How Architects Nearly Screwed Up Modernity

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Modernism, in the architectural sense, emanated from the birth of modernity. Seems pretty simple doesn’t it?

The fact is that from the demise of medieval culture the architectural profession helped to screw up the meaning of modernity, and as a result, has had to try to redefine modernism with various terms which make little or no sense.

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The Lead-up to Modernity

In classical antiquity a correlation existed between generations. The way of the world was the way that it was supposed to be, and you pretty much accepted it. Then, during the first half of the 2nd Century B.C., the Greeks distinguished newer from the ancients. This distinction carried through until the late 5th Century A.D. when the Latin word “modo” (the origin of the word “modern”) appeared, and left it to the Middle Ages which distinguished then from now.

At the turn of the 15th Century, Medieval culture was being destroyed and the Western world was being reshaped; the Enlightenment had begun. It was the dawn of human liberation. Our communal quest for the truth began in earnest; part typified by reason over authoritarianism. The seeds of the freedoms we experience today were sown; seeds required for the modern forms of art that surround us today to develop and flourish.

The problem: the earliest originators and developers of architectural modernism worked under a medieval institutional system, as well as the remnants of the medieval mindset, as they began to define modernism. They attempted to throw off the old institutions. They wanted to define architectural modernism in a new way and with new terms. But they merely defined it in terms of anti-establishment and not in terms of modernity. They defined the new modern world in terms that opposed the medieval ways and not on the individual freedoms that are the foundations of modernity.

Modernity

Modernity is the movement that sprouted from the demise of medieval culture. The roots of modernity gave rise to two foundational institutions: science and democracy. They emanated from our newly found freedoms that have become established as necessary components in civilization’s quest for the truth. These two components personify modernity, and the quest for truth outlines the movement. (This you can read about in more detail in a book I wrote a few years ago.)

Due to the principles of this movement, you no longer had to do what the “powers” told you to do. This was the origin of our individual freedoms, our unalienable rights, our Constitution and the foundation of our democracy. This redefining of man’s existence on earth by Bacon, Descartes, Locke, and others laid the foundation for the modern world as we know it today.

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The Bastardization of Modernity

From its inception this budding movement – based on the principles of modernity – was brilliant. Here was a terribly fun and exciting time for the artisans and creatives of the day. They were envisioning the redefinition of the foundational origins of all that would be created in our physical world. But because of their anti-bourgeoisie (anti-establishment) bent, they ended up wrongly equating modernity with a political philosophy that ultimately co-opted the modern architectural movement. This slice of the modern movement rapidly became bastardized: hijacked by those who became the thought police. Hijacked by educators and professionals that had a vested economic interest in others believing that they espoused the only correct or viable way to think.

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Bauhaus: German origins of Modernism

Don’t get me wrong, there were magnificent pieces of architecture built during this period. But this journey into uncharted territory went wrong when it ended up being defined by a few individuals whose definitions became institutionalized in the same way that the authoritarian leaders of the medieval period defined their own institutions. They became intransigent and undemocratic in short order, and disallowed experimentation and the quest for innovation and truth. The movement became anti-democratic and by definition opposed to the principles of modernity.

The modern architectural movement rapidly became the antithesis to modernity. It turned into an extremely poor expression of the human experience, and the complexity of human life. It was not responsive to the essence of modernity and to the new freedoms being experienced by greater numbers of people all over the globe. The movement was hijacked by itself until the “postmodernists” came along.

Post-Modernism

In the big scheme of things, architectural post-modernism is merely a narrow experimentation in resurrecting the original modern movement; a movement of greater freedom of expression. Yet post-modernism implies that modernism – based on modernity – was passé or dead. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is modernity alive and well, it is continuing to spread all over the globe. It is the dominant philosophical movement. Architectural post-modernism merely broke the shackles of the misdirected modern movement to express modernity as it should be expressed.

To be clear, there is no such thing as after (post) modernism. Just because you call a movement “post modern” doesn’t make it so. Architectural “post modernism” is actually a wonderful expression of modernity and squarely fits within the original modern movement of architecture with its foundations planted in the principles of modernity.

The Loathing of Modernity

The favored meaning of architectural modernism – a result of the bastardization of the principles of modernity by the architectural profession – is part cause for the loathing from those who deride modernity. The built environment that stemmed from architectural modernism became the craze and envy of the world for a period of time; a craze that by it’s nature was unsustainable. The equation of industrialized forms, and the resultant extreme inefficiencies of the physical environment, is now being questioned around the world. Because of the early decay of the modern principles, modernity has been sullied; something to be despised.

During the early modern period we began designing buildings independent from our collective past, with little or no consideration for human context or in the larger context of community, the environment, or the long-term sustainability of our civilization. This is the legacy of the modern architectural movement. It is not the legacy of modernity or of modernism. Our built environment is not a result of modernity, but rises from a bastardized version that was incorrectly termed as modern.

Modern architecture is an art form which at its highest echelon is beautiful and magnificent. It is rife with justification for what architects wanted to do, but not truly indicative or expressive of the day and time in which the world’s democratization and greater complexity of life were taking shape. The forms emanating from the so-called architectural modernists were terribly antidemocratic.

Those Who Explore the Meaning of Modernity – Then and Now

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Edward Durrell Stone

Edward Durrell Stone, one of the most influential architects of the 20th Century, was one of the pioneers of architecture’s modern movement and was one of the originators of what was then termed as the International Style. He and Morris Lapidus and other “modernists” of the time rebelled against architecture’s modern movement: a rebellion for which they were severely chastised by those who espoused the pure corrupted version of the movement. No matter, they helped to usher in the aforementioned “post-modern” period, or what they considered the true meaning of modernism.

Another architect who didn’t cow-tow to the modernists’ monolithic trend was Frank Lloyd Wright. His philosophical proclivity didn’t adhere to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s interpretation that “less is more.” He believed that less could be beautiful but that “less is more” was not just a simple contradiction but an illogical sales pitch for those who weren’t mentally capable of expressing the complexities of modern civilized societies. Wright and others explored forms that would account for greater complexity rather than less. They explored the true meaning of modernity and its democratic principles and expressed such in their works.

The Relevance of Organic Architecture

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Frank Lloyd Wright

“Organic Architecture,” a term made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright, is thought to mean that which is derived from the characteristics of nature and living organisms. That’s only partially (W)right; depending on your definition of nature.

Mr. Wright’s definition of organic had more to do with the distilling of the complexities of life into a controlling idea. That is to say into its essence. It is the nature or origin of an idea; whether from nature or not. It is complexity of all that is relevant condensed down into its essence; a controlling concept where the elements of the whole are harmoniously related through one controlling component. And as Wright articulated: ”The whole is to the part as the part is to the whole.” It’s a controlling element that runs throughout all decisions made, from big to small, all at the same time. That’s organic. It was his way of expressing the complexity of human endeavor and the complexity of creating the built environment in a simple way.

Mr. Wright embodied the true philosophical expression of modernity in the architectural profession; a comprehensive nascentistic philosophy which is being built upon today by brilliant young architects from around the world. A philosophical trend typified by greater introspection, greater freedom, greater emphasis on allowing local conditions to dictate both function and form, and a real intellectual approach to asking material questions: A real quest for the truth. Wright’s process considers the essence and origins of all that exists, as well as decision-making in the whole.

The Future

The future of the architectural profession as indicators and espousers of artistic expression in the physical environment looks really bright. The newer generations of architects are not burdened with the same institutional shackles with which the old ones were. They have greater freedom to express the tenets of modernity.

The philosophical restoration of modernity in the architectural profession has one foot in the origins of modernity and the other in the origins of human endeavor dating back to man’s enlightenment. I believe it has a greater chance to affect our ability to sustain ourselves, our communities, and our civil societies than does any other proposition.

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Bill Asti
Bill Asti (www.AstiArchitect.com) is an architect and an economist in private practice since 1981, as well as author, artist, sculptor, and in younger years, a musician. A member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), he studied under Frank Lloyd Wright protégé Fay Jones, and received his degree in economics from the J. William Fulbright College at the University of Arkansas. Bill created the first U.S. private foundation dedicated to educating about post-industrial, communications-based sustainable communities. Over 30 years ago, he designed the first "Third Wave City of the Future," recognized by the White House. You can read about this in his book, The Chicken Came First.