January 08, 2003
Architectural modernism – evolved and imposed

There's an interesting discussion of modernist architecture by Michael over at 2 Blowhards:

And what a strange conception of architecture! In such fields as poetry, painting and movies, playing abstract, avant-garde, highly-aestheticized games is a pretty harmless activity. Why? Because no one has to read a poem or see a movie. But when it's a question of apartment buildings and office buildings, hundreds if not thousands of people have no choice but to interact with them, often on a daily basis. Modernist (po-mo, etc) architecture is telling these people that they've got to live with (and often live in and work in) buildings that are essentially aesthetically-driven. Ie.: "I am obligating you to live in, work in, and walk by my piece of sculpture."

What kind of ego and arrogance does it take to impose yourself, let alone your aesthetic preferences, in that way? No wonder the star architects are often said to be doing "egotechture." (And how many people actually share those aesthetic preferences -- abstraction, "clean lines," empty space, blankness, shimmer and dazzle -- anyway?) I'm shocked that more people don't react to the buildings they're made to work and live in as angrily as they did some years back to Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc."

Michael has a picture of the Farnsworth house above that, and when it comes to matters at ground level modern-ist architecture is indeed an arrogant derangement of the evolved, traditional and best way of doing things.

But when it comes to skyscrapers the situation is more complicated. Modern architecture itself is an evolved style. It is the traditional way - to build very tall American office blocks. The modern movement people adopted this style, keeping the skyscrapers but mucking about with the ground plan. So when Mies van der Rohe brought the style back to America, the fit, provided you forget ground level, was not half bad. The Farnsworth House and a normal house are a universe apart. The Chrysler building and a Mies tower are not nearly so different from each other as that.

The reason why Americans have such trouble shaking themselves free of modern-ism is that there is a baby in the bathwater, the baby being their own traditionally evolved way of doing things.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:10 PM
Category: Architecture