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What is Late Modernism?

And why you should care

Norman McGrath

Welcome back to Critical Eye, Alexandra Lange's incisive, observant, curious, human- and street-friendly architecture column for Curbed. In this edition, Lange pinpoints the next era of preservation-worthy architecture, now that modernism (midcentury, International Style) has become an accepted cause célèbre. First things first: What defines this so-called “Late Modernism,” anyway?

If non-architects know the Citicorp Center—New York’s youngest landmark when designated at 38—they know it for its flaw. Shortly after its completion in 1978, a student called the office of its engineer, William J. LeMessurier, and asked about the four 24-foot-square, 100-foot-tall “super” columns, unusually positioned at the center of each of the skyscraper’s facades, that help to hold the building up.

In designing the building’s innovative structural system, LeMessurier had correctly calculated the strength of the wind hitting each face of the building straight on, but had failed to reckon with the extra strain of the “quartering” winds which hit the building’s cantilevered corners. In responding to the student’s questions, he realized he had made a mistake—one compounded by the substitution of bolted structural joints for welded ones, which are much stronger. By his calculations, a storm strong enough to topple the building hits the city every 55 years.

The Citicorp Center.
Norman McGrath

LeMessurier alerted Citicorp, who hired Leslie E. Robertson, engineer of the Twin Towers, to perform an ex post facto fix, “welding two-inch-thick steel plates over each of more than two hundred bolted joints,” a task which took two months. A press release issued at the time shows masterful use of the passive voice: “A review of the Citicorp Center’s designation specifications was recently made . . . [it] caused the engineers to recommend that certain of the connections in Citicorp Center’s wind bracing system be strengthened through additional welding . . . there is no danger.”

All this would have remained hidden by that bland language, were it not for some loose party talk. “The Fifth-Nine Story Crisis” was the title of Joe Morgenstern’s thrillingly written 1995 New Yorker story on the fix; a 2004 99% Invisible episode also told the tale, with the important update of the identification of the student—a woman, as it happened—named Diane Hartley.

But those “super” columns, now strong enough, the engineers say, “to withstand a seven-hundred-year storm,” did much more than give the engineers heart attacks.

Under Citicorp’s 72-foot cantilevers lay one of New York’s first mixed-use complexes, a city in the shadow of the tower, with a sunken, terraced public court, a three-level, 277,000-square-foot market topped with a (still-missed) Conran’s, and a gem-shaped, granite-clad church, St. Peter’s, that looks a little like a chip off the 59-story satiny steel-clad block.

Interior of the Citicorp Center.
Norman McGrath

Citicorp Center was architect Hugh Stubbins’s first major commission, and would be his only skyscraper in New York. Up top, the building looks lopped off at a 45-degree angle, making it instantly recognizable on the skyline. That simple slant was originally supposed to hold stepped apartments— like a beachfront resort in the sky—and then a solar array. In the end, it is just an angle, but that’s enough.

The brawny columns and structural derring-do, the strikingly smooth shaft, and the somewhat crude geometry make Citicorp an ideal example of Late Modernism—a style with a boring name that you are going to be hearing much, much more about, now that its buildings, like so many of us, approach age 40. (In New York City, buildings must be over 30 to be considered for landmark status; the National Register of Historic Places generally considered “historic” sites to be over 50.)

My nine-year-old is learning the five-paragraph essay this year, and the teacher insists that each paragraph have evidence. Here is my evidence for Late Modernism’s claim on our attention: Citicorp’s landmark designation; I.M. Pei’s Glass Pyramid at the Louvre, which just received the AIA’s 25-Year Award; Gio Ponti’s little-known, castle-like 1971 North Building for the Denver Art Museum, being restored to expand gallery space and give visitors access to the top floor and its gorgeous views, as Ponti always intended; Pei’s 1978 East Building for the National Gallery of Art, renovated and looking better than ever.

These buildings exhibit beefy bold shapes, wrapped in singular materials, sticking their sharp corners in our faces. More refined than Brutalism, less picturesque than Postmodernism, Late Modernism is what happened in the 1970s and early 1980s and, 40-ish years later, it is history.

Clockwise from top left: Glass Pyramid at the Louvre; Pittsburgh Plate Glass Place; Seattle Public Library; 100 Eleventh Avenue; East Building for the National Gallery of Art; North Building for the Denver Art Museum; W.R. Grace.
Edward Berthelot/Getty Images; Paul Frankenstein/Flickr; David/Flickr; Kristina D.C. Hoeppner/Flickr; View Pictures/UIG via Getty Images; Jesse Varner/Flickr; Peter Miller/Flickr

British architecture critic Charles Jencks celebrated Late Modernism in a 1980 book called, appropriately, Late-Modern Architecture, emphasizing the era’s architects’ pragmatism (willingness to work on large-scale corporate projects), their commitment to order (grids), their dramatic interior sections (balcony upon balcony). The designers of the day were committed to the “covering of this space with flat membranes of an homogenous material whether glass, nylon or brick: the tendency for polished surfaces whether these are brown, blue or, most appropriately silver.”

That blue is telling, because while I am leaning heavily on New York examples, Los Angeles has rightful claim on some of the finest examples of Late Modernism: Cesar Pelli’s 1975 Blue Whale at the Pacific Design Center, to which he added green and red siblings over the next four decades. (The blue and green buildings were both made City of West Hollywood Designated Cultural Resources in 2003.)

Pelli and Anthony Lumsden were colleagues in Eero Saarinen’s office, where they worked on the ur-Late Modern Bell Labs, a.k.a. “the biggest mirror ever.” Lumsden had been unable to convince Kevin Roche to use a reverse mullion for that project, which would have made its surface skin-smooth. Lumsden recalled the idea when working with Pelli at DMJM, in L.A., referring to their subsequent buildings as “the membrane aesthetic.”

Late Modern’s West Coast proponents briefly grouped themselves for a 1976 UCLA exhibition as the Silvers, shininess, reflective glass and metal cladding all being dominant players in its execution, in contrast to the austere Corbusian planes of The Whites and the historicist shingles of The Grays. For brown, there’s the Ford Foundation, right on the cusp, and the long grey-brown balconies of Edward Bassett for SOM’s 1971 Weyerhaeuser Headquarters, meant to be obscured by spilling vines.

Late Modernism is a style without theory, practiced by architects who were trying to build their way out of the diminishing returns of Miesian copies. Where a Mies tower (and its numerous knockoffs) seems to suck in its cheeks, the Late Modern tower fills itself edge-to-edge, visually pressing its mirrors out while staying within the lines. Those lines include triangles, chamfers, stair-steps and the occasional curve, but rarely bilateral symmetry.

Late Modernism shades into Postmodernism with projects like Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s Pittsburgh Plate Glass Place, which directly references Gothic architecture. The pressure on the skin creates tension in a sliced-away corner, or a narrow gap like the one between the two trapezoidal towers at Johnson and Burgee’s 1975 Pennzoil Place in Houston.

One of Late Modernism’s problems, preservation-wise, may be its large scale and oft corporate clientele. As Kazys Varnelis has pointed out, “Modernism was no longer revolutionary for the late moderns. Instead, they worked to give physical form to big business and big government. As these would come under scathing criticism in the 1960s, the late moderns would be tarred along with them.” At 99 Percent Invisible, Kate Wagner recently called attention to a latent criticism of Late Modern embedded in popular films: big, unreadable buildings without clear entrances often serve as HQs for Evil, Inc.

It is helpful to have an emotional argument to accompany the historical one when fighting for a building’s life. In my husband’s childhood memories of Manhattan, two swooping buildings, W.R. Grace on West 42nd Street (Gordon Bunshaft for SOM, 1974) and the Solow Building on 57th (same architect, same year), stand out as dramatic anomalies.

But does anyone want to hug—or propose in the public atrium of—the IBM Building? A rare petite example is Paul Kennon’s 1978 AT&T Switching Station in Columbus, Indiana, a mirrored box at the scale of the surrounding 19th-century retail streets, dressed up with rainbow “organ pipes” hiding the mechanical systems.

One of my arguments for the preservation of the Ambassador Grill and the lobby of the UN Plaza Hotel—still up in the air with New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission—was that they were distinctive, destination spaces in which memories were made. Are there not diplomats who might speak of international deals brokered under that mirrored sky?

Lella Vignelli’s St. Peter’s Church.
Norman McGrath

Similarly, it is a shame that religious interiors are exempt from the Landmarks Law, because Massimo and Lella Vignelli’s warm, Scandinavian-inspired design for St. Peter’s Church, a diamond embedded at the base of the Citicorp cantilever, looks better than ever, down to the Op Art bargello embroidery on the seat cushions. Many a modernist marriage has chosen that backdrop.

And yet, some of today’s most celebrated architects ought to be the style’s chief proponents, because we would not have some of the city’s most anticipated buildings of 2016, 2017, and beyond without Late Modernism.

Just look at New York’s skyline: BIG’s hyperbolic parabaloid on West 57th Street is not the only glassy pyramid scudding across the landscape—there’s Roche Dinkeloo’s College Life Insurance headquarters in Indianapolis, completed in 1972. Herzog & De Meuron’s 56 Leonard, where the curtain wall seems pushed to its limit to smoothly contain the pressure of those popping boxes and balconies, is the child of previous dematerializations of the dumb glass rectangle that include Der Scutt’s 1983 Trump Tower. (Which is, pace the hideous marble lobby, quite a good building. Try looking at it in black-and-white sometime when we are all calmer, and public access is fully restored.)

Asymmetry and glassiness, combined with structural derring-do and plants asked to perform at the scale of the city—as in BIG’s proposed Spiral for Hudson Yards and (less likely) 2 World Trade Center—are wholly au courant. Looking backward, Jean Nouvel’s spangles on 100 Eleventh Avenue in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, and OMA’s angles at the Seattle Public Library, are also sons of Late Modernism.

The city skyline is a lesson in architectural history, and too lively a finger on the delete button robs the present of meaning and the past of presence. Rafael Vinoly’s 432 Park Avenue still looks wildly out of place to me, but I know it will feel familiar in time.

Scanning the Manhattan skyline from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway is a good way to pick the icons from the also-rans, and the Citicorp Building presents character in a way One Bryant Park never will. Late Modernism, born of capital, speaks to the way we build now, literally mirroring the ambition of today’s shape makers.