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.
Some of them are aware of it.
“Maybe there’s a difference between thinking about the New York Five and where they are later on, because they produced a platform, and so the diversions between their practices becomes interesting in the sense that one can measure a set of intentions relative to what unfolds,” said Eric Bunge of nARCHITECTS. “This is more of a cross-section as curatorial decision.”
THAT'S WHY THIS BOOK IS, ACCIDENTALLY, A STATEMENT. When Gwathmey died in 2009, New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote a piece headlined: “As Heroes Disappear, the City Needs More.”
In it, he wrote that though the Five had, in some sense, not much in common, they did "share a desire to reassert the importance of architecture as art form during a crisis in the profession.”
He also wrote, “The New York Five came to represent the idea that architecture could still express and advance our values as a culture.”
The piece elicited a response from Andrew Bernheimer in The Design Observer.
“While I agree with Nicolai Ouroussoff’s ultimate conclusion that 'real change will first demand a radical shift in our cultural priorities,’ it would behoove Mr. Ouroussoff, who waxes nostalgically about the 70s-era influence of the ‘The New York Five’ to explore the halls of academia on the eastern seaboard and to grab a Metrocard and visit the architectural studios that are energetically creating new work in our diverse city.
“If he does engage in this search, he will find that Gotham isn’t nearly as barren of the ‘heroes’ he seeks. He would find practices and their principals exerting great influence over the current generation of architects and even more sway upon the students of the next generation.”
Both are true, and most of the New York Dozen would agree. There aren’t heroes; it's no longer the custom to name your firm after a single principal as it once was. And rigor in terms of the formal elements of the practice of architecture, and of the principal architect's place in an extended matrix of architectural theory and, for want of a better phrase, critical theory in general, is emphatically no longer a goal.
Ouroussoff was right: Architecture as a heroic cult is over. What was hard to understand was exactly why Ouroussoff believed we need it back, and indeed why the objection presented by Bernheimer didn't just confess the current generation of architects' antipathy for the form of architectural practice to which Ouroussoff was paying homage.
“Many of the firms identify themselves,” Crosbie said in his lecture, “less as corporate entities with a roster of names on the front door, than as workshops, clusters and platforms for collaboration with other architects, fabricators, software designers, and material scientists.”
That’s exemplified by Crosbie’s request for a list of frequent collaborators, of which he says there is a great deal of cross-over.
The Five were, in a sense, partly responding to the sort of Jane-Jacobs, community-oriented neighborhood development that was uninterested in architectural icons, and in many ways the younger architects—the Dozen and their contemporaries—are going back to it.
In his lecture, Crosbie said, accurately, “Socially conscious design, especially within the context of sustainability and architecture with a civic, public role are prominent in the work of many of these architects.”
In his sort-of eulogy to Gwathmey, Ouroussoff wrote, “The architects saw themselves as artists and thinkers—not activists—and this was particularly true of Peter Eisenman, sometimes to a fault. The distorted grids of his early houses, with their references to Renaissance precedents and Structuralist theory, were not only a way to thumb a nose gleefully at Jacobs-style populism; they also elevated conceptual ideas above material and structure, the life of the mind over the life of the body.”
“Peter Eisenman and I shared similar feelings about architecture in the 60s and early 70s,” Stern told Crosbie. “There was design based on populism, taking social surveys on the street, and basing design on what you learned by asking questions. I felt that this had trivialized architecture and its discourse. It wasn’t design." Stern adds that he and Eisenman "…sort of invented each other, as foils. We saw what was happening as a collapse of standards, a collapse of artistic concerns. There was too much emphasis on the social agenda and ‘popism.’” What Stern told Crosbie he and Eisenman were rejecting is more or less what the Dozen are aspiring to do.
In 1996 Goldberger wrote in The New York Times that the publication of Five Architects “was surely the beginning of high-end architectural marketing.”
“That book,” Crosbie said at the Center for Architecture, “reflected a certain architectural culture and changed it at the same time, and also about the whole nature of fame in architecture, and how that book really kind of established the first, kind of, monograph, the superstar architect monograph that become so prevalent in the 80s, the 90s, and the years after.”
Asked to introduce themselves at the Center for Architecture, and to say something about their firms in 12 words or less, themes that came up were: from Andre Kikoski, “working in historic structures and emerging neighborhoods”; from other firms, authenticity; urbanism; collaboration; and, from Mike Latham of Arts Corporation, “We don’t sell architecture—we’re not architects.”
Shawn Watts from Leroy Street Studio also spoke of working with their non-profit, the Hester Street Collaborative, of which, in the book, the firm describes as “[A] natural extension of our design process” that “practices design activism: empowering local community members to participate in envisioning, designing and building elements that improve streets, playgrounds, housing projects, community centers, and schools.”
Asked to make predictions about the next 12 years in architecture (again, the repetition of 12 does not seem to have any particular significance), Kikoski said, “I think what’s been interesting about the last few years, as Dan [Wood] said, we kind of killed off all our mentors. So many things changed about what people expect; what’s valuable to them; that right now there’s a very interesting moment where we find our clients interested in ideas of authenticity, what does that mean? What is a correct idea of authenticity?”
He went on, “We have questions about general societal questions. What does wellness mean to architecture? A lot of us are talking about the Fit City.”
Authenticity and general societal questions, of course, were two of the more important things to Jane Jacobs, and even more so to her devotees.
Somewhat more directly, Martin Finio of Christoff:Finio Architecture said, “Frank Gehry and Richard Meier, they have to be dead in 12 years." This elicited laughter, and he continued: “They’ve got to be gone by then, no?”
An audience member shouted, “Don’t count on it!”
“Retired,” Finio said, “Let’s call it retired. So that’s all we can hope for in the next 12 years.”
At the presentation, there were representatives from 10 of the firms. Crosbie began by showing one project from each of the firms under four categories: Insertions in history, fitting in with the fabric, settings for celebration, and design in response to adversity. These categories do not appear anywhere in the book.
The projects were: the Puppet Theater Carpenter Center in Cambridge, Mass. by MOS; Cafe 3 at the Guggenheim Museum by Andre Kikoski Architect; 23 Beekman Place by Della Valle Bernheimer (which just disbanded); the Switch Building on the Lower East Side by nARCHITECTS; the Surf Avenue Bridge in Coney Island by WXY Architecture; its own headquarters by Arts Corporation; the PS110 and PS 31 libraries by Leroy Street Studio; the headquarters for ESPASSO--a store that sells items of Brazilian design—in Tribeca by Architecture in Formation PC; P.E.1 P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center by WORK Architecture Company (WORKac); the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art by studio S U M O; Wetland City in New Orleans by LEVENBETTS; and Christoff:Finio’s World Trade Center Memorial Proposal.
After his presentation, representatives of the firms—some had more than one—got up and sat on molded wood stools in a row next to the podium.
The topics that followed, moderated by Richards, went like this, in this order: The first was that of word budgets. “I’d like to know personally what you felt about the word budgets that Michael gave you, that makes the reading quite enjoyable as was displayed by some of the quotes that Michael did,” she said. “Word budgets—was it similar to construction budgets?”
The second topic from the moderator was on the problem of working during a major recession.
The third topic she introduced was Crosbie’s essay in the beginning of the book and what his approach was to assessing the Five in the context of the Dozen. The last, directed at the architects, was what the next dozen years will mean for young firms.
“I don’t think the prediction has, if you will, kind of a philosophical base at this point,” Bunge said, “because I think we’re just a collection rather than a platform, and that’s the nature of the book. Unless the book changes something.”
There was some talk that more women are in architecture now, and that if all the partners of the firms were on stage, there would be more than the two that were there.
There were two questions taken from members of the audience.
The first was the previously mentioned one about Crosbie’s process of choosing architects.
The second was about globalization and expanding practices beyond boundaries.
There were some comments for the architects about being interested in taking opportunities in lots of places. And when there were no more questions, Richards said she would devote the last few minutes to autographs, in case anyone wanted one from Crosbie or the Dozen. The architects obliged.
More by this author:
- How 'The New York Times' controls architecture criticism in America, whoever its critic may be
- American Girl: The Wallis Simpson story, told differently