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

Are we on the cusp of a new kind of Modernism? The most important clues are not necessarily the most obvious.

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Small changes in our daily lives hint that something big is afoot. Eschewing the paper-or-plastic conundrum of the ’90s, shoppers proffer their own tote bags, made of recycled materials. Families juggle Saturday schedules to accommodate trips to the local farmers market. The big automobile—the very embodiment of Modern virtues of speed, mass-production, and mobility (not to mention family wholesomeness)—has become an object of revulsion akin to the cigarette.

Much of this can be attributed to concerns about sustainability and the environment. But that is not the whole story. Many of the assumptions that fueled Modernism and drove the convergence of design and society in the last century have lost their certainty. It’s hard to stand on your convictions when their foundation is cracking.

Of course, incremental changes in everyday life might reflect nothing more than the vagaries of consumer fads and fashion. For real evidence that 20th-century Modernism is giving way to something different, you need to look deep. Fundamental shifts in attitudes and assumptions suggest that we will see even more challenges to old-style Modernism. We are rewriting the social contracts that govern our private lives, our public institutions, and our global relations. But one lesson of Modernism still seems to hold: design is the manifestation of society.


Processing Urban Renewal

The Wall Street Journal headline was unsettling for any fan of the revered author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “Enough with Jane Jacobs Already!” Could it be that the woman who took on master builder Robert Moses had, like Lady Gaga, become overexposed?

In fact, the writer was bemoaning the fact that the pendulum had swung too far. Jacobs led a rebellion against some truly bad ideas—to run a roadway through Washington Square Park, to bulldoze Greenwich Village to make way for drab housing towers, and to blast through what we now know as SoHo with the Lower Manhattan Expressway.

These projects were all part and parcel of the era of urban renewal, and although Moses was decidedly non-ideological—Le Corbusier’s Radiant City and “towers in the park” simply fit the bill for more density and housing units—the reaction against them was a blowback against Modernism. The main conceit of swaggering figures like Moses was that there was no public participation; planners knew what was best.

So when Jacobs began holding court in the Lion’s Head and holding strategy meetings at 555 Hudson Street—and, critically, enlisting up-and-coming political figures like Ed Koch and Carol Greitzer—the power of the people was established. From that point on, in New York and cities across the nation, the community would have a say. The neighborhood would be involved every step of the way.

The adversarial relationship was built-in. Jacobs argued that big plans were folly in every case, and big plans, on the urban-design scale of Le Corbusier, were the essence of Modernism. It is no stretch to say that Modernism gave birth to process. And that process led to major compromise, when it wasn’t grinding things to a complete halt.

The problem is that process—”the orgy of public process,” in the words of New Urbanism founder Andrés Duany—is indeed making it very difficult to do much of anything in cities today. This is particularly true at infill redevelopment sites—places like Boston’s JFK/UMass T station, which cries out for transit-oriented development, but is warily watched over by the adjacent neighborhoods of Savin Hill and St. Mary’s in Dorchester. Neighbors worry about traffic congestion and parking and disrupted views. Mostly they worry about any change whatsoever in the urban landscape.

Jacobs showed courage and gumption to stand up for the block where she witnessed the “sidewalk ballet.” Today that kind of rebelliousness has lapsed into mere NIMBYism—Not in My Backyard. Somewhat predictably, this has led to a reconsideration of Moses and his intentions, which might not have been so bad in every aspect after all. Clearly, infill redevelopment is an important part of reinventing the 21st-century city. The infrastructure to support the contemporary city is worthy of investment and shouldn’t be derailed by discontents. Nor should wind farms and solar panels be opposed in knee-jerk fashion.

Evidence of a new skepticism of the Modern legacy is all around us: local, organic farms versus big agriculture; home births and hospice instead of being born and dying in the medical machinery of hospitals. So it is with community participation to guard against big plans. But if Modernism gave birth to paralyzing public process, this story isn’t over yet.

There is a certain house-of-mirrors quality to where we find ourselves. The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently launched a campaign to celebrate Modern architecture in four cities, including Boston [see page 10]. The products of urban renewal, like Government Center, are now being deemed worthy of protection—the very projects that inspired the formal historic preservation movement in the first place. The Modernist visions that led to the destruction of Pennsylvania Station, which in turn prompted landmarks commissions in New York and other major cities, may themselves go through the process—yes, the process—to secure their place in architectural history.

Were she around, Jacobs, who appreciated the works of Louis Kahn and Mies van der Rohe, might even approve.

Above: photo by Keith Durflinger/San Gabriel Valley Tribune.


China pavilion, Shanghai World Expo 2010

Its Own Thing: China’s Struggle With Modernism

What’s going on in China? We know that they are building like there is no tomorrow and that the whole world lives in fear that the collapse of the Chinese housing bubble would make our own recent mortgagebased shenanigans look like a walk in the park. But what about what they’re building, and why it looks the way it does? Elsewhere in the world, designers, communities, and entire societies are somehow trying to find a way to customize Modernism to their own ends, to make it less universal and more responsive to local concerns. If this phenomenon speaks to a kind of “Un-Modernism,” is China evolving a position that is, in some way, Un-Modern?

In a word, no.

China remains in a polarized relationship with Modernism, at least when it comes to architecture. In Beijing, the juxtaposition between old and new resembles that found in many older cities around the world. Centuries-old cultural and governmental buildings sit adjacent to newer and more modern structures. This reflects the normal layering of older cities.

But there is also a much odder phenomenon. The Chinese seem quite torn between the purity of traditional architectural language and the scale and uses of the contemporary world. So one finds things like a 15-story hotel built as though it were a single-story ornate traditional house, with the decorative layered wooden details continuing upward without pause. There are austere office buildings that look like 1950s Modernism until one gets to the roof, where they revert to large-scale versions of Chinese temples. And finally, there are the many new buildings that have no apparent relation to traditional language whatsoever.

This schizophrenic approach to language, of course, is not unique to China, only perhaps more pointed. In the early days of skyscrapers in the United States, there was also great confusion about composition and language. It took many tries before architects began to understand how to graft the evolved language of classical architecture onto this much larger scale. As suggested by anthropologist Nestor García Canclini and later by architect Luis Carranza, Latin America seems to have more successfully negotiated its early encounters with Modernism, choosing how to be both Modern and Latin, a precursor of today’s Un-Modern impulse. Of course, other places, like much of Scandinavia and post-Franco Spain, have also reconciled Modernism with national traditions, but this took time.

Perhaps because of the frenzied pace of building over the past 20 years, integration of old and new has yet to occur in China in a way that is both Modern and Chinese. It is at Shanghai’s World Expo site that this distinction is most keenly felt—a distinction best understood when comparing the China and Spain pavilions.

Both pavilions have memorable forms. The Spain pavilion [see page 1] looks like a swirling cluster of rugs or mats, describing an elusive and ever changing interior space. It is built of dramatic structural steel tubes from which panels of fabric hang and drape. But the integration and synthesis of this old-world, handmade, low-tech material with the digitally designed, high-tech structural steel frame makes for an interesting take on the idea of “Un-Modern.” It speaks of an evolution from the purity and singularity of one international language into a method for cultural integration.

The China pavilion, on the other hand, while succeeding in its assigned role as a marketing device for the Expo (working as a logo and a building), remains completely bifurcated. It is a large caricature of traditional Chinese architectural form: the stepped red roof form remains unaltered. The China pavilion continues the separation of history and modernity.

Examining China’s unease with the modern helps us understand our own relationship with history and modernity. Once inside the China pavilion, visitors are treated to what promises to be a sweeping history of this vast land. The IMAX video traces a story that begins in … 1980.

Above: China pavilion, Shanghai World Expo 2010. Architect: He Jingtang. Photo © Edward Denison 2010.


North Bennet Street School

The Intelligence of the Hand

In the mid-1990s, I stumbled upon an exhibition of exquisite North Bennet Street School student craftsmanship. A year later, I was enrolled in the school’s two-year, full-time furniture-making program. On the first day of school, I remember feeling profoundly happy and proud of myself for having made the decision to leave an established career to enter a little-known world that involved working with my hands.

North Bennet Street School was founded in 1885 on the premise that hand-skills training was not only a path to employment but also of value to an individual’s intellectual development and well-being. Hand skills and mental capacity were believed to form concurrently and be mutually reinforcing. I didn’t know any of that when I left my architectural practice to enroll in the school. I had imagined gaining the skill to make lasting objects that I would be proud of and giving some of those objects to my kids to remember me by.

What I had not imagined was the transformation that would take place in me or the brilliance of the world I was about to enter.

In time, the train ride to school felt like a commute to a monastic community whose principles were, in many ways, the opposite of modern society. I spent each day focused on the present moment—not the past or the future—and found that time passed without notice. The longer I worked at a task, the longer I felt I could work. I experienced a growing sense of confidence in myself, not an aggressive self-regard—because the more I learned, the more I saw how much I could learn—but a growing understanding of the connection between my mind and my hands. I left school each day with a sense of accomplishment.

I found that the skills I was learning were unlike those I had used as an architect or so-called knowledge worker. The lessons felt deeper and more personal, gained by experience rather than thought. This type of knowledge is often called the intelligence of the hand. We all experience it when we tie our shoes without looking. Imagine enjoying that type of experience all day, trusting your hands, not your mind; watching the emerging form and not the tool as you work with a sharp gouge and a spinning piece of wood, or looking at the line ahead when you cut wood instead of the blade, knowing that the work will follow your gaze.

There is a simple morality in working with your hands. When you are a maker there is right and wrong. The joint either fits or it doesn’t. No one is fooled. Mistakes happen quickly, and with real consequences. You learn to pay close attention to what you are doing. And the mistakes you make are yours alone; there is no spreading the blame. Craftwork teaches personal responsibility.

In The Atlantic Monthly in 1899, Harvard professor William James wrote that manual-training programs “give us citizens with an entirely different moral fibre.” He argued that hand skills “give honesty, for when you express yourself by making things, and not by using words, it becomes impossible to dissimulate your vagueness or ignorance by ambiguity.”

William James’ time gave way to the modern era, and seemingly irrelevant manual-arts programs were gradually stripped from our public schools, impoverishing generations of students. Far from being engaged with our material world, we are now surrounded by “user friendly” objects that, like fast food, only breed impatience. Modernism favors replacement over repair and values the image of physical fitness but has little regard for physical labor.

But there are many signs that the tide has turned once again, including the best-seller status of the book Shop Class as Soul Craft by management-consultant-turned-motorcycle-mechanic Matthew Crawford. “Work forms us,” writes Crawford, echoing the words of William James. “The lessons you learn working with your hands are the foundation not only for good work, but for a good life.”

Above: photo courtesy North Bennet Street School.


High Court, Chandigarh, India

Aftereffect: The Rise and Fall of the Modern Empire

For some, Modernism has been the contemporary architect’s ballast, serving to provide mental and moral stability while on a course of artistic, cultural, and political experimentation. For others, it represents an empire whose imperialistic tendencies were obscured by its skill in misrepresenting a universal and idealized world. The movement’s postwar rise to prominence coincided with unprecedented industrial growth, access to materials, and efficiencies in construction that situated design as a central contributor, in both economic and aesthetic terms, to an emerging worldview. The capacity to encapsulate a singular visual frame of reference at multiple scales including graphic, furniture, industrial, and architectural design signaled both its power and its eventual vulnerability. At the scale of the city, the design of new centralized seats of power such as Chandigarh and Brasilia, with their inclusive engagement of multiple design disciplines, became an enabling force for nation-building while simultaneously establishing Modernism’s heroic image of itself.

Modernism’s seemingly unshakeable presence has been clouded by its inability to bring real material change to everyday lives. In many instances, it remains more as a reminder of its optimistic promise and ultimate failings than as an agent of productive change in an increasingly shifting and anxious climate. Today, however, a new Modernism has emerged—the Unmodern or, perhaps better, the Submodern—that has both confronted and engaged with the Modernism of the 20th century. It is fluid, agile, and sustainable. Instead of centralizing energy, it distributes it. Instead of relying upon institutional systems, it seeks nimble entrepreneurs. Instead of finding solutions, it seeks questions. It is a market-driven global condition that puts the political system of nation-states into precarious balance. This year, the World Health Organization announced that more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, putting nation-states under enormous pressure to rescale. Some cities are already responding to shifting conditions: Hamburg, Buenos Aires, Rotterdam, Helsinki, Melbourne, Singapore, and Shanghai, now referred to as creative cities, support clusters of industries that innovate not despite but because of global environmental concerns and economic instability. The modern Chandigarh is today the submodern Shanghai.

With mobile phone sales reaching 325.6 million units for the second quarter of 2010, equivalent to 2.71 million per day, the very foundations of Modernism are being reinvented. The image of a centralized government housed within a singular physical architectural expression is being replaced by a distributed communication network capable of establishing links to economic opportunity, public health, and transportation. The borders that define geopolitical boundaries are being challenged by new lines drawn to reflect innovation and creativity in a multi-disciplinary global market. Even finance is not immune: the world’s first person-to-person micro-lending website empowers people to lend directly to unique, small entrepreneurs in many parts of the world. The impulse to build anew from a clean slate is being replaced by reuse and repurposing of given conditions—material, programmatic, and financial.

Whether Modernism continues as a touchstone to a better world or fades with the belief that it was an empire that fell with the implosion of Pruitt-Igoe in 1972, it is an inheritance that requires both reverence and dismay. We live within an increasingly declining infrastructure incapable of meeting the demands of growth and energy conservation; much of this represents at best a moment where creativity, invention, and collaboration coexisted and at worst a formula that failed. Through expanded design strategies that open the discourse among clean energy, reuse, new materials, and emerging technologies, we can instead come to see the detritus of Modernism, from its cities and freeways to its furniture and products, as the host for submodern projects that reflect and respond to our contemporary condition.

Above: High Court, Chandigarh, India (1952). Architect: Le Corbusier. The High Court’s parasol roof and terrace, designed as a symbol of justice, with some of the building’s original Modern furniture. Photo by Adrián Mallol, 2008.


Yodakandyia Community Centre, Sri Lanka

Second Modernity: Making Good on Architecture’s Social Contract

The last decade has seen a surge of work reasserting what we have always known to be true: architecture needs to do more than just look good, it needs to do good. The utopian visions of Europe’s early Modern movements were driven not just by new technologies but also by the intolerable living conditions of the industrial city. In response, the first International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) meetings were organized to create homes with the newest amenities at rents equal to one week’s minimum wage. Modernism’s cult of function was rooted in this social imperative to do the most good, with the least resources, for the most people.

Whether one blames the dramatic failures of American public housing or the success of Modern form as corporate identity, somehow we arrived in the last decades of the 20th century deeply skeptical of attempts to solve social problems with architecture. Some suggest that Postmodern theory turned a healthy critical distance from capitalism into an excuse for social disengagement. Architecture schools seem to have perpetuated an implicit choice between two antithetical role models: architect as artist or architect as problem-solver. The social missions at the core of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (since 1978) and Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio at Auburn University (since 1992) are two notable exceptions that prove the rule.

Recent evidence suggests that this either/or proposition is yielding to expectations that architects address larger social issues and do so through powerful formal propositions. Witness the recent flurry of books documenting high-quality design work of nongovernmental organizations targeting some of the most devastated corners of the world: Architecture for Humanity’s 2006 Design Like You Give a Damn, Bruce Mau’s 2006 Massive Change, and Project H’s 2009 Design Revolution. Other efforts include Public Architecture’s “The 1%” pro bono campaign (since 2005); International Design Clinic’s Guerilla Design projects (since 2006); and countless engagements in informal settlements globally, like Urban Think Tank’s work in Caracas, Venezuela (since 2001).

The Internet has proven to be the game-changing tool, exemplified by Architecture for Humanity’s Open Architecture Network that matches design talent with communities in need. The Internet has helped join formerly isolated efforts under the tentative identifier “humanitarian design.” Amid charges of “design imperialism,” this online community turned introspective last summer and reaffirmed its commitment to working on the ground in long-term relationships with empowered local partners. Given the unintended consequences of the International Style, we now know better than ever that, like politics, all design is local.

Beyond volunteer and not-for-profit efforts, design approaches at work in the public sector demonstrate how to address multiple problems in one move. Mayors in Latin American cities from Curitiba in Brazil to Bogotá and Medellín in Colombia have leveraged bold building and infrastructure projects to mobilize ambitious social transformations quickly enough to win the next election. The usefulness of a public problem-solving design ethos is anything but new in The Netherlands. Since a ninth-century flood killed thousands, a Dutch “polder mentality” has guided a collective reconfiguration of Holland’s flood-prone landscape as a matter of survival. Given recent serial disasters—Sumatra, New Orleans, Haiti—and a near-continuous mobilization of architectural first responders, it seems that we are all Dutch now.

Sociologists Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens, and Scott Lash identify these responses to the new “risk society” as unabashedly Modern, but in a new way and with a new urgency. They suggest that we critically reevaluate, refresh, renew, even “modernize” Modernism in a process of “reflexive” or “second” modernization. Moving forward in the spirit of the first Moderns but armed with new tools, we just might experience something more complex, more reflective (or reflexive), less utopian, or at least more pragmatic than what we associate with the label “Modern.” Modern or not, design is moving back toward doing the most with the least for the many.

Yodakandyia Community Centre, Sri Lanka. Architect: Architecture for Humanity/Susi Jane Platt. Nominee, Aga Khan Award for Architecture 2010 Cycle (winners to be announced November, 2010). Photo © Aga Khan Award for Architecture/Eresh Weerasuriya.

3 Responses

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  1. David said, on November 24, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    re: China’s Struggle with Modernism
    In response to Thrush’s argument about China’s struggle with modernism, I think that there is an ‘un-modern’ current in Chinese design which can be found in work by practitioners such as Wang Shu of Amateur Architects and Zhang Ke of Standard Architecture which can be seen as a kind of Chinese regional modernism, or even critical regionalism. I recommend Wang Shu’s Academy of Art in Hangzhou as an example:

  2. Charles Berteaux IV said, on December 13, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    I found this article very informing. I find that like china, building just for the sake of building, designing just because we can design, is going to cost any one doing so, in the end. For other such counties with a deep rooted heritage in Architectural “Style”, its a shame to veer down a path of such monolithic proportion that all visible connection to their past will be lost.

  3. Letters « ArchitectureBoston said, on February 3, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    […] Modern”], two of the least sustainable materials we have. And as J. Frano Violich points out [“Aftereffect: The Rise and Fall of the Modern Empire”], many architects seem more obsessed with what buildings look like than how they perform. If […]

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