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.
Crosscut archive image.

Seattle Central Public Library, Wikimedia Commons, user Moody75.

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.

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.

Three arguments are used to justify these changes on campuses. First, modern buildings are more flexible and adaptable than historical buildings and therefore better suited to our fast-paced technological trajectory. Second, modernism is not only the style of our time but represents all that is new, smart, and serious in what we do and therefore better suited to this mission. Third, ornate historical details are simply too expensive to build. Out goes the previously unchallengeable notion that the historical style of a university is sacrosanct.

Classical training was the approach taught in all architecture schools in this country until the 1930s. Today, there are dozens of active architecture schools and only one of them that I am aware of (Notre Dame) actively teaches the historically based architecture. For all others the exclusive doctrine is modernism. Consequently, nearly all new professionals are trained in one discipline, which perpetuates the universally accepted worldwide movement.

Another reason for the sway of modernism is its adaptability. It also stands for important core values such as equality, democracy, and freedom of expression. It can take on infinite forms. But too often it is neither, ennobling, humanizing or even sustainable.

Take the example of Seattle's new South Lake Union neighborhood. The sameness of its modernist design produces monotony and  limits its sense of community. Evan as the newness wears off, its character will make it hard for Seattleites to learn to love. Would a modern version of New York’s West Village be any better? Probably not. Both unrelieved modernism or historic revivalism defy the logic of how cities accrue a variety of materials, colors, and styles over time.

Rarely has modernism yielded a community of timeless quality and universal acceptance. Brazilia, that utopian vision of the future, now has eerie, alienating overtones of “Clockwork Orange.” Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse inspired the massive housing projects built in the 1960s in Chicago and New York — more evidence of modernism’s inability to create a vital community.

Modernism also favors structural gymnastics. One example is the Experience Music Project by Frank Gehry. Another is the Seattle Public Library by Rem Koolhaas, which defies gravity in the way its floors stack asymmetrically, forming a super-scaled accordion. These reflect the modernist emphasis on originality, launched by the great progentiors of modernism such as Mies, Le Corbusier, and Gropius. On one hand they had to have been burdened by 3,000 years of history, and on the other hand drawn by the work of new painters and sculptors of the time who had rejected the academy and were creating things that no one had ever seen before.

There has always been a close link between art and architecture, especially at the early part of the twentieth century. At that time in Germany, the Netherlands, and France artists and a new breed of architects befriended each other and became part of the same close circles. It is no surprise that modernism in architecture paralleled the transformation in modern art from likeness and figuration in painting and sculpture to abstraction. Timeless principals of ornamentation, hierarchy, and proportion were replaced by conceptual notions of buildings being reduced to abstract planes in space, or simple solids and voids.

The modern movement in art as well as architecture was a revolt against the conservative values of objective realism. Artists were tired of the academy and all it stood for — they wanted to break out and make their own mark. 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. Marcel Duchamp’s display of “ready-made’s” including an upside down white porcelain urinal entitled simply Fountain in 1917 forever severed the link of an artist’s labor and skills to the merit of the piece.

That attitude has not changed in either art or architecture in over 100 years. Today artists and architects are still pushing the limits of expression and the very meaning of their work. Gone is the idea that accommodation and the adherence to the timeless principals of proportion are the guiding objectives of architecture. It's unlikely that we will ever return to those ideals shared by the proponents of classical architecture and objective art.


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