Has Modernism Failed? 3

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015
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“Fifteen years into the new millennium, it is as though the previous century never happened.”

So says architect Reinier de Graaf of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in an article in Dezeen magazine. de Graff laments the transformation of modern architecture from an equalizing force in society to just another capitalist product to buy and sell.

“Modern architecture’s social mission – the effort to establish a decent standard of living for all – seems a thing of the past,” de Graaf noted. “The Existenzminimum, the establishment of a universally acceptable minimum standard of living in the 20th century, seems to have become a privileged condition in the 21st.”

These days it may be difficult to imagine architecture as a social movement rather than simply a profession that designs the built environment for clients, but those realms coexisted dynamically for decades. At the dawn of the 20th century, rapidly advancing technology had drawn workers from rural areas to urban areas. They found abundant work, but also appalling slums.

“Europe’s early Modern movements were driven not just by new technologies but also by the intolerable living conditions of the industrial city,” wrote Robert Cowherd, associate professor of architecture at Wentworth Institute of Technology in his paper, Second Modernity: Making Good on Architecture’s Social Contract. “Modernism’s cult of function was rooted in this social imperative to do the most good, with the least resources, for the most people.”


That social contract seems to have largely decomposed. Why has that happened? Cowherd mentions a couple potential causes, resulting in a societal shift away from architecture as a problem-solving medium.

“Whether one blames the dramatic failures of American public housing or the success of Modern form as corporate identity, somehow we arrived in the last decades of the 20th century deeply skeptical of attempts to solve social problems with architecture,” Cowherd wrote.

de Graaf points the finger at the political changes of the late 1970s and 1980s.

“After the conservative revolution of the 1980s, the built environment and particularly housing acquired a fundamentally different role. From a means to provide shelter, it has become a means to generate financial return,” he noted.

de Graaf sees the nature of capital as fundamentally corrupting the nature of the built environment, where in the past architects created spaces that were healthy and pleasant for users.

“Architecture is, perhaps now more than ever, a tool of capital, complicit in a purpose antithetical to its erstwhile ideological endeavour,” he wrote.

The result? The built environment is no longer about quality of the space for the users, but about profit potential.

This pattern, certainly aided by cheap financing, has created an affordability crisis.

“A building is no longer something to use, but to own – with the hope of increased asset-value, rather than use-value, over time,” he said. “Buildings become part of an economic exchange cycle: conceived for the lowest possible cost, traded for the highest possible sum.”

A rather grim appraisal, but perhaps architects can play a role in the solution, as well, as when Cowherd asserts that the field of architecture must once again embrace the social contract.

“The last decade has seen a surge of work reasserting what we have always known to be true: architecture needs to do more than just look good, it needs to do good,” he wrote.

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  1. Grant Spork

    Any worthy pursuit including Modern Architecture, required experimentation with new social concepts and with new materials science. Too often when considering the commissioning of low cost and social housing, competitive tendering of fees, also means that we achieve the lowest common denominator in terms of design content. There are some exceptions to that rule. No movement can remain static and must progress to remain relevant. Is Zaha Hadid a "Modern" Architect? I think she is. Renzo Piano has also undertaken some very innovative housing projects. Too often the best minds in the Design Profession are not sought out for masterplanning, social and low cost housing, and perhaps the fault lies in the selection process for housing. If it looks, smells and feels like "Canned Poverty" then yes it certainly has failed.

  2. Terri C.

    Interesting contentions, but I think pointing an accusatory finger at the role of capital is the wrong route to pursue.

  3. Stephen Goldie

    Has Modernism failed ordinary people – yes!

    It was clear in 1972-6 that Modernism was failing when the 33×11-story buildings of the 18 year old Pruitt–Igoe housing complex were demolished. Insightful journalists and academics had long seen this coming (e.g. "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" by Jane Jacobs in 1961, "People and Plans" by Herbert Gans in 1968, and "After the Planners" by Robert Goodman in 1972), but it wasn't until the Congress of the New Urbanism was founded in 1993 that the way forward became clear.

    CNU and related movements, such as the Council of European Urbanism, share the social ideals of the Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM), but decry the attempt to implement them through separation of uses and excessive high-rise construction. Instead 'fine-grained, mixed-use and transit supportive' is the catch cry. Mostly the architecture is neo-classical, but that isn't mandatory (e.g. Discovery Point at Wolli Creek, near Sydney Airport).

    Modernism was a cul-de-sac, go back to Camillo Sitte's "Der Städtebau" and walk forward from there along the broad sunlit avenue of City Beautiful and you will arrive at The New Urbanism!