With so many factors reinforcing architectural modernism —its ability to be flexible, its responsiveness to technology, and the lure of the new — it is hard to imagine a new style that will replace it. Is Modernism the last style?
Modern architecture’s gleaming glass and steel towers are pervasive in our cities and have been for almost a century. Will it persist, or is it simply another in a long list of styles tracing back to the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, fated to be replaced by the next hot thing?
To be clear: I love modernism. It’s what I do as a practicing architect and what I enjoy doing. But I also love and appreciate the historical styles and regional differences. Surely there should be a better balance (and dialogue) between modernism on one side, just a century old, and everything else (50 centuries old). What is also lamentable is that our built urban environments will inevitably become universally banal by their sameness. Regionalism will disappear.
Those who design buildings today seem to have very little appetite for anything other than modernism. In New York, the few buildings that have been built in the last 60 years that are not orthodox modern have been universally panned. Most new American cities such as Seattle and Los Angeles are dominated by rows of large cubist boxes. New York is more fortunate because of its strong base of pre-modern buildings which provide balance and relief.
Historically, the succession of architectural styles in western civilization reflected the distinct cultural values in each period. In addition emerging construction technologies of each new age allowed structural innovations such as buttresses used in Gothic architecture to provide more glass. This orderly progression was overturned by the first wave of modernist architects in the early twentieth century. Familiar historical styles defined by thick walls, decorative columns, and elaborate systems of ornamentation that had been refined over centuries began to disappear almost overnight.
What took their place were buildings made from grids of steel columns and wrapped with large expanses of glass. Lightweight steel structural systems, made possible by technological advances, allowed architects to build with long spans that eliminated the need for interior walls. Le Corbuiser coined the new system pleine libra or “free plan” for the freedom that was now available to architects.
The shift that was occurring in architecture at the time was truly seismic and was soon felt throughout the western world. For the fledgling modernists the conversion was total and the architects who converted believed deeply in their mission. Over the decades the many currents of modernism grew together to create a river of Amazonian proportions. Efforts to redirect its currents by such movements as Post Modernism have soon been subsumed and absorbed by its force.
Today, cities across the country and around the world are dominated by rationalist towers of steel and glass. Unless one is familiar with a city’s unique landmarks it is impossible to distinguish a city in Asia from another one in Western Europe. The lack of reference to an individual country’s unique culture or regional influences is nearly absolute. We have lost any true regionalism as well as references to the ancient styles of architecture.
A building that references the past is summarily dismissed as pastiche or nostalgia in the architectural press. New York’s AT&T Building by Phillip Johnson or his law school at NYU were scathingly panned. Nothing even remotely similar has reappeared on NYC’s skyline in 30 years.
Modernism’s march can also be witnessed on our college campuses. When originally conceived, university campuses were often consciously themed to one particular style, whether Gothic (the University of Washington and Yale), Romanesque (Stanford and Rice), or Georgian (the University of Virginia). Now, older buildings are replaced by modernist buildings. Consider Paccar Hall or William H. Gates School of Law both significant and highly regarded recent additions to the main campus at the U.W., which have very little to do with the original architectural conception of the school.
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