Books: more thoughts on UnModern

Posted in Vol 13 No 4 by bsaab on November 4, 2010

All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The experience of modernity

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All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The experience of modernity, by Marshall Berman (Simon & Schuster, 1982)

“I’m afraid I came into contact with Robert Moses in the nadir of his career, when he just didn’t give a shit. He didn’t care where anybody lived, he didn’t care for their arguments. He just wanted to build roads. He just wanted to move people.”

That’s Marshall Berman—writer, Modernist, Marxist, New Yorker, Harvard grad, for 50 years a professor at City College of New York—talking recently about how one side of the dialogue that is modernity affected him personally. Berman spent his early childhood in the Bronx until Robert Moses famously created the Cross-Bronx Expressway, thus eliminating Berman’s entire neighborhood of around 60,000 working-class people. If, as the modern novelist Thomas Wolfe admonished, “You can’t go home again,” one reason might be that your home has been wiped off the map in the name of progress and development—a peculiarly modern idea.

The modern world we all inhabit is full of these kinds of incidents. Berman’s nowclassic book, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, is full of them, too. Many are literary incidents, including the book’s title, which comes from Karl Marx’s modern vision, articulated 160 years ago: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations are more thoughts on unmodern | Books Books Books swept away. All new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face … the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.”

Other incidents in the book, like Berman’s visit to a dismal Brasilia followed by critical discussion with its architect, Oscar Niemeyer, are very personal indeed. “I didn’t mean to write an encyclopedia of modernity,” Berman says now. And he hasn’t; but through the entire book, Berman is reaching for the universal, trying to give meaning to a way of living in a world of constant change that has gripped us for a few hundred years.

A theme that runs through All That Is Solid is that modernity is not particularly modern. The high regard in which our era holds the notion of constant change is not a product of the 20th or even of the 19th century. One of its earliest incarnations comes from Faust, which Goethe began in the late 1700s. In Faust, modern men and women confront “development” as a melding of the cultural idea of selfimprovement and the social movement toward economic advancement. Faust himself is heroic by virtue of his transformation into a liberator of tremendous human energies.

Some people get to be liberators—architects, engineers, Robert Moses—while others must live with the consequences of that liberation, two very different experiences.

Berman clarifies this as he investigates Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, in which the narrator observes: “May it not be … that [man] is instinctively afraid of attaining his goal and completing the edifice he is constructing? How do you know, perhaps he only likes that edifice from a distance and not at all at a close range, perhaps he only likes to build it, and does not want to live in it.”

The distinction here, Berman notes, is between designing and building a building, and actually living in it. And it suggests two fundamentally different modernities: modernization as adventure, and modernization as routine. Architects and engineers have certainly been having an adventure—leaving to others the worry about how that adventure turns into the routine of their lives.

In fact, for most of us, the routine of constant change is pretty hard to live with. To help slow it down physically, we invented, around the middle of the 20th century, “historic preservation.” More recently, the notion of “sustainability” has occurred to us as a means for slowing change, of preserving not only buildings and our relationships with them but also what we euphemistically call the “environment” and even more distantly term “natural resources.”

We have not yet arrived at the definitive Modern moment. As Berman notes, we still harbor collective hope for moral and social progress, and for the “personal freedom and public happiness that were bequeathed to us by the modernists of the 18th-century Enlightenment.” If we think of Modernism as a struggle to make ourselves at home in a constantly changing world, we will realize that no mode of Modernism can ever be definitive.


The Yale Building Project: The First 40 Years

The Yale Building Project: The First 40 Years, by Richard W. Hayes (Yale University Press, 2007)

In a few succinct paragraphs, Richard Hayes gives his readers a fascinating history of activism in the late 1960s, connecting President Johnson’s War on Poverty to students flooding Appalachia looking for poverty to eradicate, to some of these students bringing specific projects to the attention of Charles Moore, the new dean of the Yale School of Architecture. Thus began the now-famous Yale Building Project, a semester-long, design-build program for first-year architecture students, a program that has continued and evolved since the first heady trip to Kentucky in 1967.

The bulk of this account is taken up with descriptions and photos of the individual projects. While these will be of interest mainly to the participants, two insightful essays by Hayes are worth the attention of a broader audience. It is fascinating to read about the confluence of events and attitudes that led to the earliest projects, the subject of the first essay. The anti-establishment Charles Moore was anxious to move away from the “paper architecture” espoused by his predecessor, Paul Rudolph. Students were equally restive in the classroom, wanting to do something meaningful, to have an impact on the lives of those less fortunate. The first foray into Kentucky, where the students built a community center with the first flush toilet in the entire town, was a huge success, pedagogically as well as humanistically. The students had crossed an invisible barrier between studying architecture and knowing that they could actually build it, too. Most felt the Building Project was the single most important aspect of their educations at Yale.

The second essay describes the evolution of the project over the ensuing years. An overly ambitious period, when the interest of the students faded well before the buildings were finished, led to years of more-modest pavilions for camps and cultural institutions. Recently, the projects have been small houses in New Haven under the auspices of Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven.

My own personal connection to the building project spans the whole 40 years: My husband, a member of the first Kentucky project in 1970, felt empowered and enriched by the importance of the work. My class, 10 years later, enjoyed the camaraderie of our adventure, my own goal being to ensure I would be the one to drive the Bobcat. And my daughter, a member of the last class included in this book, felt somewhat alienated from the whole thing: the class was so large that students had to work in shifts, with an ensuing lack of ownership of the project.

While the earnestness of the original classes has evolved into the cynicism of succeeding generations, learning firsthand how a building goes together is still considered by even the most jaded of students to be an invaluable experience. And the Building Project is still the defining rite of passage for Yale architecture students.


In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed

In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed, by Carl Honoré (HarperOne, 2004)

By Mark Ruckman

It remains to be seen whether the changes in consumer spending brought on by the current recession will continue once the economy recovers. What is clear is that many Americans, either by choice or necessity, are reconsidering their lifestyles and putting the brakes on previously unquestioned behaviors. And for some, slowing down consumption is a starting point for attempting to completely reset the frenetic pace of modern life.

Subtitled “Challenging the Cult of Speed,” In Praise of Slowness documents the personal and social costs of our global obsession with racing the clock and filling every moment with activity, usually under the guise of maximizing efficiency. Carl Honoré takes us on an engaging but often breathless journey into the various ways that people everywhere are struggling to balance the demands of a fast-paced world with a desire to slow down and rethink priorities. The book is not a manifesto against progress or technology, but a call to action to seriously examine the toll that living at warp speed takes on our health, our cities, and our environment.

Although the Slow movement has emerged without an official leader or headquarters, credit is usually given to the international organization Slow Food for introducing Slow principles to a wider audience. With 100,000 members worldwide, Slow Food started in Italy in 1989 as an outcry over the opening of a McDonald’s next to the Spanish Steps in Rome. Slow Food is still strongest in Europe, with its rich tradition of local cuisine. However, American membership is rising along with increased awareness of sustainable agriculture and demand for fresh, local, and seasonal food. “Eat well and save the planet” is a message that resonates with a growing group of consumers concerned about the environmental and human health damage caused by industrial farming.

At the center of the Slow movement is this new breed of consumer, more wired to consciously make the connection between individual choices and social implications. Caring about how things are sourced, distributed, produced, consumed, and recycled is a Slow tenet that has moved beyond the dinner table. Since the publication of In Praise of Slowness, hundreds of websites devoted to the movement have sprung up. In 2007, a couple of Canadian architects jumped on the Slow bandwagon with Slow Home, a website that educates homeowners on how certain fundamental design decisions can improve how they live, save them money, and reduce their environmental impact.

Honoré’s book is a useful primer on what the author sees as a cultural revolution that will culminate with everyone living happier and healthier lives. The larger question is how to transform the individual discovery of the pleasures of slowing down into meaningful policies that could save us from potential environmental and social upheaval. We better hurry up with that answer. Time’s a wastin’.


A History of the Future

A History of the Future, by Donna Goodman (The Monacelli Press, 2008)

By Michael Liu AIA

“In 1927, film director Fritz Lang dazzled audiences with his extraordinary production of Metropolis. This dramatic film portrays a complex vision of a future society burdened by the problems of industrialization.” Thus begins A History of the Future, Donna Goodman’s smorgasbord survey of art, architecture, advertising, technology, and pop culture. Visions of modernity have ever, it seems, been caught between the utopian promise and dystopian consequences of technology, and Goodman traces their expression from humanist roots in the Renaissance through the present.

The book is loosely organized into thematic chapters that follow rough chronological order, with time frames overlapping according to the dictates of each theme as Goodman sees them. After an introductory chapter, she divides the history of design culture into the Machine Age in Europe, the Machine Age in America, the Automobile Age, the Space Age, the Media and Information Age, and the Environmental Age. Each chapter contains 20 to 30 brief discourses on various topics: influential individuals such as Erasmus, subjects such as solar-powered satellites, phenomena such as postwar housing in Europe and Russia, even films such as You Only Live Twice. In other words, the narrative is free-ranging and eclectic as opposed to exhaustive. Each chapter begins with its own indexed table of contents identifying these separate topics, which are then helpfully noted in the margins of the text, making the book especially friendly as a survey resource.

This unconfined approach produces a breezy narrative that moves briskly but suggests an overall theory of history that never really materializes. In cherry-picking material from so many different sources, Goodman presumably seeks to build an argument for some particular point of view—not only of history but also of where history is leading us, as promised in the title. Alas, we get neither.

Writing a “history of the future” seems to be too great a temptation for some authors to pass up: Amazon lists half a dozen titles that take advantage of the wordplay. But as Modernism, which promised to propel us toward the future, approaches its own centennial, a fascination with biographies of our own era is hard to deny. Perhaps we can define Modernism itself as the history of the future.

No matter. Designers will find in the book an engaging review of familiar subjects lightly treated as well as interesting new tidbits. The quarrelsome reader may question some of the longer historical asides as well as the frequently tenuous leaps the author makes in segueing from one subject to the other, and it’s doubtful that the uninitiated will have any better understanding of what Deconstructivism is after reading the six or seven pages devoted to it. But if you don’t demand a narrative destination, A History of the Future is a pleasant ride with lots of interesting scenery.

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