The Soft Pivot: US Architecture 1993


Kimbro Frutiger


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Production of the built environment is elongated, contentious, and polyphonic. Architecture as a cultural phenomenon is correspondingly incremental, overlapping, and diffuse. Reading its trajectory in the moment is not easy.


That’s my excuse for thinking 1993 was entirely forgettable at the time. I’m able to recall it as a discrete period only because it was my last full year in graduate school. At the time. Postmodernism seemed like a fact of life, and my classmates and I grimly expected to end up in offices drafting pink pediments for the foreseeable future. That is, if we found jobs: the sense of stasis was underlined by the fact that very little built work was being completed, following on from a mild recession in 1990. But, while it felt like nothing was happening, 1993 was arguably the stealth vertex of a parabolic arc from the concerns of Postmodernism to those of our present period.


As it turned out, 1993’s forgettability was less a bug than a feature — the result of a widespread muting of expression in mainstream material culture. After generations of vivid, sometimes raucous experimentation with cultural aesthetics in the US, the 1990s saw efforts to establish a baseline of straightforward good taste.[1] Casual and undemonstrative, this mutation of Yankee propriety was derived from high-end sources (e.g. Calvin Klein and Scandinavian Modernism) and broadcast by mass retailers like Banana Republic and Crate&Barrel. The mother avatar of the sensibility was Martha Stewart, whose first television show aired in weekly syndication from September 1993. Crucially, this new version of good taste was broadly accessible, not rarified: the oncoming national wave of Starbucks provided the model for a suitable ambience that cut across class lines. The cultural results proved extremely durable; for better or worse, the pilot episode of Friends (1994) feels bemusingly close to our current world. (For comparison, the equivalent in 1993 would be watching vintage-1968 Gomer Pyle USMC) In many ways, we’re still living with 1993 now.

Architecture was at least as susceptible to the elevation of sensible good taste as any other form of cultural production, if not more so. After getting jerked all over the place in the “style wars” of the 1980s, architects were very open to the implied proposition that their work should be judged on its propriety, that is to say, its innate suitability rather than conformity to a style or polemic. The shifts in architectural expression brought on by this development track the socio-political climate from Reagan Era to Clinton Era with striking synonymy. In the 80s, critics had explicitly connected revivalist design with right-wing revanchism, and the ensuing shift in US architecture followed the national tenor from expedient, profit-driven populism to inclusive, market-conscious empiricism.


It’s tempting to frame this development as a stark opposition of conservative and progressive modes — pitting, for instance, Chicago’s 1991 Harold Washington Library (Hammond, Beeby, and Babka) against Phoenix’s 1995 Barr Central Library (Will Bruder with Wendell Burnette). However, that hardly captures the muddiness of the time. Rather, the Bush I interlude and the early 90s’ economic slowdown opened up a gap in which architectural stances softened. Image remained important, but multiple images were accepted. There was even hope for synthesis, or at least productive exchange between stylistic camps. Architects stopped valorizing populist desires, which had proven both nebulous and fickle. (In 1995, Martha Stewart bought the couldn’t-be-higher-Modernist Bunshaft House) The disembrace of populism was unhappily marked in December 1993 by the death of Charles Moore, an advocate of “giving the people what they want” who was genuinely good at it.


The loosening of restrictions created an opportunity for architects to introduce a newly sensible and appropriate (maybe even tasteful) Modernism, free from its previous hubris. Indeed, many neo-Modernists were so chastened that they questioned the need for an avant-garde, especially given the warning example of MoMA’s contrived 1988 “Deconstructivism” show. The 90s saw a judiciousness and reticence to work across the board, drawing on design strategies that approached the apologetic.

In this respect, the emblematic building of 1993 could be Kohn Pederson Fox’s IBM-Marathon tower  in Montreal. Well-regarded at the time for its skillful composition, IBM-Marathon weds a tensed bow of glass curtain wall to a stepped slab straight out of Rockefeller Center. Instead of crashing head-on, however, these elements are suavely mediated by a host of local facade events. This low-key integration of various forms and materials — compulsively invoked by designers as “breaking down the scale” — was quickly becoming a characteristic strategy of post-Postmodernism.[2]  IBM-Marathon’s base demonstrated another defining strategy: its complicated massing and public arcades diligently relate the tower to its street-level surroundings, making an earnest attempt to establish contextual relations more substantial than the formal mimicry of the 80s.


These strategies of combination and relation were typically employed to smooth over differences, but two of 1993’s most noted buildings took them to extremes. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum (James Freed/Pei Cobb Freed, 1986-93) combined disparate forms, materials, and plan logics in service of historical narratives. For an addition to the Jewish Museum on New York City’s Museum Mile, Kevin Roche precisely reproduced the limestone facade of the 1908 Warburg Mansion in which the museum was housed. Even given the ecumenical mood of the time, this move was met with surprise and vigorous criticism. Roche, who had picked up the 1993 AIA Gold Medal, was likely not too bothered.

While tactfulness was the norm, even bold statements were welcomed by the new inclusiveness. The 1993 AIA Honor Awards were presented under the rubric “Celebrating Pluralism,” and the AIA wasn’t kidding. The winners ran the gamut from Peter Eisenman’s abstruse Wexner Center to Hammond, Beeby and Babka’s toy-town for the Hole In the Wall Camp. Highlights in between included erudite mannerism (Hynes Convention Center, Kallmann, McKinnell and Wood, 1989), corporate power-totem (NationsBank Plaza, Harry Wolf, 1988), funky budget (San Diego SRO, Rob Wellington Quigley, 1992), and ethereal vision-quest (Stretto House, Steven Holl,1991).


This pluralism carried into an emphasis on alternative practice modes. Prodded by the economic slowdown of the early 90s, architects explored social-good work, historic preservation, and, especially, sustainability. In 1993, the Croxton Collaborative completed a widely-noted sustainable building renovation for the National Audubon Society’s headquarters in New York; Kiss Cathcart Anders’ 1991 APS Fairfield Factory incorporated photovoltaic panels directly into its building envelope.


Pluralism was less evident in urban design: CIAM 4/Functional City urbanism was almost universally renounced in favor of earlier modes and transformations thereof (notably the work of Machado Silvetti and Agrest and Gandelsonas.) The traditionalist New Urbanism of the 80s continued to get media attention, although, perversely, more for its seldom-duplicated suburban models than its decisive ambient impacts on US cities. In 1993, Battery Park City’s south neighborhood neared full build-out, Boston was working on its Big Dig, and the first Los Angeles Metro subway line opened. Even more consequentially, the resurgence of professional-class urban living was coming into focus and hipster culture was emerging in Chicago’s Wicker Park, LA’s Silver Lake, and Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

In architectural schools, the passage out of Postmodernism had started as early as the mid-80s. Educator-practitioners were well-positioned as neo-Modernist design leaders, and their often idiosyncratic visions took on additional appeal against the background of a non-confrontational mainstream. 1993 saw several major transfers from paper practice to signature design: Steven Holl’s “Kiasma” project was chosen for the Helsinki Museum of Contemporary Art, and Raimund Abraham won the competition for the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York City. Internationally, Zaha Hadid completed the Vitra fire station, her first full-on building (if you don’t count her IBA apartment block, and no one does).


The opportunities for “paper architects” to build coincided (probably not by accident) with declining influence for contemporary architectural theory. This wasn’t entirely to be regretted: in the 80s, high-end architectural discourse had invested heavily in French post-structuralism. Foucault’s provoking and relevant writings had served as a gateway to increasingly bowdlerized takes on Baudrillard’s hyperréalité and Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome. Whatever the value of the source material, architects’ often opaque attempts to repurpose its analytical modes as design modes ignited a massive counter-reaction in architectural thinking. The early 90s saw the beginnings of a swing toward unaffected pragmatisms and phenomenologies that continues up to the present.

1993 was also an inflection point for the saturation of practice with computers, both for design and for production. In some quarters, digital design replaced post-structuralist semiotics as architecture’s go-to esoterica, with Columbia’s GSAPP offering its first “Paperless Studio” in 1993. More focused application of digital tools underwrote Frank Gehry’s semi-final design for Disney Hall, which won one of the year’s Progressive Architecture Awards, and enabled Kent Larsen’s photorealist renderings of unbuilt Louis Kahn projects. However, it was digital production that was really restructuring the US architectural profession. The clumsy interfaces of early CAD programs — which architects passively accepted as given — discouraged their general use. Instead, design visualization and construction drawings devolved onto the most computer-capable staff members: the youngest. In the next ten years, this would totally reconfigure generational roles and pretty much eliminate one of the profession’s most valuable mainstays, the seasoned drafter of construction details.


Perhaps the most subtle indicators in 1993 were the ones that signaled the impending rise of global prestige practice. The ebb of Postmodernism stoked US interest in current European and Japanese architects, many of whom had never stopped working in a Modern mode.[3] This was played out starkly in the attrition of US professional magazines (Inland Architect folded in 1993, Progressive Architecture in 1995) versus the growing aspirational market for publications like El Croquis (Spain) and DETAIL (Germany). OMA’s 1992 Jussieu Libraries project and Herzog & deMeuron's Ricola warehouses received outsized attention, rather eerily foreshadowing these offices’ current domination of the transnational circuit. 1993 also offered more concrete hints at the coming globalization of signature practice: Santiago Calatrava’s work was shown at MoMA and Norman Foster’s first US project, an addition to Omaha’s Joslyn Museum, was announced. Representing the export market, Frank Gehry unveiled the first model for Guggenheim Bilbao in February 1993. All that would be needed for this trend to explode was the advent of instant electronic communication.


In retrospect, 1993 was a soft but inexorable pivot from an acrimonious free-for-all of stylistic camps to the pluralist détente that remains in effect today. Less happily, it brought on the dual rise of international signature design and tepid Neo-Modernism that has accelerated the withering of solid mid-level architectural production in the US. We’re left today with an unbalanced ecology of rarified “event buildings” and desultory mass architecture. The enduring lesson of 1993 may be that the democratization of taste is no route to the democratization of architectural quality.

About the Author


Kimbro Frutiger is a historian and architect who has practiced in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. He has written extensively on social and expressive aspects of postwar US architecture, especially Modernist design in New York City. More information is at



[1] The obvious exception is rap and hip-hop culture. That their breakout corresponded with a (white) mass-market shift toward tasteful propriety raises more issues than can be addressed here.


[2] Ironically, this strategy developed directly from the clashing forms of Deconstructivism.


[3] US designers, often unaware of regional design tendencies in Europe and Japan, were prone to mistake foreign architects’ stylistic expressions for wholly individual inventions.