Sunday, March 7, 2010

Modernist Architecture

The appeal of Miesian anonymity had to do with the changing ways big business had been perceived since the 1930s and the ways in which it perceived the social and political climate. It was better to blend in and be conservative than to risk public scorn.

Corporate architecture was also reflecting changes with big business. Companies were diversifying and consolidating, becoming identified less with single products than with ranges of servicing, manufacturing, marketing, and investing divisions. Ownership had become anonymous, dissociated with individual names. Post-WWII corporate ownership appropriated what was understood to be the salient characteristics of 1930s modernism: cool competence, understatement, restraint, rationality, minimal disclosure, an internationally outlook, and most important, technocratic efficiency spurning historical association.

When applied to the skyscraper, the international style was made to be aloofly impersonal, almost blank, hardly revelatory, completely reversing pre-Depression New York Style, but elaborating Chicago School mannerisms.

New corporate fa├žades bore no relation to structure or specific function: they simply covered everything over--they were neither symmetrical nor asymmetrical. They were not designed for human masses except, of course, for masses of clerical employees.

Compromising corporate identity may have been a small price to pay for recapturing public approval, but in the 1970s, it no longer sufficed. Possibly taking a cue from 1960s "lifestyle" politics, corporations began to realize how much they had denied themselves by clinging so long to conservative Miesian formulas.

Conspicuous early departures from the glass box and the featureless facade were eye-catchers like William Pereira & Associates' Transamerica Building (1972) in San Francisco, an elongated pyramid with twenty-story shoulder-like projections on two sides, rising straight from the sidewalk to a needle-like point some thousand feet up; Hugh Stubbins & Associates' 1977 Citicorp Center in New York, a 900-foot tower with the top 130 feet sliced off at a forty-five-degree angle; and Philip Johnson and John Burgee's 1978 AT&T Company Building in New York with a three-quarter round cutout at the apex of a faux gable looking like Chippendale breakfront.

Aside from these heavy-handed gimmicks, none of the three exteriors departed from the modernist canon. But they signaled that visual differentiation was again a corporate priority. So the Transamerica Building became the company logo and Citicorp Center a much-publicized New York icon, while the AT&T Building is sometimes said to have inaugurated in skyscraper design what quickly came to be called "postmodernism."

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