I wish that it still existed.
— Frank Gehry
It would be the world’s biggest nightmare if the Institute were still alive.
— Mark Wigley
It was the moment for something to happen.
— Diana Agrest
Let me start with a disclaimer: I was not there. I was not a Fellow at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, nor did I take classes there or attend lectures. I can offer no insider view of the “The Institute,” as everyone called it, or dish up racy tales of the goings-on there. I moved to New York City in early 1977 for my first job after graduate school and I certainly was aware of the IAUS and its activities — there were posters on the walls and a lot of talk, even in the drafting room at Davis Brody. I visited the Institute’s quarters on Bryant Park a few times, to see exhibitions, but I found the place a bit intimidating, like an exclusive club for people with special knowledge to which I did not have the key. I loved reading Skyline and I would pick up Oppositions and read articles that I often found unnecessarily abstruse. Certainly I could burnish my intellectual credentials today if I told people that I had been a regular at the IAUS. The IAUS is, in a way, the high-minded architectural community’s equivalent of Woodstock. (I wasn’t there, either.) If every architect of my generation who today claims to have “hung out at the Institute” really was there, the top floor of 8 West 40th Street would have been as crowded as Yasgur’s farm.
During my formative years as a student and young architect the Institute loomed large, as the self-proclaimed center of the architectural universe. For today’s emerging architects the place, much like Woodstock, must seem a distant Parnassus shrouded in myth. The Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies was founded in 1967 by Peter Eisenman, who came to New York a free agent with an agenda after having been denied tenure at Princeton. The enterprise initially enjoyed the backing of the Museum of Modern Art and Cornell University, but this would prove nominal and fleeting: I suspect that curator Arthur Drexler’s better instincts steered him clear of investing too much of MoMA’s resources and prestige in a project so clearly set up to be Eisenman’s baby, and Cornell probably felt some remorse for their involvement after star professor Colin Rowe was unceremoniously ejected from the organization. The IAUS was conceived as a think tank for progressive inquiry into architectural history and theory and contemporary urban issues, independent of any professional or academic institution and free of the burdens of accreditation.
From the beginning the Institute attracted an impressive cadre of forward-thinking architects and scholars, including friends of Eisenman’s from Princeton, Cooper Union and elsewhere and, throughout the 1970s, a parade of rising stars from abroad. Fellows of the Institute, as they were called, participated in a vibrant culture of intellectual production, including lectures, conferences and design forums. Graduate students came to the IAUS to work on projects with the masters, and in 1973 the Institute started an undergraduate educational program, drawing students from a consortium of liberal arts colleges for immersion in theory-based architectural history and design — sort of a junior year abroad in New York City. (Friends of mine who went through the program say that it was life changing, and I readily believe them.) In the early days, engagement with the city was robust, epitomized by a prototype housing complex, commissioned by the Urban Development Corporation for the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn and designed by Kenneth Frampton with a team of IAUS students.
The Institute’s most significant contribution was the publication, from 1973 to 1984, of the journal Oppositions; edited during different phases by Peter Eisenman, Kenneth Frampton, Mario Gandelsonas, Anthony Vidler and Kurt Forster, with Julia Bloomfield as managing editor, and designed, with indelible punch, by Massimo Vignelli. Eisenman knew that to publish is to endure. The hefty square pages of Oppositions carried seminal works by the leading thinkers of the decade, and vigorously injected theory and criticism into American, and international, architectural culture. (Vladimir Slapeta, the distinguished Czech architect and educator, recently told me that back in soviet-era Prague, when news broke of the latest Oppositions’ arrival, he would literally run to the one bookstore in the city that carried the journal. He says it was, in those years, his lifeline to the greater world of architecture.) In addition, Oppositions Books, a companion to the journal, introduced important European texts to the American audience, including, for instance, Aldo Rossi’s The Architecture of the City. In 1978 the Institute inaugurated Skyline, a cheeky monthly tabloid that combined listings, news and gossip about the New York architectural scene (and gave an early boost to the career of editor Suzanne Stephens).
As memories of the architectural world in the 1970s simultaneously fade and become embroidered with the half-truths of selective recollection, and as the original protagonists age and expire, the enterprise of documenting the history and assessing the legacy of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies is under way and gaining momentum. In 2011 Suzanne Frank, who was involved with the Institute from 1970 until its demise in 1985, published a highly personal memoir of her time there. A freshly minted art history PhD from Columbia University, Frank was initially hired as a researcher for Eisenman and eventually grew into the elastically defined job of librarian. 1 IAUS: The Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, An Insider’s Memoir does not purport to be a definitive history of the organization but is, rather, a closely observed chronicle of one secondary participant’s time there. As such it is jammed with data and full of interesting and amusing anecdotes; a record (sometimes slow-going) of the various triumphs, mundane operational challenges, hijinks and epic spats that transpired on West 40th Street. Frank’s text — supplemented by the recollections of 27 other characters involved at the Institute — will provide valuable first-person narrative for future historians; but the personal nature of the project, its hagiographic tone, and her mixed success in securing interviews with prime players (most significantly, Peter Eisenman) leaves the book short of being a fully formed story. Several scholars in the United States and Europe are reportedly working on histories of the IAUS and its various aspects. Kim Förster, a PhD candidate at the ETH Zürich who has enjoyed the support of key individuals and access to IAUS archives, will probably deliver the first authoritative history but, I predict, not the last.
Now the principals are weighing in. Diana Agrest, who was a Fellow of the IAUS from 1972 to 1984 and one of the core group that shaped the Institute during the prime years (and the most prominent woman), recently completed a long-term project that has yielded the documentary The Making of an Avant-Garde: The Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, 1967-1984. It is a remarkable work, less for its cinematic quality (which is admirable) than for the depth of primary historical documentation that it contains. The 64-minute film is structured around a series of interviews — carefully edited and enhanced with vintage photographs — that Agrest filmed over the past ten years with all of the key figures, including Peter Eisenman, Kenneth Frampton, Richard Meier, Charles Gwathmey, Anthony Vidler, Mario Gandelsonas, Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Robert Stern, and Julia Bloomfield, among others.
Interviews with younger architects and critics, some of whom studied at the Institute, add valuable perspective. Mark Wigley, until recently the dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, plays the jester’s role with a wit that enables his perceptive and not always flattering commentary to hit home. Evocative music (if not of the correct period) stitches the segments of the film together and, with scenes of New York City in the 1970s, gives the production a certain Woody Allenesque feel. Agrest’s real ace in the hole is the priceless footage of grainy Super-8 film that she herself shot on site, during Institute functions and dinner parties, which transports the viewer to the time and place. (I wonder what she was thinking, when she shot those home movies, now emanating like time-traveling Twitter: Was she conscious of recording history, or just having fun?) It’s a hoot to see some of the giants of architecture cavorting in their youth. There’s Rem Koolhaas (who wrote Delirious New York while an Institute Fellow) with long hair; Agrest herself, asserting her equality with the boys through body language and style — and if there was any man in the room more handsome than Ken Frampton, I didn’t spot him.
During a discussion after a recent screening at Cooper Union, Agrest explained that early on she decided not to impose a narrator onto the film; that she preferred that the interviewees and images tell the story of the Institute. That’s a legitimate creative position, but I’m afraid that as a result her finished product feels a bit short on expository material and consequently leaves much unexplained. I would like to have learned how Fellows were selected, for example, or what, exactly, was the arrangement with the different feeder schools. And the identities and connections of some of the interview subjects are unclear: What roles, for example, did the art dealer Frederieke Taylor and MoMA trustee Barbara Jakobson — both of whom offer great commentary — have at the Institute? 2 One is left with the feeling that the film is a project by and for Institute insiders, who already know these things.
Early into the film I grew tired of hearing one talking head after another declare that the Institute was the first place, the one place, the only place in the United States where there was any critical discussion of architectural history and theory; where IDEAS were paramount. I’m not so sure about that. Allowing for some hyperbole on the part of the players, I might concede that, in those years, it was the only institution that self-consciously specialized in critical theory unencumbered by concerns about technical or economic viability or, as Institute Fellow Deborah Berke put it, architecture as merely a “banal strategy of problem-solving.” Since the IAUS was not an accredited degree-granting school, it operated free of any obligation to tailor pedagogy to a context of professional practice, and there’s no question that Institute Fellows produced brilliant work of enduring value and altered the course of architectural theory and education. But to lay blanket claim to all advanced ideas within the discipline is a stretch. In the early 1970s I studied at Yale, with Vincent Scully, then in his prime, and at the University of Pennsylvania, where Louis Kahn was still alive and the dominant presence, though the Venturi-Scott Brown crowd, led by the charismatic Steve Izenour, was stirring up the school with subversive ideas about meaning and representation — complexity and contradiction — in architecture. Somehow I never felt that my education was stunted by a lack of history, theory or critical thinking. And wasn’t Colin Rowe producing highly influential work at Cornell? Yes, but Peter Eisenman, in the film, reminds us that Rowe’s was the wrong kind of theory, and he gleefully recounts how he had the lock on the Institute door changed so that Rowe and his students couldn’t get in. He never explains why — we are supposed to know, or just take his word for it.
Agrest’s film project is self-serving, but in the most benign and permissible way. It is fascinating to watch how she and her peers set out to write the official history of their era — or at least the first draft — and of course they are entitled to do so. Now is the moment when members of that generation are understandably concerned with shaping their legacies. There is something almost (almost) touching about listening to today’s titans of corporate and haute institutional architecture remind us that once upon a time they were young, idealistic, radical thinkers. In some cases it’s heavy lifting. Agrest inadvertently plays a cruel joke on Charles Gwathmey, whose interview segments are accompanied by stills of the diminutive but iconic 1967 home and studio that he designed for his parents — while Tony Vidler’s interviews, shot in his dean’s office at Cooper Union, offer a clear view, through the window, of Gwathmey’s dreadful 2005 condominium tower on Astor Place.
The penultimate episode of The Making of an Avant-Garde meditates on the demise of the IAUS, which happened swiftly after Peter Eisenman’s exit in 1982. Eisenman himself says that 15 years of running the Institute was too much, and that he simply had to move on to other pursuits, like tending to his practice. Frampton took over as director in 1982, Vidler in 1983, and Stephen Patterson in 1984 until the Institute’s closure in 1985. Clearly Eisenman had not expended much effort on sustainable institution building, nor had he nurtured a next generation to take over the place. Ken Frampton is more direct in stating that Eisenman did not want the Institute to survive; that he tried to “kill the baby” when he left. Others in the film suggest that the conservative turn of the country and the surge of deregulated capitalism (and real estate prices) in the Reagan years somehow rendered New York City less hospitable to the avant-garde. It falls to Barbara Jakobson to point out the obvious; that, at the end of the day, architects “like to make things,” and while the economic slump of the 1970s had restricted their creativity to theoretical projects on paper, the lucre that infused New York City in the ’80s produced opportunities to build that these guys grabbed.
I am reminded that it was in 1982, just as the IAUS began to peter out, that the visionary architect Kyong Park started Storefront for Art and Architecture in a derelict street-level commercial space in Soho. Storefront for sure had a mission and modus operandi quite different from those of the Institute, but it shared a comparable aspiration to avant-garde cultural production. It’s not that New York in the 1980s could not sustain a venue for radical creative inquiry on architecture and urbanism; it was simply time for the cause to be taken up by a younger group of artists and intellectuals in a different part of town. I might add that after 15 years of running Storefront — precisely the length of Eisenman’s tenure at the IAUS — Park burned out from the effort and, subconsciously or otherwise, sought to take the institution down — to kill the baby — with his departure. For reasons that some future PhD candidate can sort out, Storefront has managed to survive and, so far, adapt to changing cultural and economic landscapes. 3 But not all cultural institutions, and least of all those of the avant-garde, are meant to go on forever. As Robert Stern points out in Agrest’s film: “The magic can never last. Some things should have a moment and stop.”
The Making of an Avant-Garde closes with a consideration of the legacy of the IAUS, particularly in the realm of architectural education. Stan Allen speaks movingly of his experience as a student in the Institute’s undergraduate program in 1977–78 and how it has informed his own teaching at Princeton, where he became dean. Bernard Tschumi brought much of what he saw and learned at the IAUS to his tenure as dean at Columbia. Undergraduate architecture majors (in contradistinction to the old five-year professional programs), which didn’t exist in the 1960s and ’70s, are now popular at many schools while, at the other end of the academic spectrum, PhD programs in architecture schools (as opposed to art history departments) proliferate. We have no way of knowing if these programs would have come into being even if the Institute had never existed: New York City was not, after all, the only place on earth where architectural education was evolving. Speakers in the film make what I think are outsized claims for the Institute’s transformative influence on American education, but it is true that in the years since the Institute crafted its template for an instruction based on history, theory and design, disconnected from the exigencies of practice, the academy has embraced the position. Yet this is a dubious legacy. My sense is that the IAUS, particularly in its late years, advanced a trend toward pedagogy that has become increasingly self-referential and hermetic. And when this academic posture, post IAUS, intersected with today’s digital technology, it has produced, at all too many institutions, design education banefully untethered to any notions of technical, social or professional reality.
One indisputable accomplishment of the IAUS was that it made architecture seem awfully glamorous. Oppositions and Skyline routinely carried photos of Institute events, showing chic, well-dressed people, in Manhattan, drinking cocktails and engaging in what had to be brilliant conversation about architecture. Mark Wigley, in the film, mischievously floats his theory that the IAUS existed simply to produce Oppositions, which in turn existed to print those photos of Institute events and to disseminate them to the hinterlands: all an epic promotional enterprise on behalf of architecture and those who populate its social and intellectual heights. We might well trace our present architectural star system to the penthouse at 8 West 40th Street.
Eisenman and company were obsessed with controlling the door to the clubhouse — figuratively and literally — and determining who was a member of the intellectual elite of architecture and who was not. This preoccupation appears still to be active today, as the old guard seeks to consolidate the legacy of the Institute and to establish their individual centrality to the story, and younger participants strive to insert themselves into the picture. The Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies closed 30 years ago. The fact that people are still talking about it today — and still trying to get in — says something about its importance. We should be grateful to Diana Agrest, and to Suzanne Frank, for persevering in their respective documentary projects and laying down the groundwork — if very particularly contoured — on which more fully examined histories might yet be built.