Architecture Essays - Mercurial Modernism


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Mercurial Modernism; defining the un-definable

Modernism as a genre of architecture has undergone a variety of changes in its perceptions and definitions, largely as a result of its practical and necessary longevity. It is perceived in most cases, against other styles and trends, and has gone, over the years, from being the bad boy on the block in the early decades of last century, to latterly representing the essence of conservatism. It is important that one realises this relativistic viewpoint when looking at forms of modernist architecture. However, its fundamentals have been the building blocks for the new contemporary styles against which it is judged, in as much as the elements that it gleaned from its architectural past, and in this manner, it has achieved a malleability that has ensured its continued existence.

The manner in which Modern architecture as the physical manifestation of architectural Modernism, is defined, is temporal in nature and is part of the conundrum. This is evidenced in the early work by Wagner in 1902, where ‘Modern’ Architecture is considered to emanate out of a 19th Century decorative tradition. (Wagner, 1988). This subscribes to the transitory notion of which each aspect considering itself modern, forms part. (Heynen; 1999: 12) Thus, modernism as an all embracing ‘ism’ arises; the nomenclature attempting to position it as an inclusive movement at a specific place in time, with defined parameters and goals.

The definition of the term forms the substrate to the discussion, as the parts that make up the whole are important in the understanding of the conflicts. This discourse regarding the definitions of modernism is embraced by Heynen, who notes that it is certainly not a simplistic set of ideas, and the that definition of the word itself modernised over many centuries. (Heynen; 1999: 10) She describes individually the three terms, Modernisation, Modernity, and Modernism. In this case, the first defines a socio-cultural and technological development, the second the ‘typical features of modern times and to the way that these features are experienced by the individual’ (Ibid: 10) and modernism as ‘a generic term for those theoretical and artistic ideas about modernity that enable men and women to assume control over the changes that are taking place in a world by which they too are changed.’(Ibid: 10). Thus, her description of the term is less involved with the architectural and artistic manifestations of the ideal, than the ideal itself. Importantly, Heynen sees modernity as the necessary linkage between modernisation and modernism. This has two elements; one which is based on socio-economic phenomena and one that more subjectively deals with implementations such as artistic, experiential and theoretical considerations. In juxtaposition to the etymology surrounding modernism is the notion of tradition as a necessary part of the creation of society and its bounds.  However, this is an important part of the debate for, as Heynen says, ‘The desire for innovation and the rebellion against the pressure of tradition are part of the generally accepted ingredients of the modern.’  (Heynen;1999:12). Tradition then leads to the conceptual framework of the idea of ‘dwelling’ which has embedded in it a number of qualities such as connectivity with the landscape, the elements, the necessaries of living and the prescribed cultural determinants. Heynen sees that ‘dwelling’ in this regard is often conceptually absent in modernity; ‘Modernity frees people from the limitations imposed upon them by their family or clan or by their village community, offering them unheard of options and often material improvements as well; there is, however, a price to pay. The renunciation of the traditional framework of reference for their lives means a loss of certainties and of meaning. For many people it is far from easy to learn to live with this.’ (Heynen; 1999: 15). However, this is a critical comment in the context of the discussion of Modernist Architecture, as, generally speaking, the modern movement was seen to focus largely on the dwelling, whether purpose built for a client, or whether it solved problems of mass housing in an efficient and pleasant manner. (Nuttgens; 1997: 284).

Heynen accredits Siegfried Giedion as being ‘considered the ghostwriter of the modern movement…..partly due to his work that the movement was seen as a whole, because of his writings he brought its different tendencies together under the banner of the new space-time concept.’ (Heynen; 1999: 4) Indeed, in the subscript to the title of his seminal work, ‘Space, Time and Architecture’ (originally published in 1941), ‘the growth of a new tradition’, this transitory process is now expanded to include a notionally bound concept of tradition. The reaction against time imposed traditions and the seeming arrogance of the creation of a new tradition has ironically achieved its goal in the creation of an architectural ‘norm’ tradition against which ‘new’ architectures are constantly striving to supersede. The linear process that Giedion adopts in the presentation of architectural history culminating in the newly created brave new world is a mechanism for presenting the new architecture, and lumping all the new work regardless of context and from what may end up being a variety of conceptual backgrounds, into one convenient box. This is evident in the strongly conflictual relationship between Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier.

Adolf Loos has recently been reassessed in the light of some of his contemporaries, particularly Le Corbusier. This is challenged by a number of writers from a variety of different perspectives, (Risselada; 1988) and serves to open up the debate as to the constituents of that which is modern, and the level of prescription in its execution that may or may not exist. That Loos and Le Corbusier came from different standpoints is evident in the formers more humanistic and visceral approach compared with the latter’s dispassionately human free environments focussed on the production of aesthetic excellence. (Risselada; 1988: 6) This lack of conceptual synergy, however, produced an architecture that was boxed into a movement and the production of a generic in the light of, as Scully says ‘What they did not want was to be told that they were working in a style.’ (Scully; 2003: 75).

The work of Loos was more entrenched in the production of buildings relating to the human being and to culture; an early but drastic interface between Modernism and tradition. Heynen asserts that he occupied a unique and important place in the discourse and history of twentieth century architecture, in that he could not be categorised with ease. She notes that his architecture remained largely unrecognised as it was ‘fundamentally at variance with the ideals of the modern movement and was therefore incompatible with the (convenient) historiography of Giedion and Pevsner.’ (Heynen: 1999: 75) His stance on tradition remains strong, and does not sit with the absolute disdain characteristic of much of the staunch following. Loos’ notion of tradition meant ‘ensuring that culture advances on the road to and increasing distinction and perfection. This was the proper notion of tradition for an architect.’ (Ibid; 79) Modernism is not seen as a fresh start, rather ‘as a very specific continuation of the tradition’ (Ibid; 94) Loos’s thoughts on architecture declared that  “Only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the grave and the monument. Everything else, everything that serves a purpose is to be excluded from the realm of art”.(von Moos in Risselada; 1988: 24) In stark contrast, in the words of von Moos, ‘For Le Corbusier, therefore, architecture is and remains a domain of art. More concretely, Loos’ Moller House in Vienna (1928) encapsulates the notion of dwelling, is purpose designed for the client, following the lie of the land, and embracing partly those notions of domestic dwelling design that Loos declared in his Raumplan theory of spatial layout. The house, much analysed, prompted the comment from van de Beek that in the manipulation of space and material, an organisation is developed that ‘deprives the space plan of its character of necessity, its uniqueness emerging as a differentiated whole.’ However, he mentions that ‘In this differentiation of space and material, Adolf Loos was revolutionary.’ (van de Beek in Risselada: 1988: 46) Yet, despite these two different conceptual points of departure, an aesthetic similarity exists between the Moller house and the slightly earlier Planeix House, in Paris (1927) by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, following the structural rules of the modernist declaration; flat roofed, white, boxy and rectangular, no ornamentation. One would hope that in the light of the analysis of the former, despite the break away from conventional tradition, Loos placed as much emphasis in the notion of ‘dwelling’, a spirit devoid in much architecture of the modern period.

The celebrated practitioners of Modernism are generally those belonging to the early parts of the twentieth century tradition emanating from the Bauhaus tradition, such as van der Rohe, Wright, Le Corbusier, and Gropius. Their influence was difficult to shrug, and architectural training lauded the new architectures on the back of the ancient in the same linear manner as presented by Giedion. Much of the work built  prompted the comment by Scully that ‘Modern architecture is an environmentally destructive mass of junk, dominated by curtain wall corporate structures which will continue to be built so long as modern bureaucracy exists.’ (Scully; 2003: 158) Reasonably early on, a departure from the rigid and rectangular formula began in projects echoing the plastic work of Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower (Potsdam, 1921)  In the late 1950’s and the early 1960’s, controversial projects by architects such as Eero Saarinen, (TWA Terminal, JF Kennedy Airport, 1962), and the noted Sydney Opera House by Jorn Utzorn, (1973) manipulated materials in the manner of their post World War I predecessors to create new and exciting forms, blending the notions of space and function, creating contemporarily temporary spaces and leading the way for the new orders leading to the millennium. In this context, Modernism had become the conservative norm, and the new plastic buildings, pushing the boundaries of the expected and the usual. Modernism in its implementation had become a tradition in itself, and was now the starting point for a variety of other, newer, more critical and more flexible movements.

Nuttgens notes that it is understood that the age of modernism was abruptly culminated in the demolition of the award winning Pruitt Igoe Flats in St Louis (Minoru Yamasaki). Built in 1955, they were the epitome of social housing developments coming out of the age of the modernists, yet had been unsuccessful producing an unsatisfactory social environment for its inhabitants. In latter years, in addition to boasting a high crime rate, the Flats were subject to vandalism, abuse and destruction. Their demolition in 1972, and many other demolitions of such housing projects, saw the increasing tempo of a severe questioning of the tenets of modernism, and their appropriateness in social situations. The schism created by the crisis served to spawn a myriad of different types of architectural ‘isms’ including a revival in traditionalism. The manner in which these different movements grafted some elements of the Modernist era into their toolkit varies, assisting in the plethora of post 1970’s architecture that has emerged internationally and from different positions. Post-Modernism, itself a political standpoint against the Modern Movement chooses as its premise a return to classical orders to some effect. Indeed, the aforementioned TWA Terminal, together with Kahn’s Richards Medical Research building at the University of Pennsylvania are considered by Nuttgens to be the brave forerunners in the departure from the Modern era, thus prompting the work of Robert Venturi that saw the germination of Post-Modernist Classicism. (Nuttgens; 1997: 287) In addition, his book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) heralded the discourse, articulating the need for an architecture that had meaning and interest. In another vein, the concrete structures of Le Corbusier prompted the brief New Brutalism phase, the development of the rational in the elevation of modernist buildings is strongly echoed in the post modern Public Services Building in Portland, Oregon, by Michael Graves (1982).

To revert to the original standpoint as the point of origin is necessary. This is the means of gauging the reaction against tradition, in the creation of a new tradition, which then is the point of origin for a further reaction. The continuous transition that societies make impinge themselves upon the emergent architectural traditions, as in the other arts, creating energetic discourse, yet rarely much that is new.

In concluding, the dialectics of modernity and tradition, and modernism and dwelling, are unhappily positioned with regard to most of the eminent proponents of the modern movement. This is perhaps the fault of Giedion to some degree, creating with deliberate intensity a new architecture under which every one else would fall, despite different approaches in conceptual standing, yet generally producing much of a generic in its built form. Loos came from a tradition of tradition, his modernism and modernity is to some degree indisputable in the light of the previous traditions, and his production of the notion of dwelling had success in the one-off projects. Le Corbusier was a visionary that looked at the pureness of the potential art form as a result of the practical manifestations of the planning, but not necessarily embracing the human element. Giedion was desperately trying to connect all of these dots, manufacturing an unhappy ‘ism’ that could have benefited from less stringent ruling systems. However, the basic tenets of the Modernist era did originally have roots in earlier architectural traditions which in turn were informed by rebellions from even earlier traditions, so in this sense the transitory definition as offered by Heynen gives much clarity. Indeed, the creation of the modernist tradition, which it was for many decades in a taught sense, has imbued other spin offs and created other new forms of architecture that have a basis in much of the teachings. New materials have constantly enabled a plastic movement in physical application since the mid- nineteenth century, which means that the shapes and forms of buildings, in addition to their functions in the technological and electronic age, have changes in accommodating what one would hope, becomes new traditions. Modernism and modernity are mercurial definitions, but their longevity hangs around the radical traditions of the mid twentieth century. It is perhaps justice that Modernism is again the new kid on the block; this time as a special case project with organisations such as English Heritage. The seminal buildings of the period generally fall within the time scale regarding legislated protection, many are sadly neglected, and their value as examples of the renegade movement in the technological age is grossly underestimated.

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