Why Modernism isn’t modern anymore part 4, controlling the discourse

August 14, 2008

The internet has provided an open forum in which “content” of virtually any kind can be shared with any user who has access to Cyberspace. Wired magazine and other information-age “zines” tout the virtues of open access, and Google has revolutionized the ease with which information can be shared. This should be good news to everyone. Of course, those who wish to maintain control of various communities, domains, intellectual properties, or political agendas have found ways to limit the flow of information or manipulate the “discourse” through language. Microsoft Corporation, Fox News and the Chinese government have mastered the art of language and information control in order to protect their power and influence. So has the academic establishment in contemporary architecture.

Protecting territories through discourse has become the most common means of insuring the perpetuation of political ideologies in the information age. The ideology of Modernism was systematically criticized and dismantled during the 1960s and 1970s by some of the proponents of “Post-Modernism.” After a short period of open debate during that time, Modernism began to reassert its ideological hegemony among critics and in schools of architecture in Europe and the U.S. At this time the language of architectural criticism began to adopt the arcane, obsequious language of “post-structuralist” literary theory. Architects, who tend to borrow things from other disciplines with little understanding of their true significance, found a clever means of preventing the public from grasping the “meaning” of their work. Peter Eisenman, the chameleon of architectural theory, stopped quoting Noam Chomsky and took up the torch of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man. Thus began one of the most successful obfuscation campaigns in the history of architectural discourse. John Silber, a professor of philosophy and former president of Boston University, calls the new language “Theoryspeak.” Though he has written books about Kant’s philosophy, he does not understand this Orwellian twist on Vitruvius, the first writer on architecture, and considers it absurd.

Of course, if the layperson cannot grasp the rationale behind most of what passes as “progressive” architectural design, and the academic establishment protects its territory with ever increasing zealousness, public discussion of buildings will wane. Indeed, since the early 1980s the number of publications on architecture serving a non-professional audience has dropped precipitously. In the U.S., half a dozen trade magazines competed vigorously for subscribers during the mid-20th century (a fraction of the number published during the period from 1890 to 1940), including Architectural Forum, Progressive Architecture, Architectural Record, Architectural Design, and Architectural Review (UK). Today there is only one professional magazine with significant readership, and it is subsidized by the American Institute of Architects.

The reasons for this are clear–public support for architectural gobbledygook is gone, and architects are content to operate within their own “community” of theorists and academic researchers. Many schools of architecture now distinguish between faculty who merely write, and those who design buildings. The former are professors, the latter, “practice” professors. For whom do the professors write? They scribble their ideas and lecture largely to other faculty in architecture schools, and of course influence students, some of whom will go on to practice architecture, only to find that their clients cannot understand what they are saying.

The trickle of actual critical debate on contemporary architecture should concern anyone who cares about the quality of the built environment. As newspapers and other print media struggle to cope with the expansion of information and the delivery of news and opinion, another factor has influenced the dissemination of informed discourse on architecture. The publishers and editors of leading newspapers and news magazines have been hard-pressed to find the means to pay for art, music, literature and design criticism as their budgets are cut to the bone each year. Only a handful of print publications have full-time architectural critics, and their number is diminishing each year.

In the information age, an epoch in which more and more unfiltered, uncritical data is released to a bewildered public every second, informed discourse on the environment (both natural and human-made) is a necessary area of knowledge that should be available to everyone. An architectural “community” that endeavors to limit this information or shutter it by translating language into Theoryspeak, does not belong to the community of concerned global citizens who wish to find common ground in solving the profound problems confronting future generations.

3 Responses to “Why Modernism isn’t modern anymore part 4, controlling the discourse”

  1. David Brussat said

    Dear Mr. Hewitt – I agree with most of your assessments of modern architecture and have been writing a weekly column for The Providence Journal that takes the same stance for 18 years. In recent years I have posted it weekly to the Tradarch and Pro-Urb lists, and it occassionally appears (lately with more frequency, I think) on the Web site ArchNewsNow.com, a compedium of news and commentary on architecture from all perspectives (most of them as absurd as you describe). And you may of course read my column at projo.com, the Providence Journal web site.
    I received a Ross Award for my column from Classsical America (now merged with the Institute for Classical Architecture).
    Almost all of my columns, which appear on Thursdays, broach one or more of the topics you are exploring in your elegant four commentaries on modernism. I am looking forward to reading the next three.
    Meanwhile, I will try to send you my most recent two columns, one on Beijing architecture and the latest in praise of a building of my choice, at the behest of a reader who thought I should do penence for not having panned the “Bird’s Nest” with sufficient vigor.
    I hope you will enjoy them, and if you do I will add your e-mail to my list of addresses that receive my column every week.
    Finally, I congratulate you for your fine commentaries, and look forward to more. I hope you are glad to know that you have at least one architecture critic (and probably only one, if a survey by the Columbia School of Journalism is to be believed) in the daily press who agrees with you!
    Sincerely, David Brussat

  2. Chad Cooper said


    I applaud your blog… I feel it makes a clear case in a concise manner, and should be easy for most any reader to digest. However, when you write the following “Of course, those who wish to maintain control of various communities, domains, intellectual properties, or political agendas have found ways to limit the flow of information or manipulate the “discourse” through language. The Republican Party, Microsoft Corporation, Fox News and the Chinese government have mastered the art of language and information control in order to protect their power and influence”, I strongly believe you’ve not only injected personal politics into a context where not necessary, but, also risk the possibilty of shutting out those who agree with your critique of architecture.
    With the Presidential election looming, injecting politics into everything has become very tiresome.
    Again, I enjoy your critique of architectural discourse. If at all possible, please avoid political commentary.

    Best regards,

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