The “death” of modern architecture?

Giedion reflects, 1963

Image: Architectural historian Sigfried Giedion

Responding to my post yesterday on Claude Schnaidt, Nick Axel of the blog Awaking Lucid asked whether I could “recommend a book or some resource that could explain…in greater detail…the ‘sociohistoric mission’ [of architecture]…in relation to style, that you, and Schnaidt, find problematically lacking today?” Furthermore, he wondered: “What does it mean to have a ‘sociohistoric mission’?”

These are the right questions to ask. You see, Nick and I recently entered into dialogue (at my initiation) so as to find some common ground between our concepts and thereby clarify whatever points similarities or dissimilarities might exist in our respective appraisals of the present state of architecture. Currently I’m preparing a response to a brief piece published by Leopold Lambert on his Funambulist platform along with Sammy Medina, and with the invaluable assistance of our colleague and comrade Reid Kane.

Axel’s approach, to be sure, varies from mine greatly. Despite some authors we both invoke, we speak in almost entirely different philosophical-theoretical idioms. Even if we were to understand each other completely, I suspect there would be a great deal that divides us in terms of our assessment of the relationship between architecture and politics. Nevertheless, I am convinced that we can at least attain to this level of mutually intelligible disagreement.

Put simply, the “sociohistoric mission” of modern architecture I sometimes mention is the same to which every modern discipline aspires: the world-historical transformation of society. Generally, this transformation is implicitly linked to, or participates in, a broader project of emancipation. Its task is the self-overcoming of bourgeois society, and as a consequence (eo ipso) the realization of freedom in time. A couple years back I outlined some of the ways this manifested itself in the architecture of the twentieth century. This might be a helpful place to start.

Regarding “style,” this is rather old hat in the propaganda of the classical avant-garde. Yet it is rooted in reality. All the great modernists rejected the idea that they were simply founding a new “style.” “Architecture has nothing to do whatsoever with the styles,” Corbu wrote in Toward an Architecture. Similarly, one can detect in the following passage from Giedion’s 1963 edition of Space, Time, and Architecture the contempt he feels toward theorists like Philip Johnson, who had branded the modern movement with the utterly false and misleading title of being “an international style.” The nineteenth century was, of course, characterized by Muthesius as dominated by Stilarchitektur, and involved a “battle of the styles.”

Here’s Giedion’s reintroduction to his classic work:

Confusion and boredom

In the sixties a certain confusion exists in contemporary architecture, as in painting; a kind of pause, even a kind of exhaustion. Everyone is aware of it. Fatigue is normally accompanied by uncertainty, what to do and where to go. Fatigue is the mother of indecision, opening the door to escapism, to superficialities of all kinds.

A symposium at the Metropolitan Museum of New York in the spring of 1961 discussed the question, “Modern Architecture, Death or Metamorphosis?” As this topic indicates, contemporary architecture is regarded by some as a fashion and — as an American architect expressed it — many designers who had adopted the fashionable aspects of the “International Style,” now found the fashion had worn thin and were engaged in a romantic orgy. This fashion, with its historical fragments picked at random, unfortunately infected many gifted architects. By the sixties its results could be seen everywhere: in small-breasted, gothic-styled colleges, in a lacework of glittering details inside and outside, in the toothpick stilts and assembly of isolated buildings of the largest cultural center. Continue reading