Five and the City
The restored Eisenman house: Brian Vanden Brink for The New York Times
The passing of Charles Gwathmey this summer has inspired much retrospection and navel-gazing among American architects and critics. The dramatic success of the so-called New York Five and their crusade for a theoretically-sophisticated Modern architecture has captured our attention once more. One of their rejuvenated fans is Nicolai Ouroussoff, who wrote a recent New York Times column bemoaning the lack of a contemporary equivalent to the Five's architectural contributions of the 1960’s and 70’s.
Ouroussoff’s main point concerns the diminished success of contemporary Manhattan-based architects; however, we might make another interpretation from his closing statement that “New Yorkers will have to remember why they came to the city in the first place: to find a refuge from suburbia, not to replicate it.” On the same page, we see a tableau of three detached structures—Graves’ Hanselmann house, Meier’s Smith house, and Eisenman’s own house—all of them surrounded by verdant landscapes, all quite suburban.
To be fair, Ouroussoff did not intend to make this connection. However, it adds another dimension to our renewed focus on the city as a place to live as well as work and play. The symbolic power wielded by the images of these houses—no doubt inspired by the similar depictions of their predecessor, Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye—have held an unrelenting sway over the minds of architects for generations. The vision of stark white geometries carving into the sky and surrounded by lush vegetation continues to serve as a kind of clarion call for architects whose idea of a perfect commission is a large, isolated house far removed from its neighbors.
Yet this clarion call may really be a siren song, insofar as it perpetuates the kind of fragmented, resource-intensive suburbanization that has sapped the life out of American cities and is now becoming an increasingly desirable development model for the nouveau riche in China and India. If our generation had its own New York Five, its efforts would be best spent reengaging the city, reinvigorating the central Modernist tenet that architecture act “as an agent of positive social change,” and designing multi-family and mixed-use projects that ignite our imaginations as much as the previous Five’s single-family residences did. Such an example would not only benefit Manhattan, but also the world.