Modernism’s “Deflategate”

Vienna. (eventinbus.com)

Vienna. (eventinbus.com)

The BBC documentary Vienna: City of Dreams is about as entirely marinated in modernism’s institutional bias as it is possible for a film of an hour and a half to be. And yet it is beautiful in spite of itself. In spite of itself, even as it describes the various births of modernism that the city has inflicted upon the world (also in spite of itself!), it focuses the viewer’s attention on its classicism, which refutes every “modernismism” uttered by narrator Joseph Leo Koerner, of Harvard, whose Viennese father, after immigrating to the United States, took his family back to Vienna regularly. His son cannot resist doing the same, though by the end of the documentary one questions the narrator’s own Freudian analysis of why. Very entertaining, in spite of itself. Very lovely, in spite of itself, too.

Especially endearing is a passage where Koerner is in the modernist house designed by the philosopher Wittgenstein. The narrator describes a door handle that took Wittgenstein a year to design. “It is a door handle that shows what it is,” says Koerner. “The functionality is obsessive here.” He struggles to latch a nearby window, pauses, then adds, “There’s nothing more deflating to modernism than when its purified forms don’t actually function.” This is the most direct apology for modernism in the film, but there are many more of greater subtlety and unintentionality that offer a greater sublimity of satisfaction to those of us not as besotted as Koerner. (The window segment is at 1:03:40.)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. 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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and 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 invest your prose with even more style and clarity, 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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2 Responses to Modernism’s “Deflategate”

  1. David – There is another sad story of the Viennese architect Victor Gruen, emigre to the US and inventor of the Modernist (and quintessentially American then, now global) shopping mall. It was a typically tragic effort to clone the pedestrian vitality of the city out in the exciting new frontier of the mechanized suburbs. He was horrified by the result, so much so that he moved away from America and back to the countryside near Vienna — and was even more horrified when a shopping mall was built just down the road! Lesson: before they catch up with us, maybe we should learn from our mistakes – including functional segregation, object-building and geometrical fundamentalism?

    Speaking of the latter, Nikos and I deconstructed the history of the Viennese Adolf Loos (another tragic figure who proposed to criminalize ornament, and set the stage for the geometrical fundamentalism that followed) in our book Design for a Living Planet. The chapter was published previously on Metropolis and is available here: http://www.metropolismag.com/Point-of-View/April-2013/Toward-Resilient-Architectures-3-How-Modernism-Got-Square/

    Cheers,
    Michael Mehaffy

    Like

    • I’m very familiar with Victor Gruen, Michael. He designed a shopping center in Providence in 1962 or so, called University Heights. This was before his indoor mall phase. It was your typical park ‘n’ shop but with Section 8 residential included, 30 acres of urban renewal that demolished the city’s oldest, densest black neighborhood. I was assaulted in its parking lot in the mid-’80s, oddly enough while on a snack run for friends during Super Bowl halftime. This was just beyond the north end of Benefit Street, now “Providence’s Mile of History,” but at that time a slum at its northern and southern reaches, with RISD, the Athenaeum and government buildings in between, and some 18th century mansions toward the south. One of the nation’s first preservation plan saved Benefit, thankfully without the modernist towers and garden apartments with preserved old housing sprinkled among them.

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