The architects Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee are seated at the long conference table in their Los Angeles office. Stacks of art and architecture books are piled in front of them, forming a landscape of references and influences. Lee picks up a sizable monograph, opens it to an image, and places the book on top of the pile. Thomas Ruff’s Sammlung Goetz (1994) fills a double-page spread. The photograph is a deadpan portrait of a contemporary art gallery in Munich designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog + de Meuron.
In 1956, Alison and Peter Smithson, then enfants terribles on the British architecture scene, penned a treatise for Ark magazine celebrating the popular art of advertising and effectively collapsing distinctions between lowly and venerated forms of cultural production: “For us it would be the objects on the beaches, the piece of paper blowing about the street, the throw-away object and the pop-package. For today we collect ads.”
Imagining a new society begins with visionary design. What can we learn from the bold architectural schemes of the twentieth century?
The frontispiece of the original edition of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, published in Leuven, Belgium, in 1516, depicts a small island, nearly round with deckled edges. The engraver’s hand shaded the landmass with short, neat hatch marks to suggest topography and a river. More imagined utopia as a self-contained world where communities shared a common culture and way of life. This definition sets up two particular criteria: place and society. To convey these intertwined conditions, the illustrator dotted the woodblock print with buildings.
The works of artist, educator, and social justice activist Corita Kent are packed with slogans and scripture. Her silk-screen posters from the 1960s and ’70s crackle with the energy of a time of social unrest. She pulled text and images from advertising and media, recombining them into compositions reflecting on the Civil Rights and peace movements.
“GET WITH THE ACTION,” demands a 1965 silk-screen titled for emergency use soft shoulder, its primary colors reminiscent of Wonder Bread packaging. “HOPE AROUSES AS NOTHING ELSE CAN AROUSE A PASSION FOR THE POSSIBLE,” says another piece from 1969 in black block letters on a bright-yellow field. Kent’s Pop art style is often compared to that of Andy Warhol— whose paintings of soup cans she saw in 1962 at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles—often as defense of her legitimate claim to be part of the canon. Yet while the more famous artist traded in a cosmopolitan deadpan, Kent’s practice reflected her Catholic beliefs and humanity.
Ezra Stoller photographed postwar U.S. architecture with the rigor of a true believer. His images—published widely in numerous trade magazines as well as in House Beautiful and House & Garden—presented modernism not as an avant-garde or utopian vision, but as a movement in situ, one born fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s skull. Yet a global war and an ocean unequivocally separate early twentieth-century experiments undertaken at the Bauhaus and by Le Corbusier from the postwar embrace of modern architecture by corporate leaders and the cultural elite in the United States.
In Stoller’s crisp, black-and-white prints, boxy-shouldered skyscrapers like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building (1958) or Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s building for Union Carbide (1960), both in New York, proudly rise above the city grid—steel and glass curtain walls towering over masonry edifices. These were depicted as the heroes of a new age. Stoller, always precise about natural light and time of day, photographed Mies’s structure at dusk; every floor is illuminated, and the building seems to glow with industry. His image of New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1959), taken looking straight up into the cylindrical belly of the building, freezes Frank Lloyd Wright’s experiential design of spiraling ramps into an iconic composition—modernism’s dynamism temporarily tamed.