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Editorial> Under a Spell
Is it time to return to a more meaningful sort of discussion about architecture?
The Presence of the Past exhibition from the 1980 Venice Biennale.
Courtesy Paolo Portoghesi

The gathering for the late Detlef Mertins at Cooper Union on April 9 was intelligent, calm, and dignified—just like Mertins. Those who knew him as a colleague and a friend (as well as his partner Keller Easterling) talked about his thoughtful scholarship, confidence, and his ability to look at the material that had been the focus of scores of scholars and academics—the work of Mies van der Rohe, for example—and find new and deeper levels of meaning through dogged, persistent inquiry. Commenting on his long time friend, Barry Bergdoll recounted how contentious the debate between theory and history was in the 1990s, when Detlef was just beginning his most creative period of scholarship. Though today few of us can remember the heated and angry debates surrounding this verbal battle, Bergdoll claimed that Mertins’ brilliance as a thinker and researcher blurred the distinctions between theory and history, making it a non-issue.

The fact that this angry debate (which took place primarily inside the academy and the pages of books) is difficult to recall should encourage us reflect on our current disagreements, like the one currently taking place in schools and the profession over parametric modeling as an all-embracing design strategy. This argument, one architect recently mentioned, is like fighting over hammers and nails or pen and ink rather than what architecture actually ends up on the page and in the ground.

Speaking of old arguments that few of us can no longer remember or care to even think about, the arrival of Paolo Portoghesi back in New York for the first time in several decades reminds us about another debate that seems so far-off and long ago: Postmodernism and the end of the heroic period of modernism. Portoghesi, the curator of the 1980 biennale The Presence of the Past that featured most famously the Strada Novissima in the newly remodeled Corderie dell’Arsenale, was interviewed at the University of Pennsylvania and the Pratt Institute. At Pratt he made the point that his brand of Italian postmodernism was very different from our understanding of the movement in America, as in Italy it had its roots in populist architecture and even politics. The “idea of postmodernism” he claims was generated by Charles Jenks, who was officially connected with the exhibition, but Portoghesi said his own design sensibilities are much closer to Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. They, like him, were influenced by living in Rome and realized that its lessons (quite unlike Le Corbusier) were those of humility. Since postmodernism is no longer debated—or when it is, it is accused of frivolity and cynicism—it was modernism Portoghesi claimed (at least as practiced by his biennale predecessor Vittorio Gregotti) that was elitist and had lost its “capacity to speak to citizens, the common people. His biennale was, he claimed, meant “to create something popular” as architecture for architects is wrong and “breaks the continuity of architectural history.” Architecture, he said, “is not for architects—it’s for the public.”

Could it be time to return to this sort of discussion about architecture?  It might be a break from the droning discussion about digital parametric design and scripting. It would be sort of like going back to hammers and nails. It might be just what we need.

William Menking