“Modern is not a style”

Not sure this is precisely the sort of modernism that is targeted below, but as a prototypical modernist cliche it works for me. (danncoffey.com)

Not sure this is precisely the sort of modernism that is targeted below, but as a prototypical modernist cliche it works for me. (danncoffey.com)

Modern in Denver, a Colorado design magazine, has posted what I believe is the first installment of a regular column inviting local modernist architects to comment on design issues, with the hope of generating conversation among readers. Hats off to Denver’s own Christine Franck, who sent it to TradArch, smitten, as I was, by the workaday affection for modernism at USModernist Radio, which recently interviewed Justin Shubow on Frank Gehry. This essay, “Modern Is Not a Style,” by Ken Andrews and E.J. Meade of Arch11 Architecture, reflects the thinking of the conventional architect of today. Here is the authors’ intro to their piece:

THE RECESSION IS OVER; NEW CONSTRUCTION IS BOOMING [in Denver], AND THE DEBATE ABOUT NOSTALGIC NEIGHBORHOOD CHARACTER RAGES IN THE MEDIA. HOMEOWNERS, BUILDERS, AND SPECULATIVE DEVELOPERS ALTER URBAN ENVIRONS FOR BETTER OR WORSE, AND THE PUBLIC BACKLASH IS ESCALATING. MODERN DESIGN SENSIBILITIES SUFFER SCRUTINY, PERHAPS RIGHTLY SO IF THE RECENTLY ERECTED COMPOSITIONS OF STUCCO AND WOOD BOXES THROUGHOUT THE CITY ARE THE MEASURE FOR MODERN ARCHITECTURE.

No traditional editor would allow his magazine to run an entire paragraph in all-caps. First, it is hard to read. Second, in today’s digital world, it signifies shouting at readers. Editors at Modern in Denver apparently did not get the memo that all-caps is impolite. But the larger point is that editors seeking a form of novelty to distinguish their text from more conventional magazine text (to which they revert after the intro anyway) have very few options – font (e.g., Times Roman), type size, type style (e.g., italics), color, all caps, no caps (e.e. cummings, anyone?) – all of which limit the typographical ability of text to convey flexibility in meaning. That is why we have conventions in typography as in so many other things. Abiding by convention permits a wider range of expression. And that segues (a favorite word of editors) right into the angst of Andrews and Meade.

They find that too many modernists in Denver are copying the past – reusing the stylistic tropes of Corbusier and Mies. This upsets them, but short of calling for an increase in genius, what can they do but wring their hands? Avenues for the pursuit of novelty are certain to reach a dead end eventually, especially since modernism has thrown out almost every tool in a design toolbox that took centuries to amass. Now the average modernist, sporting an average architectural education, runs out of ideas on how to be different very quickly, and has recourse either to going wacko – novelty without judgment – or copying the past and basking in someone else’s novelty.

With that in mind, here’s the nut graf (more journo jargon) of this essay by Andrews and Meade:

The resonance of masterpieces by Le Corbusier or Pierre Chareau lies not in recreating those spaces or material assemblies, but in channeling the daring vision, conviction, and innovation that allowed them to break free of the Victorian past and build to authentically match their times. To practice modern architecture is to have the confidence to design poetically mating use and occupancy with place, form, and time.

Yeah, I know, we’ve heard it before. But that’s exactly the point. Like the classicists of the 1930s facing challenges from early modernists, modernists today have no effective rhetoric with which to defend work that grows increasingly tiresome to the public. These are not your top-rank modernists, to be sure, but mark my words, the top-rank modernists have little to say that cannot be mined from this essay.

Snap your fingers and rise up, ye poetical mating of use and occupancy with place, form, and time! Denver awaits you!

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 “Modern is not a style”

  1. Steven Semes says:

    Seems to be an example of the typical architects’ “discourse” in which nicely-turned phrases are supposed to make the buildings right. There are always these empty verbal formulas, but where is the built work? I want to say to the architect-authors of the piece you quote that they should follow the advice of my venerable mentor Jaquelin Robertson: “Shut up and draw!”

    Like

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