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The Unfulfilled Promise of Modernism   Leave a comment

As Anthony Denzer describes the Bauhaus in his paper “Masters of Modernism”- “The Bauhaus revolutionized art training by combining the teaching of the pure arts with the study of crafts. Gropius aimed to unite art with technology, and he educated a new generation of designers and architects to reject historical precedents and adopt the ideology of modern industry. The Bauhaus, faculty consisted of an extraordinary group that included Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky, László Moholy-Nagy, and Marcel Breuer.”


Corbusier, La Ville Radieuse
Bleak windswept plazas, overwhelming brutalist concrete boxes, glass boxes, public housing misery, the car fixated city, urban freeways, separation of uses and Euclidian zoning, soulless high-rises – there is hardly any ailment that plagues our cities that isn’t laid on the doorstep of modernism. Quite different from sentiments in Europe, there is little love for modernism in the US.

True, one can travel through many cities, here and abroad and find plenty of examples for any or all of the above perceptions and notions and one can find in each case some plausible linkage to writings of architects, planners and others who considered themselves modernists that corroborate the damning verdict about modernism as the cause of much we don’t like about our cities. Corbusier’s proposal for La Ville Radieuse and especially his Plan Voisan Pour Paris have become infamous examples of urban renewal or soulless new towns which are exemplified by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City dreams and considered the original recipes for suburban sprawl.

Case closed? Not so fast! This essay will show that this quick critique of modernism is mostly formal, is historically incorrect and leaves out the context in which modernists operated and what they wanted to achieve. A more careful look will reveal that modernism was not really an architectural style but a social movement in response to social and cultural upheaval and an attempt to develop an architecture and a city that responded to conditions neither buildings nor cities had to respond to before. As upheaval and “disruption” continues today, modernism is still relevant in a surprising way.

Today, we not only continue to live in an area of rapid change with cities on the forefront of it, we also continue to grapple with the fact that some of the biggest promises of modernity remain unfulfilled.

Corbusier in Berlin

Before we show that the answer to the challenges we confront today can still be better informed by modernist thinking than by a re-institution of the 19th century urban gestalt canon, it may be useful to define the term modernism. How hard it proves to be to define modernism is our first indication why there are so many misunderstandings.

Tate Modern, the gallery in London has a very brief definition:

Modernism refers to the broad movement in Western art, architecture and design which self-consciously rejected the past as a model for the art of the present, and placed an emphasis on formal qualities within artworks and processes and materials

In Masters of Modernism it is stated that

Many modern designers insisted that they followed no “style.” And indeed modernism was more than a style, it was a new worldview, conditioned by new perceptions of time and space.[ …] these are the hallmarks of modern design: an interest in exploring new materials, a rejection of historical precedents, and a simplification of forms by a reduction of ornament.

[..] modern comes from the Latin modernus, which means “just now,” [..] It also meant “new-fashioned, not antiquated or obsolete.” Then, towards the end of the 1800s, the term became more closely attached to the “new art” of the coming twentieth century. (Masters of Modernism)

Most will have little trouble to see how technological advances in steel construction, the invention of the elevator and later the automobile revolutionized architecture which had until then relied on stairs to walk to any floor and on bearing walls to support the loads. All of a sudden buildings could be tall and exterior walls could be more open because the support was reduced to a skeleton of beams and columns. In Baltimore we have a fairly good example of this new lightweight skin on a tall building in One Charles Center, an office tower on Charles Street designed by Mies van der Rohe (“less is more”).

The more interesting part, though, is how the cultural and sociological shift of the early nineteen hundreds shaped architecture and urban design. Modernism coincides with the collapse of old structures of power, with the emergence of democracy in many places, with the liberation of women, better rights for workers and improved living conditions for the masses that had been congregating in cities in decrepit slums in the wake of a huge wave of migration to urban industrial centers. What is often forgotten today when we look lovingly at historic buildings with a lot of ornament is how the historic design of cities and buildings was frequently an expression of the old hierarchical power structures.  In contrast to that progressive people at the time welcomed sun, light, openness and the less weighty architecture of modernism that promised a much less restricted future. The most attractive aspect of the avant garde visions for the city was the promise of mobility! Not being stuck in one place for life was a big step forward at the time and has turned only into a curse after it was realized en masse.

Frank Lloyd Wright: Usonian House, dream for the masses

The protagonists of modernism (some, like Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t like that label) were very optimistic about the liberating aspects of the modern age. In something that can be only called prescient in terms of what we discuss today under the terms of “Digital City” or Open Data, Wright said:

» Everywhere now human voice and vision are annihilating distance – penetrating walls. Wherever the citizen goes (even as he goes) he has information, lodging and entertainment. He may now be within easy reach of general or immediate distribution of everything he needs to have or to know: All that he may require as he lives becomes not only more worthy of him and his freedom but convenient to him now wherever he may choose to make his home.”(F.L.W. about “communication machines”.)

Corbusier in his Charter of Athens also made comments about the city and the region which very much reflect today’s thinking about urban regions as large scale systems (below an English summation of a portion of La Charte d’Athènes of 1933:

An urban agglomeration forms the vital nucleus of a geographical expanse whose boundary is determined only by the area of influence of another agglomeration.  The conditions vital to its existence are determined by the paths of communication that secure its exchanges and closely connect it with its particular area.  One can consider a problem of urbanism only by continually referring to the constituent elements of the region, and chiefly to its geography, which [44] is destined to play a determining role in this question — the lines of watersheds and the neighboring crests that delineate natural contours and confirm paths of circulation naturally inscribed upon the earth.  No undertaking may be considered if it is not in accord with the harmonious destiny of the region.  The city plan is only one of the elements of this whole that constitutes the regional plan.

The charter of Athens bemoans the 20 year life expectancy of people living in areas of concentrated poverty, decries sprawl, determines that commute times have become intolerable and that jobs and housing are too far apart in almost those same words that are found in the report of Baltimore’s “Opportunity Collaborative”. It is almost eerie to see the similarities some 82 years later.

Mies van der Rohe in Baltimore as part of the
Charles Center urban renewal (photo ArchPlan)


Corbusier had also written a bestseller with the title “Towards a New Architecture” declaring a radical departure from the past. The onset of modernism vibrated through all the arts like an earthquake, with an impact so drastic and momentous that the writer Virginia Wolf famously wrote of the precise date of its beginning: “In or around December, 1910, human character changed.” Maybe in response to such precise dating, the modernism critic  Charles Jencks proclaimed the death of Modern Architecture  with even more precision as the 15th July 1972 at 3.32pm when the Chicago public housing Pruitt–Igoe complex was demolished with dynamite. Pruitt Igoe, thought Jencks, looked like Corbusier’s “living machines.” That these crude analogies are largely incorrect was just demonstrated with a book that contends that much has been misunderstood about the failure of large scale public housing in the US. (Public Housing, Myths, Perception and Social Reality).
The steps towards modernism can described through these approximate milestones:
The British artist William Morris stressed utility over form in arts and crafts, and the architect Louis Sullivan coined the slogan “form follows function.” The Vienna architect Adolf Loos followed by calling ornament “a crime” and Mies van der Rohe eventually proclaimed: “less is more.” But it was the Wiener Werkstaette and later Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus which aspired to bringing design to the masses, i.e. really democratizing art and design by making it not a luxury item but functional and affordable to all while Frank Lloyd Wright designed the ultimate affordable “Usonian” single family home.

“A thing is defined by its essence. In order to design it so that it functions well – a receptacle, a chair, a house – its essence must first be explored; it should serve its purpose perfectly, that is, fulfil its function practically and be durable, inexpensive and ‘beautiful’.” (Walter Gropius, 1925)

In short, modernism set out to break with the old to liberate the potential of the new. It was a

Bauhaus also helped women conquer
oppressive stereotypes
Marianne Brandt designed
a famous tea and coffee set in 1924.

movement based on rational over irrational, democratic over autocratic and affordable over luxury. It had a very strong social component as is emphasized in this text from an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London:

At the heart of Modernism in the designed world was a commitment to social reform, if not revolution. Political views varied among Modernists, but they were generally left leaning.
Tackling economic inequality was central to their agenda and many architects devoted their energies to housing. Affordable housing was one of the most urgent needs of the inter-war period, and massive changes in investment, land tenure, planning controls and building practices were enlisted to resolve the problem.

Some of the optimistic assumptions of the periods right before and after WW I may strike us as naive today after the world had to experience WWII which brought about the brooding and decidedly anti- modern authoritarian attitude of fascism followed by a long period of materialism and consumption that conquered the globe to the point of threatening its very bearings.

Thankfully, and in spite of the prescience of the avantgarde, the understanding of cities has increased since 1993 even though the challenges for many cities, like those detailed by Baltimore’s “Opportunities Collaborative” in its 2015 Sustainable Cities grant report are so strikingly similar to Corbusier’s Charter of Athens. See for yourselves by comparing these quotes from the charter with the findings in the Opportunity Collaborative’s report:

The city is only a part of the economic, social and political entity which constitutes the region.

In the congested urban areas housing conditions are unhealthy due to [..] absence of useable green spaces and neglected maintenance of the buildings [..]. This situation is aggravated by the presence of a population with a very low standard of living, incapable of initiating ameliorations (mortality up to 20 per cent).

The most densely populated districts are in the least favorable situations [..] Low density developments (middle income dwellings) occupy the advantageous sites…

This segregation of dwellings is sanctioned by custom, and by a system of local authority regulations considered quite justifiable: zoning.

Connections between dwelling and place of work are no longer reasonable: they impose excessively long journeys to work.The time spent in journeying to work has reached a critical situation.

Office buildings are concentrated in the downtown business district which, as the most privileged part of the city, served by the most complete system of communications, readily falls prey to speculation.

It is now widely understood (with a shout-out to Jane Jacobs!) that humans need more than the rational planning of resources in the right places that informed the modernist design of to the new cities of Brasilia and Chandigarh which we consider today as cold and lacking in human scale and appropriate place-making attributes. In the light of all social turbulence and new technology, the 18th and 19th century city has shown quite a bit of resilience and viability. Still, the mega cities of today, from Dubai, to Shanghai and from London to Jiangsu look often much more like Corbusier’s vision than like the historic western pre-industrial city.

Poster for an exhibit about modernism at the
Victoria and Albert Museum in London

For the design of buildings, modernism was even more pervasive. And as a aforementioned book shows, the failure of the public housing “living machines” was possibly more a matter of mismanagement than of bad architecture. Well-managed highrises like Corbusier’s 1953 Unite d’Habitation and Stuttgart’s own imitation of Berlin, the “Hannibal” buildings are still liked and quite suitable dwellings. Not only that, almost all buildings awarded this year’s German Architekturpreis are decidedly modernist.

New multifamily housing on Stuttgart Killesberg
received  mention in German 2015 Architekturpreis

Through the Bauhaus modernism also had deep influence on the design of furniture and everyday objects, even toys quite in keeping of modernist’s all encompassing approach to design.

Corbusier house in Stuttgart Killesberg (Weissenhof)

When it comes to social policy, to equity and planning for access, openness and making things affordable, modernism still has a lot to offer. We shouldn’t understand, judge and evaluate modernism just from the abuse of its name after WWII  which resulted in the endless poor imitations that have ransacked many cities (mostly by overstating the importance of mobility in the form of the automobile) but we should understand the fundamental promise of modernism as the liberation of the human being from false authority and the repressive expressions of power in the design of cities. To fulfill modernism’s promise, especially in the contemporary American City, is still a noble and worthwhile task.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
with support from Jeremy Kargon, AIA, edited by Ben Groff, JD

Related articles on this blog:
Modernism, Preservation and the Morris Mechanic Theater
The State of Architecture

Modernism: A brief overview from The National Trust for Historic Preservation
A short academic definition by a university faculty member
Docomomo, threatened modernism awards 2015
Modernism: A 2006 exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum
Baltimore Modernism Project
Modernism, an overview by amisvisualmerchandising

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