On Nov. 11, a gathering of architects assembled in a New York basement auditorium to hear author Tom Wolfe make witty comments on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the publication of his From Our House to Bauhaus. Now in his own 80th year, the man in the white suit isn’t quite as sharp as he once was, but no one seemed to mind as he haltingly recapitulated the book’s tendentious argument: that a cabal of architects foisted a soulless vision of modernity on a helpless nation. As Philip Johnson remarked one evening back when the book came out in 1981, “We don’t read Tom for the content. We read him for the rhythm.” If even his rhythm was faltering, it was nice just to be in his presence.
As it was, Wolfe drew a largely enthusiastic audience, one that was ideologically predisposed toward his rather jaundiced view of modern architecture. The event was sponsored by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, and Wolfe was but one of several high-profile draws (other speakers included architects Denise Scott Brown, Michael Graves, FAIA, and Robert A. M. Stern, FAIA) for a two-day conference under the rubric “Reconsidering Postmodernism.” The subject was postmodernism, and the cast of characters, too, had a somewhat dated feel. “This is sort of like the Golden Girls talking about the Golden Age,” Stern quipped during one panel.
If nothing else, Wolfe offered a dose of clarity to the proceedings; after three decades, there is still no question as to his position on architectural Modernism. (He’s against it.) What the rest of the crowd was to make of its progeny, postmodernism, was another story. “Is this something still going on or still dead?” wondered Museum of Modern Art curator Barry Bergdoll. The various combatants seemed unsure, or at least divided on the subject. There was a general repudiation of Modernist urban planning and also of the postmodernist development of the shlocky, strip-mall variety. But those were the easy targets, and postmodernism’s somewhat slippery definition made it difficult to center.
A similar subject—how to reckon with the modern and postmodern architecture of the past—was at hand a week later at another New York conference, this one held under the aegis of the Cultural Landscape Foundation. The audience here was altogether more sympathetic to the Modernist project, though not without a certain detached realism as to “its successes, its failures, its not-so-bad moments.” Those were the words of Thaisa Way, moderator of a panel on urban renewal, who defined the architect’s task as managing “the legacy of complex histories.”
In a later panel on “metropolitian transformations,” landscape designer James Corner spoke of “establishing processes ” as a first step to any project, Kathryn Gustafson of the necessity for “intricate layering,” and Julie Bargmann of an imperative to “work with the existing.”
It was on this last point—the subject of Modernist preservation—that matters became contentious. The first sign of indignation came during a talk by Diller Scofidio + Renfro's Charles Renfro, AIA, on the subject of his firm’s renovation of Lincoln Center. Renfro’s description of the wedged lawn set adjacent to the Beaumont Theater as a “landscape” elicited a derisive hiss and then sarcastic laughter. In the closing comments, however, conference organizer Charles Birnbaum, speaking for the audience, ripped into Renfro for his “offensive” diminution of the practice of landscape architecture generally and for DS+R’s hubris in replacing a Dan Kiley garden at the center, and then not mentioning the fact—or Kiley—at all during his talk.
A few days after that event, there was news to satisfy attendees of both conferences—or at least many of them. Michael Graves’s Portland Building, that defining postmodern icon, had been named to the National Register of Historic Places. It seemed appropriate, at least, insofar as Graves, of all the participants, had offered a prescription for the future that could be approved by all: “Get smart. Go to the library and read. Love architecture.”