rallying cry against what they saw as the meltdown of intellectual and formal rigor in their field.
What the New York Dozen lacks is something similar to the essay by Frampton; a presentation of a point of view. For all the coherence in the values of the Dozen, there seems to be little dialogue about form, material, or art here.
That may be because the values shared by this dozen are not really architectural but social. They are in life a rebuke to the Five; but this book, staking itself on a rejection of the old formalism, has too little form to serve as a rebuke to the earlier book.
In juxtaposition these two books are compelling for what they convey about what has changed in architecture in the last 39 years, and what hasn’t.
The first objective of Five Architects was to reignite a conversation about architecture as a formal discipline, and a suitable object of enlightened criticism, in the academic sense of the word.
The objective was achieved with the publication of a series of articles titled “Five on Five,” in Architectural Forum, in May of 1973. Its writers were architects outside of the Five, a group that somewhat jestingly called themselves “The Grays.” (The Five, under another nickname, had also been known as “The Whites” for their debt to the legacy of Le Corbusier.)
Robert A.M. Stern convened the group, which included Jaquelin Robertson, Charles Moore, Allan Greenberg, and Romaldo Giurgola, because he “saw an opportunity to spark an architectural dialogue about high design ideas that, he reflects, was sorely missing at the time,” Crosbie writes in an essay at the front of the new book.
Crosbie interviewed Eisenman, Graves, Gwathmey and Meier for the new book, as well as the widow and daughter of Hejduk, who died in the year 2000. He also spoke to Paul Goldberger, then an architecture critic for the New York Times, now the critic at the New Yorker.
“Goldberger maintains that the two camps, the Whites and the Grays, were really not that different, in terms of their beliefs about the role of architecture and the role of architects,” Crosbie writes. “‘But there was something exciting about the dialogue. This had not been happening before,’” Goldberger tells him.
Dialogue is a nice word, but what Five Architects really achieved was the traditional academic standard: The dialectic, composed of competitive, agonistic forces inside a discipline that, striving (or at least pretending to strive) for supremacy creates a critical discourse that itself produces a variety of new ideas and movements to supersede the ones that precede them.
New York Dozen is unlikely to inspire such a shift in the critical discourse, a fact for which it is unapologetic from top to bottom.
Crosbie gave each of his subjects several assignments. The first was to articulate their practice in 12 words, the second to describe it in 36 words, and the third to describe it in 20 dozen words. The repetition of “dozen” doesn’t seem to have any significance beyond this loose organization.
Each firm was presented a page to conduct these exercises and give their basic biographical statistics, followed by pages covering several projects by the firm. But the emphasis, what they were asked to articulate, were “Our Architectural values in a dozen words,” “Our architectural philosophy in three-dozen words,” “Who we are,” “Frequent collaborators,” “Past and present staff,” “Our practice in twenty-dozen words,” and “Why we practice in New York in two-dozen words;” the last seems a little contrived, because at a presentation at the Center for Architecture Crosbie said of the process of choosing the Dozen:
“That book [Five Architects] had most of the projects in and around New York City, Long Island and Princeton. This book has projects from different—a lot of New York projects but also a lot of projects from other parts of the world.”
Crosbie’s guidelines elicit some interesting statements—or ones that make sense. Some don't. The firm Levenbetts describe their practice in two dozen words thusly:
Questioning, Rapid, Synthetic, Translucent, Unconstrained, Varied, Weird, X-acto, Yes, Zoomy, AlloftheAbove, Badass, Constrained, Dumb, Exquisite, Fuzzy, GoogleEarth, Humane, Informal, JackedUp, KickedBack, LateNight, Moveable, New, Observant, Pragmatic, Quantum, Rules, Subversive, Transportable, Undone, Variable, Walkable, X-tra, Yield, Zippy
Given two dozen words to explain why they practice in New York, Architecture in Formation PC submitted the following list:
To be fair, it’s a weird and seemingly arbitrary assignment, and many of the firms did write meaningful full sentences. Arts Corporation, for their dozen words about their architectural values, wrote “Lines between disciplines do not exist. Our work serves to investigate interstices.” nARCHITECTS wrote “Maximum effect with economy of means, and positive impact on the environment.”
Maybe it would have been different if the architects had been asked to describe their projects instead of their process. But then, it is process, much more than the final result of the work, that seems to be the shared obsession for this generation of architects.
And maybe after all that is why they are in this book. At that talk, Crosbie answered a question from the audience about how he had chosen his subjects.
“There were not real, strong criteria, I have to say," he said. "Whoever responded to my emails is in the book,” he said, which brought laughter from the audience.
“Which separates them from the New York Five. And there was also a sense that these people were working in different places in the world, which was also important.”
He presents it as a good thing that he selected the Dozen, while the Five selected themselves, but that's the problem, in that it makes the book more of a catalog than a statement.
The New York Five had a platform. Though their careers evolved in different ways, at the time they had a collective idea that they voluntarily presented. The Dozen have ideas in common—associated with the spirit of the times—and while they agreed to participate, they did not choose, as a group, to present them.
So while there are common values, there is no statement.
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