I had the great pleasure of participating in "Thinking Big: Diagrams, Mediascapes and Megastructures," a symposium on the work of Kevin Roche this past week. Sometimes people seem to be surprised that I'm interested in late modernism, or "corporate" architecture from the 1970s. Now, to be sure there's some degree of nostalgia there for me, but I think my talk makes some links between then and now that should explain some of those interests. I'm publishing it on my site in hopes that you'll enjoy and give me comments.
Kevin Roche and Late Modernism
In this talk I want to situate Kevin Roche’s work of the 1970s and 1980s within a theoretical context of late modernism.
The commonly accepted narrative for the history of postwar American architecture goes roughly as follows. During the 1960s, modern architecture—having identified too closely with big business and big government—ran aground. Only the experimentation of the New York Five, together with the development of postmodernism, got the discipline back on track. Obviously, such heroic narratives should always be regarded with suspicion.
In that history, late modernism barely warrants a mention except as a sort of zombie that continued after its time was up. It’s easy to convince yourself of this, take a look at the pages of Oppositions, the key critical journal of the day. It’s nowhere to be found. In one of the few works on the topic, Charles Jencks describes the Late Modernists as having “taken the theories and style of their precursors to an extreme and in so doing produced an elaborated or mannered Modernism.” In contrast to the postmodernists who produced buildings employing more conventional, historical allusions to form, Jencks argued, the late moderns limited their efforts to exaggerating the structure or technological image of a building.
But I think we can come to a more theoretically sound definition of Late Modernism than Jencks’s stylistic classification. If late modern comes after the exhaustion of the modern theoretical position, the cause is different than Jencks suggests. In the Architecture of Good Intentions, Colin Rowe points out that although modern architecture claimed to be based on reason, its adherents adopted a messianic conviction in the “good news” of its coming. Conveniently, Kevin Roche confirms this:
I grew up against a very Catholic background, in which one lived constantly in the fear of sin, sin which would destroy one. … What Mies did was to translate this feeling into architectural terms. He really created the idea of mortal sin in architecture and that there was a right way to do something and there was a wrong way. The wrong way was a loss of life. The right way was beautiful, divine. A world of absolute black and absolute white.
Now the generally accepted narrative suggests modernism failed, that the People’s Temple of modernism, too caught up in messianic fervor, annihilated itself.
But what if the break with modernism isn’t because it failed but because it succeeded?
I find it useful to employ T. J. Clark’s suggestion that modernism prophesized, even demanded the modernization of the world. Once modernism had won, sometime around the year 1960, something changed. Proclaiming the “good news” simply became passé. It might be possible, then, to associate this condition with the problem of the “end of ideology,” as pronounced by Daniel Bell for political history, also around that date. All this is of course also rather similar to the postwar economic condition that Ernest Mandel calls “late capitalism.” In Mandel’s reading, a postwar economy based on a third technological wave of information electronics but also, crucially on the thorough penetration of the world by capital.
In other words, Mandel’s late capitalism fits quite well with Clark’s observation that about the thorough modernization of the world. If in Fredric Jameson’s reading, capitalism’s thorough colonization of the world produces the cultural logic of postmodernism, what I want to argue here is that postmodernism is not the only logic of late capitalism, that late modernism is also a cultural logic of late capitalism and should be understood as such.
Read in the light of historical necessity, then, the critiques leveled against the conformist, rationalist structures of Fordist business and the functional structures of modernism can be understood not merely as reactions to an oppressive moment but also as internal critiques that allowed capitalism to make the transition to Post-Fordist organizational (and architectural) structures able to thrive in the more difficult environment of late capitalism.
So where does Roche fit into this? If he inherits a high modernist firm, as he hits his stride in the1970s, in the series of projects following the Ford Foundation, he makes a fundamental break with high modernism. Now by that point, Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities was already over a decade old and Philip Johnson’s break with Mies and functionalism was past history. Even Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction could be commonly found, if not on top of student desks, hidden underneath them. So what is Roche’s break and how is it different?
Let’s look at a few Roche buildings. Take the College Life Insurance Company Headquarters, the United Nations Plaza, the projects for downtown Houston and Denver designed for Gerald D. Hines, or the John Deere educational center.
Don't spend much time looking at these. Look fast.
In passing, you will have observed two things: simple, geometric forms and structures that might seem to be informed by postmodernism. But Roche is up to something else entirely. In the interview with Francesco dal Co in the 1985 monograph of his work, Roche reflects on the skyscraper, explaining “There is no indigenous form to the high-rise building. It has no essential form. It literally can be almost anything. The technology is such that without the expenditure of additional money it can be almost anything.” We can confirm this isn’t off the cuff by observing that Roche employs nearly identical phrasing in “Statements for History,” a 1984 tape made for Monica Pidgeon, suggesting that “…one of the characteristics of a high rise building is that there is almost no preordained form for it. It can be almost anything you wish it to be because the engineering is such that it is as easy to build it one way as another.”
In other words, advances in building technology allow Roche to let form and function to go their separate ways. Still for an architect educated in modernism, this might appear to be a vertiginous condition. If the primary dictum of modernism no longer held, then on what basis would it be possible to design?
Roche responds that the architect needs to turn to identity, to produce a distinctive building that can provide an identity for a corporation. But matters are complicated by the late modern condition. For one, the growing automobility in American culture determines the ways in which buildings are perceived. Roche explains of College Life Insurance,
“we have about 3 seconds to identify some kind of an image for the building group so this is a rather strong formalist image of a glass building with rather solid concrete walls. It is of course entirely functional but it is arranged in such a way as to be an arresting combination of forms…”
Of General Foods, he explains,
“the few seconds that you have to see this building, it’s on axis of a major highway in new york state and as you barrel down the highway you suddenly round the corner and there’s this building and you say to yourself well what is this and it clearly isn’t a warehouse it clearly isn’t a church it is something else and that something else we then try to identify with the company and with the headquarters function very much in the sense that the castle or the chateau in France is an administrative center for the community the modern corporation is a kind of administrative center for a different community, it is a place where you have an organized structure, it has a presence on the landscape which is very similar.”
Contrast this with Jencks and Robert Venturi, even Peter Eisenman, who argue for a sustained reading of a building to fully understand it. Instead of complexity and multivalency or contradiction and double-coding, Roche argues for rapid legibility.
But not every Roche project is meant for high-speed viewing. How do we explain United Nations Plaza or the Federal Reserve Bank?
We can shed light on Roche’s strategies and their difference from both modernism and postmodernism by turning to the theories of Marshall McLuhan. For McLuhan, of course, the saturation of post-1960s society suggests a shift from Hot to Cool, that is from media that demand high levels of attention to media that demand lower levels of attention, from media of high definition to media of low definition.
If this seems like reaching, let’s turn to Roche again.
… we are competing in world in which it is very difficult to penetrate the mist of images, and the perception of people is fogged substantially by the multiple images that they have to deal with. Because of this it is necessary at times, as it always is in art, to overstate the case in order to penetrate the fog.
… One frequently feels the need to overstate, in order to make a point at all, because if you make a point which is understated, it is very difficult for it to reach its audience; the noise level may be a little too low. That is a problem with all architecture today. Sometimes I choose to overstate, particularly when dealing with the highway and the automobile and the passing moment.”
In the oversaturated city, images come at you fast. This is architecture comes at you fast, but is overstated, thus leaving an afterimpression.
Now if at this point also Roche produces forms we would commonly identify as historicist, they are subject to the same seamless treatment that the works we would identify as sculptural are. So whereas the postmodernists reanimate historical forms, Roche unloads them, not to exalt them but to reduce them. Thus, in discussing the UN Plaza and the Morgan Bank, he states
They are both buildings which have usable floors that go to a certain number of stories in height. They have mechanical equipment. They have all the right dimensions. So, what is the appropriate expression? In one case, it was derived from minimal sculpture, in the other it was derived from a more historic, more refined kind of architectural geometry—the geometry of the column, which has a base, a shaft and a top. They are both the same building, you could exchange the interiors.
The column, which Roche first explores in depth at the Central Park Zoo, emerges, he states,
from the simple idea of chamfering a piece of stone to create a base and top between a brick shaft, and apply[ing] that form to a larger scale building…The columnar form that we are working with is a minimalist columnar form. It is as abstract as the form of the U.N. Plaza. … The Denver and Houston projects are very simple forms. Just a modernist box with a few cuts which switch the character entirely. It’s very interesting—if you start with a box, put a skin on it—it is a typical building from the fifties or sixties. Now nick the corners to imply a base and the same to imply a top, and if you slope the top a roof is created. But it is still minimalist sculpture. It is the same aesthetic. It is just a slight in language—quite different from the traditional skyscraper form.
Rather than taking the postmodern turn, what Roche is up to in these buildings is closer to what Claus Oldenburg does, producing legible, overscaled pieces (indeed, once again Roche beats me to the point, identifying Oldenburg as a parallel to his work).
Roche’s cool shaping thus anticipates the iconic structures so popular today among architects like Kazuyo Sejima, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, and Rem Koolhaas.
But not always. As Eeva pointed out, in structures like Richardson Vicks or Union Carbide, the client had no interest in an interface with the public so visual appearance gave way, producing anti-architecture, some of the more extreme versions of infrastructural architecture to date.
Still, such projects were not removed from mediation. Of Union Carbide, Roche explains.
Most suburbanites live in houses which have attached garages. In this arrangement, when they leave for work in the morning, walk through the kitchen, get into their car, drive into the building, get out and into their office—[you get] an immediate connection between their home and office.
Now Roche sends us for a twist. He continues.
Which raises an interesting question. Can we anticipate that with the development of electronic communications, that in the very near future there will be no need at all for people to get together in office buildings? Will people simply stay at home and save themselves all the trouble of traveling? Almost in anticipation of that, what we have done is take the library or den out of the home and put it in the office building. These offices are really a collection of private dens or little workspaces attached by the umbilical of the car, to the home now, but in the near future, maybe attached by the umbilical of electronic communications to the headquarters, and the headquarters, in fact, would become just the center of electronic communications.
“…many of the things we did at Carbide, we did also at General Foods. But there is a fundamental difference between them and that is that Carbide has no exterior image for the employee. It is in a sense a transfer of a living room or working space from home into a treehouse in the woods. The umbilical being the automobile. General Foods is a more positive place of arrival. It is a place that is written in your memory on the outside, a more traditional expectation; it is done for the automobile. There is a front door and you drive into it. … Carbide could have been built as General Foods or vice versa. It wasn’t appropriate to do so … because Union Carbide did not want such a presence. General Foods couldn’t avoid it. It had a smaller site out on a highway. They couldn’t avoid being seen. They had to be seen.
At Carbide the worker goes from television screen to computer screen by means of the windshield, the building compresses into infrastructure. Hidden in the woods, Carbide is a step along the way to a network culture, to a re-envisioning of architecture as media and electronic technology that a future generation will have to take on.
 Charles Jencks, Late-Modern Architecture and Other Essays (New York: Rizzoli, 1980), 10.
 Colin Rowe, The Architecture of Good Intentions. Towards a Possible Retrospect, (London: Academy Editions, 1994).
 Kevin Roche and Francesco Dal Co, Kevin Roche (New York: Rizzoli, 1985), 20.
 T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).
 Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology; On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties, (Glencoe, Ill.,: Free Press, 1960).
 Compare with Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).
 Roche and Dal Co, Kevin Roche, 38.
 Kevin Roche, Statements for History (London: Pidgeon Audio Visual, 1984), Sound Recording.
 Roche, “Statements for History”
 Roche, “Statements for History”
 Roche and Dal Co, Kevin Roche, 72.