Concepts Of Modernity And Modernism Cultural Studies Essay

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Modernism as an architectural term has surfed a diversity of changes in its meanings and definitions, broadly because of its long practicability and needed longevity. It is usually considered against any other styles or trends and has transformed over the last years from being the revolutionary and rebellious personage in architecture in the early decades of the 20'th century to the today's conservator and rigid style. Anyway, its essential merits have been the building of the first bricks of a new contemporary style, even if is acidly judged by many of the today's architects . Even so, this rigidity has also offered some sort of flexibility in spreading a good quality architecture, based on rational thinking and geometrical order that has enchanted our view on many occasions.

There are a multitude of debates whether this style had a positive impact upon the today's architecture but surely it had over the yesterday's architecture by denying those methods of designing from the past. As Wagner considered in 1902, 'Modern' architecture has closed the 19'th century decorative tradition. (Wagner, 1988). This leads to the idea that anything that is considered modern will be a rejection of tradition and will violently act against it. Adding to this term the suffix 'ism' will immediately raise it to the level of movement from a specific place and time. So, "Modern" is about novelty, about things still in change , in a continuous development while "Modern" + "ism" gives it a contradictory meaning, being a doctrine, a perfectly codified term nowadays. It refers to the period that begun at the end of the 18'th century and "died" as Charles Jencks would put it, in 1972, precisely on July 15, at 3.32 pm, "when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme (…) were given the final coup de grace by dynamite".

This essay focuses on linking these opposites but interdependent terms, demonstrating the sequential relation between them, the fact that we wouldn't have had one without the other. There is a major difference between the rational of the two concepts but in the end, architecture is based on the same principles: to offer a shelter for the human being, to protect and make him feel comfortable even if is for the rich or for the poor, decorated or not, in relation to its surroundings or not, transmitting a message or not etc.

In a narrative way, the essay is structured chronologically and is broken in three major historical periods dictated by the impact of the two world wars: the first one - before the first World War and the end of the 19'th century, the second - the period after the two World Wars and the last part - the commence of the post modernism together with its development until today. This narrative focuses also on demonstrating how the nowadays architecture has flourished, as well as surveying the direction of the future. The end of this essay will be left opened, together with the question "Where are we heading to?" and the assumptions of important names from the architecture world.

Social context - development of modern society at the end of 19'th century and the urge to free architecture as a matter of style

In the 19'th century, changes in the human history were taking place; what happens especially in Europe and the USA at the end of the 18'th century will mark the evolution in every domain but in architecture is seen and felt at its best, considering that is an art that we deal with day by day. Some of the causes that made architecture change so rapidly where due to the technological and social developments of the age and these are synthesize as it follows:

The demographic jump and the changes in the demographic repartition, from the rural to the urban

The industrial revolution - the change from the mechanical production to the industrial


The national ideologies and the formation of national states approximately in the current form

The general democratization of society

The trust in a positive thinking and in the scientific progress as a way of solving the society's problems

As a result, the 19'th century places architecture in a new context, with new conditions, issues and requirements:

The demographic jump induces a new problematic of quantity and quality of human living in terms of circulation, propriety, urban equipment, housing for the poor etc.

New types of buildings appear: factories, stations, administrative buildings etc. Finding a form that satisfies the function with a new symbolic becomes a major preoccupy.

Finding expressive ways of using new material and construction technologies (metal and reinforce concrete) and linking them with the new concepts of engineering

Architecture is seeking to reflect the new age's spirit, a more liberal, non-subjugated to the concepts of the past, a free architecture. All these converge to the finding of new expressive languages which answer to the problems and replace the old ones which were considered expired. The forms and production methods of the past were still spread through the educational institutions like the Beaux-Art academy. That is the reason why the architect from the end of the 18'th century wasn't ready to answer to these urban, social and technological changes. His mind was set upon the stylistic language, which derived from classical orders, applied on different types of buildings usually in an approximately same way. He doesn't think that the new age's problems are worth paying attention: quantity, quality, economical and social issues. For this reason he will be replaced by other specialists who undertake these problems: urban administrators, engineers, entrepreneurs, economists etc.

Furthermore, the architect is struggling to bring the new techniques and the new material in the old-fashioned design. They are using so much the traditional way that in the end it becomes oversaturated. A very significant text which underlines the feeling of the age is "The Gentelman's House or How to Plan English Residence from the Personage to the Palace" from 1864 by the architect Kerr:

"A bewildered gentleman may venture to suggest that he wants only a simple comfortable house "in no style at all - except the comfortable style, if there be one. The architect agrees; but they are all comfortable. "Sir, you are a paymaster, and must therefore be pattern-master; you choose the style of your house just as you choose the build of your hat; - you can have Classical, columnar or non-columnar, arcuated or trabeated, rural or civil, or indeed palatial; you can have Elizabethan in equal variety; Renaissance ditto; or, not to notice minor modes, Medieval in any of its multifarious forms, eleventh century or twelfth, thirteenth or fourteenth, whichever you please, - feudalistic or monastic, scholastic or ecclesiastic, archaeologistic or ecclesiologistic, and indeed a good menu more. " "But really, I would much rather not. I want a plain, substantial, comfortable Gentleman's House; and, I beg leave to repeat, I don't want any style at all. I really would very much rather not have any; I dare say it would cost a great deal of money, and I should very probably not like it. Look at myself; I am a man of very plain tastes; I am neither Classical nor Elizabethan; I am not aware that I am Renaissance, and I am sure I am not Medieval; I belong neither to the eleventh century, nor to the twelfth, thirteenth, or fourteenth(…) I am very sorry, but if you would kindly take me as I am, and built my house in my own style…"".

There are some key words in this text that I would like to underline. This talks about an "own style" - term that in the late 19'th century wasn't mentioned; the attitude of the architect of the time over his own work denotes a lack of professionalism; he talks about a building superficially, like a "hat" that needs to be ornamented. It is obviously why a sort of "crisis" was about to appear; not only the professional architects who understood the importance of the problem but also the people from the outside, the viewers, were tired of these clichés, and as Le Corbusier would put it: "architecture has nothing to do with various 'styles'. The style of Louis XIV,XV,XVI or Gothic, are to architecture what a feather is on a woman's head…something pretty, though not always, and never anything more". (37)

Architecture is a product of its time and as Mies van der Rohe said: "not of the time but of the epoch". He also remembers: "When I was, maybe sixteen years old I worked in a stucco business. In the morning we had to do a quarter of a full-sized ceiling in Louis Quatorze, in the afternoon, one in the Renaissance. We went through all these periods, chestnut ornaments and so on. I got so much of it that I couldn't be impressed anymore with these things." Another description about the feel of the time and related to the Beaux-Art academy is made by the Mexican architect Juan O'Gorman "…It was the usual Beaux-Art academic stuff and that, of course, was piled on in such a way that we became completely bored with it." (Oral History, pag13).

Ideas and movements towards a modernist architecture

It is clear that in the architecture of the time needed to be changed. They were all tired of the stuffed design. As in every movement, there were theoreticians that tried to respond to the "crisis" of the 19'th century, but the results were only partially obtained. Analyzing their designs is obviously that they were still dependent on the past principles, thing that was in the urge to finish. Probably the most important theoretician of the 19'th century, Eugene-Emanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1876) is the one that "rationalizes the gothic". He eliminates the romantic and the sentimentalism from this style, introducing the right use of materials and obeying to the functional necessities. John Ruskin's ideas were influential as well. From a romantic point of view, he seeks the solution to the artistic and architectural decadence of the capitalist society in the history, in the rare moments of harmony between the artistic and the environment that creates it. He sends towards The Medieval times, towards the gothic and the byzantine.

Architecture can't be understood without placing it against the historic background that has taken it to where it is now. The period between the 1890 and the beginning of the First World War, in 1914 was a major stage in the evolution of architectural design. It might have looked like a start for a rich and fertile movement not of a standard international style but a colorful, original, more varied than ever before. This bloom was interrupted by the War, which destroyed much of the talent, energy and intentions. The following years, the 20's and the 30's brought social disaster, unemployment, poverty; so architecture had to solve all of this through the socialization, the massive construction and reconstruction of human shelters.

The whole movement represents a break from the traditions of the past but this break didn't happen suddenly but gradually, at first just like a humble of modernization between the 19'th century and beginning of the 20'th - the soft break, and the second one - the radical break - the first decays of the 20'th century.

"In the wake of World War I, the Modern Movement hoped to turn swords into plowshares, redressing the brutalization of the modern world through a sort of socialism by design. In effect, the Modern Movement believed it could transform mass consciousness by improving productive and environmental conditions." (Architectures Modernism and After, pag 35) Towards this socialism, in Munich, 1907 is founded the Deutscher Werkbund, which will be "working with capitalism in the hope of reforming it". Moreover, many of the founders of this society will be participating in the founding of the Bauhaus in 1919 and the Congres Internationaux d'Architecture, CIAM, in 1928.

As a denial for the 19'th century Art Nouveau, Adolf Loos writes in 1908 "Ornament and crime", Antonio Sant'Elia's 1914 "Manifesto of Futurist Architecture" - critiques the neoclassicism, Walter Gropius's 1919 "Manifesto" is heading to a socialist gesture in architecture while building the foundation for what would have become the most important brick for the modernist development: le Corbusier's 1923 "Towards a new architecture", the new bible for modern design.

In "Ornament and crime" Loos underlines the gravity of the problem by using ornament. He considers that only primitive people and criminals use tattoos. "Ornamentation is a crime", "violence [onto] the integrity of the object" (Loos qtd in Gravagnulo 67; Gusevich 109). He was heading "against the entrenchment of the ancient regime", seriously denying art nouveau's inclination towards ornamentation. Broadly, the first definition of modernism that comes into one's mind, is the lack of ornament, simplicity.

With the same thirst or even more, Antonio Sant'Elia's 1914 "Manifesto of Futurist Architecture" [n]o architecture has existed since 1700…[Modern architecture is nothing more than a moronic mixture of… stylistic elements" (Sant'Elia). This was a rebellious instigation towards the stop of "recopying classical models" and creating "new moldings and frames for windows".

Another wake up call came from the founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius's "Manifesto": "Architects, painters, sculptors, we must all return to crafts!" His desire is the "conscious co operation and collaboration of all craftsmen".

"Towards A New Architecture" is one of the most influential manifestos of the twentieth's century. Like Loos and Gropius, Corbusier claims that "architecture is stifled by custom". He considers that the issues with whom the century is confronting should be taken serious, considered in each design: the 1920's economic situation, availability of new materials, the demographic increase and so on. They should be solved by taking advantage of the new technology, by creating "machines for living in", in a new and simplistic manner "Cubes, cones, spheres, cylinders, [and] pyramids…are the most beautiful forms." In my vision, what Corbusier has done to the architecture of the 20'th century was a radical break from the traditions and the methods of the past. He was introducing a new style, an absent style as they were claiming but nonetheless one of the most important styles in shaping the layout of the hole world.

The radical break from the past is clearly seen from the first decays of the 20'th century. Through the new movements: Futurism, Constructivism, Neoplasticism, the Bauhaus, and Le Corbusier - all of them are component parts of the International Style.

Roughly, the modern architecture was based on the same idea: the rationalization and simplification of the built form and concept. The rationalism was introduced by the philosopher Descartes who invites the man to search for answers inside himself which in architectural terms, the design should come from the inside to the outside, the exact principle that form follows function. A relevant example is Corbusier's plan for a city with 3 million people which is built from scratch according to the concept of a modular man capable to live in his "living machine"; this city is considered an utopist approach by the critiques because the standardization and globalization can't go so far until neglecting the personality and the culture of individual. Rationalism transforms the architectural project in a mercantile and functionalist act, limiting its aesthetical beauty. The repeatability of certain elements brings an oversaturation and stylistic exhaust.

The glory times of these designs were obviously those ones emanated from the Bauhaus tradition, the early decades of the 20'th century. After the second world war the cruel conditions of living dictated this rushed way of building, the socialization; people urgently needed a place to live and probably this is when the modernism failed. It became a style, thing that was undesired from the beginning: 'What they did not want was to be told that they were working in a style.' (Scully; 2003: 75). Even more, it became a tradition and as modernity is always neglecting tradition - it was the turn of modernism to be rejected by POSTMODERNISM.

The commences of the post-modernism can be tracked in some series of reactions of architects towards CIAM. The most representative leader of the post-modernist architecture is the architect Robert Venturi. In the study "Learning from Las Vegas" he was encouraging a "publicity" architecture, where the functions were introduced in normal "shelters" and the companies were placed in front.

The modernist revolution started by rejecting the ornament, demonstrating its real parasite and anti-functional essence. The motto of this movement perfectly illustrates the direction that Mies van der Rohe was adopting: "Less is more". The post-modernism's reply to the modernists rigidity was embodied in a new seek inside the past again, where the complex problem was solved in an inventive way and where the obstacles like the "contradiction and complexity" as Venturi said, had given the occasion for technical and aesthetical discoveries. The post-modernists looked to an opposite direction, to the analysis and de-simplification of the past. In a pluralist way, the historicism of the post-modern architecture is reinterpreting the past from many angles, from the romantic, to an ironic and nostalgic one. For a perfect antitheses, Venturi replies with his own version to the modernist motto: "Less is a bore".

We can ask ourselves if between modernism and postmodernism exists an essential difference. The first difference is about the way they see the relation between exterior and interior. Nor did the sky-scrapers nor the collective housing were neglected by the post-modernists but they were upgraded and embellished. Between Mies's black towers from Chicago and the Chippendale "joke", the A.T&T Building of Philip Johnson there is not a major conceptual difference. Not the "form follows function" as Sullivan thought, but the "function follows form" - as postmodernists believe. In the same ironic tone, Peter Blake said: "form follows fiasco". This underlines the absolute role of the interior space as a dictator for the exterior. In the end a relation was established between both of them: flexible spaces should permit changes in time. So, if we change function and so, the interior plans, how this identity change will be reflected on the outside while the facades are unchangeable? There are two consequences: the first one: if the interior space is left free - following space - so as to be changed anytime - the result will be an autonomic façade which will not reflect the change and any function at al. The second consequence: if the function is reflected on the outside volumes, the result is that the architectural object is embodied in the project, so the slogan should be changed: "the form follows only the initial function" - and any ulterior change should be suppressed.

I believe that this double paradox is the major problem of modernist buildings nowadays. They were thought for a function at a certain time, and for these buildings the interior coherence is faulted. There was a monopolized capitalism, a specialization so that all the building had a single use: educational, industrial, administrative or residential - and this was shown. The change and development was almost impossible, that's why the nowadays result is that all the monumental buildings from civic centers are sheltering only bars, discos, local meeting places - they have no flexibility in providing other functions.

On the contrary, the post-modernism looks more into the public space of the city, of the facades, for being something else than interior private space.

And yet, our today architecture is stuck. This is not referring to important and really developed cities like London, Paris, New York etc. but to cities I deal with every day like Coventry or cities from Romania which were clearly affected by the war and regimes. These hadn't had time to develop yet and modernist intends are spoiling today our view. What we see new and beautiful is actually old and ephemeral. An office building with a metallic structure and a glass facade is probably 50 years old-fashioned. The nowadays architecture is constrained by numerous economical factors, being afraid to look for new forms, to study new materials, to look and try something different, is afraid of losing its client, the money and fame.

The architectural languages in contemporary works -were they are, if they are- are the old ones from the modernist's era. We want to save money from quality, from food, from our soul but in the end we throw our money on junk-food, on brands, wasted time, limiting ourselves, on an expensive house, cheap medicines, wrong materials, on a cheap project, concepts, and in the end we realize that we aren't healthy, satisfied with our living; why? because we don't spend enough time and energy on architecture. We live in an ambient which is generated by aesthetics - we are influenced by the surrounding and when we don't feel comfortable with it, we are not happy. @Architecture of happiness@

And if this is the today's architecture, I wonder what is the future architecture? Thousand years ago, the architects were drawing SF images where trams were flying, OZNs were everywhere, buildings were huge, they were imagining city-buildings, underwater cities and many other things - many of these plans were accomplished. We now have half a mile tall buildings, underwater cities, artificial islands, rackets and ecologic cars, we reached the speed limit, we've got it all. So what can be next?

As I imagine, there are two options: going back to traditions but as ecological as possible together with reducing the amount of energy consumed, with systems against global warming and protection etc. And on the contrary, the SF architecture with organic shaped buildings, tectonic structures, even virtual buildings, that change shape etc.

It's clear that technology was the starter of any architectural development and so will be. The architect should be futurist because the modern term is already expired. The modernists lived two centuries ago. A modern house?... a trendy design which after one year will not exist anymore? Or a house for the future, an example of something that nobody else have?

Futuristic idea or just the image of the duck? The poster jungle!

From experience, a really strange thing that happens at the moment with the architecture is the "hybrid" restoration or the try of enliven the too rigid buildings through technology or huge posters. This is following the concept of the duck from Venturi's "Learning from Las Vegas". They are going towards a speaking architecture but is it really what we - the viewers need/want? I feel haunted by the enormous bans and screens that took over the city.