“Modern architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on 15 July 1972 at 3.32pm (or thereabouts),” said critic Charles Jencks. According to him, certain slab blocks of the city’s Pruitt-Igoe housing project were dynamited because their vandalism and building maintenance issues were too intractable to be solved any other way.
The problem, according to Jencks, was in the modernist architecture of these white, cuboid structures: they were too nameless, abstract, and foreign for the people who lived there to feel like home or community.
The truth was more complicated. It had a lot to do with the mainly black population of Pruitt-Igoe being subjected to frequently discriminatory social and housing practices. Jencks’ statement – that contemporary architecture kills lives – became the comfortable and common knowledge of the 1970s and 1980s, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom, since it was simpler to blame the architects than to face such problems.
It grew in power as a result of the reality that many contemporary architects did, in fact, make rash and harmful choices.
Jencks, on the other hand, got a few details incorrect, such as the date and time of the destruction picture that accompanied his article. Modern architecture did not perish, either.
Since 1972, many “modern” architects have constructed important and popular buildings all around the globe.
There has also been a gradual awakening to the fact that certain structures from the mid-twentieth century were really very excellent. Now, two very different books do the same thing: they re-evaluate postwar architecture and de-escalate the frenzy that surrounds it.
In apocalyptic circumstances, both films also address concepts of tenderness and compassion.
Mid-Century Britain is a survey by Elain Harwood, who has done more than anybody to improve knowledge of the era as an expert for Historic England. Her novel spans a strange time period – 1938 to 1963, from the Munich crisis to the discovery of sexual intercourse (a la Philip Larkin) – yet it makes sense.
She wants to bring attention to a period when it was thought that adorning buildings with flowery concrete vaults, checkerboard patterns, splashes of color, occasional heraldic symbols, and bunting was the greatest way to combat Nazi and Soviet tyranny (while also dealing with the rationing of building materials).
This was a whimsical kind of modernism, typified by the structures for the 1951 Festival of Britain, often referred to as “new humanism” or “new empiricism,” in which Le Corbusier’s forceful shapes and ideas were tempered by English picturesque traditions.
This approach was too mild for the next generation, who responded with the more muscular architecture of new brutalism, but it produced civilized and thoughtful works like Tayler and Green’s cottage-like Norfolk housing, the soaring concrete roof of Plymouth’s Pannier Market, and the Royal Festival Hall’s dignified public spirit. Harwood’s book brings attention to these and other architectural delights in a calm and instructive manner.
Justin Beal is an artist who created Sandfuture. As he lives through New York City’s post-millennial catastrophes, including the destruction of the towers on 9/11 and the flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, he interweaves the life story of Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of both Pruitt-Igoe and the World Trade Center twin towers, with his own personal and sometimes minor experiences.
He also documents the impact of influxes of money on his girlfriend’s gallery business and the Manhattan skyline.
Yamasaki was an architect whose most renowned creations — the houses and the towers – were both demolished on national television, as Beal points out. He was also the subject of a catastrophic critical reversal, when Ada Louise Huxtable, the New York Times’ architectural critic, moved from lavish acclaim to equally lavish criticism. (Critics, who are prone to superficial exaggeration, don’t fare well in Sandfuture.)
Beal is more sympathetic, describing the Japanese-American architect’s battles with prejudice, praising the many fine buildings he designed across the country, and bringing to life the ironies and tragedies of his life. Yamasaki was well aware of the need for a more compassionate interpretation of modernity, yet he ended up creating skyscrapers that, even before they were demolished by terrorist violence, symbolized capitalism’s overpowering power to many.
Beal adds depth and complexity to the narrative, such as how the World Trade Center’s most reviled aspects stemmed from his customers’ hubris rather than Yamasaki’s.
The cover of Sandfuture depicts two attractive 1970s bodies sandbathing in front of the twin towers, laying as if they were the last humans on Earth on the then-empty landfill between the World Trade Center and the Hudson River. It encapsulates the themes of coupledom and capital, as well as intimacy and apocalypse, that run throughout the novel.
It also shows Beal’s main concern: the old notion, articulated by ancient Roman and Renaissance thinkers, that buildings and human bodies should have comparable proportions and structures, that they are created similarly and suffer alike. His book is a strange jumble of stories, yet it offers unique insight into the creation and experience of building.
Thanks to Rowan Moore at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.