In 2012, I spent a few months as a visiting scholar at a prestigious university in Upstate New York. Browsing online looking for something to visit nearby, I discovered that the First Unitarian Church, designed by Louis I. Kahn in the early 1960s, was in Rochester, just a couple of hours’ drive away. I knew the building very well. It was a recurrent precedent during my undergraduate education, republished multiple times in Italian architectural journals, and often a subject of doctoral dissertations. In my mind, I was dealing with a masterpiece. So, I planned to visit my first Louis Kahn building.
I asked around, and to my surprise, students did not know anything about the complex. Some faculty I spoke to didn’t show any interest either. I decided to go anyway.
From the street, the building appeared like a small, mysterious object – much smaller than I had expected. Kahn’s preoccupation with volumetric mass and preference for opaque over transparent building envelopes were more evident to me now. However, I immediately felt that the lack of recognizable openings gave the building a sculptural character, but at the cost of making it too abstract, even for a trained eye. Compared to the nearby nineteenth-century Presbyterian church, designed in neo-Gothic style by Richard Upjohn, it seemed to me that Kahn’s new complex tried to disguise its program as a place of worship.
The more time I spent staring at the building, the more I found myself struggling with its formal narrative: the mix of ancient European precedents filtered through Kahn’s interest the inherent monumentality of pure forms had very little to do with the context of a North American industrial town. The building’s siting makes it even more obscure. The primary access is on the side, through the parking lot, with just a tiny service entrance from the street. The placement of the main entrance on the long side of the hall completely disengages the building from the sidewalk. Once again, I found that in doing his best to neutralize the surroundings, Kahn had gone too far.
In the following months and years, I tried to understand the hype around the church. Leaving the rereading of Manfredo Tafuri’s harsh criticism till last, I wanted to focus mainly on the ideological support of American historians like Vincent Scully and Colin Rowe, both of whom saw in the architect from Philadelphia a meaningful alternative to the worn-out North American modernism of the late 1950s. While Scully emphasized Kahn’s ability to pursue monumentality as an inherent feature of stereometric forms, Rowe mobilized Kahn’s interest in the formal tradition of rooms against the “free plan.”(1) Contrary to the praise of the two North American historians, Tafuri saw in Kahn’s “mythology of the institution” the desperate attempt of some North American architects to seek a more meaningful appearance in response to modern culture’s visual consumption.(2)
Altogether, the visit to the church, the oppositional readings of Kahn’s work by Scully, Rowe, and Tafuri, and the students’ lack of interest in the complex, all made me think about the status of certain buildings as exemplary ones. But it was not until I reread Stuart Hall’s arguments on modern culture as a set of practices, rather than as an inherent quality, that my scattered notes started to take shape.(3) We have been taught and told that modern masterpieces are exceptional artifacts that can transcend time and space to establish a master tradition or canon.
Is that true? Is modern “masterpieceness” not a somewhat fictional and subcultural condition that has little to do with objective qualities and fixed meanings?
The cultural production of masterpieces like the First Unitarian Church tells us how modern representational practices have become more intentional and strategic. Selected buildings enter the public sphere connected to particular cultural discourses of which they become primary vehicles. As heavily mediated artifacts, they come into existence thanks to the work of key intellectual figures who design sophisticated narratives to support the masterpiece’s special status – Scully’s latest militant text on Kahn’s First Unitarian Church is from 1992, thirty years after the church complex was completed. This is what Tafuri defined as “operative criticism.”
More than in the past, modern media played a key role in producing and reproducing ideological messages meant to make certain buildings appealing to an audience that can eventually read them as masterful. However, despite the quicker and broader dissemination allowed by the increasing number of international journals and exhibitions, given the highly specialized nature of modern architectural rhetoric, its public cannot be but a highly educated subculture.
The cultural mediation is such that the subculture signifies the masterpiece and is signified by it at the same time. Hence, it would be a mistake to think of the subculture as a passive audience. Without its constant involvement as an incubator and a propagator, the modern masterpiece could not exist and survive. It is the subcultural, with its pervasive activities and influence, that legitimizes the masterpiece. Just think about the role of cultural institutions like the MoMA in shaping the architectural debate around modern architecture in North America, and about how much the museum benefited from its cultural campaigns.
There is another crucial aspect informing the successful formation of a modern masterpiece: intellectual persuasion. More than historically and experientially accurate, the narrative built around a modern masterpiece must be intellectually persuasive. Scully’s conceptualization of the monument in Western architectural history transcended many cultural controversies and regional differences. Unlike ancient buildings, which were elevated to the status of masterpieces after recurring visits, after the 1960s architectural criticism grew through intellectual narratives which were not always consistent with the in-person experience of the building, or sensitive to its local reception. While Rowe’s broader formal analysis overlooked the social and political implications of Kahn’s spatial configurations, Scully praised the removal of elements like windows and doors in the design of the Rochester church, omitting to acknowledge their role as spatial and cultural references for the parishioners.
The cultural reproduction around the church complex successfully translated into public meaning the built outcome of a privately commissioned professional service. How does the narrative consider the architectural masterpiece and its author in the broader framework of public culture? Although with some nuances, in Rowe and Scully’s critiques of Kahn’s design, a hegemonic vision emerges. The architect is assessed as the sole interpreter of society’s monumental expression. This rhetoric reinvigorates the figure of the architect as a mastermind operating under some collective mandate.
The masterpiece’s ideological construction must articulate a set of antagonists to support such a fictional hierarchy. Clients, public servants, and groups of citizens are delegitimized and depicted as cultural opposers and obstacles to the architect’s aesthetic project. Of the three historians, only Tafuri showed awareness of how deceptive this interpretation could be.
So, given the heavily mediated status of a modern masterpiece, how solid is the consensus around it? How long does its pretended cultural hegemony last?
I concluded that although most of the master historiographies attempt to “construct” masterpieces as intellectual anchors of transhistorical aesthetic and symbolic values, the condition of modern masterpieceness is not timeless. Since the aura of the modern masterpiece is artificial and its legitimacy limited to the subculture’s work and influence, it disappears when new masterpieces, with their novel narratives and resourceful supporters, deliberately displace the old ones – the teachers of the students I met chose not to talk about Kahn’s church complex.
Hence, far from being absolute, eternal, real, and mainstream, a modern architectural masterpiece is first of all a masterful work of subcultural fiction.
PS Louis Kahn’s First Unitarian Church is currently labelled a “classic” on Archdaily.
1. Vincent Scully, “Louis I. Kahn and the Ruins of Rome” (1992), in Modern Architecture and Other Essays, ed. Neil Lavine (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003), 298–319; Colin Rowe, “Neo-Classicism and Modern Architecture II,” in The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA, and London: MIT Press, 1980), 139–58.
2. Manfredo Tafuri, “L’architecture dans le boudoir,” in The Sphere and the Labyrinth (Cambridge, MA, and London: MIT Press, 1980), 267–303.
3. Stuart Hall, “The Work of Representation,” in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, ed. Stuart Hall (London, Thousand Oaks, and New Delhi: SAGE Publications, 1997), 15–64.
Roberto Damiani is an Assistant Professor – Teaching Stream in the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto and the editor of The Architect and the Public: On George Baird’s Contribution to Architecture (Quodlibet, 2020).