THE MODERNIST LEGACY
by: James Steele
Modernism, despite repeated declarations to the contrary, is far from dead; however, at the turn of twentieth century, the very belief in progressivism, or the teleological notion that history moves inexorably forwards and upwards, that Modernism served to inculcate and sustain, has been called into question. Yet there is a growing realization that the modernist project is far from over and, indeed, may now be entering its culminating phase. That realization includes the caveats that ‘functionalism’ – as Modernism was characterized by its critics when they pulled out the long theoretical knives in an attempt to slay it in the early 1970s – is as inadequate a justification for design as the deliberate silencing of historical or cultural imperatives is as a method of leveling social differences. There is no doubt that an awareness of the irreparable damaged caused by the culmination of rapid industrial growth in the West has, since the 1960s, made people question the goals of increasing technological change, and seek to broaden the definition of both technology and development to include concepts qualifying these terms, such as “intermediate technology” and “sustainable development”; and yet, Modernism – and the ideals that it symbolized – remains a powerful force, co-existing with and modifying further the refractions that it has created.
There is, of course, an explicit danger involved in attempting to identify distinct movements in contemporary architecture. Nominalism – or the urge to attach names to discernible trends or ideas – is increasingly generated from the rising influence of consumerism that now guides architects and critics as much as it does every other facet of contemporary life; and it is now rampant, making it difficult to separate fact from fantasy, or reality from the hype surrounding the latest commercial enterprise masquerading as theory. If this danger is viewed differently, however, and used to advantage, the mask the task of differentiation becomes much easier. The intriguing feature of nominalism is that in our own increasingly image – conscious world, the act of giving something a title has the effect of making it real. In retrospect, this is not a new phenomenon; the term “gothic”, for example, was used by Renaissance artists and architects as a pejorative to define a competing theoretical construct which they wanted to characterize as barbarian: the destroyer of classical tradition they were trying to revive. More pertinently, the Modern Movement – which is the starting point for each of the discernible initiatives discussed in this book which react to it either a positive or negative way – was not itself legitimized until the publication of “The International Style”, written by the young Philip Johnson and his co-author Henry – Russel Hitchcock following the pioneering Modern Architecture: International Exhibition they curated at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1932. The basic dynamic evident in that act – of a name being allocated to a distinctly identifiable activity by discerning observers and that name, once recognized, causing consolidation and legitimacy as well as notoriety for those involved – established a pattern that has continued ever since.
James Steele. Architecture Today. Editions Phaidon, page 10.