Sunday, April 11, 2004

roots of this re-modern movement: history

A look back to the origins of the original modern movement. I want to continue the train of thought I began with my last design issues entry about the motivations and values of the new generation of modernists. This time I want to look back at the original modern movement because I think it can shed some light. The original modern movement all but revolutionized the design of everything we build today - how often is something built today as it was before the modern movement? Peoples expectation of commercial and institutional architecture has been completely reshaped by it - there was a broad shift in values. It took many years but modern design was accepted, even expected as default, in these environments. Somehow it failed to take hold in residential architecture the same way. So I am curious, to look back at what was going on when the original modern movement arrived - can we see the same "roots" in our current situation? I have been reading, very slowly, a great history of the modern movement called Space, Time and Architecture by Giedion. Its a classic history of the movement, unique because it was written in great part shortly after the modern movement arrived. Some how the further you look back, the more history gets condensed, but this book is extensive on the minutia of developments that contributed in someway to the burgeoning movement, much of the research coming directly from interviews with the participants or accounts of then current events. It speaks with a voice of being there and witnessing it. That does sound fascinating, doesn't it, but I have been reading it very slowly because at the outset this and many other histories of this period begin by covering the roots of developments in construction technology which eventually led to the steel and reinforced concrete construction that was so identified with the modern movement and is the common mode of construction today. We begin with the use of cast iron in architecture and how it stood in for timber and masonry piers in mill buildings, how these early iron structures eventually led to great spans in bridges, exhibition halls, and monumental engineering as by Eiffel. Many examples show how these new technologies enabled new ways of making space, and hence brought forth a new architecture that explored the new kinds of spaces that were now possible. I've been down this road in many a history book, but probably never with so much detail and cited examples, it fully consumed half the book. I expected the author to simply follow through on the foundation he had laid by demonstrating these construction breakthroughs applied in modern buildings, but he didn't. Much to my surprise the following section of the book was titled "The Demand for Morality in Architecture" and I nearly dropped the book! Now the author had my attention. Under the heading of What were the sources of this Movement he says simply

According to the easy explanation that was advanced later the movement developed as the application of two principles: the abandonment of historical styles, and ... the use of "fitness for purpose" as a criterion
That in a nutshell are the two maxims of less is more and form follows function. He goes on The explanation is correct, inasmuch as both these factors were involved. but it does not go far enough. The movement took its strength from the moral demands which were its real source. What was the situation that this moral demand rose against? He explained in the proceeding section
There are whole decades in the second half of the nineteenth century in which no architectural work of any significance is encountered. Does that parallel housing in the US? Eclecticism (historic) smothered all creative energy. Dissatisfaction with this almost universal state of affairs reached its peak around 1890 and explains that Dutch architect Berlage was denouncing the prevailing architecture as "Sham architecture; ie., imitation: ie., lying" and quotes Our parents and grandparents as well as ourselves have lived and still live in surroundings more hideous than any known before . . . Lying is the rule, truth is the exception"
Did he write that last week about american suburbs? No, it was 1890. Curious. But why now, why so sudden this interest, 1200 people signing up for LiveModern, 300,000 issues of Dwell. The book goes on
The smoldering hatred of eclecticism came to a head in Europe with startling suddenness. . . Ambition revives and brings with it courage and strength to oppose those forces which had kept life from finding its true forms.
In a more personal account he describes his interview with Henri van de Velde who described the situation as:
The real forms of things were covered over. In this period the revolt against the falsification of forms and against the past was a moral revolt.
He goes on to describe van de Velde's experience seeking a home for his family:
I told myself - this was in 1892 - that I would never allow my wife and family to find themselves in immoral surroundings." But at that date everything that one could by on the open market was smothered under the mensonge des formes (lie of the forms.)
I'm not making this up! He goes on to describe the house that van de Velde finally designed for his family, and which launched his entry into architecture
It showed a remarkable freedom in the treatment of the roof and in the way in which the windows were cut out to meet the special requirements of each room. The revolution this house provoked when it was completed in 1896 derived from its pronounced simplicity, in strong contrast with the over-fanciful facades to which people were accustomed.
It would be hard to confuse van de Velde's house with modern architecture, but in its context it was radically minimal. The parallels are obvious, but I am not a scholar to look at them really critically. Never the less the questions they raise are for anyone to ponder. Are the same dissatisfactions with the status quo brewing now? Is it the hypocrisy of the status quo in housing, the thin and overtly false historicism which characterizes most speculative housing, bringing about a moral revolt, one that modernism is a natural counterpoint to? Are there some technological developments in housing today that parallel the development of iron, steel, and reinforced concrete? Does pre-fab hold this promise? Sustainable building? Or is it the opposite of a technological breakthrough - the bogging down of construction with higher labor and material costs? Enough for now! Previous comments:
sadly Posted by Matt_Arnold at 04-04-2004 02:16 PM Sadly, the parallels are great, here, a hundred years later. But even more sadly, to a very large degree in American culture, money trumps morality every trip of the train. People are swayed by financial arguments, when they only nod sadly in agreement with arguments that tell them what is right. But we are a nation of sub-cultures, and I believe the modernist subculture is growing rapidly, especially among environmentally-minded people. Architecture and morality? Posted by Rous at 05-03-2004 07:03 PM It is amazing the degree to which the 1890s parallels the 1990s regarding architecture and the minority opinion that the status quo is not good. As much as I want to agree that the current state of housing design, with all its phoniness, is immoral, I have trouble hanging that word on something like aesthetics. Isn't it a bit like saying that someone who dresses poorly, or wears too much makeup is immoral? I generally try to reserve that word for actions in which others are harmed against their will. For example, I do think that SUVs are immoral, but that has to do with the cost those vehicles place on others (increased damage to other vehicles in an accident and increased pollution). Although I do not know if it is true, I would guess that most people, if asked, would say that phoniness (in general) is not a good thing. However, I wonder how much people really believe it. Few peope these days put Continental tire kits on their cars but there is a market for fake convertible tops. It used to be that people tried hard to keep others from knowing about cosmetic surgery, but now it is more of a status symbol. People seem to fully buy into the new housing design and sprawling development, but does that indicate immorality or just bad taste? I think it is possible to make a better argument for the immorality of post-war suburban development with its increased reliance on cars, gasoline, subsidized roads, segregation of social groups (by race and income), etc. modernism moral? or a symptom of morality? Posted by lavardera at 05-03-2004 07:50 PM I need to examine the idea more in another essay as I have been worrying over the questions you raise. I mean it sounds zealous to accuse somebody of being immoral because they don't like modern design? No, thats not what the this is about. Its the leap from a context of blatant contradictions, to bad choices - and somehow it becomes an easier leap. Phony old houses are the norm, and thats ok, not just ok, its the ideal, the aspiration, an obvious lie, from here the big vehicle, that is supposed to be rough and tough yet never leaves a paved road, another ideal, aspiration, another obvious lie, one that more people would declare harmful, it uses more fuel than it needs to, one that is a threat to smaller more efficient vehicles. But that was an easy leap. Where do we go from there? The crisis in corporate americas scandals? I think there were many other small leaps to get to that, and I'm sure each was easy. Its not that somebody is immoral if they don't like modern design. But perhaps the modernist is in someway more resistant to this immoral chain reaction.

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