While we’re on the subject of unexpected architectural commentary, I recently discovered a short, but dense little book called The End of an Age by historian John Lukacs. Lukacs has written extensively about European history, especially World War II (having lived through it himself in his native Hungary before escaping from the Soviets to the United States). In The End of an Age, Lukacs argues that we are now in a transitional period at the end of the Modern Age or Age of Enlightenment and at the beginning of something new, we know not what. He compares our own sense of uncertainty and discontent with that of medieval man at the beginning of the Renaissance. I admit I’m still trying to think through all of his arguments, but I ran across this little tidbit about Modernism and Post-Modernism in his first chapter, also called “At the End of an Age,” which reminded me of Tom Wolfe’s assertions on the same topics (although in a much more concise way):
In architecture “modern,” after about 1895, amounted to anti- or non-historical, or to anti- or non-traditional. And “post-modern” architecture either does not exist or it is hardly more than a reaction against Bauhaus and Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier–but often only in bits of ornamentation and a few other smallish details. As in a few scattered examples in other arts, a reaction to the brutal senselessness of “modern” architecture has produced either further exaggerations of formlessness or little more than the partial application of a few historical or traditional esthetic styles here and there. If “post-modern” architecture and art are nothing more than reactions to post-1895 modernism, the term is inadequate and imprecise (41,42).
And in his very last chapter, “At the Center of the Universe” (the chapters in-between are quite difficult and deal with lots of physics, which–you may be surprised to note–was not my best subject), Lukacs sums up his argument by looking at the society around him and noting signs of transition and breaking down. One of those signs, in his opinion, is the rise of mobility and of developers.
There is a terrible restlessness all over the world at this time, a mass migratory restlessness probably without precedent, destructive of many places and things, and perhaps of civilization itself (a word and ideal that arose four hundred years ago, at the beginning of the Modern Age). About life on this earth Vico wrote, three hundred years ago, that the barbarian “learns to survive in nature but is incapable of making his home within it.” A foundation of civilization is the appreciation of permanent residence. The entire ideal of the home, and of privacy, was the creation not of the Middle but of the Modern Age. There may be a particular admonition in this for present-day Americans who divide, as Wallace Stegner put it, into “boomers, ‘those who pillage and run,'” and stickers, “those who settle and love the life they have made and the place they have made in it.”
That the pillagers are now called “developers,” that the many millions who exchange their dwelling places as frequently as their automobiles (and spouses) are called “homeowners” is but another evidence of the present corruption of language (215).
I’m not clear whether he thinks that developers are a recent phenomenon (they aren’t: they go back at least to the 18th century in England) or if he is saying that the scope of most developers’ work in recent decades has become so large as to be more destructive than not (I would possibly agree with this). Either way, I think it’s an interesting context in which to place preservationists; I assume, he would put us in with the “stickers” although there are preservationists who are also developers and there are preservationists who move from place to place and see no philosophical discrepancy.