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Critique of modernism

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http://techcentralstation.com/041405A.html

Science, Pseudo-Science, and Architecture

By Catesby Leigh Published 04/14/2005

A few years back, I wrote a critical survey of Princeton University's architecture for the school's alumni magazine. The article argued that the buildings that had gone up on the campus since the 1950's -- the modernist buildings -- were for the birds. It pointed to the campus's much-loved Collegiate Gothic architecture as an eminently appropriate model for future construction. The response to the article was pretty much what you'd expect. First there were the normal people -- students and alumni alike -- who tended to be quite supportive of my critique. Then there were the architects.

In a letter to the alumni magazine's editor, a 50's-vintage architecture grad who had been editor-in-chief of the Architectural Record weighed in with this observation: "I would suggest to the author that he go find a laptop computer with gargoyles, a microwave oven in the shape of an ogee arch, or a multiplex cinema held in place by flying buttresses." This gentleman has my deepest sympathy. He's spent his professional life thinking about architecture, and he's reached the conclusion a building should be designed according to the same criteria as your kitchen toaster.

This fallacy boils down to "form follows function." We don't hear that hoary aphorism much nowadays, but it is one of the founding dogmas of modernist architecture. Though it was first enunciated in the 19th century by romantics like the sculptor-writer Horatio Greenough (a friend of Emerson's) and the gifted Art Nouveau architect Louis Sullivan, its roots are in natural science -- specifically, the fitness of the skeletal structures of animal organisms to the functions they perform. The organic analogy assumed an ideological twist, courtesy of Darwin: Just as organisms evolve, so should architecture. And from the git-go it dovetailed with a rationalist doctrine, itself grounded in scientific progress if not science: Buildings should be designed with the same functionalist efficiency as machines.

There was supposed to be a social justification for such ruthless efficiency. The idea was that industrialized, mass-produced housing could shelter all those wretched proletarians consigned to rat-infested tenements. "I consider the industrialization of building methods the key problem of the day," Mies van der Rohe famously proclaimed in 1924. "Once we succeed in this, our social, economic, technical, and even artistic problems will be easy to solve...I am convinced that traditional methods of construction will disappear. In case anyone regrets that the home of the future can no longer be made by hand workers, he should remember that the automobile is no longer manufactured by carriage makers."

The Princetonian who suggested I find a laptop with gargoyles was basically barking up the same tree. One thing, however, had changed over the 75 years since Mies's pronunciamento. The social justification for the industrialization of architecture had evaporated. Indeed, to modernists of a Nietzchean bent like the late Philip Johnson, altruism was never part of the package. And come to think of it I can't recall any public housing projects Mies designed after emigrating from Nazi Germany to our shores in the late 30's. In fact, the project for which he's best known, the Seagram Building on Park Avenue in Manhattan (designed in association with Johnson), was anything but a product of the assembly line. With its lobby decked out in travertine and its fa

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Intersting article! I always enjoy a good critique of modernism. The themes remind me of the first few pages of an old Lewis Mumford book sitting on my bookshelf, I'll have to get around to reading it someday.

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I appologize for breaking the rules of article posting. Next time I'll break it up.

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Thanks. :thumbsup:

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Seems like I always have the same point to make, but it is a good one, so I'll make it again. It's fine to bash moderism, which gave us thick cruddy boxes of cement, and its fine even to say that Gehry is far more ornamental, and therefore traditional, that he lets on... but we are past all that now.

Moderism is dead. We are Post Modern now, and what that means is that architecture can, and should, have form as well as function. It can be pretty and it should solve a problem, or use technology to solve larger global ones. It can be glass and steel and brick, it can have ornament or not, but it can not be "plopped" into a location without any regard for its surroundings.

There are numerous examples out there. Here's a good one: Single Speed's Big Dig project They propose using the old girders from the I-93 bridges as housing. It solves a problem and looks good while doing it. Of course, Boston wont use the idea...

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Of course, Boston wont use the idea...

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Probably not, but luckily it's proposed for Cambridge. ;)

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There are numerous examples out there. Here's a good one: Single Speed's Big Dig project They propose using the old girders from the I-93 bridges as housing. It solves a problem and looks good while doing it. Of course, Boston wont use the idea...

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

Ohhhh, love that project. Fan-freakin-tastic...

Great aesthetic, program, AND environmental consciousness. Hooray for that.

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