Visiting the widows of late-modernity

Within architectural history the edge between modernity and late-modernity is filled with images of the elderly, mostly elderly women. We see this most famously in the photographs of the Vanna Venturi house and Guild House, by Venturi Scott Brown and Associates.

Because the most staged and circulated images of these buildings include images of women, and because they are older, some historians have advanced these buildings as representing a new type of subject within architecture. For some, these buildings marked a shift towards a then new emphasis on “usability” or “livability”. In these images we saw expressions of previously unexpressed lives.


But the less discussed image operating here is the very alone-ness of the people in these famous images. If we consider the photographs of the Guild House (above and below), we see this with both older woman and men. In the exterior photograph sanctioned by Venturi Scott Brown, notice the man sitting by himself outside of the Guild House (to the right of the entrance).


In considering these iconic images of post-modernism it is as if this approach to architecture is a movement whose seeming gaiety is in actuality filled with a latent and unstated sadness; it is a movement full of older people who are alone – what we might somewhat insensitively  (but in some instance, more accurately) call images of “widows.” It is not just that the people in images of post-modern architecture represent subjective shifts away from the subjects of the past – that great collective of laborers and bureaucrats that moves through an earlier architectural theory – it is as if the people in the photographs described above mourn those very conditions of a former subjectivity.

(An aside: Revisiting these photos of the Guild House today seems to beckon the architectural historian less to consider the problems of modernity’s edges and rather, to simply pay these people a sorely needed visit as an act of architectural historical kindness!) 


But in considering this image of widow-hood at the margins of modernity, consider another image taken just a bit after the images of the Guild House that also emphasized subjective shifts, “usability” and general late-modern maneuvers. In the photography of his Overloop nursing home design in the Netherlands (above), the architect Hermann Hertzberger also develops an image of architecture filled with the elderly. Unlike Venturi, Herzberger’s elderly do not advance an architecture of the elderly as a pathway to some type of architectural levity, nor does Hertzberger image them alone. Here is that “collective spirit” articulated as one of the inspirations of an architecture in an industrial age — the “New Architecture.” In fact, notice the older woman at the center of the photograph who does not acknowledge the photographer; she is that older woman who sits alone in every other architectural book that depicts the shift from the modern to late-modern; but here she walks away (to some friends one hopes).

One might argue that Hertzberger found a way to link the percolating subjects at the edges of modernity (these are older people after all)  to the project of modernity — linking the “production” of a society to these seemingly “unproductive” subjects. Thus, Hertzberger’s space  escapes the mourning-image of modernity that moves through the images of then contemporaneous late-modern American work. But in avoiding this mourning image it also further avoids the real existing historical transformations that surround this insulated world. In the end, Venturi’s images of images of productive loss, is  a form of projection. The mourning of a modern subjectivity found in that proto-post-modernism has become the dominant form of subjectivity.

[For more on the issue of the user in the modern/late-modern divide see the work of Adrian Forty; and for more on the imagery of Venturi’s work see the recent exhibition at CCA, Montreal by students at the Columbia GSAPP.]


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