The problem with the conventional narrative of modernism in architecture is its insistence on rupture and discontinuity, its reductive formalism and its inability to engage with the concrete realities of modernization. The other arts quickly recovered from their revolutionary fever. In fact, few painters departed entirely from figuration and other means of connecting to the history of art. The image of architecture, however, at the beginning of the 21st century is still informed to a surprising degree by the avant-garde formalisms of the early 20th century.
The post-modern turn of the 70’s and 80’s ignited an interest in the history of architecture and in the continuity of the city. It also began to erode the myth of the monolithic modernism of the international style, with the rediscovery of figures like Loos and Plečnik, whose work cannot be understood within the narrow precepts of accepted modernism. This turn proved to be short-lived, and within a decade neo-modernism became the hegemonic manner of a new and unprecedented global architecture. It was as if the abstraction and consequent lack of engagement of this architecture was the perfect expression of globalization. What has been most damaging for the culture of architecture, is this convention narrative of modernism’s ability to emasculate much richer and more engaged forms of modern architecture. It has the miraculous ability to sell and to resell the same forms as being dynamic, year after year, in situations that are anything but radical. Like the free market, this narrative has lead to an architecture without quality, that can be built without consequence.
Sullivan, Wagner, Loos, Plečnik, Perret are not proto-modernists who are only interesting because of what comes after them. They are significant for the modern architecture that they made. Louis Sullivan’s work did not anticipate an austere architecture shorn of ornament. His great achievement was to transform technical facts and an impoverished commercial program into a magnificent American architecture, one that was imbued with the spirit of a wild new continent, at the same time as lending a civilizing, urban quality to the world’s fastest growing city. Adolf Loos was not significant because the back of his Villa Steiner anticipates the striped sterometric volumes of the international style a decade later. His houses and his apartments fit the lives and ambitions of his clients perfectly. They did not require specially made slippers to negotiate steep ramps. They did not have to adopt rigorous training regimes to meet the strenuous demands of their architect and his buildings. Auguste Perret was a great constructor and an accomplished urbanist, whose achievement across the whole of the architectural discipline makes the efforts of the modernists look like the uncertain first steps of toddlers. He was a great modern architect, who could handle technology incidentally, and not just the guy who Le Corbusier chose as his master.
I’m interested in reclaiming the English Arts and Crafts, the Chicago School, the Wagner-Schule, the Paris of Perret and Pouillon, the Milan School, and other so-called peripheral figures for a modernism of realism, a modernism of continuity, and a modernism that has the capacity to be socially and physically engaged.
Prerequisites: A Legend by Hans Kollhoff; an essay in Miroslav Sik: And Now the Ensemble! by Adam Caruso
The fact is that architecture will end up being more reserved the more disparate the individual identities that it is to represent. With increasing social divisions, potential conventions begin to lose their sharp profiles. The urban architecture of the pluralistic society is not that of formal diversity, but rather of formal reduction.
In order that this reduction does not devolve into impoverishment – into the boredom that Schinkel found it so urgent to avoid – urban architecture needs only look back on its own tradition. The antique city – that of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, that of the Baroque and Neoclassical periods, and also that of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – followed a formal convention that was perceived not as a burden but quite the opposite: as a canon of beauty and privilege. Residing behind the regular façades of Milet, Siena, Florence, London, or Paris were not oppressed persons or conformists, but rather a motley assortment of citizens of differing provenance and personality. The canon to which they voluntarily submitted when building (which was zealously guarded by their communities) did not attest to a lack of character; it was a sign of shared responsibility and community pride.
The Individual, Society, and the Architecture of the City by Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani; an essay in Miroslav Sik: And Now the Ensemble! by Adam Caruso