Why Modernism isn’t modern anymore, part 1

August 10, 2008

History shows us that during periods of cultural upheaval such as ours, art movements often wane while experiencing their most vehement, almost nostalgic, moments of hegemony. The current fascination with heroic Modernism, a movement that achieved its apotheosis during first half of the last century, is proving this lesson all over again. It’s remarkable how few critics have noticed this phenomenon–but that’s simply another telltale of our culture’s myopic ignorance of history.

As an architect with no investment in the academic status quo, and a historian who has studied modern architecture for 30 years, I have an objective point of view that can provide a critique of the current design culture that is present no where else. The foregoing is part 1 of a series of posts on the state of architectural criticism that may be refreshing to a general audience concerned about the built environment.

As the 21st century completes its first decade, it has become clear that modernist architecture and urbanism have failed to provide successful models for sustainable development throughout the globe. There are at least seven persuasive reasons why this is the case. Why isn’t Modernism the answer to contemporary architectural challenges anymore?

1. It costs too much–while most of the world struggles to build low-tech, energy efficient buildings, Modernist buildings consume more energy and materials than ever before.

2. It’s not adaptable–as Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth catalogue, has proven, Modernist buildings are singularly resistant to “learning” and changing over time.

3. It’s self-referential, not open–in a world where “open systems” pervade the Internet and much of the rest of culture, Modernism continues to operate in a suffocatingly insular community of critics and academic designers who guard their turf ever more zealously.

4. “Theory is dead” and the avant-garde cannot persist–Wired magazine’s July issue said it best: the new model for the information age has no use for the kind of rigid ideology that sustained the avant-garde.

5. Cultural homogeneity (International Style design) has created a crisis of identity throughout the globe–the success of international Modernism has become its curse, resulting in social and psychological alienation and a loss of authentic cultural identity.

6. It has created an urban wasteland of dense, tall buildings and threatening, auto-choked highways–the New Urbanism and other critical movements have proven that sprawl, suburban “edge cities” and other bi-products of modernism are unsustainable models for future settlements.

7. It’s not the Zeitgeist anymore–serialist (12-tone) music has been replaced in concert halls with rich, pluralistic forms that audiences love; while Modernism has been discredited in all of the other arts, architects cling to a movement that is philosophically and culturally bankrupt.

In the next post, I will follow these seven arguments in detail, beginning with the capital and environmental costs of building with ‘high tech’ systems and materials.

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