What Comes After Modernism?

The slogan on the magazine ads for last month’s reopening of the Museum of Modern Art proclaimed, “Manhattan Is Modern Again.” MoMA has been enlarged by 252,000 square feet—that’s about five acres or one-and-a-quarter Wal-Mart supercenters—and remade in the spirit of Modernism’s past by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi.

Manhattan is modern again, but not just because of MoMA. Since the museum ran off to Queens two-and-a-half years ago, Manhattan has embarked on a building boom as ambitious as the one that transformed large portions of the city in the 1960s. And the present Modernist revival is not just about style; it brings with it a resurrected faith in the rightness of the new. The drive to rebuild the World Trade Center site and the excitement it engendered have restored the reputation of urban renewal and rejuvenated the political will to make—and attempt to execute—major plans for large swaths of the city. This too is a form of Modernism.

As it turns out, one of the best places to observe the transformation is the Hotel on Rivington, a 21-story glass tower designed by two young, largely unknown New York architects, Matthew Grzywinski and Amador Pons. As MoMA represents Modernism as ideology, the hotel is Modernism as trend. It started out as a collaboration with Surface magazine, a publication that makes no distinction between design and fashion.

The hotel’s facade of cool green glass panels—some opaque, some translucent, some clear—is pleasing but not surprising. I tried to imagine how it would feel if it were 1952 and I was seeing Lever House for the first time. Back then this building would have been something radically new (although this hotel tower may be as much a shock to the surrounding Lower East Side tenements as Lever House once was to Park Avenue).

One September morning I’m taken on a tour by the hotel’s operating partner, Klaus Ortlieb, a thin, casually elegant man whose gentle accent seems to emanate not from his native Germany but from some imaginary polyglot nation that spawns hoteliers. Ortlieb shows off the lower floors—still full of Sheetrock and plaster dust—that will house a lounge by irreverent Dutch designer Marcel Wanders and a lobby by Italian smoothie Piero Lissoni. I’m not impressed until we reach the guest rooms designed by interior designer India Mahdavi. It’s not her shaggy poodle-haired poof seats or the luxurious bathrooms I admire—I’m knocked out by the view.

Right, I think, this is what glass walls are for. It’s the perspective you can only get from the very first tall building in a neighborhood. Most extraordinary is the panorama from the $5000-a-night duplex penthouse that is being designed—slowly—by Zaha Hadid. The view is sprinkled liberally with buildings under construction: 7 World Trade Center, a sleek box by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill almost topped out; the vast Avalon apartment complex on Chrystie Street; the New Museum on the Bowery; and the Astor Place apartment tower by Gwathmey Siegel.

Manhattan is indeed Modern again. But here’s the question I keep asking myself: Does this mean we’re looking toward the future or the past? Is the Modernism of all these brand-new glass towers a sign of innovation? Or is it simply a replay of a happier historical moment? Back in the 1990s the Modernist revival seemed like a component of the technology boom. Once again we believed that high-tech would make the world a better place, and the architecture reflected that. The dot-com era optimism has been blown away, but architecture (with its longer gestation periods) will carry forward its vestigial imprint for years to come.

“It’s the seventies again,” comments architect James Biber, a Pentagram partner. I’m talking with him about a project he calls the Swiss Army house, an inexpensive steel-and-glass home with a plan modeled on the Swiss cross. Biber suggests that Modernism is always with us, but that cultural attitudes toward it change. A few years ago I speculated that the current penchant for Modernism was post-Post-Modern, that the Modernist language of exposed structure and gridded curtain walls was being used as self-consciously as the Post-Modern architects used pediments and columns.

Maybe we’re beyond that point now. We’ve been Modern again for so many years now that architects don’t actually realize they’re participating in a revival. It has become axiomatic, just like in the 1970s when the once utopian language of American midcentury Modernism became the default mode of design, when it became the thing that was most economical and easy to do. I walk into a new noodle bar on First Avenue and notice it’s done all in raw plywood, much like the 1996 Work House, by L.A. architects Guthrie + Buresh, which was featured in MoMA’s 1999 Un-Private House exhibition. Five years ago this would have been a phenomenon—now it’s just another noodle bar.

Is there a next? Yes—sort of. It appears to be the return of architectural iconography. As with neoclassical architecture, the idea is either to symbolize the highest ideals of whatever the building houses or, occasionally, to obscure the intent and meaning of whatever’s inside. Unlike the Post-Modern return to iconography of the 1980s, the current revival doesn’t involve architectural ornament. Rather, it’s a form of Abstract Expressionism in which the distinctive computer-assisted shape of a building, its materials, and its colors lend it the memorable qualities of a corporate identity. Iconic architecture is a form of branding.

The iconic moment surely started with Frank Gehry and Bilbao. The Seattle Public Library, by Rem Koolhaas, is another landmark icon, as Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center transit hub will be. But, like fashion, as soon as the next thing—this next thing, any next thing—begins, it’s over. As British architecture critic Deyan Sudjic recently noted in London’s Observer, “Six months ago everybody and his dog wanted an icon, now it is just as much a piece of received wisdom that the icon is all over, and the very word has become too embarrassing to use.”

Of course, five minutes after I read Sudjic’s essay online, I pick up the New York Times and read about the plan by the owners of the Islanders hockey team for a 60-story Long Island tower called the Great Lighthouse. “You’re talking about an iconographic structure,” the team’s senior vice president told the newspaper. “Paris has its tower, and London has its bridge.”

Personally I think the iconic moment has just begun. Here in America—home of the 1,776-foot-tall Freedom Tower—embarrassment has never stopped anyone.

A few days after my trip to the Hotel on Rivington, I pay a visit to one of Modernism’s holiest shrines. As I walk into MoMA’s new brilliantly white 110-foot-high atrium—a skylit space that runs from 53rd to 54th Streets—I experience the strangest sensation. Here I am in a completely new building, but I keep scanning the details, the galleries and stairways revealed by carefully placed cutouts, for bits of the MoMA I know. It’s a much grander space than ever existed in the old museum, but it is so redolent of the old—so very MoMA—that I feel as if I’ve been here before.

Back when MoMA selected Taniguchi, I was sorry that the museum chose an architect who promised an essentially Modernist revival building. I thought the museum should be pushing Modernism forward. Standing in the new space, I can empathize with the choice. Clearly MoMA didn’t want to tinker; it wanted to underscore the immanence of Modernism.

Oddly the view from across 53rd Street says something different: it reveals MoMA as a jumble of architectural intentions. In its way it’s as much a smorgasbord as the Metropolitan Museum. To the far east is Philip Johnson’s 1964 addition; next is the nicely restored milky white facade of the 1939 building, looking like a bit of Bauhaus; Cesar Pelli’s glitzy 1984 apartment tower stands in the middle; and then finally, Taniguchi’s restrained facade. Each component reflects its own era’s take on Modernism. And the message is, There is no next—Manhattan is destined to be Modern again and again and again.

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