C. Ray Smith

Supermannerism: New Attitudes in Post-Modern Architecture


C. Ray Smith, Supermannerism: New Attitudes in Post-Modern Architecture (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977).

p. xxv:
Among those who most influence the development of this new design and are its most prominent exponents are: Robert Venturi and his partners in Venturi & Rauch; Charles Moore and his partners Donlyn Lyndon and William Turnbull; Hugh Hardy and his partners Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates; Romaldo Giurgola and his associates in Mitchell/Giurgola; and Thomas (Tim) Vreeland, Jr. Others working in the idiom who came into prominence early are: Peter Millard, James Stewart Polchek, Hugh Newell Jacobsen, T. Merrill Prentice, Jr., Sim Van der Ryn, Louis Sauer, Denise Scott-Brown Venturi, Richard Saul Wurman, Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, Daniel Solomon, Robert A. M. Stern, Der Scutt, Hobart Betts, and Barton Myers. Of great importance also are the influential precursors who by venturing beyond the ideological boundaries of the "Second Generation of Modern Architects," to which they belong, led the way to Supermannerism: Philip Johnson, Paul Rudolph, Edward Larrabee Barnes, John M. Johansen, Joseph Esherick, Ulrich Franzen, Harry Weese, Ralph Rapson, Charles Eames, George Nelson, Alexander Girard, and, above all. Louis I. Kahn.

p. xxvi:
The decade of their heyday comprised three fairly distinct periods. From 1960- 1964, during the recovery from a slight recession, the rumblings of revolution and activism began to be heard. An urge could be felt, restless, emerging, tentative: protest against the war in Southeast Asia, the rise of "black consciousness"; the beginnings of student activism. More gently, these years also produced the musical challenge of rock--the rise of the Beatles, Dylan, and a host of celebrated others. It witnessed the emergence of Pop art--Rosenquist, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, Warhol, and so on. Then too, the New Theater's shock of cruelty and of chaotic Happenings expressed the less gentle tenor of the day. In architecture, similarly, a new attitude--or series of attitudes--emerged. The work of a group of architects practicing in Philadelphia captured the profession's uncomfortable interest: Robert Venturi, Thomas (Tim) Vreeland, Frank Schlesinger, Romaldo Giurgola, and others began to be known in 1961 and 1962. At the time, the Richards Medical Research Building of Louis Kahn was being completed, his Salk Institute laboratories designed, and his work first being published. A similar group was emerging in California, at Berkeley, in those years: Moore-Lyndon-Turnbull-Whitaker, Joseph Esherick, and the "Third generation" of Bay Area architects.

p. 6:
Realism, in this sense, expressed a different view of the world from naturalism, which focuses on the literal, physical data of our existence. Realism attempts to get at all the facts. It accepts the entirety of a situation in which, for example, an artificial convention appears. A true realism accepts the artificiality of the convention and finds a way to expose its overlay on nature in some honest, straightforward, direct, and meaningful way. So the New Theater striped the let's pretend of painted makeup, costume, and sets and put the audience in environmental jungle gyms; it showed them such symbolic, telegraphic, and fragmental signs as "river," "forest," or "hill," rather than reconstructing the entire geography in paint and canvas. In this same view, Robert Venturi told city planners and architects that they "need not fight the impossible," and advocated that we cast aside our prejudices about what is good and bad, valid and valuable, and adopt a tolerant and more realistic attitude toward accepting what is. "Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect" is the opening premise of Learning from Las Vegas (1972), the book the Venturis wrote with Steven Izenour. "There have always been children in monumental fountains," he reminds the smooth-water reflecting-pool purists, encouraging them to see life in its reality and to design for its totality. The reality slogan is a corollary of revolutionary defiance; it is a society-versus-elitist-academy attitude that acclaims design and architecture as essential for all men. But it is also a plea for the expansion of our social and aesthetic vision to include actual living patterns. As Ada Louise Huxtable wrote of Venturi's show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971: "The response of the architectural profession to the 'reality' of America has been the turned back and object lessons in art and taste."

p. 10:
The Supermannerists recognized the design contributions of the young, interacted with them, and accepted their invention into their own more established practices. They employed their students and incorporated many of their design ideas--especially decorative and lighting schemes--into houses, offices, and other architectural projects. Moore and Venturi formed partnerships with architects who had been their students and who were as much as a decade younger.

p. 13:
The inclusive approach to the process of architecture had its roots in the Bauhaus, where it was held that a good designer could design, in a single continuum, the entire range of man's environment--from a tea-spoon to an urban or regional plan. All that was needed was care, and attention to changing scale. Later, Louis Kahn maintained that an architect could design special types of buildings, even if he were unfamiliar with them, simply because he was trained to solve problems, to determine what a building "wants to be"--in the way that "a spoon wants to be a bowl with a handle."

pp. 54-5:
This cumulative theory of the new design is made up, naturally, of the individual theories, penchants and prejudices, approaches and whims of half a dozen leading, innovative practitioners and theorists. Robert Venturi, the most original, provocative, and widely published architectural theorist of our day and his wife, Denise Scott-Brown Venturi, see the new design as the architecture of "accommodation," which accommodates within our design interest an inclusive "both/and" attitude, including not only the standard vision of modern architecture but also the anonymous "undesigned" world of "popular" life (the roadway, plastics, the chaos of conglomeration), together with the disparity between the inside and the outside. He also feels that architecture must accommodate all the "complexities" and juxtaposed contradictions of our visual world, as he proposed in his book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), in numerous articles, and in Learning from Las Vegas (1972). Even within this newly included area of Las Vegas, Venturi sees an inclusive new order: two types of order on the Strip: the obvious order of street elements and the difficult visual order of buildings and signs. The zone of the highway is a shared order. The zone off the highway is an individual order. In combination they embrace continuity, going and shopping, clarity and ambiguity, cooperation and competition, the community and rugged individualism.

p. 73:
Architect Robert Venturi wrote in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, "I welcome the problems and exploit the uncertainties. I aim for vitality and well as validity." Venturi also made some sprightly design jokes early in the permissive decade. For a house in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, he winked at the ordinary Cape Cod cottage and twisted a simple peaked-roof scheme around so the front door is in the gable end; then he made the gable end into a broken pediment that, perhaps pretentiously, recalls the great English mannerist historical houses he is so fond of. Inside, the most celebrated of his design jokes is a stair that leads to nowhere; it can be used as a large whatnot and as a ladder to aid in washing a window, but otherwise there is no function. It is, nevertheless, a gantry to the sky, an infinity stair that is a clear symbol of our age.

p. 76:
Whatever did not fit into that established vision was excluded. "In about 1955," Tim Vreeland recalls, "a number of people, younger people who were deeply involved in architecture and thoroughly knowledgeable, who knew what its tenets, canons, principles were, who, being imaginative men, had already reached a limit of the possibilities of this "rational" architecture. The rules had been so clearly established, understood, and practiced by everyone that the early victories in which the early champions of the 20s and 30s prided themselves on had begun to ring hollow. Modern architecture had scored it victories so completely and was so completely teachable, that it had become a formula."

p. 78:
The Princeton influence has been largely unrecognized. Currently, critics speak of the Yale and Philadelphia axis, omitting Princeton. In the mid-1960s the spotlight was on Yale, where Venturi was a faculty member, Charles Moore was dean, and socially involved students came together to effect a widely publicized activism. By the early 1970s, the spotlight focused on Philadelphia, where Kahn and Venturi's associates held center stage. But all of them had first got it together at Princeton.

pp. 80-4:
But the supreme teacher, the magical Pied Piper of the Supermannerist band, was, until his death in March 1974, Louis Kahn. Unknown except to some few architects in Philadelphia until 1951, when he was fifty, unknown to the profession at large until the early 1960s, unknown to the lay public until the mid-1960s, Louis Kahn was nevertheless the most mesmerizing and liberating teacher in architecture in architecture in the United States throughout the 1950s. When the architectural world first heard of him 1960, 1961, and 1962 through the pages of Perspecta and Progressive Architecture, and through Vincent Scully's book Louis I. Kahn (1962), Kahn's mystique, mythology, and vision had already imbued a whole generation of architects at the University of Pennsylvania, at Yale, and at Princeton. Yet throughout the 1950s and 1960s this fact, as well as the depth of his influence, was recognized only by his close associates and his students.

Kahn is the pivotal influence that pervades all the Supermannerists who studied under him in the 1950s at Princeton, Yale, and Pennsylvania, and those who worked with him in Philadelphia during those years. They were the ones who, as second-generation Kahnians, became the acknowledged innovators of the new design when their first works began to appear in the early 1960s. Younger students who were graduated in the mid-1960s, and who form a third-generation of Kahnians, can inevitably trace their interest in the new design back to Revised Standard Kahn through these innovators: through Robert Venturi, who studied at Princeton from 1947 to 1950 and then worked in Kahn's office until 1958; or through Charles Moore, who did his doctoral work at Princeton and taught there from 1955-1960, taking Kahn's first master class, then carrying those teachings to Berkeley and then to Yale; or through other second-generation Kahnians who became influential designers and teachers--Tim Vreeland, James Polchek, Romaldo Giurgola. As Moore says, "it is all derived from Kahn, as everything is."

Kahn's theories and his work began to coalesce and solidify only around 1949, when he opened his own office and, at the same time, began to teach at Yale. Then the electricity of his statements, both in words and drawings, exploded in the minds of his students. All great systems of design and thought are supported by rich, complete theories, or mythologies, and Louis Kahn's resonant metaphysical justifications are no exception. As a philosopher-poet, he ultimately captured the attentive, eager souls of architects whose dreams of ideal spaces and godly designs were constantly hindered by human fallibility. Kahn fanned their dreams, leading them into ever more imaginary, visionary yet human mythologies of creation--methodologies for uncovering the truly significant factors of their clients' programs, the realities of their sites, and the rationales of their structural systems. He gave architecture at mid-century an Existence-Will to search for what he maintained each building "wants to be"--two phrases that were keynotes of his organizing rationale. But it is important to remember that in the mid-1950s this experience had been shared only by those who were exposed to him personally at the three eastern architecture schools where he taught and by those who actually worked in his office.

As Charles Moore recalls, "When I first went to Princeton early in 1955, Kahn and Rudolph were on a symposium together. I didn't know who Kahn was, but I thought he was kind of an interesting old duffer. However he didn't come to Princeton to teach until 1958, when Labatut was on sabbatical." And William Turnbull says "Labatut had to get someone to be the master-class critic and he pulled in a funny old man named Kahn, who was absolutely unknown to us at the time." In fact, Kahn went to Princeton only a couple times for that class; in the main, his students traveled with their drawings to his office in Philadelphia, where the master exploded their vision and held them spellbound till late a t night. Then they all left, "dumping their drawings disgustedly in the garbage outside, leaving the old man still hard at his own work," one student recalls.

"Kahn really opened everybody's eyes to the fact that making a beautiful sensitive building was not where it was at," Turnbull states. "Kahn said, 'don't do anything unless you have some idea why you're doing it.'" He demanded conceptual clarity above all. He gave architects a strong sense of structure, reaching into levels of design that had not been tapped by the Internationalists; like them, he felt strongly that he should see how a building is made, yet his desire to express structure more clearly brought the innermost workings of buildings to sight--the activity functions and the mechanical systems. His was a latter-day functionalism, beyond the structural functions or expressionistic structuralism of Mies. Kahn imparted a new intellectual rigor to thinking about light, materials, structure, and spaces. He was the tremendous generative force of the decade.

Naturally, his thinking has foundations in architectural history. As Joseph Esherick sees it, "There is a moral injunction and an ethical character about Kahn's pronouncements. It is familiar in the writings of Julien Guadet, whose Éléments et Théorie de l'Architecture in four volumes (1987-1880) posits that the elements of architecture are not the ancient orders but they are windows, walls, floors, and light. The idea that a wall wants to be a wall and the idea of master spaces and slave spaces are both in Guadet. I remember," Esherick adds, "that the prominent thing on Kahn's desk when I first went to meet him in the late 50's was a copy of Guadet's old testament."

What is important about Kahn's capacity as a teacher is that he showed his students how to push and prod and pry about these elements in order to find the problem within the problem. "The problem is not the two-bedroom, three-baths that the client wants; the problem is that he wants a special place or has some other unexpressed intent," Turnbull said, as an example of Kahn's vision. Kahn showed that the design answer could come from the design problem--should not be superimposed by the architect or his idiom--that it is inherent in the building.

By expressing the concept of what a building "wants to be," Kahn found a valid philosophical way through the wall of consistency that had previously held him firm--that the structural form should follow the activity function, that the visual expression should reiterate the structural expression. Critics who described buildings in terms of exterior "skins" and "muscular" structure had begun to sound foolish, since they were forced to pursue the analogy and pretend that the exterior skin of a building was consistent with the building interior design, as if a human or animal skin is consistent with a human or animal interior. In Kahnian theory, Form comes from a careful consideration of the human activities that will go on in the building and of the other functional requirements also. Design, on the other hand, is a secondary consideration, not tied in with Form but almost independent of it. Design, in Kahn's new view, could be an expression of the individual shape an architect wants it to be. He insisted that architects should not merely make pretty things without good reason but that a strong idea, if related to programmatic concept, could be idiosyncratic and valid. In this regard he was the first influential architect to show a way through to a duality of architectural expression, although he himself did not permit departure from the theories of consistency and integration.

He was, as Vreeland said, "unalterably opposed to an art of that kind"--meaning duality--"Because he believed so strongly in the physical body of architecture." The second-generation Kahnians, his students in the 1950s, went on to design buildings that were very different on the inside from the outside. They, the Third Generation of Modern Architects, were liberated by Kahn. He was the new American Gropius--although unsung in this regard until the students of his first mature decade had passed his doctrine on to yet another generation.

"He taught me how to think, how to design," is a typical memory. "It was primarily his attitude about things, because he himself is an infinitely better teacher than an architect," said a Penn graduate from the late years of the 1960s, "a really superb old man that everyone just fell in love with. It was a stance from which he saw things, even his body position."

Kahn had a totally different concept of evaluating a project: rather than saying a building is out of scale or that the proportions are not great, the structure or material inappropriate, he talked about a building in terms of what its effect on the human being is. He asked what the building does beyond housing a family. Besides, as Ulrich Franzen lauds him, "He is a poet of materials." Kahn joined the handcraft of nineteenth-century brickwork to the Modern movement's passion for industrial and factory buildings, and that endeared him to all architects interested in the craft of building. Those were the years in Kahn's career that Moore regards as "Kahn's high period--when he hadn't found the answer yet, when he was still anguishing over whether to lay the bricks flat or turn them on their sides."

p. 84-5:
Robert Venturi, not surprisingly, had the same educational exposure. He had studied at Princeton under Labatut from 1947 to 1950, subsequently was directly exposed to Italian wit at the American Academy in Rome, and then worked with Kahn in Philadelphia from 1956 to 1958. He was on the faculty at Penn in those same years, and discussed his own work, especially the proposed house for his mother in Chestnut Hill, which captured the attention of Moore, Hardy, Turnbull, and others. The interaction between Kahn and Venturi during this period--who was the greater influence on the other--has been discussed by Vincent Scully and others. I stress another point: that the education at Princeton under Labatut and the subsequent exposure to Kahn were similar occurrences for Venturi, Moore, Hardy, and the Princeton Supermannerists who came later. It is this inspirational background that links the Supermannerists.

To the architects who studied at Penn from 1952 on, similarly, Kahn was accessible as a teacher and in his prominent Philadelphia career. With him on the faculty were Robert Venturi, Tim Vreeland, Romaldo Giurgola, Robert Geddes, George Qualls, Ian McHarg, Robert LeRicolais, and August Kommendant, under the deanship of Holmes Perkins. From the time that Kahn taught his first master class at Penn in 1957, as a three teacher team along with LeRicolais and Norman Rice, students there could be exposed to the two leading theorists and inspirations of Supermannerism on their home soil. Among the Penn graduates of these days were Richard Saul Wurman and Louis Sauer (1959); Jordan Gruzen (1961); Charles Gwathmey (1961, and going to Yale the next year); John Lobell (1963); Barton Myers and Todd Lee (1964); Denise Venturi and Steven Izenour (1965); and Edward D'Andrea (1967).

p. 85:
Besides, Kahn's personal influence was not strong until the mid-1950s, when his work and theories crystallized in the Trenton Bath Houses in New Jersey.

p. 87:
...Yale students came under the Kahnian influence most forcefully through Robert Venturi, who was invited there by Paul Rudolph to expound his vision of the new design in 1962. Yale students from those years recall starving for something new amid the final drought of the New Canaan School--Philip Johnson, John Johansen, Victor Christ-Janer, and others, whose reverence for the classical Miesian discipline still lingered, even if on the wane. They were inspired by studying in Kahn's 1954 art gallery, but the arrival of Venturi signaled something entirely new. It brought the Princeton vision of Labatut and the liberating influence of Kahn as revealed through the special mannerist brilliance of Venturi's mind.

p. 87:
By that time, of course, Kahn's reputation had expanded to international scale and had begun to influence older architects who were first exposed to him through the publication of countless articles--especially in Perspecta and Jan Rowan's "The Philadelphia School" in Progressive Architecture in 1961. At that time also, the first work of the second-generation Kahnian architects began to be published: Robert Venturi completed Grand's Restaurant in Philadelphia (1962)--an Italianate diner with industrial parts and common materials and a then strangely incomprehensible overlay of graphics.

p. 87:
Also in 1966, Robert Venturi's book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture was published by The Museum of Modern Art; also in 1966 Robert A. M. Stern put together the Architectural League's "40 under 40" exhibition, which was the first broad exhibition outside the pages of architectural magazines of the group of designers that I was later that year to call the Supermannerists.

p. 90-1:
Whenever any comprehensive explanation is published about an avant-gard or unknown movement, direction, person or development, in the arts at least, it seems that such publication causes the avant-garde to feel their domain has been exposed to the masses. In reaction, they often immediately begin to pursue some other course. What such publications seem to do is to wrap up the accomplished work succinctly enough for all to comprehend, so that those newly introduced can immediately pursue the published direction--through imitation. But the already knowledgeable feel bored or are pressed to move on to other things. That was the reaction to the 1968 and 1969 publications on Supermannerism. It had also been the reaction to the 1961 publication on "The Philadelphia School," which produced masses of Kahn-worshipers immediately, and which alienated Kahn from P/A instantly--since he did not want identification as the founder of a school but wanted to be considered an independent and pure poet. At the same time, those who felt that they were doing work that was new and different from Kahn also did not liked being lumped in as derivative; so they turned to the unknown Kahn about that time, that is, they turned from Kahn to Venturi, and in some cases to Moore. "By the time most people caught up with Kahn," Vreeland remembered, "he was already something to be critical of," by which he indicated the change in Kahn's work from what Moore had earlier called "Kahn's high period" to what he later called Kahn's "international acclaim period."

In 1969, Mies died; miraculously, but only coincidentally, the fight was over.

pp. 91-2:
The design that developed in the decade from 1962 to 1972 exhibits so many parallels with design in the century from 1520 to 1620--the period of Mannerism--that we can hardly escape applying that term analogously. In fact, the analogy was drawn by several prominent architects during the 1960s, including Philip Johnson, Robert Venturi, Charles Moore, Thomas Vreeland, and others. Johnson said of his underground art gallery in New Canaan, "I wanted to create an ambiguous, let us say, a Mannerist clarity" (Esquire, 1969). Robert Venturi discusses Mannerism throughout his Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and compares today's approach as "an attitude common in the Mannerist periods: the sixteenth century in Italy or the Hellenistic period in Classical art . . " He also draws parallels with Mannerism in literature, art, and architecture in several other periods, showing similar elements of chaos, ambiguity, paradox, and other complexities and contradictions. Vreeland has said of Venturi, Moore, and other colleagues, "One cannot help but be aware of the historical parallel with the 16th Century in Italy, when a lot of very clever architects had reached the same limit of the possibilities of the preceding architecture, had learned their lessons so well that they knew what it was all about and had to move on to something new."

p. 97:
It was Colin Rowe who first made a detailed comparison between sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Mannerism and the architecture of the early twentieth century. In his "Mannerism and Modern Architecture: (Architectural Review, May 1950), Professor Rowe compares elements of Le Corbusier's villa at La Chaux-de-Fonds of 1916 with earlier Mannerism--with Peruzzi and Palladio. A mere listing of the features he notes is a revelation: "transparent . . . dematerializing . . . overlapping . . . discord between elements of different scale placed in immediate juxtaposition . . . crushed in the harshest juxtaposition . . . complexities and repercussions . . . uneasy violence . . . process of inversion . . . inverted spatial effects . . . stridently incompatible details . . . the diagonal . . . light screens . . . ambiguity . . . both subordinate and contradictory." This list reads like the opening chapter in Robert Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which is headed "A Gentle Manifesto." Professor Rowe had remarked that the villa at La Chaux-de-Fonds is itself in the way of being "a manifesto." Other features of modern architectural Mannerism that Colin Rowe pointed out in 1950 (when Venturi was still a student at Princeton) were inclusive and duality--both key words in the 1960s. He also noted that the mind is :baffles by so elaborately conceived an ambiguity," that these effects produce "both a disturbance and a delight," and that certain motifs are "sufficiently abnormal and recondite to stimulate curiosity."

p. 98:
It may not be coincidental that the villa at La Chaux-de-Fonds has as the principal motif of its main facade a flat white panel, divided into three--"the central one, elaborately framed, comprises an unrelieved blank white surface." Although the sources of Le Corbusier's panel are obviously different, the formal similarities to Venturi & Rauch's white brick billboard panels at the Guild House (1960-1965) and Fire Station No. 4 (1965) are unmistakable.

pp. 98-9:
It is no long step from the elaborate and meticulous conceits of the Metaphysical poets or from their passionate interest in God and his cosmic influence to arrive at the metaphysical architectural theory of Louis Kahn and the meticulous conceits of his architectural construction. By the use of the term metaphysical alone the analogy between Kahn and Donne is enforced. And the magnificent art-historical conceits of Venturi, Moore, and the other Supermannerists elaborate the mannerist mode further.

So it was that throughout the 1950s and the 1960s Professor Labatut at Princeton could discuss with his students "direct structural expression (functionalism) versus mannerism (what is called disruptive pattern in camouflage lingo)." So it was that Robert Venturi expressed such an interest in the history of mannerist architecture in Italy and England. And finally, so it was that I wrote in 1966 and 1967, not on this evidence but quite intuitively, that our current school of American architecture might be called "Supermannerism."




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