The problem of architectural modernism

May 29, 2017 Vision and Style Comments (0) 93

I was riding my bike the other day and I figured out the problem of architectural modernism.

Riding your bike along the San Antonio River at 7 in the morning can be like a dream state, rendering ideations fugitive and ethereal.  Maybe I didn’t figure it out.  I can remember the egret flying alongside me clearly but the reconciliation of the 19th century split between architecture and engineering is returning only in fragments.  Beautiful, fashionable fragments.

edle Einfalt und stille Grösse

Modernist theorists like Nikolaus Pevsner and Seigfried Giedion and Reyner Banham posited the problem this way:  the 19th century witnessed an unnatural split between engineering technology – the Machine Age – and a stultifying architectural education system that focused on facades and styles and fads and fashions.  The artists could figure it out – why not the architects?

Monet inside the Gare St. Lazare where steam and steel were raw and real

Amsterdam’s Victorian Gothic railroad station designed 12 years later

It struck me as the egret settled that is wasn’t really the unity of architecture and engineering the modernist theorists sought.  They were entranced and enamored by the fragments themselves, the snapshots of engineering details of the Galerie des Machines or the steam engine or the suspension bridge or the automobile.

Time and space are collapsing…

They were enamored by the novelty and perhaps the scale of the 19th century engineering because it was new and different.  Unlike their Luddite forbears who saw only dark satanic mills they saw stairways to heaven crafted of steel.

THE Ironbridge 1777-79

Less theorists than fashionistas, they craved the “creative” visual panache they saw in the newness of engineering, desiring a natty new dreadnought, horrified at the hoop skirts and whalebone corsets of the academic architectician.

Breslau, I mean Wroclaw – Max Berg 1913

They were enamored of science, the rich loam of technological progress, and they wanted their architects to plumb the aesthetic potential of science, to make a creative architecture worthy of an era of time- and space- spanning progress.

Laura Gale House, 1906-09

Frank Lloyd Wright espoused this theory and practiced it simultaneously in the first decade of the last century, producing pathbreaking spaces that challenged academic orthodoxy.  Here was an artist who embraced new materials and technologies in neat little orthogonal essays in abstraction, broken boxes of exploded interiority that ironically carried unsolved engineering challenges of their own, because the temptation to sweeten never recedes.

The 8-bit Hollyhock of 1908

Later theorists-practitioners like Le Corbusier celebrated the inhumanism of the Industrial Age, overthrowing the last trappings of Renaissance humanism that clung desperately to the narrowing fillets of Art Deco towers for the faceless forms of the International Style.

Faceless and headless in the 1923 Ville Roche-Jeanneret.

This triumph was a triumph of fashion, despite the “form ever follows function” of Sullivan, the “nature of materials” of “organic” Wright, Le Corbusier’s “machine for living” and Mies’ “less is more” this modernism became a style, a fashion, a fad.  The opposite of what the theorists SAID they wanted.  They rebelled against style and ended up with one because…because…because form ever follows function and the function of rebellion is to hoist a new flag.

Het Schip, de Klerk, 1921

Maybe, like the egret, I had flown this path before.  The split between architecture and engineering was laid by the Renaissance, when art gained art history for the first time and the study of classical models became the modality for all of Les Beaux Arts. 

Don’t get me started on the body shaming

What struck EVERYONE about the new forms of the Industrial Age was their NEWNESS.  They were bigger and they did new things in new ways with new tools and new fuels and the phrase “Non nova sed nove” became quaint because everything WAS new and it LOOKED new and why couldn’t the creative class come up with that kind of NEWNESS?

Image copyright 2010, Felicity Rich

When the novelty wears off, what was new becomes dated, right?  Well, not always.  Turns out time is the wisest judge and sometimes those buildings beloved when new REMAIN beloved as they age.  That, after all, is why the academic architects studies the past styles because they WORKED and they were considered beautiful in the 1st century and in the 10th century and in the 15th century and in the 19th century so there is some sort of guarantee they will work over time.

World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893

It’s not that I sussed out the massive irony of lionizing engineering marvels for their visual novelty and then forcing architects into a new academic style derived from that visual novelty – that has been worked over and over again. It’s not the first time academies were or will be blamed for straightjacketing creativity.  It’s not even the natural (a la Winckelmann) trajectory of a style over time.

Rue Mallet Stevens, Paris

It’s mistaking the amygdalar and temporal lobe stimulation of the visual for a solveable problem in the physical world.  It is the justification of the joyride; the legitimization of the legover and the gilding of the guilty pleasure.

I never had such a blast

When I get too close, the egret tucks in his neck and takes off again.  Who decides what is art and who cares about the artist’s intention?  I cross the little stone bridge.  “All parts are assembled in a joy” said Wright’s apprentice Barry Byrne, who also decried modernism as a style rather than a “resultant form”

St. Francis Xavier church, Kansas City (Byrne, 1950)

Resultant form.  The result of a solved problem.  This was made beautiful in Byrne’s thinking by the personality of the artist.  The artist could easily be the engineer, the Eiffel or Ferris who dazzled the Victorian crowd not with notes of the Doge’s Palace but with grand scales bedecked with rivets and trusses.

The modernist theorists solved the problem they defined when they inoculated the academies with modernism.  But they had misidentified the problem as the split between architecture and engineering – between fashion and problem-solving.  The reality was that form-giving (to borrow a Banhamism) resides in many disciplines, and true modernism is a process where form is resultant, never preconceived.

Even if the bricks are Roman

“but that is impossible – there is always the temptation to sweeten” I thought as I rode past the egret.

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