Charles Jencks claimed that Modern Architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15 1972 at 3.32pm.
The event was the demolition of slab blocks in the Pruitt-Igoe housing scheme in Missouri. The death of so young a patient - the scheme was designed and won prizes only 21 years earlier - was shocking. (Though not as much as the death, 30 years later, of the same architects World Trade Centre). But can it be counted as marking the death of a whole movement?
This patient belonged to a particular category of Modern Architecture which grew out of theories about how to provide modern low cost public housing. When applied in the particular circumstances of reinforcing the black ghetto in mid-century Missouri all the by now well known shortcomings of the theories were exposed: lack of defensible space, maintenance and structural problems, lack of ready and safe access, broken lifts, vandalism, a sense of isolation for law abiding tenants and a gradual sinking into an irretrievable situation. The death of the Pruitt-Igoe scheme provided proof that a subset of modern ideas could not deliver what they promised; in the words of Philip Johnson
We were thoroughly of the opinion that if you had good architecture the lives of the people would be improved, that architecture would improve people, and people improve architecture, until perfectibility would descend on us like the Holy Ghost, and we would be happy for ever after. This did not prove to be the case
Shortcomings were recognised long before 1972 however; as early as 1929 the German architectural journal Deutsche Bauhutte published photographs of a Bauhaus-designed housing project in Dessau showing cracks, peeling paint and rusted fittings, and the Ronan Point disaster of 1968 in England sounded the death-knell for high-rise point blocks as a solution to public sector housing problems. More generally architects had already written about their dissatisfaction with Modernist ideas. Robert Venturi's 1966 book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture had called for architects to stop being intimidated by the puritanical language of orthodox Modern architecture. So July 1972 cannot be accepted as a reliable date for the death of Modernism, if it has died at all.
Jencks of course was not just announcing the death of Modernism but announcing the arrival of a new style using the name Postmodernism. Whether he was the first to use this term in the context of architecture is debatable, but there is no doubt that the term is now widely used, and some buildings which are thus described are distinctly different from others which would be labelled unarguably Modern. The differences are not just observable in the grand architectural projects but in the more mundane features of everyday townscapes. The Modern MacDonalds is built in the style that Rayner Banham called the teenage uniform of white walls and flat roofs and oversize windows, the Postmodern in the neo-vernacular, which picks up on the cupolas of the nearby Georgian church & the Edwardian Carnegie Library. One can easily pick pairs of buildings to show a complete break from Modernism, this would be a biased selection which ignores important trends and links.
Classical Modernism came to the fore in the aftermath of the First World War. The main principles of its early protagonists - the need for purity of form and function, and the need for transparency and honesty in materials - now seem to be almost wholly explicable as a reaction to the carnage and chaos of the war. The early theorists also made much of the need to get away from the over-ornate and heavily decorated styles, both interior and external, of the nineteenth century, which were, ironically in view of current attitudes to Modernism, seen as oppressive and belonging to the rich. Thus Modernism in its early manifestations was also associated with the political ideas, if not necessarily of Communism then with ideals of equality and dignity for the working classes. In the Bauhaus this early Modernism also reflected William Morris-type ideas of respect for craft workers and rather muddled ideas of integrating craft and industrial processes. Other strands of Modernism, especially the Italian Futurists, laid greater stress on the Machine Age, on the speed of the modern era and the need for architecture and building to reflect the new industrial techniques and materials.
The Modernist architectural program depended, aesthetically, on a return to simplicity: Architecture, wrote Le Corbusier, is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light. This desire to distil the subject to its essentials could be found in other fields at that time, for instance in the formalist project of mathematical philosophers such as Russell to distil arithmetic to its basic premisses. The Cubist experiments might also be seen as distilling art to a few basic forms, though underlying these experiments was the realisation that seeing and perception are complex, many-layered activities.
Thus the Modern movement in architecture could be seen to be related to, to be a part of, wider intellectual movements of the time, to be partaking of the zeitgeist. The problem with this kind of analysis is that it tends to select only those strands of the wider culture which fit the thesis. The painters of the time, apart from the Cubist experiment, were notable for their use of colour in often shockingly new juxtapositions, while the architects emphasised the use of a very restricted palette, white, grey or beige. Perhaps the Modernists were more influenced by the newer arts of photography and film, then purely in black and white.
The Postmodern is similarly seen to be part of the zeitgeist, particularly by Jencks who emphasises the links with the new movements in linguistics and semiotics, and by Venturi who looked to the influence of Pop art. One might also point to the new mathematical theories of chaos, the coming to the fore of biology, especially of molecular genetics, which emphasises diversity and variation as well as continuity, and to the growth of computers, which encourage variety by speeding up the communication of ideas, and allowing the analysis of data in all its variability rather than having to rely on abstractions such as the average man (a very nineteenth century idea which could be said to have influenced Modernist ideas about housing in particular). Colour has been allowed in to Postmodern architecture, reflecting the explosion of colour in film, television and the pigments available for textiles, paint and plastics. All these ideas are now seen as organic rather than abstract, which is another irony since the early Modern architects saw their art as organic rather than overly formal.
Theories however cannot in themselves predict the particular form of building which will take place, or rather the style which will be adopted. Pugin for example had ideas for the redesign of the city which are remarkably similar to Modernist ideas of planning, but his architecture could hardly be more different. Function, form, materials and construction, site and context provide more useful headings for analysing the differences between Modernism and Postmodernism.
Function, (or functionalism) seems to have acquired contradictory meanings. Sullivan said that Form follows function but Klotz expresses a common reaction when he talks about the obtrusive, meaningless uniformity that marks the functionalist boxes and cubes defacing mile upon mile of our environment, that is form regardless of function. The contradiction arises from the confusion between the function of parts (the materials and construction method) and the function of the building as a whole, or rather of its use. Of course the two cannot be wholly separated, but it is function of the whole which is being considered here.
During the 19th century many new functions emerged for which new types of building were needed - factories, railway stations, docks for example. Social changes - the expansion of the middle classes, the need for sanitary housing for workers, universal schooling, hospitals, the rise of huge and increasingly multinational corporations - meant traditional modes of provision needed to be rethought. Behrens, who taught Mies van der Rohe, Corbusier and Gropius, was the architect for AEG, responsible for imaginative early Modern functional solutions to the problems of factory design.
It was not until after World War II that Modernism, however briefly, became widely associated with uniformity. This was partly because of the great amount of reconstruction needed, combined with a belief in the power of planning, allied to the kind of linear mathematics that had worked so well in meeting both civilian and military needs during the war: City planning had become that strange mixture of ineffectual sociological analyses and implacable zoning in the words of Portoghesi. Modernist ideas had also by then become associated with a reaction against Nazism and it seemed as if everyone jumped on the bandwagon of a belief in the rightness of functionalist design. This led to a uniformity of glass and concrete towers (such as the north side of London's Victoria Street) and a confusion as to the function of buildings - Mies Lakeshore apartments with their glass curtain walls look like office blocks.
The desire to reintroduce some 'coding' of function in design is one of the developments that Jencks identifies as Postmodern. However in talking about 'dual coding'- speaking on one level to an elite who care about specifically architectural meanings and on the other to the public at large in their familiar language, he repeats the kind of arrogance of Modernism in presuming that architects are uniquely qualified to interpret the functional needs of others.
Classical Modernism uses a group of forms, mostly cubic and rectangular, but including cylinders and half cylinders, echoing Cézanne's remark that one must detect in Nature the cylinder, sphere and cone. In the case of Mies Barcelona Pavilion these were reduced virtually to planes. However early Modern buildings also referred to other forms, such as Behrens turbine factory in the shape of a rivet, and were not immune to playful conceits such as Loos' design for the Chicago Tribune - ideas now reminiscent of the irony associated with Postmodernism. Other buildings, especially in the 1930's had forms reminiscent of, and clearly influenced by, ocean liners. The forms of Wright's prairie houses, very horizontal and rectangular, have clear associations with vernacular form that is another feature of Postmodern design. Terry Farrel's design for the building now used by MI6, though clearly Postmodern, uses only Modernist rectangles and cylinders without the purity and proportionality of Modernism. Le Corbusier himself made use of the plasticity of concrete in the curved nun-like forms of the roof of the chapel at Ronchamp and even more dramatically at Chandighar. In form therefore there is no marked disjunction between Modernism and Postmodernism, not even in its most jokey manifestations such as hot dog stands in the shape of frankfurters.
In the 19th Century engineers had been responsible for masterpieces of iron construction such as the Crystal Palace, the Eiffel Tower and Paddington Station. These achievements were taken on board by the Modernists, but metal framing for buildings such as tall office blocks ran foul of fire regulations. Truth to materials was a tenet of Modernism honoured as much in the breach - Mies Seagram building uses steel I-beams as external decoration on top of the structural beams encased in concrete to meet the fire regulations. And although, to quote Banham In Paris in the early twenties it was possible to talk as if modern architecture had been caused by reinforced concrete many classics, such as the Villa Savoie, were merely rendered and painted over to look like concrete. Hitchcock however, writing in 1929, foresaw the frank Postmodern use of brick in Modern forms, once their traditional interpretation had been forgotten.
The use of metal and concrete frames allowed Modernists the freedom of non-load-bearing walls; modern types of glass allowed the invention of the picture window and the glass curtain wall and the freedom to construct windows which were integral to the wall, not an interruption to it. That these materials offered the potential for the mass-production of building parts in factories fuelled the dreams of cheap, functional machines for living in which proved so illusory. For a time the Modernists despised the use of expensive bronze and marble, though Mies van der Rohe was never averse to the use of such luxury materials in his projects.
Postmodernism has not been inspired by comparable revolutions in construction methods and materials, except possibly the coloured pipe. Postmodern architects continue to make use of the freedom of frame construction, without feeling the need to express the form, except in playful ways. Flexibility rather than mass production, in modern factory methods means that decorative features can be produced to order to give an individuality to Postmodern buildings which almost recreates what could be achieved by the hand-craftworkers beloved of Morris and the Bauhaus. Pigments for concrete are another method of trying to give a human face to new buildings.
Modern architecture could not have developed features such as large windows without the development of methods of making the internal temperature of buildings less dependent on the external climate. The need for ducting for air conditioning, heating and cabling, together with the lift mechanisms in tall buildings led to the development of another version of Modernist truth to form and function which led ultimately to the placing of these services as a form of skeleton on the outside of the building. High-tech buildings such as the Pompidou Centre are clearly in the Modernist tradition of truth to form, but are Postmodern in the wit and irony of the style.
Corbusier introduced the piloti as a method of integrating the building into the landscape, though when combined with tall buildings in towns this merely had an alienating effect. Modernism in cities is now generally associated with a disregard for the site and surrounding buildings - even whole town centres - and with dominance and oppression. Postmodernism is associated with a desire to respect the existing forms and language of buildings but does not always achieve this.
It is particularly ironic when Postmodern clashes with Modern and a building such as MI6 seems threatening, perhaps because we know its function rather than because of anything to do with its style. The Hindu temple at Neasden would be a perfect postmodern building were it not entirely authentic in purpose, design and mode of construction, everything except context.
So is there really a change from Modernism to Postmodernism? Hitchcock, writing in 1929, seems to have foreseen at least some of the features of Postmodernism, calling them natural developments of what he called the New Pioneers: he foresaw the rapid changes in the needs of large corporations, the change in the treatment of surfaces and the development of new kinds of ornamentation, particularly the use of colour - all except the emergence of neo-classicism. Modernism itself was never the concrete monolith it is now thought of being, and Postmodernism also consists of a plurality of styles: high-tech, neo-vernacular, the classicism of Quinlan Terry and deconstructionism. The buildings of Wright (even the Guggenheim), Lutyens and Mackintosh now seem more Postmodern than Modern. Even Jencks had to invent the term Late Modern to interpose between the two. In effect we cannot know now; the distinctions, if any, will depend upon what comes next, will be clear to those who can look back to Postmodern as well as back to Modern.
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