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04.13.2011
Feature> Talking Heads
In its heyday, the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies felt like the center of the architectural universe. An insider recalls its sprawling ideas, visceral debates, and personal high jinx.
IAUS fellows and friends at one of Peter Eisenman's Indian dinners circa 1974. Clockwise from lower left: Bill Ellis, Rick Wolkowitz, Peter Eisenman, Liz Eisenman, Mario Gandelsonas, Madelon Vriesendorp, Rem Koolhaas, Julia Bloomfield, Randall Korman, Stuart Wrede, Andrew MacNair, Anthony Vidler, Richard Meier, unidentified woman, Kenneth Frampton, Diana Agrest, Caroline 'Coty' Sidnam, Jane Ellis, Suzanne Frank, and Alexander Gorlin.
Courtesy Suzanne Frank

 

Team Vitruvius

 

The most curious image I know of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (IAUS)—the New York think tank that, from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, quite simply reshaped architectural discourse in the United States—appeared in a 1971 issue of Casabella. A cut-and-paste job, it pictured sixteen of the Institute’s members as a soccer team, wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with the Institute’s logo, the Vitruvian man of Cesariano’s 1521 edition. Crouched, at the far right, is Suzanne Frank, then an intern, later the Institute’s librarian, and now the author of a new book, at once an unoffical history of the Institute and, as the subtitle reads, “an insider’s memoir.”

Founded in 1967 by Peter Eisenman (see image below: bottom row, third from the right, with an impish smile) with backing from MoMA and Cornell University, the Institute set out to bridge the gap between academic culture and the world of planning agencies. Installed in offices on 47th Street enlivened by reproductions of the Vitruvian man and Le Corbusier’s Modulor, the Institute admitted graduate students for yearlong fellowships to work on real projects commissioned by municipal and federal agencies. Reyner Banham, writing in December 1967 for New Society, went along with the Institute fellows’ self-description as “utopians”—with a caveat: “They are utopians of aesthetic order rather than of social order. They look to the city of good form, before the city of good men—but probably believing that the good form will breed good men, that a city which makes itself visually clear will become clear in other senses, too.”

Kenneth Frampton and Peter Eisenman   Cesariano's Vitruvian man on one side of the revolving door.
Kenneth Frampton and Peter Eisenman sporting matching haircuts at 8 West 40th Street, circa 1970 (left), and the revolving door with Cesariano's Vitruvian man strapped to a grid on one side. Le Corbusier's Modulor Man was pasted on the other (right).
Gregory Gale
 

The early years of the Institute (notwithstanding its later, unjust reputation as cerebral, arcane, and elitist) were marked by what can only be called a modernist engagement with the city, culminating in the building of a low-rise, high-density housing complex in Ocean Hill/ Brownsville, Brooklyn, a prototype sponsored by the Urban Development Corporation and designed by Kenneth Frampton (see image below: top row, fourth from the left, with a resolute, captain-like mien).

By the early 1970s, though, when the money and the political will to sponsor projects and research on public housing dried up, the Institute had already gone through an aggiornamento of sorts. Indeed, over the years the Institute embarked on a variety of other programs, going through several changes of faculty and through what Eisenman called, in a 1975 interview with Alvin Boyarsky just published in Brett Steele’s book Supercritical, several “palace revolutions”—the first already in 1969, when Colin Rowe had his students do theoretical designs instead of real projects, and Eisenman, in Frank’s retelling of the story, responded by locking Rowe out of the Institute, literally changing the door’s lock.

New Urban Settlements cover
The number 1 on the cover of New Urban Settlements designed by Robert Slutzky indicated that more were to come.
Dick Frank
 
 
 
 

Over little more than a decade, the Institute became enormously influential, attracting architects, historians, and theorists to lecture, teach, exhibit, and do research there. Even a casual list of some of the protagonists (Diana Agrest, Anthony Vidler, Robert Slutzky, Rafael Moneo, Philip Johnson, Rem Koolhaas, etc.) commands attention. Eventually, the Institute expanded its educational operations (at one point it had graduate, undergraduate, high-school, and continuing education programs), organized extraordinarily intense lecture series, and mounted dozens of exhibitions (Mart Stam, Ivan Leonidov, Wallace Harrison, but also Aldo Rossi, Mathias Ungers, the Krier brothers, etc.) in the double-height main space of the offices it occupied from 1970, on the top two floors of 8 West 40th Street, just opposite the New York Public Library. The Institute also became a publishing house: it produced the aptly-named journal Oppositions (1973–84), edited by a pugnacious triumvirate made of Eisenman, Frampton, and Mario Gandelsonas (see image below: top row, third from the left) joined later by Vidler and then Kurt Forster; the monthly tabloid newspaper Skyline (1978–83); and, in the early 1980s, Oppositions Books (Rossi, Adolf Loos, Moisei Ginzburg, Alan Colquhoun).

Frank readily acknowledges that hers is not a scholarly book but a personal memoir, what Joan Ockman, in her foreword, calls “a labor of love.”(A few historians in Europe and the US are currently working on scholarly histories, most notably Ph.D. candidate Kim Foerster at the ETH in Zurich.) Frank’s history is in fact impressionistic; the author is at her best when she lets us into her personal recollections of characters, personalities, allegiances, and conflicts, as opposed to the narrative sections outlining the many activities of the Institute.

The last third of the book, a series of twenty-seven interviews that Frank conducted over the past decade with former Institute members, offers a wealth of valuable information (much of it anecdotal, certainly) and countless perceptive memories and thoughts: Julia Bloomfield, managing editor of Oppositions, discussing the journal’s graphic design (“the Massimo Vignelli ‘punch’”) and “the somewhat combative relationship” between Eisenman and Frampton; Andrew MacNair telling of a momentous 7:00 a.m. phone call with Eisenman (“[Robert] Stern and Frampton and I have gotten a grant to start a lecture series... we want you to run it, get your ass down here”); William Ellis (see image below: bottom row, third from the left) reflecting on the feat of Oppositions and on Eisenman’s organizational prowess (“an  absolute impresario”); Joan Copjec recounting the formation in 1979 of a women’s group at the Institute to voice concerns about “the not-so-veiled sexism”; Suzanne Stephens telling of her editorship of Skyline, of articles paying ten cents a word, Christmas lists about books to give to architects, and where Johnson got his glasses or Eisenman his shoes (“it’s Churchill shoes for Peter, very Loosian”).

  The IAUS journal Oppositions 5
The IAUS journal, Oppositions 5, edited by Eisenman, Frampton, and Gandelsonas.
Dick Frank
 

One of the most revealing stories is told by Stanford Anderson (top row, far right): in 1964 Eisenman wanted to form an association of young architects interested in new ideas (what would later become CASE, the Conference of Architects for the Study of the Environment, a prelude to the Institute), convinced Princeton to put up some money, and invited for a weekend-long meeting a group that included Anderson, Michael Graves, Robert Venturi, and a young Emilio Ambasz (see image below: bottom row, fourth from the right, in jaunty Greek fisherman’s cap); on Sunday the question came up whether that kind of group discussion should continue: “Venturi immediately said, ‘Well, is it going to help my practice?’ Everyone agreed, ‘No.’”

Eisenman, whose name appears in almost every page of the book, declined to be interviewed: the figure most central to the myriad stories interwoven at the Institute emerges here as an eerie presence, towering over everyone else and yet disappearing—with uncanny parallels, perhaps, with his own architecture. In the 1975 interview with Boyarsky, Eisenman argued that the Institute never had a curriculum, or a philosophy: “Its only philosophy, if it stands for anything, is to serve as a vehicle for critical discourse, for challenging the prevailing empirical attitude in the United States vis-à-vis architecture—i.e. that it is something useful, something that can be marketed, a commodity.” A critical history of that discourse, of those conflicts theoretical and ideological, remains to be written. Or, perhaps, as with that other great 20th-century think tank called the Bauhaus, the history of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies may need to be told, written, and rewritten many times over.

Cesare Birignani studies architectural history at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.


 

A photo-montage from a 1971 issue of Casabella showed Institute members wearing sweatshirts with Vitruvian Man images and posing as a soccer team.
From Casabella, 1971
 

Q&A: SUZANNE FRANK

 

As a young art historian with a Ph.D. on Dutch Modernist Michel de Klerk, Suzanne Frank arrived at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (IAUS) in 1970, three years after its founding. Her husband, Dick, had photographed Peter Eisenman’s architectural models, and soon Eisenman would be designing a home for the couple in Cornwall, completed in 1975 and named House VI.

Frank remained at the Institute as a researcher then librarian until 1982. Her unauthorized memoir of those days was 12 years in the making. Clearly a labor of love by an historian eager to make a record of an extraordinary moment in architecture, Frank recounts much herself and then allows the transcripts from interviews with 27 other key players to fill in and amplify the story, vividly recounting everything from arguments over Italian architectural theory to how money was so short that office furnishings were picked up off the streets. Here, Frank recalls a few details from those heady days:

The Architect’s Newspaper: How did you come to be at the Institute?

Suzanne Frank: I was doing an art history Ph.D. at Columbia and they thought my research was good so they hired me to do research on a HUD-funded project, the Streets project, at least in the first year. I never had an office or anything, but I combed resources for studies of urban applicability and sorted heaps of photocopies of buildings in streetscapes. One time when I started talking to a fellow researcher, Gregory Gale, Eisenman told me to stop talking and get back to work. He himself was a schmoozer, especially at eight o’clock in the morning when few people were around.

Why did you decide to write a private memoir about The Institute?

It was a great time in my life. The projects they were doing were very interesting and important. What made me write it? I am a historian. I like to do research and write. I never dreamed it would take so long.

  Peter Eisenman
Peter Eisenman displays brand loyalty.
Gregory Gale
 

How easy was it to get people to talk?

There were 27 cooperatives. Tony Vidler didn’t agree; Rem [Koolhaas] agreed then backed out; and Peter said he’s not giving any interviews on the Institute. A doctoral student at ETH in Zurich, Kim Foerster, is working on the official history. I think he has done something like 100 interviews.

Was the focus on talk or on building, too?

They wanted to implement building. One of the student projects with a grant was to reorganize streets with buildings in a more public way. And they did it in print, but it didn’t happen because HUD took the money away when Bill Ellis insulted the HUD people when they were visiting.

They only built the one housing project that Kenneth [Frampton] worked on, Ocean Hill-Brownsville in Brooklyn.

Did Philip Johnson supply funds for the Institute?

Yes, I don’t know how much, but I know he was an angel. People didn’t like his architecture; they hated the AT&T. He didn’t mind, and Peter was very close to him, so was Bob Stern.

There was also fund-raising for Oppositions by Julia Bloomfield. They were all pretty good at it. I mean, here was this little magazine with a leftist tinge, but they still got Exxon and Mobile to give to it.

Large hall at the 40th Street location.

The large hall with balcony at the 40th Street location, the Institute's second home, lent itself to flexible uses.
Gregory Gale
 

Rumor has always had it that women had a hard time there. Was that your experience?

Peter hired women to have posts there but they were not as important, I think, at least in the beginning. Somehow they receded beside the men. Some say they were not treated well, and they formed a women’s group about it in 1979, but I was always treated with respect as the librarian, which was a joke because there weren’t many books.

In time, women had a very strong voice. Silvia Kolbowski started out as a receptionist and became the catalog editor with Frampton.

Did everyone get along?

The receptionists had a hard time; they were so overworked because Peter was always at odds and ends. They would start crying, and his wife at the time would have to console them.

Then there was a big argument between Frampton and Bob Stern—it was recorded in Skyline in 1980— after Kenneth’s book on modern architecture and critical history came out. Stern said that Frampton never looked at actual buildings but did everything in libraries and used miniscule photographs, and that he left out American sources. Kenneth said he retorted that he was an American admirer—I forget his phrase–and then he sent him into a “Spenglerian night” What does that mean? I don’t know.

What was the office scene like?

There were parties with lots of dancing. I remember one that Rem attended—he came to all the parties—but usually he wasn’t around because he was working on Delirious New York. Then Peter had his Indian dinners, they were very congenial. People sat next to the people they liked, and snubbed the ones they didn’t.

There were little cliques; everyone was equal except at times. Peter had special lunches, and when we were at the 40th Street office, he got goodies from Zabar’s. He’d have interesting people in, like his father- in- law to talk about Jackson Pollock. It was a very elite and selective crowd who went to those.

There was no hierarchy or, rather, there was and there wasn’t. There was a hierarchy because Peter was always the absolute, but he was friendly, very down to earth, and yet he was always the boss. He dressed very funny in a beige sweater with a hole in the back. He didn’t have very much money, but he managed to borrow from people and he went out a lot and ate very well.

Everyone else was always on diets. “Oh, you’ve lost weight. What’s your diet?” kind of thing. It was a big topic. They were all eating cottage cheese, hamburgers and ketchup.

What’s your final impression of The Institute after 40 years?

It was important. It stood for a really high level of thought and a high level of camaraderie. I am also relieved that I can finally go on to some other things now.

IAUS: The Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, An Insider’s Memoir by Suzanne Frank can be purchased for $42.30 plus postage at authorhouse.com.