It’s a challenge to exhibit architecture in a museum and still harder to convey the significance of past shows. Historian Thomas Hines co-curated a major retrospective on Richard Neutra in 1982,  jointly with Arthur Drexler, who headed MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design for 35 years. In this meticulously researched account he explores the radical and conservative shows that Drexler curated or inspired, drawing on the verdicts of contemporary critics.

From its founding in 1929 MoMA was the first art museum to give equal respect to other visual arts, and in 1951 it was a compact institution that spoke with the voice of authority. Exhibitions of work by Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier cemented the reputations of those three great form-givers. MoMA introduced Eileen Gray and Luis Barragan to a broad audience, won recognition for Art Nouveau and Architecture without Architects (in the show curated by Bernard Rudofsky). There was a consistent commitment to modernism. As Ada Louise Huxtable observed, the museum “is the outstanding scorekeeper of our time. It not only keeps the score but occasionally calls the shots.”

In 1966 came Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Robert Venturi’s polemic that carried the virus of post-modernism and the confusion that succeeded it. That was a decade in which certainties dissolved and authority was dethroned. MoMA has expanded exponentially over the past five decades but it no longer exerts the influence it had in its earlier years, and architecture has been marginalized by the great god ART. Hines sees a turning point in the 1979 exhibition, Transformations in Modern Architecture, an assemblage of 400 recent buildings by 300 architects. Drexler called it “an analogue of the real world: bewildering, profuse, overloaded, contradictory, inconsistent, largely mediocre.” Most critics were unforgiving. Still more contentious was the 1985 exhibition of two reactionaries: Ricardo Bofill and Leon Krier. Hines devotes a page to Michael Sorkin’s devastating response. It overshadowed the success of shows on Aalto, Lutyens and the New York Five; a sad conclusion to a long and brilliant career.

Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art: The Arthur Drexler Years 1951-1986. Thomas S. Hines. Getty Publications. $50

Michael Webb

Author: Michael Webb

Michael Webb Hon. AIA/LA has authored more than twenty books on architecture and design, most recently Moving Around: A Lifetime of Wandering, Architects’ Houses, and Building Community: New Apartment Architecture, while contributing essays to many more. He is also a regular contributor to leading journals in the United States and Europe. Growing up in London, he was an editor at The Times and Country Life, before moving to the US, where he directed film programs for the AFI and curated a Smithsonian exhibition on Hollywood.