Why Modernism isn’t modern anymore part 5, the death of theory

August 18, 2008

In 2004, Stanley Fish, America’s gadfly literature scholar and cultural theorist, sheepishly admitted that all the fuss over “critical theory” had been something of a scam. David Lodge, the English satirist, was convinced that it had entered a period of decadence, and, like all fashions, had run its course. Terry Eagleton, Britain’s most respected scholar in the field, wrote a book about its demise. By 2008, Wired Magazine led with a story on the irrelevance of scientific theories in an age of massive information analysis. Only architects, it seems, failed to get the memo: prescriptive, rigid schemas for how to make art, science and literature are no longer de rigeur.

Architects, the most practical of artists, are paradoxically drawn to the most arcane and obscure cultural movements, among them “critical theory.” As I wrote in my last blog, their interest can cynically be attributed to a desire to bamboozle the public about the true insignificance of their buildings. However, the real reasons that the design professions cannot jettison outmoded intellectual fashions has to do with the ideology of Modernism, the 20th century movement that refuses to die a natural death. While the style and technology of modern buildings continue to provide valid and compelling solutions for contemporary building, the ideology of Modernism outlasted its usefulness decades ago. Moreover, since few architects really understand the history of this ideology, many continue to follow its most destructive and ridiculous theoretical tenets uncritically.

The ideology of Modernism may be summarized in a few essential points, though many (tiresome, repetitive) books have been written about the subject.

  • Architecture is a revolutionary art that maintains its authority by a perpetuation of the avant-garde, which antagonizes and undermines the status quo during each succeeding generation.
  • The only logical schema governing architectural design, and the form of buildings, is “the authority of the program.” Thus the Seattle Public Library, a recent building by “starchitect” Rem Koolhaas, is a diagram of the program devised by its chief librarian, and therefore deserves to be called a masterpiece.
  • Beauty is replaced as an aesthetic standard by various theoretical constructs including “shock value,” and “metaphor” as means of judging the worth of building designs.
  • Technology and function are the two most often cited stand-ins for aesthetic distinction: hence the maxim, “commodity plus firmness equals delight.”
  • The paradigms, styles, types and elements that have sustained traditional architecture for thousands of years are suspect and must be surpassed by “original” solutions devised without recourse to the study of the past.
  • All architecture, including vernacular design, that displays the trappings of “historical” styles (except the Modernist style) is by nature “nostalgic” and “backward-looking,” and therefore should be judged aesthetically vacuous and even immoral.

This rigid and destructive ideology continues to infect the schools of architecture and drives most criticism when it can be found in literature on buildings. And while many writers have added significant ideas to the “theory” of contemporary architecture that contradict the ideology of Modernism, most literature on design during the past decade and a half has cited allegiance to “Modernism” as the gold standard by which good architecture is judged. Indeed, the Architectural Record publishes article after article in which the building and its architects are praised for hewing close to the credo of Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and ICCROM during the 1920s. Try doing a Google search or word count on a single issue of the magazine and one word will stand out–Modernism. It’s a totem.

I’ll discuss why the scaffolding of Modernist ideology above has little claim to intellectual credibility today in future posts. The question that begs to be asked before doing so is, why do architects who benefit from the marvelous building advances of 20th century modern architecture continue to believe the “theory” that gave rise to such buildings nearly a century ago? In the other arts, music foremost, the most creative and successful practitioners have combined the best of 20th century compositional advances with those of previous composers without swallowing the ideology that gave rise to past styles.

Moreover, many artists have questioned the late 20th century fascination with “conceptualism” as a means of creating works of real beauty and significance. For if the disciplines, media, and traditions laid down by past masters are thrown away in favor of pure ideas, the arts suffer from the death of practice. Better the waning of theoretical hegemony than the loss of an entire culture of artistic production in any field.  Is theory really dead? Perhaps the rush of the information age will cause many artists, scientists and philosophers to rethink the nature of discourse in their chosen disciplines, as E.O. Wilson has suggested in his book, Consilience. Architecture can only benefit from a more open forum than the choked, academic morass that we’ve been enduring for a decade.

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