Why Modernism isn’t modern anymore part 6, choking on monoculture
August 20, 2008
Food analogies seem to register with Americans, who besides being obsessed with their bodies are likely to tune into at least one cooking show a week on TV. So let me suggest that the global built environment has begun to resemble one huge fast food franchise–a vast MacDonald’s that has spread to the farthest corners of the planet. What Modernists dreamed of–a world of functional, flat-roofed machines for living and working undifferentiated by place or culture–has come to pass. Unfortunately for those of us who like a varied diet and appreciate local cuisine, the architectural monoculture has obliterated local building traditions in the same way that global fast food and big box stores have destroyed local color in food and retail goods. James Howard Kunstler, the author of the Geography of Nowhere, saw this trend two decades ago, and continues to rail against its effects in his recent books.
One of the things that disappointed me most about the Olympic icons built in Beijing was how little they seemed to acknowledge the rich history of Chinese art and architecture, particularly a reverence for landscape. When in the past architects designed for a place, they tended to bow to the cultural milieu in choosing forms and materials of local significance. The Chinese are a conservative and tradition-bound culture when it comes to eating, and every visitor is enchanted by local cuisines throughout the huge country. They entertained the world with their distinctive cuisine. But when it came to building, they bowed to the monoculture of Modernism. Beijing looks like any other large city–it’s just bigger.
Though most of the world’s esteemed architects pay lip service to giving their buildings a place-specific tone, very few actually employ local building materials or traditional crafts in their work at any scale. They explain that modern building technology has moved beyond such niceties. Sometimes when a local material is employed, it is treated “critically” or given a shocking, new context so that people will recognize its position of alienation. It’s a cynical nod to the locals.
Indeed, the gatekeepers of high culture around the world–patrons who hire the handful of name-brand architects–are not interested in maintaining provincial flavor in their new museums, theatres, concert halls and academic campuses. They purchase one-of-a-kind buildings distinguished mainly by the name of the genius who created the design. There is an international franchise in high-fashion building design that closely resembles haute couture clothing.
The rest of the buildings that are springing up in fast-growing areas like China, India, the Nevada desert, Dubai, and resort areas around the world do not benefit from the touch of genius. They are part of the international development business that generates high rise buildings, shopping malls, townhouse developments, office parks, country clubs and all the other shelter required for capitalism no matter what the climate or terrain. And all of this architecture looks the same, wherever it is constructed. It’s cold, alienating, scaleless, and it helps sell international brands like Coca Cola, Exxon and Michelin. But the world is changing its attitude toward the environment, and sustainability is leading us back to local and regional ways of doing things.
The Italians, for whom food and wine are sacred, have resisted the monoculture better than most countries. Their answer to the numbing sameness that pervades the media as well as the environment is the slow food movement. With the increasing desire for revival of local agriculture and organic food, this movement has begun to influence the rest of the world, even the United States. Instead of eating efficiently, ingesting food produced thousands of miles away by Big Ag, people who care about the earth are starting to care about where the food comes from, and how it was grown. Locavores are raising their voices for maintaining traditional agriculture. Where are the proponents of local building traditions? Can we have a slow building movement?
The answer is yes. Traditional building groups like INTBAU in Europe and the Institute for Traditional Architecture in the U.S. are growing in influence. The Prince of Wales Institute in the UK has been sponsoring educational programs and projects for two decades, building the town of Poundsbury according to local planning and building traditions. New schools are training the next generation of masters in the Building Arts–blacksmithing, timber framing, wood carving and joinery, masonry, metal casting– just as Pierre de Coubertin’s Les Compagnons du Devoir has done for the youth of France since the early 20th century. To be sure, much of this renaissance in old world craft has served the building preservation industry, but some has begun to spread to construction in new buildings.
Public reaction against the alienating monoculture that surrounds us in the media and the environment is mounting throughout the world. Only when the public demands more from architects, developers and institutional patrons will the numbing sameness of Modernist design begin to give way to a more humanistic way of sustaining the built environment.