Don’t be afraid of Modernism. It’s dead.
When I’m told “this modernism thing isn’t going to last” I feel like I just emerged from a time machine in 1905. Modernism was not a passing trend; it was a movement. I would distinguish a movement as being something that contains an ideology, rather than a passing fancy based on an aesthetic preference. While part of the ideology of modernism is expressed in aesthetics, it contains a strategy for making buildings that values an honesty of material, and a preference for simplicity. It embraces technology as being a defining element, and celebrates the notion that it brings us all closer together. But for all of the hope that is embodied, it failed to consider the benefits of diversity. After modernism failed, the aesthetic propagation continued, at which point modernism became ‘style’. Style is more akin to fashion; something more surface, and formal, which rapidly changes with passing collective taste. It is strange that modernism is not yet considered a historic style. Because it is.
We were discussing this during design review in the office yesterday, and I realized something that I’ve been considering for some time – even though we are often accused of being modernists, the work we do is not in fact ‘modern’. Modern is a style, and like any style of architecture (Victorian, Craftsman, Spanish) it has a set of rules. One of the critical tenants of at least one form of high modernism, namely the ‘International Style’, was that it break with context and any forms from the past, as we had arrived in a unifying moment in time. We were all going to be connected through technology. Mechanized travel and flight, telephone, radio would all serve to bring down the barriers between us. A single ‘style’ could apply to everyone, in everyplace.
In the recently published biography on Frank Gehry, aptly titled ‘Building Art’, It is noted the his early work was conceived at a time when postmodernism was the dominant discourse. This was postmodernism as an architectural style that used historic elements in an exaggerated manner. This style was primarily preoccupied with relationships to historical context and form, and further, how their efforts related to symbols and signifiers. The postmodernist always seemed as though they were trying to be ironic, and this fits the definition of Postmodern. However, it comes across as just silly rather than ironic – the work often took on the appearance of a cartoon. As though the public might need big, simple forms and bright, simple colors to be able to comprehend architecture.
However, Gehry’s work was postmodern in the sense that we are in an era that has moved beyond modernism. Gehry’s work did not follow the rules of modernism, and did use some of the ideas of postmodernist architecture as we typically understand it (as a style) when he began to work with context and history, albeit in a much less literal and more subversive, perhaps serious, way. And when you look at Phillip Johnson’s ‘Deconstructivists’ as they emerged from that era; Zaha, Eisenman, Koolhaas, Gehry, et. al., you find they appear much more serious, in part because they have the sharp clean edges of modernism in their work, but also because of a certain sincere respect for what came before – something a modernist could not have.
Much of the conventional work that you see being designed and built today that does not fall into some traditional ‘style’ and is being labeled ‘modern’ might be better categorized as something beyond modern or postmodern; perhaps post-postmodern, or even metamodern. Or something we haven’t yet coined. I believe this is because much of it moves beyond style, and is a true attempt to innovate in a cultural climate that is beginning to allow open thinking that defies classification. Further, new forms of architecture are less concerned with the precision and alignments of modernism. It is looser and more free-form. It is less self-conscious. I don’t find categorization particularly useful, except that it opens up a discussion about design and what is appropriate for the time we live. And this is important because I think we desperately need to move beyond a discussion of style and into a conversation about what is appropriate for architecture today.
Today we ought not simply ignore context and history but look deeper than an image. Application of ‘style’ is truly superficial in imagining that any mode of architectural thought is repeatable rather than considering unique solutions to unique problems. If an architect is copying his project’s neighbors, then he is not thinking about actual deeper context and history but instead looking to a superficial image. And a style as a design process causes the designer to ignore larger contextual issues in favor of external, visual aspects. but to understand how those aspects should be incorporated.
The label ‘modern’ is attached to design that falls outside of traditional styles because nothing more appropriate exists, and postmodern now has certain stylistic connotations, at least when it comes to architecture. The digital revolution has opened avenues for self expression, and access to the thoughts and ideas of others, that have not existed in the past. There has never been a better time to be yourself, and to find ready available support (and criticism) for your ideas than now. With the pace of that exchange constantly accelerating, with everything shifting at the rate it currently does, and with the technology to allow us to keep up, there is no longer a need for a unified style of architecture. It’s more or less freestyle. Or style free if you prefer.
It’s important to conclude that I don’t want my neighbors to design buildings as I think they should be designed. But my experience is that most people expect you should design as they have. To fit in. It is however an impossible task, especially in diverse neighborhoods where the styles range so widely. But even if a neighborhood could be utterly consistent, why would you want this? It leads to the monotony of tract housing. Why not let your neighbors design what they would like to live in? Especially when you live in cities as they exist today with so much diversity. Difference is exciting, and exposes you to the new. I for one am most interested in this range. Build a Victorian if you like. I might even help you if I can. But please don’t try to make me, or my clients, build one.