Thirty years after the legendary show Modern Architecture: An International Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), its curators, Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, launched a series of symposia assessing the development of this new architecture. Whereas the MoMA show was accompanied by a book, the symposia had to wait almost 50 years for the proceedings to be published. It is like opening a time capsule—and a compelling one.
The three Modern Architecture Symposia (MAS) took place at Columbia University in May 1962, 1964, and 1966, and were organized by Columbia historian George Collins and the director of Avery Library, Adolf Placzek. They brought together a formidable ensemble of scholars and critics from a range of institutions to examine three decades (not in strict order): the first, 1918 to 1928; the second, 1929 to 1939; and finally the third, 1907 to 1917.
Since the symposia took place, they have been called a convocation of the gods of architectural history and criticism—Rudolf Wittkower, Vincent Scully, Colin Rowe, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, James Marston Fitch, Catherine Bauer Wurster, Edgar Kaufmann Jr., William Jordy, Eduard Sekler, Alfred Barr, and others, including, of course, Hitchcock and Johnson. Even young historians-in-waiting, Robert A.M. Stern and Christian Otto, gave presentations. But few were privy to the details except for invited architects, curators, critics, and students. (This writer, newly on the editorial staff at Progressive Architecture, cajoled her way into the 1966 meeting.) So it has been a question: was it as significant as the roster of participants makes it sound? This book shows the answer is a resounding yes. Illuminating essays by editors Rosemarie Haag Bletter (who attended two sessions as a graduate student) and Joan Ockman (a former director of Columbia's Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture) add to its heft.
Don't expect, though, a “Wasn't it swell?” nostalgic recap of the International Style. The book provides testimony to a many-sided debate: Maholy-Nagy, outspoken critic and professor at Pratt, blamed Gropius and Breuer for the “slow death of architecture and urbanism” in the U.S. in the 1930s. Elizabeth Mock Kassler, the director of MoMA's department of architecture from 1942 to 1946, argued that the International Style resulted in “no buildings of intrinsic value in this country.”
Bletter provides an account of the considerations determining the scope of each symposium, with footnotes revealing often amusing backstories. The first one discussed functionalism and expressionism; the second, regional and national aspects of this new architecture. The third session analyzed the influences of such movements as De Stijl and Deutscher Werkbund.
Ockman puts this period of architecture within the larger context of intellectual history, including architecture's turn to theory. The MAS provide a synoptic history of those years: candid comments show the give-and-take as the gods growled at each other and debated the mythical status of modernism—as a style, an urbanistic solution, and a social concern. One wishes for more illustrations of the buildings, but this is a fascinating immersion in the MAS mysteries.