Everything that is solid melts into air

The distinctly black skyscrapers of the Toront...

Mies van der Rohe, Toronto.

We are modern people and we live in the modern age.  All of our lived experience is modern, from the culture we find ourselves embedded in and the institutions that govern our lives to the appliances we use and the cars we drive.  Science, medicine, engineering, economics, agriculture, transport, entertainment and architecture are all undeniably modern in their conception, organisation and outlook.  So what does it mean to be modern?  And how did the modern era influence today’s design thinking? 

Modernism is a recurring movement, over several centuries, and is associated with the social, political and economic interpretation of the mechanical, industrial and now the information ages.  There is not one modernism or one movement in one place and time.  Modernism before the American and French revolutions is expressed through the voice of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the first to use the word moderniste in the ways in which nineteenth and twentieth century writers were to use it—from nostalgic reverie to psychoanalytic self-scrutiny to participatory democracy. 

Rousseau’s romantic novel ‘The New Eloise’ deals with a young man’s move from the country to Paris—an archetype for the experience of millions of people to come—with the attendant exposure to the city’s anonymity, agitation and turbulence, psychic dizziness and drunkenness, experiential possibilities, and the fine line between self-enlargement and self-derangement.  Rousseau’s hero writes of his experience of metropolitan life as ‘a perpetual clash of groups and cabals, a continual flux of prejudices and conflicting opinions… everyone constantly places himself in contradiction with himself’.  In the intense, claustrophobic urban environment of the modern city, beauty, truth and virtue have only a local and limited existence. 

Moving forward one hundred years, modernism finds its industrial age expression in the writings of Nietzche in the 1880s who is generally perceived as a primary source of many of the modernisms of our time.  Nietzche is associated with the destruction of Christian ideals of the soul’s integrity and wrote of ‘the death of God’ and the advent of nihilism.  Modern man found himself in the midst of a great absence and emptiness of values, and yet, at the same time, a remarkable abundance of possibilities, Nietzche wrote in ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ (1882).  Nietzche identified the emancipation of the ‘modern man’ through self-preservation, self-awakening and self-liberation.  To be modern is to be part of a world in which, as Karl Marx famously said, ‘All that is solid melts into air’. 

Marshall Berman writes ‘The modern experience described by Nietzche and Marx is one of paradox and contradiction.  It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organisations that have the power to control and often destroy all communities, values, lives; and yet to be undeterred in our determination to face these forces, to fight to change their world and make it our own.  It is to be both revolutionary and conservative: alive to the possibilities for experience and adventure, frightened by the nihilistic depths to which so many modern adventures lead, longing to create and to hold on to something real even as everything melts (Berman, p. 35). 

Twentieth century modernism grew out of this period and in many ways thrived in its realisations in painting, sculpture, poetry and the novel, theatre and dance, and of course, architecture and design.  Berman continues:

At one pole, the modernism of rejection, we can locate Philip Johnson’s ‘The International Style’, published in 1932 under the auspices of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  One of the main achievements of this book, which enabled it virtually to define the modern canon for the next forty years, was its own distinctive style: an Olympian voice that proclaimed with serene certainty and absolute authority what modernism was, and what it must be. 

Berman’s succinct synopsis of modernist architecture reveals how the worldview influenced design:

A modern building was built in ‘the Style’; any deviations from it could only be inept, frivolous or corrupt. 

A building in ‘the Style’ is cubic, geometrically organised, constructed in steel, glass and reinforced concrete, regular in form, flat at the top and (with a few specified exceptions) pure white. 

It is to be conceived as a thing in itself, as if it were the only building in the world, and designed from the inside out, in terms of an abstract, idealised conception of its functions, with no concessions to the landscape or cityscape around it.  Architectural and social history is dismissed as mere warehouses of forms that are hollow, played-out and dead. 

Preoccupation with the dead will divert the architect and designer from their lofty mission, which is nothing less than the salvation of the modern world.  (p.37)

Johnson built upon Le Corbusier’s dictum ‘Architecture or Revolution’, along with its corollary, ‘Revolution can be avoided’, if modern architects and designers are given the freedom and power to change the world.  

It is difficult for us in our day of the universality of Western urbanism to appreciate the appeal that modern architecture must have held over a war-torn, beleaguered Europe and an America at the height of its industrial might.  Modernism brought undeniable advances to twentieth century life, not least of which included answers based on rational planning and civil engineering for the centuries-old problems of sewage, stormwater, heating, power and lighting.  For Europeans living in cramped tenements, the image of a domestic residence in the International Style must have looked like utopia indeed. 

In the 1930s the International Style was still a utopian dream.  A generation later, it would materialise with overwhelming power.  Late in the 1950s, the pioneers of ‘the Style’ and their now numerous followers obtained something like a mandate to rebuild America’s cities.  A few of their individual buildings, Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building for example, were spectacular successes.  Their manifestos and models had promised light an air, pristine surfaces and openness, fresh energy to engage the world, release from the dead weights of the past, vision that could transform new technologies into means of liberation, environments where modern men and women could live in tune with their time. 

But these modernist monuments did not live up to expectations in one fundamental way:

Looking back at the expression of modernism in the first half of the century, we can admire the high seriousness, the moral purity and ingenuity, the strength of its will to change.  A lack of empathy, an emotional aridity, a narrowness of imaginative range.  These modernists combine a celebration of the idea of the modern world with an almost total lack of feeling for the actual people in it (Berman, p. 44).

As more and more people began to live and work in these buildings—from the Pan Am tower to the Pruitt-Igoe—the most general response was a sense of being more imprisoned, lost and alienated than ever before.  When Le Corbusier finally managed to realise his design for a ‘unité jardin verticale’, it was the communal facilities that remained unused.  The utopia of the preconceived concrete and steel forms could not be filled with life, not only because of the architect’s ‘hopeless underestimation of the diversity, complexity and variability of modern aspects of life’ but also because modern societies with their functional interdependencies ‘go beyond the dimensions of living conditions, which could be gauged by the planner with his imagination’ (Habermas 1997, p. 232).  Some of those who had enthusiastically embraced the premises and promises of modernism felt especially betrayed. 

The ever-growing row of grim steel and glass and concrete slabs along New York’s upper Sixth Avenue looked like gigantic tombstones, at once marking the death of the city and mocking a generation of hopes that modernism could renew civic life.  (Berman, p. 45)

By the late 1960s there were plenty of people who felt that the International Style had become, or had always been, a gigantic rip-off of the modern public.  The Museum of Modern Art, which had done so much to establish acceptance of modernism, marked the change in mood when it published the modernist antithesis, Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966).  Venturi argued that rather than attempting to reshape the whole environment, we should be content to let the environment look after itself. 

Is not Main Street almost alright?  Indeed, is not the commercial strip of a Route 66 almost alright?’  Venturi posited ‘as I have always said, our question is this: what slight twist of context will make them alright?  (quoted by Berman, p. 46). 

To the Miesian doctrine that ‘less in more’, Venturi responded ‘less is a bore’.  He attacked the architects and city planners who invoke integrity, technology or what he called ‘electronic programming’ as ends in architecture, and the attempt by the International Style’s proponents to suppress the complexities and contradictions inherent in art and experience.  At MOMA, Venturi proclaimed a new modernism that knew how to embrace drama, rhetoric playfulness and irony. 

Venturi was central amongst a group of sixties writers (John Cage, Lawrence Alloway, Marshall McLuhan, Leslie Fiedler and Susan Sontag) embracing popular culture from an intellectual and avant-garde perspective.  The sensitivity they shared, sometimes called Pop, exhorted artists to ‘wake up to the very life we’re living’ (Cage) and to ‘Cross the border, close the gap’ (Fiedler) between culture and totality of life.  Modernism in the sixties had become unbearably solemn, arid and closed.  Venturi’s ilk opened it up by exploring the ‘global village’ that mass communication and a number of years of worldwide economic boom had brought forth. 

If there is one common theme amongst commentators on this period, it is opportunity lost.  The ultimate challenge of any philosophical movement is to articulate the human response, the ways of living that would improve the individual and collective experience of the age.  When the world’s thinkers should have been grappling with the task of coping with the collapse of societies’ centuries-old master narratives, and of overcoming the complexity and contradictions of modern living, just as Nietzche and Marx had initiated, they allowed themselves to be intoxicated with visions and style.  The message in Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s poster from 1901 is perhaps prophetic — ‘There is hope in honest error, none in the icy perfections of the mere stylist’. 

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Ideas and arguments about modernism have been almost exclusively ideas and arguments about style.  There has been a tacit suppression of all the crucial questions about what modern life means (or can mean) and how modern men and women should live.  Modernists of the last fifty years have tended to limit their thought to the exterior of contemporary life, while the deepest and most urgent moral and political conflicts have been fought out over our heads (Berman, p. 47). 

As postmodernism established its critical deconstruction of modernism’s master narratives, design fragmented into a thousand localised dialects and contexts.  The International Style left its monuments (many of which are still celebrated in the manner of museum artefacts today) but any reinterpretation of these yields little sense of humanity.  Some have argued that the modern movement seduced architecture’s moral responsibilities; that it froze in that immature teenage life-stage where image dominates identity.  Regardless of your preferred viewpoint, modern architecture, with its visions of tomorrow and the eternally captivating promise of the new, occupied a central position on the world stage. 

Could design, this time in the guise of an agent of change, armed with methods for holistic solutions to the new order of global and sociological problems, be about to step out from the shadows of the wings once again?

Berman, Marshall, 1987. Design After Modernism , (Chapter 2, ‘The experience of modernity’).

Robert Venturi, 1966. Complexity and contradiction in architecture .

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The New Eloise .

Philip Johnson, 1932. The International Style .


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