There was a time, much earlier in this century, when architecture wore short pants. It was an exuberant profession, energetic, hot-headed, even heroic. It was going to pave the way to the next millennium, a thoroughly modern millennium. But something happened along the way.
George Baird would argue that, in fact, many things happened. "I seek to address a whole range of the predicaments of modernity and its progeny in architecture, as they have surfaced in a series of anguished theoretical debates from 1900 to the present," he announces at the beginning of The Space of Appearance. Baird has himself been in the forefront of the modernist anguish for almost thirty years, rising to prominence as co-editor (with the postmodernist theorist Charles Jencks) of the dense but influential Meaning in Architecture in 1969. A longtime professor at the University of Toronto's School of Architecture, he currently teaches at Harvard's Graduate School of Design while maintaining an estimable practice in Toronto.
Architecturally, Toronto came of age in large measure due to Baird's influence. During the seventies and eighties, lines of air transit began to define an increasingly complex map of intellectual cross-fertilization, as the theorists of architecture travelled around the world from university to university, spreading a gospel that transformed its followers from workaday professionals into acolytes of an almost otherworldly aestheticism. Toronto was a frequent stop on the circuit, and Baird the city's only presence of a theoretical weight comparable to that of the visitors. He frequently found himself ushering architects from Milan and Los Angeles and Paris onto the stages of packed auditoria, architects who, like himself, were becoming touchstones of sensibility for a whole generation of young designers. The face of the city began to change in subtle ways, simply because the local architectural culture inculcated by Baird and his colleagues had placed Toronto so firmly at an intersection of those lines of transit.
They were heady days. One night, in the hush that attended his trademark rallying cry of "Let us now convene!", Baird introduced a greying English critic to an overflow crowd in the vast Medical Sciences Auditorium (the School of Architecture's own pathetic lecture hall having long since been outgrown by the hunger for an architecture of the intellect) with the words "Who among us is not a disciple of Joseph Rykwert?"
It was, of course, a rhetorical question from a master rhetorician. But it had in it the seeds both of this book's provenance and of its failure.
Of the provenance, it should be noted that Baird, as a scholar if not as a practitioner, acknowledges his greatest intellectual debt to Rykwert, a soft-spoken man of immense erudition (a delightful combination of characteristics found much less often than its reverse), whose seminal On Adam's House in Paradise: The Idea of the Primitive Hut in Architectural History consolidated, almost a quarter of a century ago, the idea of persistent return to man's architectural origins as an expression of the human vision of a lost paradise, of a quintessential shelter, of a desire for renewal that "seems to have haunted everyone involved in building (long before building was distinguished from architecture)." Adds Rykwert: "Every paradise must, as Proust sharply observed, be a lost one." In The Space of Appearance, George Baird too embarks on a search for something pure that has been lost.
As to how that question also held the seeds of the book's failure lie, more later.
Now, what is it that's been lost? The short answer might be "Modernism". The thrust of the book, as it plays upon the panoply of "anguished theoretical debates", is at once both broad and limited in scope. Baird ranges over many of the issues that have bubbled up, more or less messily, in the stew of the last one hundred years of architecture. He dedicates a deeply researched chapter to each of them: to the life and the death and the recent restirrings of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total design of every aspect of life; to what Baird calls Early Struggles in the Phenomenology of Modernism, the war of words and buildings that transfixed Europe from approximately 1913 through the early 1930s, a war that in reality constituted a clash of styles among messianic architects, each convinced that he offered the one true style for the twentieth century; to the inescapable but perhaps resolvable dichotomy of craftsmanship and high technology; to the relative power of architecture as an instrument of subsequent social development or as a monument to pre-existing social currents; to Panopticism, a sort of layer-caking of both the aforementioned social instrumentality of architecture and the Gesamtkunstwerk into an overweening mechanism for human engineering; to the gentler landscape of architecture's Organicist Yearnings for a connection with nature; and to architecture's periodic, uneasy role as handmaid to this political movement or that.
All of which can be boiled down into facets of a single question: Whatever happened to modernism?
To Baird, modernism is central to our understanding of the recent past, the active ingredient in whatever recipe of architectural movements has graced this century's table. But what is modernism? "By the mid-1920s a certain concatenation of ideas had already begun to take on an overall cultural formation that would eventually come to be known as modern architecture. By both its advocates and its critics, modernism was coming to be seen as a project of (largely) utopian instrumentality that was universalist, reformist (if not revolutionary), technological, and reductivist. It was utopian, and instrumentalist, in its echoes and invocations of the dreams of the Enlightenment; universalist in its claims for widespread geographic applicability; reformist, when not revolutionary, in its sweeping ambitions for the transformation of modern social life; technological in its enthusiastic acceptance of recently devised methods of construction, and in its efforts to employ them; reductivist in its opposition to the eclecticism and the elaborate iconography of the formal languages of the architecture of the preceding century." Whew. A compelling, and lengthy, definition.
And I would propose that, to Baird, the most compelling aspect of that modernism is its social impact, an impact that has diminished and even disappeared and which this book is intent-as an inspirational rather than an historical text-on restoring to potency. It is a solemn purpose.
Not that the history of modern architecture is without its lighter moments. Now, lightness is not normally characteristic of a movement that can be described, in its earliest days, thus: "This effort of a whole generation of designers to configure life as a work of art constituted a quasi-religious mission to reform contemporary European society, which was seen as preoccupied with base and meretricious pursuits." Still, there is a certain self-satire perceptible in the story of the CBS Building in New York, a product of the 1960s, in which the architect Eero Saarinen and the furniture designer Florence Knoll created a "total design" extending right down to the positioning of paintings on the walls. Attacked as "a totalitarian imposition on the everyday lives of the CBS employees who inhabited it," the building inspired a distaste that soon "reached the point where disgruntled employees began to plot furtive rearrangements of the various objets d'art, in order to test the alertness of the maintenance crew (called the Gestapo) whose task it was to patrol the offices and to ensure that each element of the Knoll interior was in its proper place (unrolling their sets of drawings.if need be, to make absolutely certain of the proper order)."
And there is the case of Le Corbusier, arguably the high priest of modernism (with Mies van der Rohe, author of Toronto's TD Centre, perhaps identifiable as being in charge of human sacrifices), commenting on an incident in his studio at the height of the heroic period of modernism in the 1920s: "All of a sudden the decisive argument popped out of a mouth `what is useful is beautiful!' At the same moment Alfred Roth (of such impetuous temperament) kicked in the side of a wire mesh wastebasket which couldn't hold the quantity of old drawings he was trying to stuff in. Under Roth's energetic pressure, this wastebasket, which had a technically sachlich [straightforwardly practical] curvature (a direct expression of the wire netting), deformed [grotesquely].. Everyone in the office roared. `It's awful,' said Roth. `Ah, but this basket now contains much more,' I replied; `it is more useful so we could say it is more beautiful! Be consistent with your principles!'"
Nonetheless, a few momentary departures from modernism's serious business of manipulating aesthetic principles for the good of society is a long way from undermining that seriousness.
But what if seriousness (and Baird's view of modernism is as profoundly sombre as that of any of its proponents) were no longer entirely pertinent to the study of architecture's role as a torchbearer for society? What if-as has indeed happened-Frank Lloyd Wright's Wisconsin retreat at Taliesin could no longer be interpreted as a "classic instance of exclusivist organicism", or as the "personal model of an autonomous settlement situated within nature and an agrarian world: a place outside the world, far from the city [Wright] had so clamourously rejected," but had become instead something of a tourist attraction at which little green jeeps, almost indistinguishable from those imagined for Jurassic Park, ferry festive holidaymakers around the grounds?
Consider, in counterpoint to Baird's attempt to marshal modernist architecture back into its position as a mover and shaker in society, a more relaxed recent definition of modernism from another stalwart of the University of Toronto. In Modris Eksteins' Rites of Spring: The Great War & the Birth of the Modern Age of 1989, we read that "the term avant-garde has usually been applied simply to artists and writers who promoted experimental techniques in their work and urged rebellion against established academies. The notion of modernism has been used to subsume both this avant-garde and the intellectual impulses behind the quest for liberation and the act of rebellion. Very few critics have ventured to extend these notions of the avant-garde and modernism to the social and political as well as artistic agents of revolt, and to the act of rebellion in general, in order to identify a broad wave of sentiment and endeavour.. Culture is regarded as a social phenomenon and modernism as the principal urge of our time."
Here we have modernism viewed as a force that emerges from the groundswell of society as a whole and not as something imposed on society from above by a small-and always self-selected-coterie of theorists. It is probable that the populist implications of this definition have swamped the elitist pretensions of the old heroic modernists, adrift in their dreams of clean white walls and broad panels of glass with views of the most distant horizons. Modernism is now simply what meets with general approval in the modern age. Disneyland triumphant.
Baird is not unaware of this diminution in the power of architecture to affect and enthrall. In considering the decay of architectural education in the sixties and seventies-a system that (quoting the lucid French architect Bernard Huet) "condemned to a sterile anguish and eventually to traumatizing blockages those who did not feel themselves touched by the grace of inspiration, or who lacked sufficient intellectual agility to capture the subtle breezes of fashionable rhetoric"-Baird acknowledges that architecture must recapture a "coherent territory" in which to make amends for its loss of power, a loss all the more shocking in an aesthetical discipline during a century in which, as Eksteins suggests, all of "existence has become aestheticized." It will be, says Baird "a territory within which architecture will in large part undoubtedly constitute a social institution.. Indeed, it is my view that until such time as it does once again do so, architecture will continue to forfeit any possibility of playing the kind of central cultural role it has had within innumerable pre-industrial societies."
Such a recapturing would be, perhaps, too little, too late. The modernism of life has gone too far for an effective modernism of architecture to catch it. In an age that swings uneasily between experiences that increasingly inhabit either two dimensions or, somehow, four-or even exist solely in the dimensionless vacuum of McLuhan's beloved "aural space"-there is less and less influence available to the one art that is ineluctably three-dimensional, that depends upon the experience of space in all its refinements to affect the senses, to offer sensual and intellectual stimulation. Architecture is, at its heart, simply space and the Space Age has paradoxically neutered it.
And this brings us to the title of the book. The Space of Appearance derives from a passage in Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition: "Action and speech create a space between the participants which can find its proper location almost any time and anywhere. It is the space of appearance in the widest sense of the word, namely, the space where I appear to others as others appear to me, where men exist not merely like other living or inanimate things but make their appearance explicitly." A space charged by the presence of the people in it. Which is Baird's jumping-off point for a conception of the public arena in which architecture will regain its power to move men towards a better world. Which is poignant because, as we have seen, the time for that is past.
There is indeed a good deal of poignancy to the book, not least in its uncanny ability to recall in its dense cadences and bardic rhythms-what might be called its rapier-like pomposity-the sound of its author's voice. If, as C. S. Lewis suggested, the best language is that which makes, with the greatest ease, the finest and most precise distinctions of meaning, then Baird has mastered all aspects of the best language (except perhaps the part about ease). His prose is ripe with clauses and conditionals that dance around one another without ever quite getting entangled, an act as masterful on the page as it once was on the stages of all those hot rooms full of young architects who believed that the future was still theirs for the making.
And when, in one of those rooms, George Baird proposed that all the hundreds present were disciples of the same coherent theory of architecture, he was probably right. This book speaks to them eloquently. The failure is this: that outside that room, and any number of rooms like it around the world, all throbbing with architects, was a world in which stronger forces were poised to move on and leave modern architecture in their wake.
And about the brave promises for the revitalization of an honourable profession that this book makes so well, those forces just don't give a damn.
John Ferguson is an architect in Dundas, Ontario. Professor Baird soundly condemned his thesis at the University of Toronto and was, in that instance as in so many others, perfectly right.