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Modern and Neo-Rationalist Revolutions

Overturning Modern Architecture







Initially, Post-Modernism was chiefly concerned with alternate forms of the architectural object and its surfaces. Robert Venturi’s book “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” was published in 1966. The meaning and style of building forms, shapes, and details constituted a search for an appropriate symbolism of the individual and the cultural problem of popular expression that had been redacted from modern architecture, but without a direct challenge to the underlying premise of modern space.

Robert Venturi’s Tour de Force invention for his Mother’s House (figure 1) in suburban Philadelphia combines a modernist formal structure of frontal layered planes reminiscent of Le Corbusier's Villa Garche with an appliqué of historically referential ornament. The pedimented front with its large elevation openings suggests an arrangement of interior volumetric spaces. But the rooms remain incomplete fragmented voids tied together by a curved wall of implied spatial continuity. This was a first step away from the free plan towards an architecture of volumetric space.

Post Modernism assumed that Modern Architecture was worn out and proposed new elements that referenced historic allusions as a substitute for the limited communicative devices of Modern Architecture’s abstract message of pure rationality but did not directly challenge the underlying premise of modern space.

It was nostalgic for architectural ornament, espousing a return to exterior decoration and complexity following Venturi’s book “Complexity and Contradiction” of 1966 with its advocacy of a knowledge of pre-modern formal history.

Ten years later, Robert Stern’s Westchester House of 1976 uses highly decorative surfaces but still depends on the modern premise of a flowing “free plan” of continuous space pushed to its limits. It is a dazzling display of free forms overlapping inside and out trying to break the bounds of pure modernist geometries. The fragmented plan and axonometric resemble the multiple forms of a Braque cubist painting (figure 2).

Post Modernism was a revolt against Modern Architecture. It was a significant achievement. However, there was no recognition or challenge to the debilitating limits placed on architecture by the underlying context of modernism’s continuous void of Anti-Space. It did not yet make new proposals for the external space of the city, nor did it offer a completely different kind of space for the interior. It was largely an American and suburban phenomenon reflecting a society of strong individualism.

The Italian Neo-Rationalists of the 1960’s (Aldo Rossi’s seminal book “The Architecture Of the City”, was published in Italy in 1966, the same year as Venturi’s “Contradiction...”). They were concerned with the opposite of an architecture of individual specificity. Like the modernists, they focused, on a few general typological forms to be repeated on a giant scale. The intention was to represent a new ideological structure and meaning for a new kind of future reconstructed city.

Like Modern Architecture, the Neo-rationalist, “Tendenza" ignored the existing city fabric and presumed a tabula rasa would be necessary to make room for their new, rational “autonomous architecture” of elements, consisting of giant squares and grids of repeating parallel bars with occasional symbolic arcades. The formal architectural typology dominated all other considerations so that the same gridded monumental figures would serve any use, institutions, housing, dormitories, schools or cemeteries. In the plans, elevations and site plan of Competition for Monza, Italy, (figure 3) by Aldo Rossi and Giorgio Grassi, 1966, exterior space was captured in the waffle-iron plan, but it does not constitute a positive volume of space. Rather, it is the inevitable left-over from the systematic rational geometric mega-building pattern.

Outside the buildings, the surrounding emptiness remains a black hole of modernist, undefined Anti-Space and further no alternative spatial ideas are provided for interior space which is a layout of rather punitive cells.

There is a clear nostalgia for the strict categorization of typological form deriving from the Enlightenment’s Neo-classicism in the categories of J.N.L. Durand’s “Typologies of Institutional Monuments” published in 1799 (figure 4).

Despite their general criticism of Modern Architecture, neither the classically oriented Italian Neo-Rationalists nor the eclectic oriented American Post-Modernists provide a clear critique or an explicit alternative to the dilemma of Modern Space. Like Modern Architecture itself, both groups remain object-fixated in their attempts to establish clear architectural symbols and icons. They tend to maintain the assumptions of Modern Space while rejecting Modern Architecture's more explicit and obvious limitations on meaning.

Neither makes plans with a complex spatial focus, but concentrate instead on external appearance and literal symbol. The elevation, the bird's eye perspective, have become the generators as both movements indulge in a kind of historical mythology, returning to pre-modern architectural conditions and attitudes. It is as though each imagines that history can be rewritten to suit its own purpose. One starts with Ledoux and ends with an architecture for the “worker”, while the other begins with Lutyens and ends with an architecture for the consumer. They represent opposite poles of a similar investigation aimed at revitalizing the meaning and symbolism of form, one slanted toward the collective memories within a collective order, the other toward the individual in a capitalist society. Both struggle with anti-modern alternatives.

Neither position provides a solution for the complex spatial range which must exist between public requirements on the one hand and private needs on the other. No urban images emerge comparable to the sequence of movement thru the spaces of a traditional city from the public Piazza, along the Avenue, down the Street, into the semi-public Courtyard, through the communal Foyer, up the Stairs and into a private Room. This is an elaborate sequence of passage through a rich typology of spaces for which there is a vocabulary of discrete terms. The complex linking of these provides an accommodation of the conflicting public and private domains, offering a place for the unpredictable and a location for intermediate transitions.

Contrary to these other movements of the 60’s and 70’s, Rob Krier and Leon Krier, formed a northern branch of a Rational Architecture which advocated a revival of an anti-modern typology, but it was a typology of volumetric spaces as opposed to a typology of object forms. Space was to be the primary positive, figural, architectural and urban ingredient required in the reconstruction of the City and its continuation.

Rob’s Krier’s grid “Typology of Urban Spaces” of 1979 (figure 5) demonstrates the range, complexity and richness that is possible when a city is composed from the medium of figural space. It was a direct attack on the empty promise of modernism’s insistence on a singular unmodified background uniformity.

Leon Krier’s analytical diagram of the city’s essential ingredients from “Streets and Squares, Typological Order of Public Spaces” 1978, demonstrates that space is the primary structure, the necessary binder without which a complete urbanism cannot exist.

  1. 1)Plan and view of Robert Venturi’s Mother’s House, 1964

  1. 2)Plan and axonometric of the Westchester Residence, Armonk, NY, Robert Stern and John Hagmann, 1974-6

  1. 3)B1-c  Plans, Elevations and Site Plan of Competition for Monza Italy by Aldo Rossi and Giorgio Grassi done in 1966.  The huge square grid of continuous architecture proposed In the site plan.

  1. 4)Plan by Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand circa 1805

  1. 5)Left - Typology of Urban Spaces by Rob Krier 1979 Right - Streets and Squares, Typological Order of Public Spaces - analysis by Leon Krier, 1978

  1. 6)Chieti student housing, Giorgio Grassi, Monestrou and Conti, 1974