Ruins of Modernity: The failure of revolutionary architecture in the twentieth century
PETER EISENMAN ︱ REINHOLD MARTIN ︱ JOAN OCKMAN ︱ BERNARD TSCHUMI
Room 802 Shorin
“Let us not deceive ourselves,” Victor Hugo once advised, in his iconic Hunchback of Notre Dame. “Architecture is dead, and will never come to life again; it is destroyed by the power of the printed book.” Both as a discipline and a profession, architecture lagged behind the other applied arts. Even when measures toward modernization were finally instituted, many of the most innovative, technically reproducible designs were hived off from the realm of architecture proper as mere works of “engineering.” Toward the beginning of the twentieth century, however, fresh currents of thought arose within the field to lend architecture a new lease on life. Avant-garde architects emulated developments that had been taking place in both the visual arts (Cubism, Futurism) and scientific management of labor (Taylorism, psychotechnics), advocating geometric simplicity and ergonomic efficiency in order to tear down the rigid barrier dividing art from life. Most of the militant members of the architectural avant-garde sought to match in aesthetics the historical dynamism the Industrial Revolution had introduced into society. Machine-art was born the moment that art pour l’art died. “Art is dead! Long live the machine-art of Tatlin!” announced the Dadaists George Grosz and John Heartfield in 1920.
The modernists’ project consisted in giving shape to an inseparable duality, wherein the role of architecture was deduced as simultaneously a reflection of modern society as well as an attempt to transform it. Amidst the tumult and chaos that shook European society from the Great War up through the Great Depression, revolutionary architects of all countries united in opposition to the crumbling order of bourgeois civilization, attaching themselves to radical political movements. Forced out of Europe by fascism and subsequently out of the USSR by Stalinism, the architectural avant-garde fled to North America. Following a second global conflagration — transposed into the postwar boom context of America with the GI Bill, Europe under the Marshall Plan, and Japan under McArthur — the modernists now reneged on their prior commitment to spur on social change. Abandoning what Colin Rowe had called “that mishmash of millennialistic illusions, chiliastic excitements, and quasi-Marxist fantasies,” they instead accommodated themselves to the planning agencies and bureaucratic superstructures of Fordism. “European modern architecture came to infiltrate the United States, largely purged of its ideological or societal content; where it became available, not as an evident manifestation or cause of socialism,” he wrote, “but rather as décor de la vie for Greenwich, Connecticut or as a suitable veneer for the corporate activities of enlightened capitalism.” Indeed, the International Style that premiered in 1932 at MoMA under Johnson and Hitchcock’s highly selective curatorial oversight had already been stripped down to its barest formal elements. Looking to revitalize revolutionary modernism, Reyner Banham thus declared in 1962: “Even when modern architecture seemed plunged in its worst confusions it could still summon up a burst of creative energy that gave the lie to the premature reports of its demise. Modern architecture is dead; long live modern architecture!”
Only a decade later, however, Charles Jencks calculated in his book on Post-Modern Architecture that it was possible “to date the death of Modern Architecture to a precise moment in time” (July 15, 1972 at 3:32 pm, with the detonation of Yamasaki’s much-maligned Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis). Today it is postmodernism that appears to be aging badly. But if postmodernism, which stood for “the end of the end” (Eisenman), is itself at an end, does this mean the end of “the end of the end”? Just another stop along the way in an endless cycle of endings? — Or might it portend the beginning of a modernist renaissance? This prospect could prove bleaker yet. “In architecture,” writes Owen Hatherley, addressing the issue of “post-postmodernism,” “typically postmodernist devices seem to have entered a terminal decline, as historical eclecticism and glib ironies have been replaced by rediscoveries of modernist forms — albeit emptied of political or theoretical content. But does this trend represent a break with postmodernism — or does it merely mark the arrival of the pseudomodernism of contemporary architecture?”
In light of these considerations, Platypus thus asks:
1. Where does architecture stand at present, in terms of its history? Are we still — were we ever — postmodern?
2. What social and political tasks yet remain unfulfilled, carried over from the twentieth century, in a world scattered with the ruins of modernity? Does “utopia’s ghost” (Martin), the specter of modernism, still haunt contemporary building?
3. How can architecture be responsibly practiced today? Is revolutionary architecture even possible?