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.

A kind of playboy-architecture became en vogue: an architecture treated as playboys treat life, jumping from one sensation to another and quickly bored with everything. I have no doubt that this fashion born out of an inner uncertainty will soon be obsolete; but its effects can be rather dangerous, because of the worldwide influence of the United States.

We are still in the formation period of a new tradition, still at its beginning. In Architecture, You and Me I pointed out the difference between the nineteenth- and twentieth-century approach to architecture. There is a word we should refrain from using to describe contemporary architecture — “style.” The moment we fence architecture within a notion of “style,” we open the door to a formalistic approach. The contemporary movement is not a “style” in the nineteenth-century meaning of form characterization. It is an approach to the life that slumbers unconsciously within all of us.

In architecture the word “style” has often been combined with the epithet “international,” though this epithet has never been accepted in Europe.  The term “international style” quickly became harmful, implying something hovering in mid-air, with no roots anywhere: cardboard architecture.  Contemporary architecture worthy of the name sees its main task as the interpretation of a way of life valid for our period.  There can be no question of “Death or Metamorphosis,” there can only be the question of evolving a new tradition, and many signs show that this is in the doing.

3 thoughts on “The “death” of modern architecture?

  1. Clearly, as if it needed any saying, I think Giedion was too optimistic here in his assessment. Still, the way he articulates his position is revelatory insofar as it exemplifies the way modern architecture traditionally conceived of its own activity.

    Another question that is relevant here is the relation of modernism to a “new tradition,” as he puts it. Was Rosenberg’s formulation, modernism as the “tradition of the new,” not more accurate? Giedion obviously wants to characterize an authentic traditionalism as being solidly rooted in the rhythms and priorities of an age, rather than just the superficial adoption of outmoded forms. This conception too would collapse less than a decade after the introduction above was written.

  2. Pingback: The “death” of modern architecture? | Research Material

  3. Pingback: Critical comments on Nick Axel’s recent gloss of Walter Benjamin, “Critique of violence” (1921) | The Charnel-House

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