Find the page for “Architecture View: A Remembrance of Visions Pure and Elegant” here.
Published: January 03, 1993
The curious thing is that it was the architecture school at the University of Maryland, and not some institution in New York or Princeton, that decided to mount an exhibition and lecture series this past fall called “Five Architects: Twenty Years Later.” This retrospective commemorated the 1972 publication of an odd little book entitled “Five Architects” that presented the work of Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk and Richard Meier, architects who were scarcely known at the time. The book took the architectural salons by storm, became something of a cult classic and sent the careers of all five men hurtling forward.
These architects eventually moved in quite different directions, but not for some years; for most of the 1970’s they were so closely identified with one another, and with New York, that they were known internationally both as the New York School and as “The Five.” (In Italy, they were called “I Five di New York.”)
What tied the Five Architects together was a determination to reject the social concerns of the 1960’s in favor of an inquiry into pure esthetics. They looked back, each in his own way, to the great modernist work of Le Corbusier and other European architects of the 1920’s, seeing in it not the utopian dream of a new society but a shimmering esthetic vision of pure, elegant abstraction. This was a time when part of the profession was preoccupied with responding to social priorities reverberating from the 1960’s, and another part was tentatively following the lead of Robert Venturi in hailing the funky architecture of the everyday landscape and questioning the esthetic of 20th-century modernism altogether. Beside these groups, the Five Architects stood out in bold relief. They seemed almost nobly different, determined to reject fads in favor of the most traditional and elevated architectural problem of all, the making of pure form.
How important it all seemed then! The Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in Manhattan, an aerie on West 40th Street that is now long defunct, was run by Mr. Eisenman as a kind of Five Architects think tank, and it throbbed with debate on such urgent issues as the relationship between the theories of Levi-Strauss and architectural form. Mr. Graves taught at Princeton, and Mr. Hejduk ran (and still does run) the architecture program at Cooper Union. Together, these institutions made the New York-to-Princeton corridor a virtual axis of Five Architects thinking.
In opposition to this was what came to be known as the Yale-Philadelphia axis, home to those architects whose ideas ran more to the Venturi mold. Never mind that a New York-to-Princeton axis and a Philadelphia-to-New Haven axis ought to intersect — we’re not talking maps here; we’re talking ideology. The Five Architects stood for purism, for the Platonic ideal of abstraction. It was not for nothing that another nickname for them was the “Whites.” And the Yale and Philadelphia architects who sought to be viewed as The Five’s opposite number came, soon enough, to be known as the Grays. For these were the architects who claimed that their work expressed the reality of shades of gray, not the false perfection of pure white. The fervor led to “Five on Five,” a series of essays put together by Robert A. M. Stern in response to the Five Architects book, in which Mr. Stern and four of his Gray-architect cohort — most notably Jaquelin T. Robertson and Charles Moore — took issue with the theories of the Five.
What was all the fuss about? About youth as much as architecture, I would say now, since the excitement over the Five Architects and the ensuing White vs. Gray debate seemed driven mainly by a love of dogma and a passion for political position. It was apparent to only a few people then that all these architects, Whites and Grays alike, had more in common than they had dividing them: at the end of the day they were all profoundly elitist, concerned mainly with the esthetics of the single-family house, and determined to make architecture in a fairly traditional way. They shared an indifference to megastructures, computer design and other examples of super technology. What separated them was style more than substance.
And within each group, the architects were hardly the same anyway. The stylistic differences were huge, even back then. Mr. Meier’s work did not look like Mr. Hejduk’s, which did not look like Mr. Graves’s, which did not look like Mr. Gwathmey’s or Mr. Eisenman’s. And it wasn’t just outward appearance, but the very philosophical underpinnings that differed. Richard Meier’s buildings have always had a shimmering elegance to their facades that makes for a sensual beauty; Peter Eisenman’s work is intensely cerebral, John Hejduk’s concerned with the expression of literary themes in architectural form. The buildings of Charles Gwathmey and his partner Robert Siegel are inquiries into the manipulation of space, while Mr. Graves’s work, once a kind of cubist sculpture, changed dramatically in the late 1970’s to evolve into a distinctive, highly personal, cubist-influenced kind of classicism.
The shift, Mr. Graves said, came about when he realized that the pure abstraction of the Five Architects was largely incomprehensible to the general public. He sought a broader audience, and set about determinedly to reach it. It was a calculated and ultimately successful gesture; when Mr. Graves jumped ship (and became quite famous in the process) things were never again the same for the old gang.
The fiction that the Five Architects were essentially similar, and that they represented something unique, had been the powerful engine that drove a lot of architectural talk in the 1970’s. Mr. Graves’s sea change gave it the lie. As to the rest of them, they went their separate ways, too, but in each case spinning off in directions that were apparent to careful observers back in 1972: Mr. Gwathmey and Mr. Siegel and Mr. Meier designed even more lavish modernist houses and also moved more toward large buildings, not so much changing their esthetics as struggling to make them compatible with the demands of large-scale architecture. Mr. Hejduk moved more deeply into the role of literary-philosopher, while Mr. Eisenman, his love of political intrigue always in conflict with his status as an intellectual, tried to resolve the two in a more active professional practice.
I did not manage to get to Maryland for the retrospective events, so I cannot comment on what was said. I did, however, look back at much of what was written about the Five Architects 20 years ago, and what is ultimately the most striking about it all is the pictures of the architects themselves, now in their mid-to-late 50’s, then in their 30’s — young enough to be driven by passions so strong that they could carry much of the architectural world along with them.