Architects debate modernism

The Yale School of Architecture hosted a diverse group of speakers this past weekend to discuss the 1930s American modernism movement. The symposium, titled “When Modern was Modern,” coincided with the Yale Art + Architecture Gallery’s current exhibition on the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society Building, widely recognized as an icon of modernity.

Robert A. M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, said the symposium sought to “look at various modes and modalities of modernism in America.” Many lecturers challenged the common perception that modernism was brought over completed from Europe and that Americans “just rolled over,” Stern said.

School of Architecture lecturer Karla Britton, who organized the conference, said the event favored a more nuanced look over the “prevailing assumption that somehow modernism was an import brought over by the exiled European avant-garde.”

“Modernism may in fact have been either an indigenous movement here or, at the very least, have been happening in parallel,” she said.

Keynote speaker Jean-Louis Cohen, a professor at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts and author of several architecture books, described the rise of American modernism as a continual and complex transfer between Europe and America, Stern said.

A committee of architecture school faculty selected the speakers and also acted as moderators in the symposium sessions, Britton said. In each session, several lecturers spoke in detail about one aspect of the movement, such as how ideas of modernity manifested themselves in the media or the landscape.

Saturday afternoon’s session, for example, featured three lectures related to “Landscape in Progress.” Marc Trieb, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, spoke about modernism in the Bay Area and the ability to read and transfer through the land. Richard Plunz, a professor from Columbia University, focused on the modernism of New York City housing.

“Modern architecture was very much connected to the politics of the Depression,” Plunz said. “Families like the Rockefellers were searching for new forms of language and for new ways to say that we’re moving ahead.”

Helene Lipstadt — a director of the Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement, known as DOCOMOMO — said she was impressed with the speakers at the symposium.

“The array of speakers and interrelationship of younger people and more senior people was really a very welcome format,” she said. “The inter-layering of experience and fresh research not yet known created a dialogue across various engagements in research.”

The event also had an autobiographical tone, Lipstadt said, since Stern had written a book on architect George Howe, who co-designed the PSFS Building constructed in 1932. She said Stern’s book was written in 1975, the year scholars often see as the end of modernism.

Stern and the other coordinators timed the symposium to coincide with an international conference sponsored by DOCOMOMO. The organization centered its New York conference around the import and export nature of the modernist movement.

Stern said international researchers, historians and others studying this era of architecture must now turn to the problem of preservation.

“What was modern isn’t modern anymore, and it is now threatened internationally with being torn down,” he said.

Stern said the architecture school’s symposium was “lively and well-attended” and the audience seemed to be enjoying the lectures. The gallery’s related exhibition, entitled “PSFS: Nothing More Modern,” will remain through Nov. 5.

The school’s next exhibition will feature the “light structures” of German engineers Joerg Schlaich and Rudolf Bergemann.

A Yale Art + Architecture Gallery exhibition on the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society Building exemplifies the theme of ‘When Modern was Modern,’ a symposium at the Yale School of Architecture about the 1930s American modernism movement.
Ashley Day
A Yale Art + Architecture Gallery exhibition on the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society Building exemplifies the theme of ‘When Modern was Modern,’ a symposium at the Yale School of Architecture about the 1930s American modernism movement.

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