Gwathmey
Charles Gwathmey (Photo: Diane Bondareff/The New York Times)

The death of Charles Gwathmey early this month has provoked a lot of nostalgic reminiscence in the New York architecture world: not just about Mr. Gwathmey himself, but also about the New York Five, a group of influential architects of which he was part.

This nostalgia has much to do with what’s been lost in the years since the group’s prominence in the 1970s. The early years of that decade was a time when this city was beginning to close itself off to innovative architecture. But it was also a time when New York could still claim to be the country’s center of architectural thought, and Mr. Gwathmey and his colleagues had a great deal to do with maintaining that pre-eminence in the public imagination. The New York Five came to represent the idea that architecture could still express and advance our values as a culture. To some, the group embodies the last heroic period in New York architecture.

That the five came together at all seems almost an accident of fate. They had no real manifesto, no common aesthetic. Several young, promising New York architects were invited by Arthur Drexler, the director of the Museum of Modern Art’s legendary architecture department, to meet informally in the museum board room one day in the late ’60s to talk about their work. More meetings followed, a few attendees dropped out, others joined in. When the book “Five Architects,” which inspired the group’s name, was published in 1972, its success was a shock to everyone.

What the five architects did share, however, was a desire to reassert the importance of architecture as art form during a crisis in the profession. By the mid-1960s much of the Modernist dream was in ruins, and one of its central tenets — that architecture could act as an agent of positive social change — lay buried beneath decades of failed urban housing projects, soulless government buildings and sterile concrete plazas.

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Nicolai Ouroussoff
New York Times

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