Modernism in retreat?

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Modernist infill in Toronto. (urburbia.ca)

Here is an e-mail sent by architect Marc Szarkowski to the TradArch listserv’s discussion thread, “CNU is burning,” about modernism being invited further into New Urbanism at its recent conference in Buffalo. Marc disagrees, and though I’m not buying into it 100 percent, to say the least, he makes some very interesting points on how modernism has moved toward tradition in urbanism and architecture.

I do not think, for example, that Art Nouveau is early modernism but rather unusually exuberent classicism. Marc also does not address some of the rougher, even totalitarian aspects of the modernist establishment’s effort to prevent any classical or traditional revival, in part by thwarting efforts to even the playing field in the competition for building commissions (except for single-family housing). In any event, it is refreshing to hear the case that modernism is in retreat on at least some aspects of design. Here is his e-mail in its entirety.

Okay, I’m late [to this thread], but burning?! It’s not burning! Contrary to surface appearance, modernism isn’t infecting the Congress for the New Urbanism; it’s actually the other way around.

First the modernists thought existing cities should be scrapped entirely and replaced with Villes Radieuse [towers in parks crisscrossed by highways, proposed by Le Corbusier]. This myopia was admittedly defeated before CNU came along, but that was their first concession – that you can’t erase our built history, no matter how distasteful it may be.

Then CNU convinced the modernists that, if we are going to be building downtown again, the infill [buildings built on empty lots] can’t turn its back to the street via blank walls or retreat from it [with setbacks from the property line]. That was the second concession: that Corb was a freaking anti-social nutball when he declared death to the street. So now I see a lot of excellent modernist infill that emphatically embraces the street – sometimes distressingly better than some putatively “traditional” infill that does nothing but greet the street with a Georgian-paneled doublewide garage door!

The third concession by the modernists, still unfolding, is that if we’re going to be moving on streets at pedestrian speed, then we’ll need to have pedestrian-scaled details to keep us awake, or we’ll die of boredom. That is, in those cases where – for various reasons – there still aren’t enough people to engage your eye yet, there needs to be something else or you simply won’t venture onward. (Every mall builder knows this.) More and more “modernist” architecture is incorporating what only can be called “ornament” again, and it’s only a matter of time before the original textured modernism – Art Nouveau – is legitimized for academic experimentation again. (In my modernist school there already was a studio that tried to study [Louis] Sullivan via digital scripting, and all the school seems to churn out now are sculptural baubles. Still a ways to go, sure, but ripe for infection if a traddie wants to move in!)

There’s still griping about CNU from a few of the orthodox modernist “do as I say, not as I do” academies, like Harvard, but who cares? They’re irrelevant and dying – which is why they gripe. Modernist practice, on the other hand, is thoroughly infected.

So … CNU has won back the following from the anti-urban dark ages of CIAM:
     – You can’t just scrub out the built stuff and start with a blank slate.
    – Now that you’re working within the built stuff, you can’t turn your back on it; you have to engage it.
    – “Engaging” means catching pedestrians’ interest at pedestrians’ walking speed, be it via balconies, storefronts, interesting patterns (digital, industrial-chic, figural, floral, whatever).

There’s just one last step, and it’s not up to CNU to push it, but for you guys to push it: that it’s perfectly OK for those interesting walking-speed patterns to be more ambitious than Speck’s Pompidou [?] and reflect motifs that go beyond the arbitrary founding-of-the-Bauhaus cutoff date. Use the “diversity,” “biophilia,” and “anything goes” culture among Millennials to push it if you have to!

My beefs with CNU are for it to get a bit more aggressive in tape-cutting [?] in a new era characterized by paralyzed government and do-it-yourself everything. Forget trying to reform the timid Federal Housing Administration and its urbanism-suppressing regs anymore – co-opt the Tea Party to kill it if you have to! Modernist or classicist, any architect will now tell us that form follows parking.

Additionally the CNU should re-examine a few of its own solidifying [stultifying?] orthodoxies – that all one-way streets are bad, that pedestrian malls don’t work, that all new streets come in the hypertrophic “two lanes + free curbside parking + free middle-of-the-block parking” format, and some of the other greenfield-garden city-new town practices that seem to be hitch along on some NU urban infill.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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