What Can We Learn from the Five Architects

“. . . these seemingly ancient viewpoints come from an unadulterated moment of theory, when simple modernist thoughts had become tired, and utopian visions were proven unrealizable.  I don’t know that 40 years later we are dealing with a much different situation. . .”


Perhaps I need to move on from reading architectural theory from the 1970s.  But, for my research now, these seemingly ancient viewpoints come from an unadulterated moment of theory, when simple modernist thoughts had become tired and utopian visions were proven unrealizable.  I don’t know that 40 years later we are dealing with a much different situation, especially considering the fact that any one of the houses in the book “Five Architects” would be photographed and written about by our media as if it were newly constructed.  Apart from the appliances, new modern houses in the Hamptons and Fire Island are basically the same, except now a lot of the architectural elements are employed less theoretically and more stylistically.  The juxtapositions offered by the 5 architects, such as a separation of public and private space, are now standard elements for architectural opportunity.  Notably, this idea comes from these architects as early as 1967, and it’s from this book.


(I apologize for the nature of this blog post: half “book report” and half “cliffs notes.”  But, it helps to organize my ideas as I read.  The quotations allow for the original comments to maintain most of their spirit, although albeit, without full context.)


“What you should try to accomplish is built meaning.  So get close to the meaning and build.”

– Aldo Van Eyck, Team Ten Primer

It is interesting that Colin Rowe would give an introduction which, even he says, is his attempt to create the critical response to what would be the expected critical complaint towards these 5 architects.

The configuration of the modern building was alleged to derive from a scrupulous attention to particular and concrete problems, it was supposed to be induced from the empirical facts of its specific case; and yet modern buildings looked alike whether their specific case was that of a factory or an art museum.

The idea that any repetition, any copying, any employment of a precedent or a physical model is a failure of creative acuity is one of the central intuitions of the modern movement.  This is the deep seated idea that repetition establishes convention and that convention leads to callousness; and thus, almost constitutionally, modern architecture has been opposed to the dictatorship of the merely received.  Opposed to the imposition of a priori pattern upon the multifariousness of events, instead it has set re-eminent value upon ‘discovery’ – which, characteristically, it has been unwilling to recognize as ‘invention.’ Without an unflagging consciousness of flux and of the human efforts which this implies, without a continuous ability to erect and dismantle scaffolds of reference, then – so proceeds the argument – it is entirely impossible to enter and to occupy those territories of the mind, where, alone, significant creation moves and flourishes.  . . . and, with its heroic emphasis upon the architect as activist, the notion of architecture as ceaseless moral experiment must now be subjected to the presence of yet another equally coercive but contrary proposition.  This, quite simply, is the idea that modern architecture was to instigate order, that it was to establish the predominance of the normative, the typical and the abstract.

Rowe proposes that since the association of modern architectural form with social revolution, political revolution, and technological revolution either never occurred or is now over, that is the framework upon which the 5 architects practice.  Now that this fusion is broken, “a variety of alternatives have offered themselves.”

Rather than constantly to endorse the revolutionary myth, it might be more reasonable and more modest to recognize that, in the opening years of this century, great revolutions in thought occurred and that then profound visual discovers resulted, that these are still unexplained, and that rather than assume intrinsic change to be the prerogative of every generation, it might be more useful to recognize that certain changes are so enormous as to impose a directive which cannot be resolved in any individual life span.

Rowe presents some familiar questions:

– Is it necessary that architecture should be simply a logical derivative from functional and technological facts; and, indeed, can it ever be this?

– Is it necessary that a series of buildings should imply a vision of a new and better world; and, if this is so (or even if it is not) then how frequently can a significant vision of a new and better world be propounded?

– Is the architect simply a victim of circumstances?  And should he be? Or may he be allowed to cultivate his own free will: And are not culture and civilization the products of the imposition of will?

– What is the zeitgeist; and, if this is a critical fiction, may the architect act contrariwise to its alleged dictates?

– How permissible  is it to make use of precedent; and therefore, how legitimate is the argument that the repetition of a forms is a destruction of authenticity?

– Can an architecture which professes an objective of continuous experiment ever become congruous with the ideal of an architecture which is to be popular, intelligible, and profound?


14-five-01 Design: Eisenman Architects


In 1957, Sir John Summerson attempted to make a case for a theory of architecture with such a programmatic basis.   . . the source of unity in modern architecture is in the social sphere, in other words, in the architect’s program.  But it would seem that the situation is more complicated than summerson allowed.  For if the program is to sustain such an emphasis, it should be able to specify and distinguish what the facts of a particular situation are, and except for certain physical laws, facts in a programmatic sense are in reality a series of value judgements.  . .

A museum as a program offers very little in the way of specific functional requirements which can act as either a suggestion for or limitation to a formal development.  This might account for the fact that many of the best museums are ones which have been created in buildings originally designed for other purposes.  Equally, since it is difficult to define a precise form from the functional requirements, the form of a museum is often realized as a very idealized shape.  

This quite succinctly defines how Eisenman sees our role as architects quite differently from me.  He notably says “architect’s” program, as if the originator of function is somehow the architect.  Through research and discovery, of course an architect could determine the program, and he should.  But, he doesn’t necessarily take possession of it, it isn’t his.  Program belongs to the building, it’s a resultant, evidence-based point of fact, at least for me.  That helps to explain why he believes program is just as useless as applying politics or social structure to form, that they are all equally judgemental.

We would both agree that there is very little program to help to define museum architecture.  Historically, certainly museums in beaux arts buildings have held the most heft (Louvre, MET, Prado).  Though in the past two decades, contemporary museums have held their own, even if they are idealist (like Bilbao, Renzo Piano).  Though, the Broad claims to be the former idea of discovering the program to create the solution, as simple as that may be.  If program lacks significant formal cues, then there are site, context, environmental, etc. issues that can help to inform a building by diagram or otherwise.  I’m not sure if Eisenman would consider those other contextual clues a type of programmatic constraint, or perhaps these ideas as inputs hadn’t really been considered yet.

The thesis presented in House I is as follows: one way of producing an environment which can accept or give a more precise and richer meaning than at present, is to understand the nature of the structure of form itself, as opposed to the relationship of form to function or of form to meaning.

House I posits one alternative to existing conceptions of spatial organization.  Here there was an attempt, first, to find ways in which form and space could be structured so that they would produce a set of formal relationships which is the result of the inherent logic in the forms themselves, and, second, to control precisely the logical relationships of forms. . . . an attempt was made to reduce or unload the existing meaning of the forms.

. . .All of the apparent structural apparatus – the exposed beams, the free standing columns, are in fact non-structural.  When this is understood, a first step has been taken to unload, albeit in a very primitive way, their structural meaning.

Well, that was easy.  At SCI-Arc Peter Trummer just said the same thing, as if it was revelatory.  Eisenman was writing in 1967, almost 50 years ago.  I would say that I agree with Eisenman that there is an important process to strip away latent meanings in the components of architecture, and from the form itself.  I think we diverge after this acceptance, with what we consider for giving new meaning to the forms “post-stripping.”  For Eisenman, this step concerns whether to ignore the eventual human occupation because well, i don’t know, it could change too much?

. . . there is no reason or meaning intended in the use of this particular formal strategy.  The two overlaid systems are neither good nor bad in themselves.  They are intended merely to exemplify the logic inherent in any formal structure, and the potential capacity of that logic to provide an area of new meaning.

The more this structure approximates a purely formal environment, the less traditional the meaning it possesses, and thus the closer it is to an environment that might be a vehicle for such new information.  

To do this, form must be first considered to be potentially separable from its existing perception and conception, and second, it must be considered as capable of changing or raising the level of consciousness by proposing a critique of the existing situation in architecture.

So, strip away meaning so that we can question what new vehicle may come.  Interesting because I would be inclined to agree.  I start from scratch with no preconceived notions of what a building may look like.  That doesn’t mean I don’t examine precedents though.  For example, a toy museum competition entry I designed.  By studying precedents I discovered that there are two main categories of spaces required for such an exhibition: displays of historic toys and areas for play.  Their juxtaposition is what could inform the design of the structure.  Or, how about OMA’s Seattle library as a reference for the freedom of circulation and delivering program through diagram. . . what is the point of losing that type of programmatic meaning?  This is a little unresolved for me.

At what point does the design become too much about the systems?  Viewing images of House I, I am struck that there is too much “architecture.”  The two systems, or three, I lost count, are overwhelming to the point where they are each lost. That is his goal.  Indeed, he is effective, meaning is lost from the components. I guess I still just disagree on that purpose.  Maybe it’s a good exercise?  All architects should discover their ability to strip meaning.  Only then can they think fresh for new projects to discover “new vehicles” for solutions.  One wouldn’t have to do that every time though, it’s more of a skill set.

It’s tough to compare all of these theoretical forces when discussing the design of a house.  In some ways, Eisenman is completely right because even in 1967, there were few new ways to design a house.  I’m sure 10 years later, this Eisenman trick of stripping meaning from components was exhausted too.  And here we are, almost 40 years after that subsequent date, and contemporary Architects are still regurgitating the same design aesthetics.  Because, after he stripped the meaning away, it became a style all the same.  To me, there became no operative difference between “two systems creating a dialogue” and adding a mediterranean juliette balcony, once each had been seen a thousand times before.  Or is there a difference?

Back to the fact that these are all houses. . . the program in a house is so standard.  I don’t enjoy designing houses because, channeling Eisenman, I have no ability to strip away the meaning of the components to re-create a new form. It’s just not that fun.

For House I and II, what happens when the owners buy furniture though?  You can’t strip so much meaning away that people won’t have to eat in the dining room, or sit to converse in the living room.  There isn’t any furniture, or humans for that matter, anywhere in Eisenman’s work presented in the book. (Graves and Meier do include furniture).  To me, that would be where it is obvious there is a limit to the extent of meaning stripping.  But, I’m more pragmatic.


14-five-03 14-five-04

Michael Graves – Hanselmann House

by William La Riche

Graves finds it ironic that architects achieve the most precise registration of their compositional intentions in plan: in proceeding through a building only vertical planes perceived frontally can be seen with any objectivity; one’s perception of horizontal planes is, of course, distorted by perspective.  To establish a compositional intention in plan, then, is to establish it principally as an idea and only secondarily as a phenomenon.

I think Architects typically understand this intuitively, but it’s important to note that people’s visual experience is conducted mostly in the vertical plane by what they see.  Architect’s intentions, however, are typically rooted in a plan understanding of space.  Quite a conundrum.

La Riche speaks of Graves’ affection for greek temples as reference buildings.  And notes the “studio” house as an antecedent for the private life of the main house beyond.  The analogy of the Propylaea / Temple of the Nike Aptera serves to offer a metaphor of sorts, that one would rise through a ceremonial sequence.  Graves’ architectural tectonics strip away the form of that association, and reimagines its application.

The validity of employing a metaphor in architecture is severely limited by the factor of scale.  


14-five-05 14-five-06


The ideal aspect of the concept, the ‘vision of the world,’ affects and is affected by its real and analytical response to problems related to site, program, circulation and entrance, structure and enclosure.

No great quotations in Meier’s writing, his presentation is much more pragmatic than theoretical.   Meier is not afraid to employ strategic programmatic and site devices, and he not afraid to use terms like “structure” and “enclosure” because he doesn’t feel threatened by them. He does not require that his architecture confuse meanings, rather he strategically uses architectural space qualities to determine private/public and open/closed relationships with his form.  Those relationships are relatively complex and transitional in nature, a resident might not knowingly be in one or the other but within some part of a spectrum.


Philip Johnson – Conclusion

There seems little sense in assembling these five architects in one book. In common, all they have is talent.

On Eisenman – I look at House II, for example, and rejoice in its interpenetrating richness. Rigid complexity is all anyone can hope for. What would he do in a large building?

On Graves – A painter-architect heavy with Le Corbusier, in the Hanselmann house miraculously makes 3D paintings come alive. His Benecerraf pavilion is a wonderfully sport piece of lawn sculpture.

On Gwathmey – [He] is a builder!

On Hejduk – [He] is a theoretician’s designer.

On Meier – The most traditional of our five youngsters, makes the most “acceptable” houses. Meier knows his history best of the five, studies it most, learns from it most.


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