An Academic Odyssey In Cambridge

Courtesy MIT Press

A Second Modernism. MIT, Architecture, and the ‘Techno-Social’ Moment
Arindam Dutta, editor
MIT Press

MIT’s long history of pressing for change in architecture includes being the first to offer an architecture degree in the U.S. and the first to award an architectural degree to a woman (Sophia Hayden Bennett in 1890). Less well known to many practitioners and academics today is the School’s longstanding engagement with the knotty intersections of modern society, technology, research, and architecture. The essays in A Second Modernism address precisely these issues between 1945–1981, reaching back to the transformation of the Department of Architecture into the School of Architecture in 1932, and forward to the founding of the Center for Real Estate Development in the 1990s. From shaping an architectural history and theory graduate program, to Gyorgy Kepes’ research on cognitive and perceptual technologies, to research on prefabricated housing, MIT marked numerous paths for other architecture schools to follow.

There is not room in this review to do justice to all the fine chapters in A Second Modernism, nor to ask all the questions I would like to about its production. For example, who chose pale grey and pale black sans-serif fonts on high gloss paper for such a book? Where was the copy editor, especially for Arindam Dutta’s introduction? Why do some footnotes appear several pages before or after that of the passage being footnoted? Why no bibliography? This is not up to MIT Press’s usually high standards. Could this be because the book was edited, designed, and produced under the MIT Department of Architecture’s in-house imprint, SA+P Press, and is only being distributed by MIT Press? It would appear so, judging from the credits on the copyright page. Book design is a profession in itself, not a hobby to be toyed with; architects would do well to remember this. And this is not to mention the book’s 3.1 pounds, which hardly eases reading. While it is difficult not to be discouraged by some of its mechanics, the book in its substance has much to offer.

The tale of Eero Saarinen’s MIT Chapel (1949-55) in many respects encapsulates the University’s ambitions in the post-World War II world. In the wake of that slaughter, as Reinhold Martin demonstrates in his fine study, students and faculty alike grasped for some way to resist scientific and technological determinism in part by shifting emphases toward a more holistic program, emblematically embodied in Earo Saarinen’s Chapel. For Martin, the debates surrounding the chapel exemplify a greater complexity than found in the regnant simplistic binary oppositions (modern/traditional, abstract/symbolic). As he so elegantly writes, “the university rediscovers its human ‘soul’…[and] exchanges the ‘myth’ of reason for the reasonable production of myth, in a theological humanism… no longer in need of its dialectical, secular counterpart.”

Under the leadership of an extraordinarily enlightened President, James Killian—would there be some like he today!—the School of Architecture’s underlying ambition was thus twofold: on the one hand, to develop a body of research in architecture engaged with new technologies and materials, and on the other, to fold architecture back into humanistic disciplines in part through the reintroduction of history to the curriculum. Today many have forgotten that Walter Gropius, of Bauhaus fame, eliminated all books on architectural history from the Harvard Library—along with the subject from the curriculum itself—and most other American schools of architecture duly followed suit. The focus instead was meant to be on technology, on problem solving, on being “modern,” for which history, in the views of believers, was useless.

MIT’s leaders, though managing the top institution with a scientific and technological portfolio in the United States, took a very different approach, especially in the wake of World War II and the deployment of nuclear warheads sufficient to destroy the globe. MIT resisted the exclusively applied science thrust common elsewhere in part by its commitment to a broad humanistic undergraduate program. In architecture, this led to what remains the country’s premier program in architectural history, a tale related in John Harwood’s thoughtful chapter. Three broad research themes marked these years, one having to do with humanistic studies, another with architecture and urban planning, and a third to the interface between developments in science and technology and the first two. Harwood’s exemplary analysis reminds us through whom, and how, momentous changes led to the country’s most prominent and successful graduate program in architectural history and theory. Stanford Anderson’s first-person, richly documented account of the effort to bring architects, planners, and historians together in a common enterprise during the turbulent 1960s, CASE (Conference of Architects for the Study of the Environment), reveals the early histories and interactions of a handful of men later to become among the most prominent in the field. It also holds numerous surprises for the current generation: Peter Eisenman and Michael Graves once (briefly) betrayed interest in housing for marginalized populations. Who knew?

For several decades, the MIT-Harvard Joint Center for Urban Studies set the terms of the urban planning agenda not only in the United States but also arguably around the globe. The new city of Ciudad Guayana in Venezuela (1961–68) assured the center’s prominence, not only for the vastness of the enterprise but also for its many failures. To be sure, the city’s population today exceeds 700,000, but the ambitious goal of diversity eluded planners, whose schemes ended up producing cities at once more class segregated and less pedestrian friendly than other Latin American cities. The chapters by Eric Mumford and M. Ijlal Muzaffar detail the high hopes and good intentions of planning from above on behalf of a population unwilling to live as planners demanded. The U.S. and Venezuelan planners’ hopes for the deployment of what was then high-technology computer analyses, foundered on the realities of life for populations they did not understand. The same applied to the then-rampant so-called “urban renewal” programs. Tim Vreeland summarized many architects’ views when he remarked in 1966, “Urban renewal is to planning what remodeling is to architecture.” Ultimately MIT withdrew from the Joint Center, which evolved into a Harvard Center for housing studies.

Beneath specific program failures lay a more profound one, that of the culture of the expert. Many of the participants in the Joint Center shifted toward supporting self-built housing and away from top-down planning, but the culture of the expert is a difficult beast to kill. It persists in virtually every planning and architecture program in the U.S., and not only among professional schools of planning and architecture. The short life of Robert Goodman’s advocacy approach to urban and architectural planning at MIT (1966–1972) effectively signaled institutional resistance to a bottom-up approach. How could it be otherwise when architecture and its discourses rested in the hands of leaders such as Charles Moore, whose 1966 comment: “With the architect’s assumption of responsibility for the whole environment…” tellingly illustrates the typical arrogant response to the profession’s increasingly marginalized status? Felicity Scott’s brilliant essay on urban systems perhaps best summarizes the transformations in architecture during those fateful years. Architecture’s longstanding imperative to give material form to normative social mandates, she writes, shifted to architectural research that operates “in the service of advancing modes of global governability and their micro-techniques of power… in which decision making has been ceded to technologies of control and management… geared toward eradicating conflict.”

As Mark Jarzombek so effectively illustrates in his nuanced study of MIT professor emeritus Maurice Smith, other potential responses loomed. In the hyper-rationalist environment of Bauhausian training, Smith stood out as a vigorous and thoughtful opponent of over-designed, over-determined buildings. Why, he asked, were architecture students producing Bauhaus- and Kepes-inspired objects (‘architectonic assignments’) out of paper, when there were real materials to work with and real problems to confront? Indeed, one should ask the same question of undergraduate programs today, where, unfortunately, the same approach dominates. Smith’s teaching and especially his projects erected with found materials in an additive, at times whimsical fashion can be understood as Frank Gehry (pre-Gehry) with a theoretical basis founded in an invigorating curiosity, one that resisted Gehry’s easy accommodation with capitalism’s most destructive features. In some sense the Center for Real Estate Development marks the trajectory of a graduate program from one that initially sought federal funding to develop low and medium cost housing as well as some measure of control over developments in science and technology, to one that became an arm of capitalist development and land use schemes, a trajectory at best disquieting. Ending as they do just prior to the advent of the center, the essays skirt this thorny issue.

It would be altogether too simple to dismiss much of the history recounted in these pages as that of a group of privileged white males toying with questions of how to make the world (or education, or buildings, or cities, or politics, etc.) for other people. It was indeed that, even if often with the best of intentions, for at times the pages of this book fairly throb with testosterone, with meetings, drinks, male bonhomie, duels, and whatever else Caucasian males do when they assemble to refashion a world (made by earlier white males) to reflect their new interests. It is some consolation that women wrote eight of the twenty-three chapters here—although not much. Though the architectural academy has reluctantly opened its doors to women and other marginalized groups, it has yet to accept challenges from them. As a Harvard professor once told a newly hired professor, she was chosen over others in part because he and his colleagues saw her as “collegial”—that is, she would embrace her colleagues’ ethos and not rock the boat. At MIT, the agenda did not include battling for diversity, no more than was the case elsewhere, but as A Second Modernism illustrates, during the Cold War years the University’s School of Architecture and Planning took up many other challenges, and did so in compelling ways. I can think of no other school in the country to have thwarted the inertia so typical of such programs in such varied fashion. Documenting this odyssey merits most of the 930 pages.

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