Modernism in architecture: No exit?

A style forged 100 years ago now conquers cities and campuses all over the world. It's a lovely aesthetic, but it's stamping out 5,000 years of design and regional differences.
Seattle's Central Library, by Rem Koolhaas

Seattle's Central Library, by Rem Koolhaas

Mixing old and new at South Lake Union.

Mixing old and new at South Lake Union. Chris Moore

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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Comments:

Posted Mon, Sep 17, 7:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Seems strange that the author would argue "the sameness of modernist design produces monotony and limits its sense of community," then cite the Seattle Public Library which is thoroughly modern yet unique in it's outward appearance.
Modernism in architecture can include regional distinctions particular to the local culture. 'Northwest' modernism is certainly a distinct style that often includes deep roof overhangs, tectonic details, and indiginous material like wood. I don't think you'd see the same 'modernism' in Iowa.
Classical architecture (or Western Classical architecture in particular) is fraught with imperial symbolism. There was a reason Albert Speers used this style for third reich building designs. To suggest we return to the classical nature of buildings that were built 2,000 years ago on the other side of the globe doesn't seem to be a viable solution to 'place-making'.
The "timeless principals of proportion" does not need to include ionic columns. Modern design can be proportionally elegant; the real problem is scale, particularly as relates to the human size. Even this can be overcome with the modernist vocabulary.

jeffro

Posted Tue, Sep 18, 8:23 p.m. Inappropriate

The Seattle Public Library is plainly ugly, a perfect match for the eyesore known as the "sculpture park," which deserves every last bit of graffiti and vandalism it will ever get. The library's glass facade will be a death trap in the next big earthquake. Not that Seattle's "progressives" care, because in the meantime it looks so ... so ... world class? Built by the same genius who gave us Paul Allen's, um, creation, right?

But surely the best part of that one was how, within a month of the new library's opening, the city cut back the system's hours. The coda: When McGinn got his referendum approved this summer, the first thing he did was raid what was left of the library's budget for more transit planning.

We surely deserve what we get in this town. Oh, by the way, is the fact that Seattle's city hall is modern connected to the fact that the government inside that building is expensive, incompetent, and dishonest to such a degree that no one wants to look at it?

NotFan

Posted Fri, Sep 21, 6:39 p.m. Inappropriate

If you're referring to the present administration, the building was designed and constructed before McGinn's tenure.

sarah90

Posted Sat, Sep 22, 10:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Do you really think that McGinn's administration is the first thoroughly corrupt fake "progressive" city government here?

NotFan

Posted Mon, Sep 17, 8:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Stuart Silk's comments about the homogeneity of American and world cities underscore the power of certain structures as municipal logos. Seattle gains instant recognition by any photograph or stylized drawing of the Space Needle. Other examples include St. Louis (The Gateway Arch), San Francisco (Golden Gate Bridge), Sydney (The Bridge and Opera House) and of course The Empire State Building or Statue of Liberty in New York. Some cities try to do this but fail- (Is that tower in Toronto or Dubai?),
others remain visually anonymous to all but residents or students of urbanism. What does Phoenix look like? Or Fort Worth? Frankfurt? Large and vaguely European.

gabowker

Posted Tue, Sep 18, 1:39 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm not sure how this is relevant to the notion that modernism is destroying the 'visually anonymous' cities of our era.
Some structures become signature buildings because of their immense size or grandiosity. They rely on background buildings of different stature.
There's also only one or two such signature buildings in any particular city.
On the flip side, many budding cities seek out these 'starchitects' to deliver the latest design to show the sophistication of the populace. This only serves to cheapen any regional building virtues already in place.

jeffro

Posted Mon, Sep 17, 11:48 a.m. Inappropriate

Bravo, Stuart. It is past time for architects to face up to "Modernism" being ripe enough to itself face being forced off the menu:

"Like all revolutions it began with questioning the past. In doing so these early twentieth century modernists rejected the past and redefined art to encompass any subject as legitimate artistic expression."

All throwings of the baby out with the bath water, e.g., 'God is Dead,' make paradoxical the question of what is to follow. However, " A paradox is a statement that seems self-contradictory or absurd, but in reality expresses a possible truth (Francis Bacon's well-known paradox, “The most corrected copies are commonly the least correct”). Apple Dictionary

Nathan Glazer, "From a cause to a style: modernist architecture's encounter with the American city," 2007 and a few others (see UW catalog) began this thinking of the unthinkable, rather admirably too.

afreeman

Posted Sun, Sep 23, 10:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Pioneer Square was ovverrun by modernism, and died.

Posted Tue, Sep 18, 9:39 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for this exploration. Please allow me to inject some ideas which clarify the issue for me.
1. Is (capital-M) Modernism a style? To me a style is a manner in which something is done, but both modernism and traditional and (capital-C) Classical architecture are deeper than just different ways of doing the same thing. They are different things altogether.
2. Is modernism 100 years old? Just about, but let’s be clear about what we’re talking about. As Andres Duany and others have observed, Nikolaus Pevsner claimed a number of architects as being proto-modernists who could be better classified as romantic or eclectic traditional architects—e.g. Victor Horta and Erich Mendelsohn.
3. What is Modernism, then? I would suggest that it is a rejection of Classicism. Le Corbusier’s Five Points, for instance, each negate key traditional and Classical roles of architecture. More, Modernism rejected culturally specific legibility. Ironically, Modernism tied itself forever to Classicism by making itself Classicism’s negation. When Modernism leaves the ability to learn from success behind, it becomes dysfunctional: the avant-garde.
4. What of flexibility and so forth? Several people, such as Peter Cowan, have shown that this flexibility and savings from open-plan and “clean” details are often illusory.
5. “Unrelieved modernism or historic revivalism . . .” Let’s be clear that neither is traditional. Traditions are a form of learning. They are evolutionary, and are not based on historicism for historicism’s sake. Classicism, by which I mean Western Classicism, is the subset of traditional design most culturally relevant to Europe and its colonies. One good question to ask is to what degree it can or should absorb the positive lessons of Modernism. That is, if it evolves to include good ideas, and some of the ideas of Modernism are good, can and should it absorb them?

Posted Tue, Sep 18, 1:27 p.m. Inappropriate

I think it's a bit severe to suggest #3 that Modernism is a rejection of Classicism. To stay with LeCorbusier, his Villa Savoye utilizes proportional systems inherent in Classical architecture. The pilotis are also reminiscent of classical columns lifting the building off the ground. The structure is obviously lacking any classical ornamentation but hardly a rejection of classical principles.

jeffro

Posted Tue, Sep 18, 2:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Re: #2 and #3, Stuart, correctly, does not limit his inquiry to architecture. Nor does Wikepedia:

"Modernism, in its broadest definition, is modern thought, character, or practice. More specifically, the term describes the modernist movement in the arts, its set of cultural tendencies and associated cultural movements, originally arising from wide-scale and far-reaching changes to Western society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In particular the development of modern industrial societies and the rapid growth of cities, followed then by the horror of World War I, were among the factors that shaped Modernism.

In art, Modernism explicitly rejects the ideology of realism and makes use of the works of the past, through the application of reprise, incorporation, rewriting, recapitulation, revision and parody in new forms. Modernism also rejects the lingering certainty of Enlightenment thinking, as well as the idea of a compassionate, all-powerful Creator.

In general, the term modernism encompasses the activities and output of those who felt the "traditional" forms of art, architecture, literature, religious faith, social organization and daily life were becoming outdated in the new economic, social, and political conditions of an emerging fully industrialized world.

A salient characteristic of modernism is self-consciousness. This self-consciousness often led to experiments with form and work that draws attention to the processes and materials used (and to the further tendency of abstraction).

The modernist movement, at the beginning of the 20th century, marked the first time that the term avant-garde, with which the movement was labeled until the word "modernism" prevailed, was used for the arts (rather than in its original military and political context, to describe movements which identify themselves as attempting to overthrow some aspect of tradition or the status quo)...."

Re: #5, if "modernism" is perpetually contemporaneous, it becomes rather silly to think of it as a "style" as admirers and practitioners have done for some time. As you suggest, what comes after globalized industrialization in terms of what is genuinely sustainable seems the most likely factor to restore "cause" to contemporaneous once more.

afreeman

Posted Thu, Sep 20, 11:12 a.m. Inappropriate

Re: #5, I think you must make a distinction between "modern" and "modernism."
The former is perpetually contemporaneous as you described, but the latter is certainly a style with well-defined building vocabulary and shared spatial characteristics (open-planning, etc.).

jeffro

Posted Thu, Sep 20, 1:32 p.m. Inappropriate

I despise "open" floor plans, at least in houses. I'd like to meet the idiot who decided that we all want to see and hear everyone else in the house, all the time.

NotFan

Posted Sat, Sep 22, 7:58 a.m. Inappropriate

That's great that you 'depise' open floor plans, but this isn't about you. Clearly you are in the minority since even builders regularly incorporate open floor plans into otherwise traditional housing stock.
Open floor plans are much better than compartmentalized rooms of the past and that's why most people love them.

jeffro

Posted Sun, Sep 23, 2:24 p.m. Inappropriate

'Modernism" the style started life as a cause as most movements do. See "From a cause to a style: modernist architecture's encounter with the American city," Nathan Glazer, 2007. UW Built Environment Library has a lending copy.

afreeman

Posted Sat, Sep 22, 9:58 p.m. Inappropriate

So you say about what's "better." But it isn't all about you, is it?

NotFan

Posted Tue, Sep 18, 8:27 p.m. Inappropriate

The worst, but also most laughable in a sad way, aspect of the latest version of modernism is what it's doing to residential construction. In my neighborhood, the new angular, severe looking houses have much smaller windows than the existing housing stock.

Someone apparently forgot that, between November and April, you need every bit of light you can get to keep from slitting your wrists. Maybe they know that it's a lost cause to begin with, because most of those new joints make you want to do yourself in anyway.

But they photograph well in the home magazines, and make their new "boho" owners feel all world classy and such. I do wonder where the designers come from, though. Surely not here, unless all they've been doing is copying the Californians and calling it their own. Not that Seattle's "creative" class has ever done that.

NotFan

Posted Wed, Sep 19, 1:54 p.m. Inappropriate

What neighborhood is this? Most modernist houses I see built have an abundance of windows--certainly much more than traditional houses.

Is it possible there are smaller windows in the front only for privacy and larger windows in the back?

As long as modernist structures respect the scale and setback of adjacent houses, they fit into most neighborhoods.

jeffro

Posted Wed, Sep 19, 2:16 p.m. Inappropriate

I'd rather not talk about exactly where I live. But rest assured, the slit-like windows of these modern houses are definitely a feature of them. So are the harsh interiors, odd angles, and strange proportions in general.

A certain sort of person will buy those things, and I'm all in favor of people buying what they want to buy and living how they want to live. But that won't keep me from giving my opinion, which is that modernist houses are often cold, unliveable, and divorced from their surroundings, at least as currently executed.

And I'm not against, say, "clean lines." But too many of the new houses have all the charm and mystery of a shopping mall, plus small windows. It's the windows I notice most, because they are so obviously stupid in a place like this.

NotFan

Posted Fri, Sep 21, 6:44 p.m. Inappropriate

In every "clean line" house I see in what used to be Pacific magazine on Sundays, there are also clean-line pieces of furniture -- i.e., furniture with absolutely no curves or comfort. Furnishings seem to follow architecture.

sarah90

Posted Sat, Sep 22, 9:59 p.m. Inappropriate

I look at those pictures and think, "Oh, the echoes."

NotFan

Posted Sun, Sep 23, 10:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Anything brand new and so-called sylish sells fast.

Next time around, not so much. Buy high, sell low, those modernist homes.

Posted Sun, Sep 23, 10:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Anything brand new and so-called sylish sells fast.

Next time around, not so much. Buy high, sell low, those modernist homes.

Posted Fri, Sep 21, 10:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Modernism is style that almost everyone works in, but few live in.

jabailo

Posted Sat, Sep 22, 9:37 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for this, Stuart. I have been a great admirer of your work.

You make the proper point that architecture and the arts have always beeen linked and so, for that matter, have architecture and politics,
architecture and evolving social values, etc.---the soil in which
architecture is planted: Grandiose palaces, spartan workers housing,
closed and open structures depending on the security sought from
a benign or threatening outside world.

Some commenters have mentioned the Koolhaas central library and the Gehry Experience Music Project. I lived for three years in Santa Monica in a neighborhood filled with Gehry's work. It is interesting but I suspect will have little staying power. Koolhaas deserves his world-class reputation. The library, externally, is striking. But, if you go inside both buildings, they are anything but welcoming.
The library has a remarkable amount of unused and unusable space.
Frank Lloyd Wright is a world-reputed architect of another kind.
Externally, his structures are interesting. But they fall apart quickly, are poorly designed for daily living by those who live within them, and mainly are monuments to his boundless ego. Cult members continue to worship at his shrine.

I do not pretend thorough knowledge of architecture. I take pride that my oldest son has had his own firm for many years in the East, working as you do across many kinds of projects. One of the professions truly deserving of respect.

Posted Mon, Oct 1, 12:47 a.m. Inappropriate

The library, externally, is a cliche, and not a good one at that.

NotFan

Posted Mon, Sep 24, 10:46 a.m. Inappropriate


I have received a direct e-mail inquiry asking if the person signing his name "jeffro" is me (Jeffrey Ochsner).

"jeffro" is not Jeffrey Ochsner.

Thank you.

Posted Thu, Sep 27, 2:32 p.m. Inappropriate

I think the sameness and blocky-ness of the current crop of building is partially due to the height restrictions imposed by Seattle zoning. If instead of height restrictions we had open space trade-offs for increased height, architects and financiers would have more options to play with.

andy

Posted Mon, Oct 1, 12:45 a.m. Inappropriate

You have got to be joking, except that I know you're not. There's another thread here about all the unemployed architects. Given all the surplus architects out there, you'd think could find a few who aren't so intellectually limited that they can't make an attractive building that's not some glorified phallic symbol.

Which, by the way, haven't exactly prettified too many skylines. Seattle and every other major city is just full of tall, butt-ugly buildings. Come on, look around for God's sakes. About the only skyline that's been improved by its tall buildings is Chicago's. Everywhere else, it ranges from contrived (San Diego) to barely tolerable (San Francisco) to oh-I-wish-I-could-have-been-here-60-years-ago (Manhattan) to will-someone-please-nuke-it (the Sunbelt) to vomit-on-a-stick (Boston).

NotFan

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