The Making of Postmodernism

Teresa Fankhänel

KlotzFig. 1

“The critic in architecture is often the scribe, historian, and kingmaker for a particular group. These activities entitle him to join the “few,” even though he pokes them a little. His other satisfaction comes from making history in his and their image. The kingmaker-critic is, of course, male”[1]

– Denise Scott Brown

Heinrich Klotz and Postmodernism

There were at least three kingmakers of Postmodernism: Charles Jencks, Paolo Portoghesi and Heinrich Klotz. Klotz made his debut on the international scene rather late in the 1970s when the term “Postmodernism” had already inserted itself into architectural criticism, not least since Jencks’ 1977 publication “The Language of Post-Modern Architecture”. One of the main bones of contention between these commentators was whether there was a clear-cut distinction between Modernism and Postmodernism. Klotz’ own theorization of a “Zweite Moderne” or “Second Modernity”, which referred to the continued presence of modern architecture, never really caught on. On the other hand, Jencks was soon joined by younger American architects such as Stanley Tigerman and Thomas Gordon Smith, who claimed that modernism was over and that they were unaffected by role models such as Mies and Le Corbusier.
  Despite his theoretical defeat, Klotz was extraordinarily successful as a facilitator and translator of international, especially American, architecture and its adaption in West Germany. He saw himself as an art historian and critic rather than as the museum director (that he was) or the journalist (that, he argued, Jencks was). As such, his interest was more all-encompassing. He wanted to understand how postmodern architecture was made and to know those behind it; their ideas, beliefs and the way they executed them. Influenced by a renewed interest in oral history and architecture’s context, he sought not only to document buildings, but to collect all architectural media: sketches, drawings and models. Early on he had demonstrated a way of preserving architecture’s elusive context; for his book “Conversations with Architects,” published in 1973, he interviewed nine American architects united by their departure from modernism. Klotz understood these interviews as discussions or dialogues rather than as a question-and-answer game. The historian was an active agent who confronted architects with his own ideas.
  A few years later, Klotz became the founding director of the German Architecture Museum (DAM) in Frankfurt and finally had a chance to consolidate his architectural opinions in the setting of a cultural institution. The Klotz Tapes document this period. During extended travels between 1979 and 1987, Klotz visited architects in Germany, France, Italy, England and the United States, carrying with him a tape recorder to recollect main events, conversations and acquisitions in a diary format. As one of the first collectors in the architectural art market, he systematically visited architects that he found interesting to gather information on their work and buy all the materials belonging to projects, not just their highlights. His interest in drawings and models helped fuel a development that was quickly accelerating. By the early 1980s, shortly after Klotz arrived on the American scene, architects were selling their works through galleries such as Max Protetch and Leo Castelli. With prices skyrocketing, Klotz was no longer able to buy at the source or to compete on a larger market. In one especially disappointing case, Venturi and Scott Brown canceled a promised sale to Klotz shortly before his return to the U.S., because they had instead decided to hold an exhibition at Max Protetch. Deeply disappointed, Klotz noted  “Everyone […] from Venturi to Rudolph has ended up in the art galleries […].”[2]

A “German Vasari”

Klotz was a man of action. Much of this action happened during semi-professional meetings for which he travelled far and often. To collect information and objects, he invited his favorite architects to Frankfurt or to his home in Marburg, or went to lunches, gentleman’s dinners, cruises (Charles Moore), spent time in the pool (Thomas Gordon Smith), even accompanying them to the dentist (Robert Venturi). What he captured were deeply personal accounts of his subjects, which were paired with a keen eye for details in buildings and humans. Using the art historian’s tool of analytic description, he condensed them into almost caricatural images – “poking them a little” – describing Charles Moore wearing a sailor’s hat as looking like a seal, Peter Eisenman as a “visionary locked in a conflict with reality” or Ron Herron as having the smoker’s “typical, half-poisoned gleam to his skin”. He treated their buildings with an equally rigorous judgment. He was deeply impressed by Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute (“I’ve hardly ever been so impressed by such a modern building, excepting the Fagus-Werke in Alfeld.”[3]), but expressed something verging on pity for Paul Rudolph’s later work (“empty gestures toward little more than dramatic form”[4]). Even more so, in the thousands of slides he took during his travels, he reveals himself to be a brilliant photographer able to catch the essence of what he saw.
  It is unclear for what purpose Klotz made his recordings – whether they were meant as personal memos or, quite likely, as preparatory work for a memoir. The architects were certainly not aware of being the subject of his private recollections. Some revealed thoughts that they didn’t want to see published, as in the case of Venturi, who revealed that it was him who gave Louis Kahn his famous idea to put walls in front of walls. But the architects had agendas in talking to Klotz, too. Some hoped their collaboration would yield benefits in the form of commissions. As a patron, Klotz catered to them by trying to push through designs by his favorites: Venturi and Scott Brown, Helmut Jahn and Charles Moore. His goal was to give them international exposure and a chance to realize their ideas on a larger scale. Some of these interventions were successful, such as Richard Meier’s Museum für Angewandte Kunst or Helmut Jahn’s Messeturm, both in Frankfurt.

Where are the women?

Denise Scott Brown is the only woman architect mentioned in the Klotz Tapes in more than just a half sentence and that, one senses, was only because she pleaded strongly for her work to be acknowledged. Klotz documented the problems that she and the few other top women architects had with critics and architects alike:

“Denise clearly suffers from having to face the coarseness of critics who minimize her role, who even view her as an obstacle in establishing a direct relationship with Venturi – the hero – because Denise, in their eye, gets in the way. […] Denise is certainly the one in the relationship most affected by this, and, although she’s brilliant at protecting her reputation, she’s nevertheless always been affected by the masculine chauvinism of the critics.”[5]

Still, his assessment was no less patronizing:
“It’s altogether lovely to see how Venturi accommodates his wife’s efforts to retain her autonomy – supports it, really – even when Denise flounders a bit and probably makes demands that go too far – how he even agrees to them without any objection.”[6]
  The exclusion of women architects was nothing new. But it was reinforced by their being barred from dinners as in the case of Philip Johnson’s elitist stag parties, or by being debased by critics as merely being wives. Without access to semi-private professional networks or platforms to advertise their work independently, they could not gain the recognition that their male competitors received. The inglorious climax of this development were the Charlottesville Tapes, the model for naming the Klotz Tapes, which were based on a conference held in November 1982 that included more than twenty postmodern architects, all male – the heroes had to be men. And the kingmakers were male, too. By excluding women from their historiography, they contributed directly to the sexist environment and the almost complete absence of women in postmodern architecture.

Making history

The Klotz Tapes provide insight into the male dominated world of Postmodernism. As such they are a testimony to the shortcomings of an entire profession as well as the critical and academic discourse that cemented the status quo. But there is more than that. Klotz was drawn to the American scene not just because he admired American architects, but because he regarded the U.S. as an example for Germany. Upon arriving at the Los Angeles airport, he remarked about the American and German flags:

“How sad our black-red-and-gold looks in contrast – colors that oppress, rather than join together harmoniously.”[7]

  In his opinion, America’s approach to life was liberating. Postmodernism, eyeballed with suspicion in Germany because of its use of colorful advertising and low culture, was instead welcomed in the U.S. His collection of architectural documents, now held at the DAM, is invaluable, because it preserved much of what would have been lost otherwise. With these objects Klotz became an early critic seeking to demystify architecture and its making, and through his collection, he transferred American Postmodernism to Germany.
  As an outsider, art historian and German, he had a somewhat unadulterated view of his subjects. Nevertheless, he was recording himself, too, as everyone can now review in the careful edition published in 2014 by the DAM under the title “The Klotz Tapes. The Making of Postmodernism”. The original sound of the spoken word that was so important to Klotz’ work is largely retained in the text. Many quotes and paraphrases give a sense of immediacy rarely achieved in historical accounts. For us peeping toms of history, Klotz’ personal revelations of Postmodernism’s stars make the text invaluable. One can only bemoan that he failed to interview Gropius and Mies before their deaths in 1969.

The Klotz Tapes: The Making of Postmodernism, ed. Oliver Elser, Nikolaus Kuhnert and Anh-Linh Ngo (Aachen: Arch+ Verlag, 2014).
242 pages, ISBN 978-3-931435-28-8, 29 €

KlotzFig. 2

[1] Denise Scott Brown, “Room at the top? Sexism and the star system in architecture,” in Architecture. A place for women, ed. Ellen Perry Berkeley (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), 237-246.

[2] Heinrich Klotz, “The Klotz Tapes,” in The Klotz Tapes: The Making of Postmodernism, ed. Oliver Elser, Nikolaus Kuhnert and Anh-Linh Ngo (Aachen: Arch+ Verlag, 2014), 149.

[3] Klotz, 111.

[4] Klotz, 148.

[5] Klotz, 75.

[6] Klotz, 74.

[7] Klotz, 105.

Fig. 1
Architect Stanley Tigerman, photographed by Heinrich Klotz
© Estate Heinrich Klotz

Fig. 2
Thomas Gordon Smith, photographed by Heinrich Klotz
© Estate Heinrich Klotz