From Industrial to Artisan: Modernism’s Sleight-of-Hand

  • 17 Jul 2013
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Figure 1. On the left, mass-produced Art Nouveau silver jewelry box by P. A. Coon, 1908. On the right, hand-made Machine Aesthetic silver teapot by C. Dresser, 1879. Drawing by Nikos Salingaros.

This figure was published on April 2013 in the article “How Modernism Got Square” co-authored with Michael Mehaffy. It has been reproduced several times when reprinting the original article, and in essays by other authors who discuss our ideas.

And yet, the above figure subsequently re-appears with a new accompanying caption that completely reverses the facts and switches our original message. Well-meaning editors and authors chose the new caption “From Artisan to Industrial” (first here, and then again on ArchDaily), which conforms to the modernist orthodoxy on the evolution of historical design styles. They are in no way pushing (being interested instead in my criticism of modernist design): it’s simply that the dogma is so pervasive in our civilization that the mislabeling becomes automatic, a conditioned response.

Read more after the break…

Figure 2. Extremely expensive hand-made welded sculpture from the Bauhaus entitled “Nickel-Construction”. László Moholy-Nagy, 1921. No known function. Drawing by Nikos Salingaros.

To see our little joke, please note that the “machine aesthetic” teapot on the right was hand-made in 1879, i.e. about 30 years before the ornamented jewelry box. The Art Nouveau jewelry box, on the other hand, was mass-produced after the teapot. Thus, the canonical progression from artisan to industrial would absurdly seem to have gone backwards in time, and, in addition, the artisan/industrial labels are opposite from what they seem. I conclude that the official story is nothing but sleight-of-hand. In fact, what happened historically is that a substantial and healthy industry of mass-producing ornamented artifacts and utilitarian objects was killed off by a marketing takeover, not by the necessity of industrialization.

The “industrial look” furthermore represents a purely aesthetic choice, and has nothing to do with industrial production. Any reader can easily verify that the iconic but mostly useless Bauhaus and De Stijl sculptural artifacts were all expensively hand-made to conjure the image of a “machine aesthetic” (while much of their furniture is sadistically uncomfortable). But those objects were not in the least industrial: they actually replaced eminently practical mass-produced objects, as one aesthetic extinguished another in a totalizing manner. The typical apologists for Modernism are therefore completely wrong. The commonly-accepted rationalization comes from the Bauhaus, which, like most of its edicts, is pure propaganda, made up and not supported by truth of any kind.

What was the real purpose behind this substitution of aesthetics? I can only offer an opinion. (The writings of its primary perpetrators are not helpful, being self-serving alibis for their aesthetic prejudices: their deeds reveal a rather unpleasant truth that their words deny.) Around the turn of the 20th Century a handful of designers and architects turned vehemently against living structure and visual manifestations of life itself. Any geometrical expression of living form and its accompanying complexity were condemned to extinction. A cleverly devious pseudo-philosophical rhetoric convinced the public that becoming devotees of this ideological movement was essential for human progress; that it somehow represented manifest destiny.

Henceforth, the elimination of life from the environment came to be seen as a necessary condition to technological growth and development. Tragically, many people continue to religiously believe the shamelessly fabricated modernist progression “from artisan to industrial” to this day. This old marketing gimmick is taught as Gospel in architecture schools. People accept a phony logic debunked by documented events in design and industrial production. Worse of all, this propaganda is coupled to transparently false concerns for the poor and for social justice.

Figure 3. The Bauhaus Sled Armchair D42, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1927. Still being custom made in Germany: price on July 2013 ranges from US$ 2,100.00–2,290.00 each, or a pair for 3,850.00. Drawing by Nikos Salingaros.

This observation opens up further questioning that makes today’s designers and architectural academics extremely uncomfortable (just like sitting on a De Stijl chair). Everyone assumes that several generations of architects and designers addressed ethical and social concerns as a matter of course in conducting their profession. Similarly, academics are assumed to give scrupulous priority to truth about actual events and scientific discoveries. That did not happen, and nobody caught on.

Concocting a fictitious history of design covered up a far more somber action: the denial of human nature and biological nature itself. Design, in order to be truthful and useful to humanity, needs to accommodate both our anatomy and our neuro-physiological system. Uncomfortable utensils, furniture, and living spaces deny the former; whereas abstract, incoherent, ornament-shorn buildings and urban spaces deny the latter. Biological nature craves richly ordered structural information in our immediate environment, just as much as our neural system needs natural materials, patterns, and textures. Beginning with early modernism, all of this was proscribed, and contemporary designers continue to work strictly within that ideology.

Apple Computer’s designer Sir Jonathan Ive explains the problem neatly: “Our competitors are interesting in doing something different, or want to appear new. I think those are completely the wrong goals. A product has to be genuinely better … it’s not about … a bizarre marketing goal to appear different. [Those] are corporate goals with scant regard for people who use the product.” This quote from a 2012 interview applies to the Bauhaus’ remarkably successful marketing campaign, and underlines how we have to interpret modernist design from now on.

Figure 4. Willful and perverse denial of natural symmetries in contemporary architecture makes people uncomfortable. Drawing by Nikos Salingaros.

The early modernists apparently believed it was their special prerogative to falsify historical events and deny biological needs, all in the interest of promoting an ideological cause. In their own minds, their acts justified the pursuit of a geometrical aesthetic hostile to life, to the exclusion of all other concerns. That includes overlooking the common necessity for truth. By dropping their ethical obligations to clients and eventual users of their products, they single-mindedly pursued a fanatical (and in many aspects religious) goal. Those individuals felt driven by a higher principle absolving them from ethical obligations at the basis of any professional practice, which were in force before Modernism took over.

Finally, notice that mathematics itself was discovered and developed by our neuro-physiological system, thanks to the same mechanisms used for discovering and developing ornament and complex patterns. To deny the latter is to deny the former: modernism suppresses the intelligent neural and cognitive processes that give rise to mathematics. Sure, architects of every persuasion use mathematics to achieve their ends; however, by denying complex ordered information in the environment, modernist architects and designers reveal an anti-mathematical bias, and a fundamental hypocrisy about human nature itself.

What is truth in the design discipline? Several conditions come to mind. First, there is truth to historical facts and events, second, truth about verifiable phenomena, and third, mathematical truth. However, individuals and groups have often manipulated these aspects of truth in pursuing their own agendas. If we sometimes find today’s generation of practitioners disrespecting the above conditions for truth, this regrettable state of affairs seems to be inherited from the past century. I suggest that it’s not an accident, but an endemic condition arising from an inculcated way of thinking.

Mathematical truth has unfortunately been corrupted to give a fraudulent validity to modernist design. In mathematics, a verifiable sequence of steps links one statement with another in a system having internal logical consistency. The problem is that a true sequence can nevertheless link a falsehood to a result that is consequently misinterpreted as true, yet the truth of the result depends upon the truth of its initial assumptions. Modernism reversed natural geometries: it eliminated fractals, colors, textures, and insisted upon non-natural materials such as steel, glass, concrete. Modernism’s sleight-of-hand takes its unstated premise of denying living structure, and presents it quite logically as the “machine aesthetic”.

Discussing this topic risks generating some controversy, especially among those who have been brought up to believe unquestioningly in the liberating power of the “machine aesthetic”. People are reluctant to dispute a century-old diktat that has become established tradition. It is impossible to develop an honest foundation for design, however, as long as the profession is held back by old prejudices and practices that falsely link technological progress to the elimination of life.

Nikos Salingaros is the author of the essays “The Tyranny of Artistic Modernism” with Mark Anthony Signorelli, and “Reductionism Undermines Both Science and Culture” with Ramray Bhat. His most recent books are: “Twelve Lectures on Architecture: Algorithmic Sustainable Design” 2010, and “Unified Architectural Theory: Form, Language, Complexity. A Companion to Christopher Alexander’s ‘The Phenomenon Of Life, The Nature of Order, Book 1’” 2013. 

Cite: Nikos Salingaros. "From Industrial to Artisan: Modernism’s Sleight-of-Hand" 17 Jul 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 30 Oct 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=402877>
  • LAF

    This is the single most intelligent and illuminating article i’ve seen on Archdaily in 3 years. Please keep it up.

  • Charlie

    Won’t comment on the claims for mathematics which I’m sorry to say look like major pseudery: there is after all plenty of interesting maths in modernism (i.e. Xenakis). The mass production / artisan production issue is an interesting one, though.

    Yes, you can mass produce an ornamented consumer object. You can also hand craft a plainly styled consumer object. But all _buildings_, near enough, are one-offs. Therefore there is likely more labour in an ornamented building than in an unornamented one, even if it’s only the labour of the designer. The question is whether or not this labour is sufficiently rewarding for the labourer.

    The modernist take on this question, generally, is that time spent producing ornament is not as rewarding as other activities would be. The builders would probably rather just have more leisure, and the designer – if not wanting more leisure – would perhaps like to investigate something besides acanthus leaves, scrolls, etc.

    To see the force of the ethical argument here, consider the situation of a badly compensated pre-modern construction artisan. The expectation is of the highest standard of workmanship and detail, repeated endlessly, building after building, room after room. This is the only alternative to unemployment. There is no labour saving, there is no going home at five. When you do go home, it’s to a mean dwelling, because productivity in terms of completed buildings is very low. Is this a life you would like?

  • C. Martinsyde

    Frankly, and with due respect to everyone here involved…are we to seriously believe the claims of this article anymore than the claims of that which it decries?
    I do agree with Mr. Salingaros however, that the only true way forward is through complete education. This above the din of articles such as this, which are little more than propaganda (trailers) for a particular brand; and serve only to polarize an already too-political architectural discourse.

  • Daniel

    Mr. Salingaros- Who are you railing against? The current moment in design, not just architecture, is embarrassingly rich, a teeming sea of variety. Buildings are being erected, objects are being fabricated, works of art are being made, music is being written in such a dizzying variety of “styles,” that it’s hard to understand what exactly it is you’re complaining about. Where has this hegemony gone that you so bitterly despise?

  • Mike Greville

    EO Wilson begins his most recent book by describing ours as a ‘Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions and god-like technology’. So there is a disconnect between our emotions and the world in which we find ourselves, and in relation to this he has described the problems of modernist design in his previous books – pretty much the same problems as mentioned here – as they similarly have been by another environmental psychologist (to give him one of his hats), Steven Pinker. Except they also point to the fact that (attraction to) straight lines and planar surfaces do form a natural part of our primitive psychology (the one we still have, but which expects us to be living in a different world, one which is densely textured, green and leafy). [It is amusing to read the many responses to the to the proposal that there are no straight lines in nature – gravity, for one thing, tends to work in straight lines]. So the problem is less finely identified here; true to say modernism is an aesthetic style, but it is not right to suggest this is a bad ‘unnatural’ aesthetic. The problem of our world is scale, and this applies to the undecorated as the decorated (both teapots are fine, they’re small). To imply our attraction to nature comes from a conscious recognition of the mathematical (fractal) nature of it is asking the same thing the olde world modernists did, to consciously recognise the intellectual validity of their new white architecture in a world driven mad by war, dirt and disease. It may be a mistake, even though both form a perfectly accurate description of their worlds.