Question Authority

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

From the Editor

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Like a much-loved jacket that suddenly doesn’t seem to fit right, Modernism is in need of tailoring. It’s simple: Modernism as we knew it is out of date.

How could it not be? The world has changed in ways that would have been unimaginable even to the futurists who attended the birth of the movement a century ago. And yet we honor codes and by-laws of Modernism that are often as arbitrary and dusty as blue laws. The form-follows-function adage is as constricting as a corset when we celebrate proposals to convert Wal-Marts into public libraries, churches, even bio-fuel generators. “Less is more” sounds ridiculous in the Big-Gulp culture that invented the storage unit, thus allowing us to obsess over photos of spare, minimalist homes in design magazines.

The movement’s claim to currency—its embrace of the new—has camouflaged the fact that it has failed to be selfcritical. Having vanquished the challenge of Postmodernism, with its cartoonish resurrection of history, Modernism bounced back with the Modern Revival to re-establish its authority. We now give design awards to new buildings that are essentially dutiful replicas of their 20th-century forebears, but with better insulation. We embrace an aesthetic that denies the truth of what and where we are now. It’s as though we’ve all come down with a bad case of cognitive dissonance.

Modernism is morphing and evolving into something that transcends its previous incarnation.

When calendars flipped a decade ago, the media were filled with discussions of what the new millennium would mean. Those conversations are now largely forgotten, but future historians will view this period more broadly because the trends and patterns of this fin-de-millénaire era will be apparent. Sustainability and climate change are profound influences. The Slow movement is blending with the locavore trend. Economic unease is causing us to rethink the values and goals that defined the American Dream: home ownership, college education, immigration laws, the inevitability of generational advancement. The expansion of Asian economies, led by the Chinese, has loosened Euro-American cultural hegemony. Cloud platforms and open-architecture technologies are changing the way we think and work. Baby boomers are aging out, and Gen Xers are moving into positions of authority as they confront middle age. And, of course, there was 9/11.

It’s a lot to deal with, and it’s probably natural that we would be nostalgic for what now seems like the innocence of oldey-fashion Modernism. (The passage of time numbs our recollection of the real history of the era.) But glimmerings of change hint that Modernism is morphing and evolving into something that transcends its previous incarnation.

With this issue, ArchitectureBoston explores some of those glimmerings as well as some of the ways we have outgrown the old Modernism. We have dubbed this transition “Un-Modern,” a phrase borrowed from Luis Carranza, who first used it to describe this phenomenon in the context of Nestor García Canclini’s classic Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity (see our November/December 2008 “Hybrid” issue). It is amazing that one little prefix has such power to intrigue and discomfort, as we’ve learned in subsequent discussions. Un-Modern is not a rejection of Modernism nor is it an embrace of tradition. It represents choice and the considered rethinking of long-held assumptions. It jettisons some contemporary conventions and reinvents some older ideas, adapting them to contemporary life and needs. We hope that the term Un-Modern will suggest both a process—like unraveling—and a hybrid condition, much as the undead vampires currently inhabiting popular culture are not dead, but not alive, either.

As Carranza noted, “We live in times when it is necessary to enter and exit modernity, to be more hybrid.” The old Modernism celebrated speed. Maybe Slow Modernism will be the future. But whatever the form or label, this new century demands its own Modernism.

One Response

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  1. Letters « ArchitectureBoston said, on February 3, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    […] Padjen’s editorial letter “Question Authority” in your “UnModern” issue [Winter 2010] hit the mark for me. I find it rare that an […]

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