Lukacs on Modernism, Post-Modernism, and Developers

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.



Categories: Books, Historic Preservation, Modernism

9 replies

  1. Wow, no gray areas there. But I wonder what I would be; my husband and I have moved eight times in the 14 years we’ve been married, mostly around Mississippi. We’ve never owned a house. We lived in Pennsylvania for four years (moving twice). We’ve lived in two different dwellings for three years each, but usually we move to a new place once a year. I think technically that makes us boomers, but, though we left for a while (and will probably leave again), mostly we stay in this one state.

    I don’t know that our experience is terribly different from a lot of Americans, either; it’s how the country was settled even by the indigenous people. Really, isn’t it how every place around the globe has been settled? We are animals and many animals are migratory.

    I do like that last quoted paragraph in spite of myself. I understand Lukacs’s frustration with modern society, but that kind of selfishness and greed has been there from the beginning of humanity; it isn’t a recent development (pun intended).

    On another note that I’m sure many people have been over and over other places: I always find it funny when people lump Frank Lloyd Wright in with the Bauhaus and other modern movements. He railed against the International Style and proclaimed himself a prophet against it. He also can be seen as just a part of the Arts and Crafts movement, at least originally. But those of us who are his fans are often also fans of other modern styles like the International.

    I guess that brings me back to the beginning of my comment. Everything is fluid, nothing is black and white, and we can’t all be put into a box (though I’ll take a Le Corbusier glass box) and labeled– and I’m a cataloger!

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    • I’m glad you reacted to the strict dichotemy in the second paragraph. I almost didn’t include that quote because I just feel it’s too simplistic. I think lots of people fit into each category but at different times in their lives. I grew up in the same place all my childhood and have lived in Jackson for 13 years now in the same house for most of that time, but on the other hand, I enjoy wandering about and could see myself going through a “boomer” phase before settling back down in one place again. I think it’s a thought-provoking perspective, though, and that’s why I included it.

      And like you, I’m sure FLW is rolling in his grave every time he gets mentioned in the same sentence as Bauhaus or Mies–hate does not describe his feelings for those movements adequately. Tom Wolfe has a fun story–whether it’s true or not is irrelevant–about a brief encounter between FLW and I think it was Mies where FLW showed his utter contempt and drove off.

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  2. Yes, I remember that story; typical hilarious Wright. I need to reread that book now. I just finished reading The women / T. Coraghessan Boyle, nominally about Wright. Boyle is one of my favorite contemporary writers, but I hated this book. If it interests anyone I’ll tell you more.

    Now I’m going to ask a probably stupid question: are you familiar with James Howard Kunstler?

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    • I’m familiar with him, although I admit I’ve never read his books. I did read about him a few months back in a really interesting article in The New Yorker called “The Dystopians” about the various apocalyptic prophets out there preaching about the imminent demise of Western civilization. And of course he has a blog whose named I won’t mention here but it’s at http://www.kunstler.com. I actually agree with a lot of Kunstler’s view of post-WWII development, but I don’t think I’m a fellow traveler–can’t put my finger on it, but maybe it’s the smugness.

      I’ve never heard of Boyle, on the other hand. Why did you hate the book?

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  3. Boyle is an absolutely wonderful writer; his short fiction is often published in the New Yorker and other such periodicals. He has written several novels, three or four of which are about a historical personage; one is The road to Wellville about Kellogg and it was made into a movie some years back.

    Boyle lives in a FLW house, the George C. Stewart house in Montecito, CA. His latest book, The women, is about Wright through the women he was involved with. That’s fine and interesting, right? However, his narrator is a fictional Japanese architectural apprentice with Wright’s foundation; that part makes no sense and it’s made worse that this apprentice only “actually” knew one of the four women he’s writing about.

    I can understand being interested in and inspired to write about Frank, but this book didn’t cut it. I am partly prejudiced, though, by my usual love of Boyle’s writing. A favorite author and a favorite subject? Sounds like a match made in heaven.

    Kunstler reminds me of my husband with his sense of humor and his smugness and his ideas about society. I don’t know if I am exactly a fellow traveler, but I really appreciate a lot of what he says. He is a strong preservationist anyway. The most fun thing on his website and how I got to know about him is his feature “Eyesore of the Month.” Always entertaining despite being sometimes rather sad.

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    • I’ll have to pick up a Boyle book for my beach reading later this year. I always find that a conducive way to introduce myself to new writers. Last year, I read Shelby Foote’s novel Follow Me Down (my first of his novels), and loved it although it was very gothic. Also, Marianne Robinson’s Housekeeping which was incredibly creepy, but kept pulling me in. Neither have anything to do with architecture, however.

      I also take a grim delight in Kunstler’s Eyesore of the Month. Maybe we should do something like that on PiM . . .

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  4. If you want to I’ve got a few ideas …

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  5. Okay. We’ve already mentioned a certain monstrosity going up in downtown Jackson…

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