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The world that Modernism was born from is no longer a world that we recognize, yet Modernism - as a style and a philosophy - still dominates so much of architectural discourse today. At its brightest the movement's original utopian ideals still shine through, and the appreciation for simplicity and material still forms a hold on the popular consciousness of much of the world. But after nearly a century since the founding of the Bauhaus, the Chicago Tribune Competition, and the publication of Le Corbusier's Vers Un Architecture, many of the most basic principles of Modernism have come into question, and its most controversial contributions are being re-evaluated. How can we understand Modernism now, and how should we use it?
Where did Modernism come from?
Given that Modernism was such a stark departure from what came before, one would think that it would be relatively simple to find the point where it began and when it became accepted: simply look for the white box. However, Modernism is inextricably bound up in precursor styles.
Though it is possible to regard any number of buildings - even as far back as Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace of 1851 - as the origin of Modernism, the designer of the AEG Turbine Factory in Berlin Peter Behrens is perhaps as close to the grandfather of Modernism as you can get. Not only was Behrens' Turbine Factory of 1909 a significant early departure from conventional architecture, in 1910 his studio counted the Modernist legends Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius among its young employees. His association with industrial design and clear lineage with later, more radical designs helped form the DNA of early Modernism:
The Bauhaus School of Design, founded by Behrens’ former employee Walter Gropius in 1919, marks the point where proto-Modernism made a clear departure from the romantic-influenced styles of the nineteenth century. Articulating an entirely new philosophy of design, the Bauhaus’ early success in post-World War One Germany and later dispersion across the West in the 1930s formed and spread Modernism as a distinct identity:
Other stirrings of Modernism can be traced back to the 1922 Tribune Tower competition in Chicago. Although the winner of the competition was a Neo-Gothic building by John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood, the Tribune Tower Competition marked an important point in Modernism's acceptance - not only for the daring Bauhaus-influenced designs of Walter Gropius, Adolf Meyer and Max Taut, but also for the quieter, stripped-down Modernism of Eliel Saarinen and Ralph Walker, the preferred design of many who commented on the competition at the time.  In the United States at least, it was the latter design which would go on to define the early twentieth century skyscraper, thanks to the influence of Walker:
First appearances are only part of the story, however: the spread of acceptance outside of Manhattan and how Modernism conquered America is just as important, as this article by Marni Epstein argues. Taking the intervention of the Great Depression as a starting point, Epstein maps out three high profile competitions as mini case-studies of Modernism’s acceptance in pre-World War Two America:
And despite a relative lack of acceptance and high-profile commissions for Modernist designers in the late 20s and early 30s, Modernism was evolving intellectually. In 1932, curators Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock staged arguably the most important architecture exhibition in history, coining the "International Style" label and presenting Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and J.J.P. Oud to a wider audience:
How did Modernism evolve from its early forms?
1932’s International Exhibition brought a whole new form of Modernism to the plate, characterized by simple geometry and surfaces. The exhibition showed styles that were fundamentally different to the stripped back masonry structures that were typical of early American Modernism. The exhibition brought the style - and the architects behind it - to international attention and tied them into one style; something that informed the development of Modernism long afterwards.
But while Johnson and Hitchcock's exhibition presented Modernism as primarily an aesthetic style limited to individual buildings, modernist architects were still busy defining the social and political goals that underpinned Modernism. One year later, the fourth Congres Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne published the Athens Charter, a document containing revolutionary urban planning philosophies that would later go on to dictate city planning across the globe. The Athens Charter was a key turning point in establishing the philosophies of Modernism for nearly half a century, but as carefully noted by Daniel Weiss, Gregor Harbusch and Bruno Maurer, this document was not as unanimously accepted by the members of CIAM as it was portrayed:
So, was Modernism a purely American and European movement?
The intervention of the Second World War changed the shape of Modernism and especially Modernism’s politics, but also presented Modernism with an unparalleled opportunity to shape the fabric of the world’s cities in a manner potentially unmatched by any previous style. The all-encompassing design of Bauhaus and urban planning of CIAM combined to form a Modernism that was pragmatically utopian, adaptable to any “progressive” ideology around the world.
Immediately following the war, the position of the UK - less damaged, but in perhaps the best position to rebuild of all the European countries - provided Modernism with one of its first opportunities to exercise influence on a large scale, an arrival charted in this article by Simon Henley:
But in the post-war era, countries outside the West were as important - arguably more so - in the continuing implementation and development of Modernist principles. The Soviet Union’s relentlessly “progressive” outlook on the world proved particularly well suited to all kinds of Modernism, as the Revolution of 1917 created the clearest break with nineteenth century traditions anywhere in the world. The immediate, radical and revolutionary implementations of a type of proto-Modernism in the USSR provided a solid foundation for future developments there, all expressed through a similarly modernistic, progress-centric narrative:
Ross Wolfe’s analysis of the Soviet Union’s architecture provides a good understanding of the more modernistic (or even post-modernistic) approach to architecture inherent in the Soviet Union’s development, but it was the post-war period that produced the most proudly and purely modernistic architecture. With utopian goals aligning with the Soviet narrative and mass production promising to solve the ever-present Soviet housing crisis, the architecture of the 1960s and 1970s, as here analysed through the lens of Kiev, informed construction and development across the non-Western world for decades:
Africa, emerging from colonial rule during the same eras and eager to mark out distinct national identities, also produced modern architecture often left out of discussion and forgotten by their respective countries today, as this exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum noted:
Also often left unexamined by criticism is Arab Modernism, despite the still controversial legacy of philosophies of Arab Nationalism bound up in the modernist project and anti-imperialism of the 1960s and 70s or the earlier attempts by colonial powers to modernize these states in the shape of Europe, something examined in the 2014 Venice Biennale:
Is this forgotten today?
The legacy of Modernism in areas other than Europe and North America was a topic that the 2014 Biennale examined in detail, as Avinash Rajagopal’s article shows:
“Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014”, the theme chosen by Rem Koolhaas, is one that allows for the changing memory of Modernism and evolving perceptions of Modernism around the world to be shown. The rise of postmodernism in the 1980s ended Modernism's direct influence as a movement within architecture, but the modernist philosophy is still one that wields tremendous influence over contemporary styles and figures, and is an influence that still filters into huge amounts of the popular consciousness.
So what relevance is historical Modernism now?
The totality of Modernism compared to previous styles still owed much to the movements that came immediately before it - the mass production and commercialization of Art Nouveau, for example - but was unparalleled in reach across the media. The way that Modernism seeped into the emerging mass media in the middle of the 20th century still reverberates today, as vast numbers of people live, work and travel in cities literally shaped by and decorated with Modernism and even the most unliked forms of modern design are now spurring debate over preservation.
Perhaps most prominently, Modernism has seen exposure in the media in the form of television and cinema - but over time its presentation has changed significantly. As shown by Charlotte Neilson, cinema has long associated Modernism with supervillains, but in recent years this attitude has been inverted:
Similarly, Vanessa Quirk uses Mad Men to delve into Modernism’s hold on the popular consciousness, summarizing the way Modernism is continually invoked and referenced in contemporary mass culture to form a wider argument about our collective nostalgia for the modernist era:
On the flip side, the interaction of mass media and Modernism wasn’t limited to depictions of Modernism. Modernism’s crisp lines were combined with mass culture to create Googie; a style that brought futurism to commercial architecture and a form of mass adoption and acceptance that heralded Modernism's true arrival as the contemporary style. Modernism, especially in North America, held an influence that could dictate the way lives were lived:
Heavyweights including Le Corbusier himself also had a tremendous impact on domestic architecture at both the micro and macro level. For example, Le Corbusier’s contribution to house design in South California is often overlooked in favor of his more prestigious personal work, but these indirect influences are arguably just as important to his legacy:
Zoom out, and Le Corbusier’s profoundly modernist influence on urban planning defined huge swathes of construction in New York, despite never building there himself:
Zoom out one step further, and Le Corbusier’s Modernism could dictate entire cities, as in the Punjab capital of Chandigarh, a city whose layout and civic buildings he designed from 1950. Dr. Vikramāditya Prakāsh's explanation of the way the city works and was designed against the Himalayan mountains provides an insight into the modernist city as envision by figures like Le Corbusier:
However, Prakāsh’s analysis also demonstrates the threat hanging over modernist design from 21st century development. Utopian dreams tend to become dated the fastest, and Modernism was little exception, with much of Modernism’s later contributions facing the wrecking ball in rapidly developing areas of the world and booming western cities. The heavy use of concrete, associations with more troubled times in the 1970s and a generally poor public perception have all contributed to the decline and loss of many modernist structures. Recently though, opinions have been shifting and post-war Modernism may be coming in from the cold, as argued by Carlos Harrison’s explanation of architectural trends and summary of recent developments:
Is modernism being rehabilitated?
This recent rehabilitation of modernist design doesn’t mean that the movement has avoided criticism, of course. The long-standing postmodern criticism has given way to new forms of dissent and new angles of attack, as well as a more nuanced view of both Modernism's virtues as well as failings. Neo-modernists can point out the internal flaws of the original modernist principles while others argue for an abandonment of the parts which they believe are holding architecture back, which postmodernism failed to dislodge.
The increased breadth of time has also led to a much greater understanding and analysis of modernist methods to join the theory: materials and techniques that can be used and adapted.
More critical reassessments of Modernism start from modernist principles but find problems in their practice. Here Chris Knapp finds that pre-fabricated construction has never lived up to the promises of the modernist era, pointing out its unpopular reception and frequent structural problems. Even if these could be overcome by modern technology, Knapp argues that newer ideas about individualized design allow for incorporating the best of prefab architecture while holding more architectural promise:
While Knapp goes for concrete, Annabel Koeck questions glass. Beginning with an analysis of Snøhetta’s The National September 11 Memorial entry pavilion and the way it uses curtain walling against a background of more curtain walls, Koeck questions whether the ubiquity of curtain walls as influenced by Modernism and the International Style aren’t stifling diverse architecture, especially in booming cities:
AJ Artemel, meanwhile, goes straight for the modernists themselves, attacking what he sees as a hypocritical veneration of Modernist titans, such as Le Corbusier, to the detriment of innovative architecture:
But for some, questioning the internal logic of Modernism simply isn't enough. Taking up a Neo-Traditionalist viewpoint, Nikos Salingaros has spent a large proportion of his career assessing Modernism in relation to the traditional movements it fought against, arguing to dispel the idea that we are unable to return to pre-modernist architecture and promoting a rediscovery of the ideas left behind by Modernism: natural symmetry, mathematical proportions and ethical obligations:
Neo-traditionalists in particular have presented a significant backlash to contemporary architecture in recent years, taking issue with the stylistic principles which, despite originating decades ago and surviving the onslaught of Postmodernism, still predominate in architecture. However other more balanced critics have been able to appreciate the methods used by Modernisms master practitioners, as in ArchDaily’s Material Masters series:
- Bart Lootsma "Equivocal icon: The competition design for the Chicago Tribune tower by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer," in Bauhaus: A Model, 2009. Reprinted on The Charnel House, 2014.