The Return of Modernism

All this has happened before, and will happen again.

At least that’s what I’ve learned from 4 seasons of Battlestar Galactica, along with lots of impenetrable mythology.  So, I shouldn’t be surprised that Modernism has come back around. To me, the resurrection of Modernism is in direct relation to the decline of Preservation as a movement. Many fellow preservationists have been disturbed to notice for these last few years at least the growing disconnect between preservation and mainstream America. I first noticed it in shows on TLC and HGTV that purported to be renovating houses when, in fact, they were simply gutting them, ripping out perfectly good chunks of the house in favor of the latest “It” color in granite. This is the essence of the philosophy of Modernism: the individual asserts his will over all his surroundings, recognizing no value in those surroundings apart from himself; tradition or history have no place other than simple nostalgia; new is better, newer is best.

While this philosophy has been distributed in almost every media outlet possible, preservation has been rolling along with its usual routine and standard answers, which used to inspire people and show them a different way, but now, frankly, have become a bit stale. It hasn’t been a fair match for a while, and with the Stimulus Package upon us, I think we may be in for a repeat of the Urban Renewal era when huge infrastructure projects remade both city and country and history got left in the dust. Preservationists have assumed we learned from the first Urban Renewal, but we were wrong. What goes around comes around, or so they say.

The philosophy of Modernism goes against all that I believe about life, the universe, and everything, but to my mind, there’s a pretty large distinction between the grand philosophy that purports to explain the world apart from religious or cultural tradition and the architectural and industrial designs that we call “Modern.” It shouldn’t be that hard to separate the two: I don’t have to be an Anglo-Catholic to love Gothic Revival buildings; I don’t need to love France to love French pastries. And truth be told, most of the architects (in Mississippi at least) who designed what I consider to be landmarks of the Modern, or International Style–or whatever style you want to call them–actually came from the classical tradition of design. They knew about proportion and scale and the classical orders, and that knowledge made them able to bend the rules and design buildings that made people think about architecture in a new way, and I love that (Faulkner did something similar in literature–hey he was a Mississippian, wasn’t he?!).

I don’t love the radical re-development or the tearing apart of cities with interstates, or destroying poor-but- functioning neighborhoods in the name of social engineering–all these things are part of the baggage of Modernism. But the vast majority of architects who designed in the Modernist mode didn’t do all those things or maybe even agree with them, so why should the entire period from 1935 to 19whatever be consigned to the scrap heap–surely we’re all grown up enough to take a second look? As I’ve said before, the clean angularity of most Modern design has become restful for eyes that have grown used to the overblown McMansions and Postmodern ironic statements that line our suburban streets and highway–similarly, the Arts and Crafts Movement sought to go in the opposite direction of the earlier Victorian styles that had become so ostentatious as to be ridiculous (but don’t most architecture-lovers today enjoy both the Queen Annes and the Craftsmans?)

I started thinking about this when I read Clem Labine’s blog at Traditional Building, specifically his post that asks Is It 1968 Again?  Of course, Mr. Labine is rightfully revered in the preservation world–founder of The Old-House Journal and Traditional Building, among others, he’s a living legend. He doesn’t like Modernism, and he is disturbed at its comeback as a philosophy. I am too. We both agree on the meaning of that comeback to preservation as a movement or philosophy.

But he also doesn’t like Modern design, and I guess there I have to disagree. The photograph on his post shows a new rowhouse infilled on a block of traditional brownstones. It’s a very modern piece of design and I can see his point about it not fitting in with style of the rest of the buildings on the street. Here’s why I do like it: first, I presume since it was infill that it was filling a gap in the street, so instead of representing a tear-down (which I would hate of course) it represents new life on the street, which is a good thing; second, it seems to be made of real materials, is solidly built, and shows thought; third, it does fit in with the scale of the street–whoever the owners are clearly love living amongst historic buildings, while also clearly loving the Modern style of their own house; finally, yes, it draws attention to itself, but in a block of sameness, even traditional sameness, why isn’t that ok? Why does “preservation” and love of history always have to equal “not Modern-style”? To a generation that grew up after Modernism (those of us born in the 1970s all fit into that camp, and hey, we ain’t no spring chickens anymore, you know?), Modernism represents our history. It represents my grandparents furniture (which I now have and love). It’s part of our Tradition. So, back to the new infill; I like it–I wouldn’t like the rest of the block to be torn down to build other houses like it, and I definitely wouldn’t like the whole world to be so angular and stark, but it’s not overbearing, the scale is right, and in its context its quirky. Sue me for liking quirky.

So, to sum up whatever I’ve just said, Modernism is back; Modern design is (kind of) back. I choose (good) Modern design; I reject Modernism. I don’t believe that Modern design must always be opposed to Traditional design. Preservation as a movement needs to accept that the history of architecture is what it is, come to terms with it, and decide what it thinks is worthy to preserve and protect from all eras. We can’t afford to keep talking only to those who agree with us and shunning people who do love the designs of the second-half of the 20th century. And we must realize that in order to talk to my generation and the generation behind me (who are already reaching adulthood, by the way), we need to accept that their history is important to them and that many of them (including me) love both Modernist and Greek Revival buildings and see no contradiction in that.

Urban Renewal may be happening again, Modernism is happening again, nothing is new under the sun, and the sooner we as preservationists accept that reality, the sooner we can get back in the fight.

Categories: Demolition/Abandonment, Historic Preservation, Modernism, Recent Past, Urban/Rural Issues

4 replies

  1. Hey there!! Just wanted to tell you what a great post this was. It really made me think. yes! * gasp* I had a thought! While I don’t really love the look of modern architecture It isn’t all bad if it is well thought out and not destructive of the character around it. Not as eloquently written as your post ( I swear by the time I was born all the brains in the family had been given out. ) but i get what you are saying. Anyway I have added your blog to my list of blogs to read.



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