oh modernism, who art thou?

27 February 2011

What is modern architecture? Some state it evolved during the 19th century with the industrial revolution and exploded onto the scene at the turn of the 20th century. Perhaps its roots go back even earlier. Early pioneers who are now considered architectural giants forged through tradition and conflict to make their statement about their ideals, philosophies and opinions of how architecture relates to the human condition and how it can affect and improve our lives. It started as a movement, an ideology, but ultimately evolved into a style…perhaps now a caricature of itself. Early modernist Philip Johnson coined the moniker “International Style” back in 1932 at the International Exhibition of Modern Architecture at the MOMA. Over the years its machine aesthetic developed as form followed function and the ornament and detail of the past turned into clean, but sometimes austere buildings that fill our cities and country sides. In today’s age, we find ourselves adding assorted adjectives to it as we yearn to transform ambiguity into the particular. [Soft modernism…Bauhaus modernism, regional modernism, romantic modernism, desert modernism, contextual modernism…feel free to add your own].

Now over a century later we use the term “modern” in many contexts, sometimes a reference to the early movement, sometimes as a style, and sometimes just to speak of today. Do you ever think about the use of the word “modern” today? What does the term evoke when spoken in reference to design? When you stand in front of a (conservative) group of people to present your “modern” design for their facility, do they cheer or jeer? How could a simple word create so much confusion or fear?

As a start I looked up its basic definition which is simply “of or pertaining to present and recent time; not ancient or remote.” Of course a secondary definition addresses my point where it states “of, pertaining to, or characteristic of contemporary styles of art, literature, music, etc., that reject traditionally accepted or sanctioned forms and emphasize individual experimentation and sensibility.”

Great…now we have to define contemporary; it muddies the water too. It is defined as “existing, occurring, or living at the same time; belonging to the same time, of the present time; modern. Isn’t this circular reasoning? At some point the term began to take on a life of its own and now is often perceived as a cousin in style to our friend modern. Hey…all the taste of modernism without all the baggage, at the same low price. What a deal!

Modernism, modernist, modernistic…these too have loaded meanings and misunderstandings. All I want to know is if modern is a truly a century old, what do we call architecture that is made today?

I am confused, what do you think?

don't ask him we know what he thinks

 

top photo is from Zuggup’s photostream on Flickr (used under the Creative Common License)
bottom photo is courtesy of the Chicago History Museum (from Google Images)

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5 Responses to “oh modernism, who art thou?”

  1. Steve Says:

    My thoughts on “modern” would be, whats happening today. Is this design modern for today?
    That building over there was built in 1970 and was modern when it was built, so is it still modern. To me it is not. It WAS modern when it was designed and built, but not know. So maybe we need to break it down as, “is modern” and “was modern”.

    • leecalisti Says:

      That begs the question, is a building from one of the “modern” architectural giants still modern if it was part of the modern movement? Can modern only refer to time?

  2. edwardcan Says:

    The use of the word “modern” versus the word “Modern”–with a capital would indicate if it is of “present time” or an “Aesthetic Movement.”

    As for the spoken word–context is everything.
    Maybe, we need to be more precise with our use of this term.

    • leecalisti Says:

      Thanks for reading. You make a good point, but I still find non-architects, especially those whose preferences lie closer to what is considered “traditional” find the word troubling on all fronts.

  3. Ross Wolfe Says:

    The architecture of today is often called “postmodern” or simply “contemporary.

    In any case, you might be interested in an archive I’ve compiled of original writings in translation by the great modernist architects, many of whom are pondering exactly the question of what constitutes modern architecture.

    Here it is: Modernist Architecture Archive

    My main website mainly deals with Soviet avant-garde architecture, along with contemporary political issues on the Left.


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