Posted in Vol 14 No 1 by bsaab on February 3, 2011

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Elizabeth Padjen’s editorial letter “Question Authority” in your “UnModern” issue [Winter 2010] hit the mark for me. I find it rare that an architecture publication today questions, even examines, the predominant Modernist dogma. There has been much talk in music and the fine arts about moving beyond the exhaustion of Modernism and, finally, it seems many architects are feeling the need as well. Indeed, Modernism is now more than ever a dogma in which memory, history, and iconography are taboo, while at the same time replicating old “Modernist” forms — still thinking in that glass box.

If, as George W. Bush claimed, Americans are addicted to oil, then mainstream architects seem to me addicted to steel and glass, which turn out to be, as Bronski and Moe imply [“We Have Never Been Truly 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 Modernism is characterized by the “stripping away of the inessential,” then who decides what is inessential: the client or the architect? Was a church, a temple, or a mosque ever just a machine for worship? Perhaps Henry Moss gets at the heart of the matter [“Pole Dancing Around the Past”] when he asks if “the underlying client for each new design is the author’s conjectural future for architectural history,” that old Modernist obsession of architect as artiste. If, as George Thrush claims [“Its Own Thing: China’s Struggle With Modernism”], architecture should aim for cultural integration, what is, say, Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI museum in Rome all about? Or for that matter, what is really more Spanish than, say, Turkish or Afghani, about the Spain Pavilion’s amorphous steel frame covered in rugs?

Three of my Thanksgiving guests — graphic designers — leafing through the “UnModern” issue, seemed unsurprised, but sadly shook their heads at the buildings in Filip Dujardin’s photographs. I had to tell them that they were fictional. Tells you something about how Modernist architecture is seen outside the profession today.

Elizabeth Padjen’s thoughtful letter in the “UnModern” issue [Winter 2010] hit the nail on the head: “We now give design awards to new buildings that are … dutiful replicas of their 20th-century forebears, but with better insulation.” I glancingly made this point at my recent Build Boston presentation “Designing Radically Local Buildings,” where I observed that in most architecture schools, working in historical styles is strictly forbidden, except of course in the 90-year-old International Style, which is more or less required.

Although the issue’s articles reflected a diversity of views on the relative merits of Modernism as a design approach, I had hoped to see a discussion of Modernism’s underlying assumptions: universality, abstraction, scientific certainty, and the inevitability of progress. These assumptions trouble me, more than Modernism’s impoverished design vocabulary, because they represent a particular Enlightenment worldview that I doubt most architects ever think about.

One of my particular interests has been to try to make my colleagues aware of not just the practical and aesthetic limitations of Modernism but also of its philosophical implications. As Robert Campbell once observed, “Buildings are billboards that shout the values of those who created them.” I only want my colleagues to consider which values they hold before they shout them.

If photographs are “falsehoods” or lies [“Question Beauty,” Winter 2010], then what are paintings, renderings, the written word, and the spoken word? Aren’t they all interpretations? I was raised by artist/architect parents who encouraged me to stretch my imagination and to think for myself. Unless images or words are misrepresented, I consider them to be food for thought. Just because someone doesn’t understand or appreciate a work doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter or should be discredited.

I embrace Filip Dujardin’s fantastical composite photographs. Dream on!

We Have Never Been Truly Modern” [Winter 2010] poses an interesting proposition: that 20th-century Modern architecture failed to realize a technical and constructive simplicity commensurate with its aesthetic achievement. Matthew Bronski’s and Kiel Moe’s poster children for buildings that integrate all are Gilles Perraudin’s monolithic stone constructions in southern France. Perraudin’s thick limestone walls (providing structure, interior and exterior finish, and thermal modulation) are compared with “complex, multi-layered building wall sections [assemblies] and … convoluted environmental-control systems” more typical of our era.

Two things should be noted: (1) Let’s not confuse static and dynamic systems in our evaluation of complexity. (2) Let’s recognize that bioclimatic character of place is a powerful distiller of relevant solution concepts.

A carefully layered wall assembly may be complex construction, but if it has no moving parts, therefore requiring no further input, and is guided by an experienced design mind, it will last centuries. One could argue that limestone is a similarly created product — just not of our making. The charge of burgeoning complexity militating against a true modernity is, I think, more potently leveled against the dynamic building components required to maintain functionality.

What of place? Bronski and Moe yearn for a construction simplicity derived from historic vernacular. They don’t specifically blame the copious energy flow-through of the past hundred years with corrupting the kind of regional evolutions that probably would have created their sense of a true modernity, but they should have. The gratuitous complexity that has risen on construction sites over the Modern period is a reflection of our high energy (fossilfuel- underpinned) society. As we move into a post-petroleum economy, modern, intelligent, sustainable, and simpler design resolutions will re-emerge. The tragedy of Modern architecture is that it co-evolved in an era of abundant, cheap energy that disabled commitment to thoughtful, regional responses.

Simplification as a strategy to avoid building technology challenges [“We Have Never Been Truly Modern,” Winter 2010] is wishful and wistful thinking. Modernity is experiencing an evolution driven by the imperative need for more energy efficiency, sustainability, and concerns over climate change, because it must. Those who resist these forces are doomed to irrelevance and obsolescence. On the other hand, those who innovate to achieve the lofty goals of a high-performance building while striving for design excellence will rise to the top: It’s sink-or-swim time. From my experience, integrated design — bringing the design team specialists together in charrettes — is a highly effective process for avoiding the compartmentalization of specialties and an effective tool for communicating the project priorities and concerns among the team.

Alas, the days of three-foot-thick mass masonry walls have gone by because they occupy too much real estate and are pathetic in their performance when compared with the highly insulated “multi-layered” wall of today; let us debunk that myth, please. We must continue to push for maximizing energy efficiency, integrating the energy-consuming systems of building enclosure, structure, lighting, and HVAC, using systems thinking, and maximizing the beneficial effects of climate and site. Building science needs to enable innovation in design, provide solutions and not barriers to progress, and help guide the evolution of the new modernity to the excellence it deserves.

William S. Saunders’ essay “Hasty Habits of Mind: A Lament” [Winter 2010], brief as it is, is one of the most profound and fearless critiques of contemporary architecture’s intellectual culture I have read in years — an “insider’s” unapologetic shot at the increasingly shallow level of today’s architectural discourse without resorting to the anti-intellectual, antiacademic, Tea-Party-ian stereotypes that so often taint such criticism. The fetishization of newness may be an appropriate and perhaps unavoidable contemporary attitude in a consumerist society bored with itself, but when even in the academy the speed of thought trumps the depth of thought, we know we are headed for serious trouble. This article should be required reading for every architecture student.

Correction: Meg Landers Photography should be credited on the advertisement for Marc Truant & Associates in the Winter 2010 issue.

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