At his book launch at New York’s Center for Architecture, Kenneth Frampton admitted that he had not visited all of the 14 pairs of building analyzed in A Genealogy of Modern Architecture: Comparative Critical Analysis of Built Form. This distance to some of the buildings by the author makes even more pertinent the rigor of the analytical method presented as a way to read buildings as a cultural construct deep in meanings and references as in literature or painting. The index of the comparative analysis: First, the dialogue between type and context referring to the site and the programmatic type of the built form. Second, the coding of the space according to the variable degree of public, semi-public, and service space is indebted to his close reading of Hannah Arendt’s book The Human Condition rather than as a reference to Louis Kahn’s famous served-service spaces. Third, the dialogue of structure and membrane is indebted to his previous book on tectonics and of course, The Four Elements of Architecture by Gottfried Semper. And fourth, the connotational summation is the synthesis of these categories as they refer to larger cultural values. With this book Frampton gives teachers and students an important pedagogical tool as an alternative to the schematic reductionism prevalent in the contemporary architectural practice and education.
Frampton writes, “Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, first published in 1945, augments the ontological implications of The Human Condition by introducing the concept of the ‘body-being’ as the prime agency through which we experience the world. This recognition is intimately linked to our motility through which we experience space.” The public-private and goal-route analysis conjoins a structuralist-phenomenological point of view established by the close reading of the body’s movement through space in the plan and section drawings and then corroborated by the archival photographs. The articulation of built form in terms of typology, tectonic expressivity and referential detailing allows us to experience the architecture through its representation guided by the belief in the “body-being” as if touching, hearing, seeing, and smelling while actively moving-reading the represented spatial sequence. The historical frame of 1923–1980 is marked by a “post- 1945 denouement of the myth of progress (that) first permeates our late modern consciousness through the successive traumas of Stalinism, Auschwitz, and Hiroshima.” The modern project is thus divided into two distinct periods: The period between WWI and WWII 1918–1939 and the period post WWII 1945 until the Venice Biennale of 1980, organized by Paolo Portoghesi, that acknowledged the advent of a postmodern condition, both aesthetically and politically.
Frampton believes the three main factors at play in the evolution of the modern movement being are the classical tradition and its tendency towards the abstract, the technological and the vernacular. Each of these categories is present in different proportions as we travel throughout Europe as Le Corbusier noted in his annotated map of his Voyage d’Orient of 1912 and published in L’art décoratif d’aujourd’hui of 1925. Frampton notes “The contrast between the latent classism of Le Corbusier’s Purist paradigm in his entry for the Société des Nations competition was more capable of achieving a rational solution” than Hannes Meyer’s reductive functionalism “insisting on using the same module irrespective of the egg shaped auditorium and leading to an unresolved juxtaposition between the inclined supports of the auditorium shell and the surrounding orthogonal structure.” Yet Frampton ends his introduction with a return to Arendt’s “space of public appearance”: “Today, however, we may still assume an ideologically progressive approach to postmodern architectonic form via a sensitive response to context, climate, topography, and material, combined with the self-conscious generation of place-form as a political-cum-cultural space of appearance.” In his comparison of Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Museum and Aalvar Aalto’s Nordjyllands Kunstmuseum, Frampton writes “Aalto’s organic planning within the orthogonal re-enforced concrete frame enabled him to provide appropriately dimensioned ancillary spaces as found in the lecture halls…This in contrast to Kahn’s dependence of the width of a single vault, irrespective of the function. The comparative analysis pointing to the limitation of Kahn’s insistence on the vault and at the same illuminating how structural invention as large curved beams (not vaults) allowed Kahn to achieve a free plan.
The book is lucid not only in the literary content but as a graphic document where each illustration re-enforces the text and analysis. This is the result of a long process of design undertaken by Frampton and his editor Ashley Simone to achieve a coherent graphic design that works a handbook in the tradition of Serlio. It is the ethical content of this book that is rare today. Frampton insists, “architecture is a singular material culture that by its very nature it has the potential to resist the current pervasive drive to commodify the entire word.” Frampton, the architect, historian, and critical thinker, makes clear in this extraordinary book of curated comparative analysis what architecture can achieve.