The end of Modernism in Architecture
How things begin
We have been hearing of the end of modernism for a long time, why is it still here? Art movements are founded on a philosophy as well as being fixed in the era the movement operates in. It is always difficult to mark a specific start and end date for cultural and artistic eras. Movements feed off and feed into one another, and the shift to a new movement tends to be more gradual than we are led to believe.
The overarching movements prior to Modernism were various forms of Neo-Classicism in competition with forms of Arts and Crafts. The former was steeped in order, colonialism and the state, while the latter looked at the local vernacular. Both in their own way were dealing with the industrial revolution which started around 1760-1800. One embraced it as a tool to manufacture and structure traditional and classical motifs, while the other rejected it as a harbinger of unhealthy squalor and “ugliness”, embracing an idealized past of local design and hand-crafts.
The modernists were the first designers to see industrialization as its own style. Standardization, machines and mass-production were welcomed as aesthetic concepts. The building, any building, was a machine. A machine to live in, a machine to study in, a machine to work in etc. The resulting architecture was a highly simplified and functional aesthetic.
Modernists rejected both classical and vernacular aesthetics. Both were seen as superfluous decorations on a machine. In this way they rejected culture and context as having any importance in design. In that way Architecture became an international If a Model-A Ford automobile in New York or Mumbai does not change its design, then neither should a building-machine.
However, this narrative simplifies reality. Architects never really reject all earlier ideas. Both Corbusier and Mies used classical proportions and motifs in their designs, although neither care much for context. Luis Kahn got inspired by Egyptian and Indian vernacular history and so on.
There were two branches of architecture that did embraced international modernism more than any other, Capitalism and Socialism. Both due in large part to the cost reduction in construction and manufacturing. Architecture that is purely functional, mass produced and non-contextual is cheap. Office towers and social housing became the purest children of the Modernist ideal.
The End of Modernism …
A common opinion among architects, especially during the period of post-modernism, was that the end of Modernism can be placed and dated to St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3.32pm when the Pruitt-Igoe social housing scheme were dynamited. This has not proven to be completely accurate with modernism persisting to this day.
Arguably Pruitt-Igoe marked perhaps a split in Modernism. On one side Commercial-modernism (Commercialism) and High-modernism (Post-Modernism to Minimalism) on the other. Commercialism stuck to the simplicity of mass production and globalism, with some superficial style variations, while High-Modernism focused more on variations through a rigorous design process.
In the early 21st century even High-Modernists like Eisenman admitted that Modernism was at the end of its relevance. We no longer live in the industrial age of the past. The world has entered a new Industrial Revolution with intellectual automation, mass-customization and environmental awareness.
But Commercialism persists. IKEA is by any standard the highest end of the modern era. Simple, mass-produced modern designs made for the consumer market. IKEA has for many years been testing out modular construction in the housing market. This current trend for modular housing, especially the “micro-apartment” variety is the pinnacle of Modernism. Mass-produced, functional and simple.
The End, part II…
Or; 4 reasons to be optimistic about the future.
Modernism has truly ended in terms of its relevance to the current era. But there are 4 reasons why the style is so hard to kill.
- As a manufacturing and consumer product it’s unrivalled in terms of financial cost. Mass-production is cost effective. Modernism is cheap.
- Designers who studied and worked all their life within the modernist movement are used to the rota. Design is an exploration of failures which makes if expensive. With clients unwilling to pay for experimentation, Architects to large degree are not innovative.
- Planning authorities are not very educated in architecture or design and push for bland imitation of historical styles or pseudo modernism in a naïve attempt at contextualization.
- The technology of mass-customization and design computation is still in its infancy and therefore costly. While there is no consensus for an architectural style that is the response to the changing era. We need more debate between the “rejectors” and “embracers” of this change. That’s what drives movements.
Just like with the movements that Modernism replaced, replacing Modernism takes time. The philosophical and technological underpinning of the movement is out of date, but the style takes longer to fade away. What will take its place is still up for grabs. What is certain is that the very reasons for its long death are the seeds for an architectural revolution. An opportunity for change.