"The Breached Wall" by Herbert Muschamp

Text by Herbert Muschamp

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In 1987, the League collaborated with the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development to launch a design study on the potential of small-scale infill housing to contribute to the city’s affordable housing needs. The Vacant Lots project culminated in an exhibition and publication, portions of which are republished here on archleague.org. To view the complete feature on Vacant Lots, click here.

Below, a reproduction of Herbert Muschamp‘s review of the Vacant Lots exhibition, as it appeared in The New Republic in 1988.

“The Breached Wall”
Originally published in the critic’s column, On Architecture, in The New Republic, April 11, 1988.

About a year ago, Paul Byard, a vice president of the Architectural League in New York, published an op-ed piece in the New York Times decrying the withering away of social idealism in the architectural profession. “These are disquieting times for architects in New York,” Byard began on a note of understatement:

The curious, conflicted historicism of much of our new work, our confused search for validation in publicity and chic, our exceptional readiness to promote and decorate projects that by ordinary standards should not be built at all — these are signs of a pervasive trouble. They are symptoms of an unconcealable lack of principle and purpose that is close to embarrassing.

Close to? Come on, now: architects have been struggling with a serious image problem for some time. They may not occupy the Satan roles in which we have cast their clients — the Trumps, the Helmsleys, and other real estate developers who have turned New York into our leading fairground for championship rich-bashing. But in a way the architect’s image is even worse. As Byard suggested, architects have been coming across as Satan’s decorators, hired flunkies retained to outfit this hell with a bit of dash. And the truth is that what may be most embarrassing by today’s standards is not the architects’ lack of principle; it is their lack of whatever black magic it takes to transmute unprincipled behavior into The Art of the Deal.

Byard’s article went on to sketch a depressing saga of the rise and fall of the ideal of building for socially constructive purposes. The 1980s, in his view, have marked the end of a “50-year cycle in the history of building in America and in New York”:

From at least the early 1930s to the present decade, the building process was inspired in significant part by evolving visions of large-scale physical change undertaken for powerful reasons that were felt to be moral. Developers and architects, led by government’s injection of both resources and a commitment to higher goals into the development process, combined their individual interests in projects intended to bring about significant human and environmental reforms … housing for the poor, housing for middle-income families, schools, parks, parkways, pools, and a host of other reformist buildings.

What brought down the curtain on this Golden Age? It was, Byard wrote, “the municipal fiscal crisis of the 1970s, [which] seemed to justify the sale of city land to make money and to encourage the inflation of the value of that land by inflating its zoning size.” Ever since the city’s fiscal recovery a few years later, architects — members of “a profession that is ethical at its core” — have been floundering around “without demand for our vision or our solutions,” reduced to creating “demoralizing ‘decotecture’ for the fashion pages.”

In a season as festively lit as this one has been by well-stoked bonfires of the vanities, architects can be proud that a Savonarola from their own ranks was kindling his flame some months before Black Monday set off the general conflagration. Yet I confess that my initial reaction to Byard’s sermon was of a piece with the cynicism he was trying to diagnose. Without a real Howard Rouark to set out sticks of dynamite, where, I wondered, was all this professional soul-searching going to lead, except maybe to business as usual with a slightly clearer conscience? After all, nobody has been forcing architects to create these designer tax shelters. As Frank Lloyd Wright once reminded a group of students, the architect unhappy with client demands can always Just Say No.

Where was all this professional soul-searching going to lead, except maybe to business as usual with a slightly clearer conscience?

I didn’t doubt Byard’s sincerity, but I was skeptical about the power of his argument to affect the status quo, particularly since his view of the problem rested on a dubious historical premise. Yes, 50 years ago New York did lead the way in the use of architecture for socially progressive ends. And yes, at about the same time American architects embraced the Modern movement’s idealistic program of architecture and urban design. But these two developments do not belong to a single history; they arose from separate visions, each unfolding according to its own internal logic. The first vision was predominantly social, a vision in which “reformist buildings” were among a range of means employed toward the end of New Deal social reform. The second was a predominantly architectural vision, in which architectural reform was less a means than an end in itself.

These two developments did not, of course, unfold in total isolation from each other; the glowing record of civic building recalled by Byard was to some extent an outcome of the interaction between them. But the reasons for the decline of socially progressive architecture do not lie in the history of socially progressive politics. These reasons long predate the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. Their roots extend back to the 1930s, the decade when Modern architecture made its first appearance on American soil. This was a pivotal moment in Modernism’s history, a time when Modern forms began to be drained of their social content and rendered into elements of style. In the International Style exhibition organized by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932, the curators were at pains to conceal the socialist ideology informing much of the work on display. Their goal, after all, was to promote what they were calling the most important style of architecture to emerge since the Middle Ages. Their strategy was to establish architecture as high art, on a level with the cathedrals, not to scare away potential patrons with intimations of Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg.

Byard’s 50-year cycle of idealistic building was thus, at the same time, a period of mounting disillusionment with the capacity of Modern architecture to embody progressive social ideals. Long before Tom Wolfe began ridiculing American CEOs for permitting their architects to replace the opulent corporate image of the past with the stripped-down look of “workers housing,” critics were challenging the moral authority of an aesthetic that lent itself far more congenially to the travertine treatment on Park Avenue than to the regulation issue of subsidizing housing. The most influential of these challenges was mounted by Jane Jacobs in 1960, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. To Jacobs, the Modern “reformist building” signified not the social idealism of architects, but rather their overbearing arrogance. “Like a great, visible ego,” Jacobs wrote, “an imitation Le Corbusier shouts, ‘Look what I have made!’ ”

In the two decades that followed Jacobs’s blast, architects were increasingly unwilling to suspend their disbelief in Modernism’s commitment to social change. But what were the alternatives? In his “critical history” of Modern architecture, Kenneth Frampton observed that one of the most notable developments since the 1960s was that “many of [the profession’s] more intelligent members have abandoned traditional practice, either to resort to direct social action or to indulge in the projection of architecture as a form of art.” Thus, on the one hand, “advocacy” architects such as Robert Goodman opened up storefront offices to help communities prevent large-scale “reformist buildings” from reforming their neighborhoods out of existence. And architects like Michael Graves, on the other hand, began investigating issues of form and meaning as a way of freeing architecture from a moribund “vision” whose essential features had been worked out in the 1920s. In both cases, architects were pursuing paths they took to be culturally progressive. Their reasons for relinquishing the Modern vision were scarcely less moral than the reasons that had once persuaded architects to embrace it.

The abandonment of traditional practice by the profession’s emerging talents did not result, of course, in the collapse of traditional practice. Its effect, predictably, was to deliver that practice into the hands of lesser, or at least less progressively minded, talents, and into the hands of clients oblivious to the news that talented architects weren’t designing buildings any more. And for all its emphasis on renewed morality, the position Byard took in his article was itself symptomatic of this state of default. Why mourn the morality of an architecture that followed the initiative of government? If it is possible to speak of Modern architecture as a moral vision, it is because Modern architects claimed for themselves the responsibility to initiate reform.

As it turned out, happily, this was not Byard’s final word. Last June, in cooperation with the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the Architectural League sent out a call for architects to come up with innovative designs for low-cost housing. Each architect was asked to develop plans for one of ten model sites, tiny neighborhood lots typical of thousands of city-owned properties that are considered too small to sustain economically feasible development. Project guidelines encouraged targeting proposals to specific “use groups,” such as the elderly, the homeless, the handicapped. Seventy teams of architects, mostly designers in their 30s, responded to the invitation. Their work went on public view last fall in an exhibition called “Vacant Lots.” (It will be published by the League in a catalog, due in April.) Some of the teams, meanwhile, have been meeting with government officials, social welfare agencies, and private developers in an effort to get their projects built.

While the stated purpose of [“Vacant Lots”] was to reinvigorate housing, its real subject was the reinvigoration of idealism.

“Vacant Lots” was a heartening antidote, if not to the recent wave of overbuilding then at least to the cynicism and despair it has engendered. While the stated purpose of the show was to reinvigorate housing, its real subject was the reinvigoration of idealism. What form can idealism take for architects who remain as deeply skeptical of utopianism as they are embarrassed by venality? Small, local forms, this show proposed, forms that envision progress not as the complete overhaul of the physical world but on the scale of daily life, the “Jacobsian” scale on which it is pointless to speak of idealism if you are the sort of person who resents making contact with the neighbors.

At the heart of the show was a paradox: architects were asked to design practical solutions for real sites, as though a contractor were waiting to translate their drawings into buildings. To go along with this premise, however, was to produce architectural fiction; there were, after all, no cement mixers waiting to move onto the sites, no bulldozers, no city officials standing by with contracts and work permits. Many of the architects simply ignored the paradox and produced painstakingly practical, bare-bones designs, fully costed out, in strict conformity with zoning regulations, devoid of any stylistic flourishes that might scare off a city bureaucrat.

Others took the position that, given the odds of roughly seven proposals per site and no philanthropist waiting in the wings, it was more “realistic” to assume that these projects would never get off the drawing board. For these architects, the drawing itself became the medium to communicate a message on the exhibition’s theme.

In some of these projects, Frampton’s polarity between “art” architecture and social action collapsed into a form of agitprop poster architecture. Yann Andre Leroy’s project, for example, flattened the “building” (its forms inspired by those of early Soviet Constructivists) into a backdrop for a graphically depicted scene of urban brutality: a group of New York City cops, looming like storm troopers, surround the body of a fallen victim — of racial attack? mugging? overdose? hypothermia? The drawing’s polemic force lay in its inversion of the classic “artist’s rendering” of new civic projects, in which cheerful citizens are depicted radiant with the joy that the building has brought into their lives. Leroy’s drawing is a warning against raising utopian expectations.

But it was Gustavo Bonevardi and Lee Ledbetter’s project for housing homeless people with AIDS, one of the “practical” designs, that offered a good case study in the problems and the opportunities generated by the show as a whole. The architects conceived the building as the prototype for a projected network of facilities to be built at various sites throughout the city, a system that would allow people with AIDS to continue to live in or near their own neighborhoods, instead of dispatching them to a hospital. Each of these residences would house up to 12 people, in private rooms, with balconies overlooking a rear garden. Common rooms and offices for nursing staff would face the street; the front part of the building containing these rooms could be modified in size, proportion, and materials to adopt the neighborhood’s existing architectural context.

Rational, modular, crisply Modern, the design looked at first glance as unprepossessing as the graphics on generic supermarket packaging. It was the title of the project that delivered the initial jolt — the kind of jolt you instinctively ward off with humor. Homeless people with AIDS? Wasn’t that taking the idea of special “use groups” to the point of comic overkill, like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom? But the problem is no laughing matter; in fact, just around the comer from the theater where Vampire Lesbians is regaling audiences for its “3rd Laff Year,” a man sat sprawled on the sidewalk for two days last winter, a hand-lettered sign between his knees introducing him to passers-by as a “Homeless PWA.” City officials estimate that there are 400 homeless PWAs in New York: people who can no longer work and pay rent, people who’ve been thrown out by their partners, people without families to go home to.

Though the problem is real and the solution practical, Bonevardi and Ledbetter’s design was perhaps no more “realistic” than the impractically visionary projects in the “Vacant Lots” show. Given the glacial speed with which city projects come into being, it may be more realistic to hope that researchers will develop effective treatments for AIDS years before this building would open its doors. Additional delays would no doubt arise from the kind of community resistance encountered by private physicians who treat AIDS outpatients. Moreover, the city already provides rent stipends and home care services for PWAs, and these services, rather than architecture, may be the most effective way to address the problem the architects set for themselves.

But there is more than one way to be practical. Suppose you are an architect. If you live in New York, there’s a good chance that you know more than one person who is sick with AIDS or has already died. You also know that AIDS is not only a disease but a cultural crisis, a crisis of faith in our power and will to solve problems and even to recognize them. So what are you going to do about it? You can perform the acts of any conscientious citizen: write your congressman, make out a check. That may be enough, but what if it isn’t? Your work is what defines the shape of the place you occupy in the cultural scheme of things. It is that place you want to dedicate to the resolution of this crisis.

There was a hush in the room when Bonevardi, Ledbetter, and their consultants got up to present their work at an evening forum sponsored by the League last November. Perhaps it was because the PA system was bad that night; but there may also have been a collective recognition that this presentation marked an important moment in architecture. Two architects, acting on their own initiative, had stood up and asserted the obligation of their art to address a critical area of their lives. The considerable work devoted to this project — the consultation with planners, psychologists, doctors, social workers, hospice specialists, the hours at the drawing board — had all gone into the articulation of this demand. The demand by itself could not resolve the crisis it addressed: it could not, on paper, house one person with AIDS, much less cure him. But neither was this a private fantasy with no power to affect the world of practical reality. It dealt concretely with an aspect of the suffering to which people with AIDS are subject.

They too are trapped by the walls of privilege they have been designing, walled up alive by their own projections of Top Dog values.

Those whose lives have been affected by this disease live in a separate world, a world that is collapsing, while the world outside, the world now called euphemistically “the general population,” a world to which one belonged only yesterday, goes about its business. To inhabit this separate world, to live behind this wall, is to witness one’s suffering converted into issues, one’s hope for survival into the material that furnishes the others with their posters, their news, their columns, their opinion polls. The strength of Bonevardi and Ledbetter’s design lay in symbolically breaking through this thickening wall of stigma, reminding us, as Poe did, of the moral doom invited by those who imagine themselves protected by such walls. The architects offered their response on a practical, not a metaphorical, level; yet the breached wall can stand as a metaphor for what the “Vacant Lots” show achieved. The architects of all the projects were saying that they too are trapped by the walls of privilege they have been designing, walled up alive by their own projections of Top Dog values.

This is scarcely the first time architects have been caught in this trap. Architecture has traditionally been the art of making privilege visible, which is why angry mobs attack palaces: the Bourbons’, the Romanovs’, Marcos’s, Trump’s. Attacking walls is one of the most potent symbolic forms we use to renegotiate the social contract. The difference today is that Modernism was thought to have delivered architects from the contract that once firmly bound them to the privileged client; the Modern contract made architects responsible for initiating visions from which the forms of buildings would ultimately arise.

“Go away! We don’t want your yuppie high rise!” To judge from the graffiti scrawled on the construction fences surrounding new building sites, the vacant lot in the city is itself a symbol, in many neighborhoods, of a community’s determination to control its own destiny. The “Vacant Lots” show was the architecture community’s version of those angry painted messages. Many architects, it turns out, don’t want their own high rises either. They’re fed up with hanging balconies off a 40-story box and calling it a dream come true. They are tired of seeing “quality architecture” billed as a luxury amenity, up there with 24-hour concierge service and the rooftop health club. Well, we may say, isn’t that a shame. We don’t want your yuppie mea culpas. We don’t want idealism to be just another appetizing item on the grazing menu at the grand café. How is the architecture community’s collective frustration going to house a single person? The answer is that it won’t. But without recognizing and voicing that frustration there is little hope that architects can resume responsibility for breathing life into ideals.


Text by Herbert Muschamp, © 1988 Estate of Herbert Muschamp. Used by permission.