There are times when you walk through Midtown Manhattan, among the soulless slabs and towers of Modernism, and you wonder how an entire generation could have tolerated such unrelenting rectilinearity. Was no one bored? Was no one disgusted? Surely some people were, but their voices went unheard. Or more precisely, they were heard on the streets and around the dinner tables of New York, but not in the studios of practicing architects or in the halls of academe, where Modernist consensus reigned supreme. At the time, these voices seemed so obviously on the wrong side of architectural history that they could be rejected out of hand.
In her new book, "Architecture or Techno-Utopia: Politics After Modernism" (MIT Press), Felicity D. Scott seeks to revisit some of the dissenters who opposed the International Style's nearly total hegemony in the 1960s and '70s, whose attacks were instrumental in the rise of the Postmodern movement of the early 1980s. She examines visionaries such as R. Buckminster Fuller and his nearly cultic following in hippie communes like Drop City and Ant Farm, as well as critics of such varied stripes as Robert A.M. Stern and Manfredo Tafuri.
In a sense, however, books such as "Architecture or Techno-Utopia" answer a question that, in a better world, would never need to be asked in the first place. Early on, the academy agreed on one narrative for the history of modern architecture — that of the evolution of the International Style, as promulgated in Philip Johnson's groundbreaking Museum of Modern Art exhibition of 1932. But now the inadequacies of that perspective are so evident that the academy is forced to correct its earlier error. Just as the development of modern painting was a far messier and more complicated affair than Clement Greenberg's formalism understood or allowed, so was modern architecture far more than the Bauhaus: It was a raucous chorus of competing voices, from the messianic visions of Bruno Taut and Antonio Sant'Elia to Brutalism and the incipient contextualism of Louis Kahn.
Here in Manhattan, as early as 1964, Edward Durell Stone confected the now mutilated 2 Columbus Circle, otherwise known as the Lollipop Building, whose marble facings and Venetian motifs were a welcome slap in the face of Modernism. At the same time, several blocks to the north, Wallace K. Harrison, Max Abramovitz, Pietro Belluschi and an increasingly penitent Philip Johnson were designing Lincoln Center, its travertine campus littered with halfway houses between Modernist purity and the historicism of Postmodernism.
But, as Ms. Scott's book suggests, perhaps the inaugural moment in the emergence of Postmodernism as a conscious reaction to the arid purity of the International Style came in 1972, with the publication of "Learning From Las Vegas: the Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form" by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. The title speaks for itself. Four years later, Arthur Drexler curated a hugely controversial exhibition at MoMA titled "The Architecture of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts," which amounted to a coming out party for what would soon be called postmodern classicism.
Putting the ideas of this exhibition into practice, the first serious revolt against modern architecture, the first response that could actually be seen on the streets of New York, came in the form of the neoclassicism of Johnson and others. This style was allied to similar movements in literature, painting, and music. Taken together they were a collective, almost spasmodic gasp of joy at the full and conscious realization that there was more to the world than the arid towers of the Bauhaus, the meta-narratives of the Nouveau Roman, and the dissonances of Schöenberg and Boulez.
In assessing the architectural success of Postmodernism in New York, it is important to note that, like the International Style itself, it was not a formulaic or predictable entity. Some of the buildings erected under its standard were quite good, others quite bad, as was exactly the case with the products of Modernism.
Among the better and more controversial examples of the movement was Johnson's AT&T (now Sony) Building at Madison Avenue and 56th Street, a granite-clad high-rise from 1984 that was promptly dubbed the Chippendale Building because the ornamental oculus at its summit recalled the top of an 18th-century commode. What seemed so galling about this stately and finely-detailed building was that it not only revolted against the International Style, but constituted an apostasy from it, coming as it did from the very man who had invented that label nearly 50 years before.
Among the worst buildings in this style — and there are many to chose from — one might mention the Equitable Building at 787 Seventh Ave., between 51st and 52nd streets, which was completed two years later by Edward Larrabee Barnes and has some of the historicist references of the AT&T Building, but none of its refinement of detail. But at least it is not quite as awful as the renovations that were completed in the same year at Manhattan Mall, at 33rd Street and Sixth Avenue. Here a few insultingly insufficient classical decals were slapped onto the drab armature of its gray façade. But other buildings, such as Mr. Stern's all but completed 15 Central Park West, not only succeed structurally and functionally, but are also are vast enhancements of the way New Yorkers experience life on the streets surrounding the building. Even now, when the area is still in some sense a construction site, it is practically a privilege to walk by it.
True, neither it nor the other examples of historicist Postmodernism can ever quite aspire to the pure and eternal values of form that true classical architecture possessed and that Modernism, at its best, transmuted into a contemporary idiom. But if Postmodernism can never quite rise to the heights of the best Modernist architecture, it is also never quite as viscerally obnoxious as most of the buildings created by that earlier movement which were mediocre or worse. And given that the products of both movements were generally mediocre, it may be the foremost contribution of Postmodernism that its mediocrity is slightly more interesting, more varied, and more tolerable than the abounding mediocrities of the modern movement.