The Sociohistoric Mission of Modern Architecture

A Platypus teach-in by Ross Wolfe and Sammy Medina meant to explore some issues connected to the “Ruins of Modernity: The failure of revolutionary architecture in the 20th century,” an upcoming panel event at NYU featuring Peter Eisenman, Reinhold Martin, Joan Ockman, and (hopefully) Bernard Tschumi.

This presentation will touch on modernist architecture’s attempt to address problems like the housing shortage, the poor living conditions of the urban proletariat, and the liberation of woman from domestic slavery. Approaches to homelessness past and present: the 1920s-1930s Social-Democratic utopia of the Siedlung vs. the 1990s-2000s anarchist utopia of the Squat. Housing the unemployed and underemployed — the so-called “reserve army of labor” or “surplus population” — from the sotsgorod to Occupy Your Home.

A room, or perhaps a “pod,” of one’s own, and its importance for modern bourgeois subjectivity. Annihilating the antithesis between town and country (Karl Marx, Ebenezer Howard, Mikhail Okhitovich), the absurdity of the nuptial bed (Karel Teige), the city of children (Leonid Sabsovich), and the creation of a hermaphroditic humanity (El Lissitzky).

Kitchen factory, 1928

Kitchen factory, 1928

11 thoughts on “The Sociohistoric Mission of Modern Architecture

  1. Ironically modern architecture is not revolutionary anymore, it’s simply outdated and a thing of the past. And the failure of modernist architecture is its imposition of will, its focus on planning and its idolizing of the starchitects. No, the future belongs to Biourbanism, which is true revolutionary and fits for the future. The new “modern” architecture.

    Yesterday I wrote the following introduction to an illuminating interview with Stefano Serafini on Biourbanism:

    “I love the initial statement by Serafini in the interview:

    “The design is out there already.”

    This goes to the very core of true and real sustainable design. This is the exactly opposite to the ideologies and the rationality of the 20th century, first and foremost implemented through PLANNING! The word planning makes me freeze on my back. What it means is administrated “freedom” and imposition of will! Planning can NEVER be human oriented or put humans in relations to nature and history.

    NO, design is not to impose, it’s to LISTEN! Listen to the land, listen to the people, listen to the history. NEVER to IMPOSE your will. Or the will of money, ideologies, egos and so on.

    It’s also called Algorithmic Sustainable Design, where you follow a process which will lead you to one of several desirable end-goals. You don’t make a plan, you don’t follow a plan, you follow the computations of the algorithm. And ABOVE ALL, there is NO MASTER PLAN!

    The future of urbanism is BIOURBANISM!



    Read this ground-breaking interview:

    – M/M Interview with Stefano Serafini:

    Anyway, I’m sure there is a lot to learn from your presentation, as you are undoubtedly skilled in this subject, and we should not forget the failures of the past. So I recommend everyone who can to attend it. Unfortunately it’s too late on the day already for me to go. I wish you good luck!

      • Why is then this book the most sold book on the subject of architecture on 40 years after it was published?

        The problem is that the establishment regarded the Pattern Language as “outdated” and “a thing of the past” from the very beginning, as this is exactly what this book is. In other words, it’s eternal.

        Surely, it’s regarded as “outdated” because it’s a collection of wisdom from the whole history of mankind. In this way it’s a book of the past.

        For me I used 3 weeks to read A Pattern Language, about the same time I used to read The Lord of the Rings back in the 90’es. Unfortunately you cannot make a movie of Alexander’s book, but you can visit the Eishin Campus in Japan, which his last book is about:

      • I don’t think that something’s datedness can be measured in terms of book sales. Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture remains one of the most popular books on architecture of all time.

        In terms of the supposed “eternity” of Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, I would contend that it’s actually quite historically specific. In other words, as an inventory drawing upon “wisdom from the whole history of mankind” it’s a quintessentially proto-postmodern/contemporary project. That it has the appearance of eternity itself is ideological; it is characteristic of postmodernity that everything appears frozen in a kind amorphous posthistoire. Still, this is a necessary form of appearance.

      • Chrisopher Alexander’s “Pattern Language” cannot be outdated since it addresses timeless and universal principles, not some fad such as Modernism which is now antique.

  2. ‘Biourbanism’ is the HISTORY of urbanism. From Laugier’s ‘City as a Forest’, through Howard’s Garden City, to the statdlandscahft models of ‘organische’ urbanism, and today’s eco-cities, models of natural process have long been used to inform and legitimate urban design. Corb, Mies and Hilberseimer visited the Garden City and carried its premises, translated and further developed, into the rest of the twentieth century and across the Atlantic. As urban models the natural and the organic have typically been used as mechanisms of control subjecting individuals and social forms to their normative standards of ‘health’, ‘efficiency’ and biological process, or imagining the future of the human as a ‘happy animal’ safely returned to a natural and post-historical state of passivity. The future of architecture and the city might perhaps acknowledge the artifice at the heart of the ideas of nature, the organic and the biological as they are often mobilised today. Perhaps alone of all the attempts to think the city in terms of nature that define twentieth century urbanism the Soviet experiments of the twenties offer some sense of this dialectic tension between nature and invention, and are thus worth revisiting.

    • Wikipedia: “His idealised garden city would house 32,000 people on a site of 6,000 acres (2,400 ha), planned on a concentric pattern with open spaces, public parks and six radial boulevards, 120 ft (37 m) wide, extending from the centre.”

      To me this sounds quite mechanical and imposed, not at all like living tissue. Still, the idea of Garden Cities seems to have some in common with the new idea of Village Towns:

      This comparison I find quite interesting!

    • Indeed. Wright’s “Broadacre city” is also in line with this pattern of development.

      And I would only add to this that the future of architecture and urbanism will consist — as with the whole of human civilization, should it ever extricate itself from its present barbarism — in rendering nature increasingly artificial.

      Second nature (society) cannot be fully naturalized until it reabsorbs the first nature from whence it sprang. This will not so much represent the (re)naturalization of humanity as it does the humanization of nature: Marx’s “fully-realized humanism” simultaneous with a “fully-realized naturalism.”

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