Michael Mehaffy, the architectural theorist from Portland, Ore., who used to work with Prince Charles, sent in this brief essay to the TradArch list, which he has kindly let me post on my blog. There’s a lot of good stuff to chew on here, so, here it is:
We need to be clear what is good and bad about the work that falls under the “Modernist” rubric. (Under which I include all the current “rococo” variants, as Eisenman aptly termed them.)
Good as in good craftsmanship, handsome proportioning, good intentions perhaps … and bad results, especially for urbanism and for human habitat overall. The end result has been a few handsome buildings, amidst a colossal degradation of the human and natural environments, propelled by a design-marketing regime. Indeed, in its outcome, the Modernist movement has a lot to answer for.
But let’s be more nuanced and less broad-brushed. Otherwise we are less effective in our rebuttals. …
To put it bluntly: “Modernism” is a shallow marketing package (and a weak theoretical outline) that does include, within the product package, some good craftsmanship and good design. (And some not good – but they’re not alone.) Let’s just stipulate that. It does no harm, and is even beneficial.
At that point we can then go after the false theory of modernity that underlies the marketing narrative – and prohibits good traditional work, and causes all sorts of other degradations, poverties and other problems.
The false theory is that we live in a wholly different age, and we can toss out everything that came before. But as Bruno Latour famously put it, “We have never been modern.” The whole thing is a marketing scam. (Students are especially receptive to that idea, by the way.)
The best rebuttal is from the Modernists themselves. Take for example Picasso’s work appropriating African masks and other so-called “primitive” art, and re-branding it as the radical new work of a wholly exceptional human age. Now that’s a brazen scam for you!
Of course Picasso also freely admitted that “good artists copy, and great artists steal.” And by this measure, at least, he was great. And in so doing, he fully rebutted the idea that nothing from the past can be used again, or that we are in a wholly new age with a wholly new aesthetic, etc. Clearly the purest nonsense! (But the idea that we can explore and develop new synthetic approaches within a liberal tradition* was valuable — he just didn’t describe it that way, because he was marketing an image of himself as a radical genius of a new age. Commodification.)
Now take Le Corbusier. Please! We are in a great new epoch (emphasis his) and we need to see cities as wonderful mechanical toys with alluring art-design packaging. That too worked wonderfully as a marketing and production exercise. That too was a brazen scam – with the worst kinds of catastrophic results.
But we can freely admit that he, like Picasso, was a very talented craftsman-artist, who could do very handsome work. (Which we might like or not, but we can grant the quality of craftsmanship all the same.)
And like Picasso, he was a brazen thief of history. In so doing, he proved that copying the past is not to be prohibited. We must draw the lesson that a new synthetic approach, including history, is the way forward in this “trans-modernist” age. (Through to the other side, as it were. As opposed to post-modernism, which tried a reactionary approach that failed – it only put a costume on the same old model, old wine in new skins, shall we say.)
Above are images of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamps, and beside it, Les Beaumettes, an informal settlement from about 1500 in Provence. Le Corbusier knew this area very well and could not have been ignorant of these buildings. Brazen thievery, conscious or otherwise.
* I mean this term in the classical sense of liberal arts, liberal economics, liberal enlightenment in culture, etc. The DNA of the USA, and of our Greco-Dutch heritage.