It’s easy to feel jaded about modernism. What started as a radically rational and analytical approach to design - one not beholden to the architectural traditions of place or history - has become a smokescreen behind which designers and developers alike can hide. The language of logic (genuine or not) is a shield against criticism and satisfies questions about the bottom line. The border between minimalism and a value-engineered bare minimum has been blurred to the point of invisibility.
But modernism came out of a great excitement and joy for the future. Technological innovations solved not just problems of industry but made even leisure easier and faster. With new solutions popping up every day, the future must have seemed almost impossibly bright. And it was available for all. Modernism was the embrace of a placeless empire to which we were all granted citizenship. Designs were as big and grand as the future we could envision for ourselves.
Paul Rudolph, the American modernist best known for his Brutalist structures, never saw his great vision for the Lower Manhattan Expressway realized. But to celebrate what would have been his 100th birthday, designers Lasse Lyhne-Hansen and Philipp Ohnesorge revisited the project, using published sketches and texts to model and render the massive project that would have altered New York entirely.
“LOMEX Revisited” places the Lower Manhattan Expressway project in an alternate modern universe, seeking to “search for the beauty in this hated, unbuilt masterpiece.” The project was quashed by efforts led by urban activist Jane Jacobs (a fate that even Rudolph himself supported). While the failures of similar massive urban projects suggest that, had it been built, it would not have been successful - but the imagination and excitement feel almost palpable.
Indeed, this sense of optimism is ultimately what defines the profession today. Design always yearns toward a better future, no matter what form it (or the future) takes. In an interview published this week with architect Jürgen Mayer H., the architect spoke of his own interpretation of this optimism, explaining that “...I see my projects as lenses through which surrounding context is looked to see something new. Architecture is a catalyst, which is not a background to an everyday life, but something that provokes you to rethink spatial conditions.”
The interview challenges the designer to reflect on his role as an ‘icon architect’ - a movement that, while popular in the early years of the millennium, now seems to be fading in favor. But is criticizing form/iconicity just misdirection? Is the problem one of geometry or approach?
Perhaps there's something to be found in the methods we use to work today. Programs are designed not to accommodate iteration, but to get architects from concept to documentation as fast as possible. Does it need to move so quickly?
In an article published originally with CommonEdge, Michael Crosbie spoke of the power the daily sketch and why it's so important to architecture today. There's a terror in the looseness of the sketch - a terror made more palpable by the fact that it's so easy to produce things that appear polished. Sketching is an admission of incompletion and lays bare the process of architecture. In a sketch, modernism and classicism alike are reduced to impressions. It's not geometry that matters but the experience.
Wasn't that always the most important part?