Musings on Modern(ism)

Musings on Modernism

By David Barrett, FAIA

I’ve taken both the high road and the low road in these musings on modernism.

For a bit of humor, watch this 5-minute video that is my somewhat tongue-in-cheek late night rant at the Month of Modern Wrap Party. Depending on your political orientation, it’ll give you a chuckle.

On a more serious note, I have done quite a bit of thinking recently about what modernism is and isn’t and it comes down to this:

I can’t help but wonder at what point our love affair with “modernism” becomes a hindrance to discovering the new possibilities of modern design.

The appeal of mid-century modern was freedom from the constraints of prescriptive assumptions based in traditional dictums. It embraced the optimism of space over the constrictions of assembled, discreet rooms. It tore down the separation of the wall to connect the family in shared experience of home life, as well as the use of glass to minimize our separation from nature. It trusted in the promise of technology and the perception of unlimited fossil fuels, to condition and drive the gee-whiz systems and appliances in these thin membrane enclosures.

In the 50s, the American dream was clearly taking off as we dropped our guard, so necessary in the years of war and economic depression, and opened ourselves to an apparently predictable, controllable, prosperous future.

It is no wonder we are drawn to this romantic impulse that seems to be slipping away. It all was so hopeful and reassuring and expressive of our success in assuming control over the forces outside of us. Today’s modernists often are living in the relatively safe havens in affluent communities with the resources to live a life that is somewhat buffered from the realities of an unstable world. The dream of Le Corbusier’s “machine for living” seemed accessible, at least to the privileged.

So what of the mid-century dream serves us, and what is another creative limitation in responding to the realities of today?

Is real modern architecture derivative or, well, modern and creative? Is it a traditionally referenced end that we are seeking, or is it defining modern today?

My sense is that the easy way is to agree on “what is hip and cool,” and repeat ourselves in the safety of subcultural agreement. Why not, we might say, this is something I can look at from this past that attracts me, and my tribe. It allows me to assume a place in the club, and also protect my investment with a product that is currently appealing to the market.

At its shallowest, it is a style drawn from magazines, Houzz and Pinterest images. Like this year’s automotive model, it is all about style and self-definition by what I surround my body with.

I recently saw a wonderful film, Coast Modern, and was taken by a quote by architecture critic and historian Trevor Boddy who put this current interpretation of “modern” into a frame that resonates with my own observations:

“So I guess the disappointment for me, in modernism, is that it did become about acquisition and just sort of showing this wonderful house that you had, as opposed to maybe some of the earlier ideals of modernism. I think the most deadly syndrome these days is preciousness. Things are a little too clean, a little too nice, a little too buffed. It’s almost like the only permissible bodies are perfect bodies and that everything else is a failure. Well, we’ve got a lot of aerobically shaped houses these days. They spend a lot of time in the gym. They pump supplements like crazy, but they’re heartless. They have no character. You walk through them and you can’t remember where you are. They could be anywhere and everywhere.”

Now I don’t want to come across as stodgy, or stuck in the romance of the past – quite the opposite. My call is not to return to the past, but to learn from the tenets of the modern masters, and then move the art form forward. To be modern is to be free to create in today’s realities, to honor where we are, be it environmentally, culturally, socially, or economically. It asks us to know and understand our place in all of this and interpret and invent out of this context. The nature of modern design should be freedom from the rules and images imposed by the past, or from the overwhelming onslaught fed to us by the myriad of media forms at our fingertips.

Personally, I think we also need to honor and give encouragement to our humanness.

My sense is we are still in a transition with the technologies that can distance us from real experience personal interactions, and the imperfections of living life authentically. Just as we can use a little room to try, fail, improvise and learn, so do we need to let our living environments do the same. This is choosing “the living” over “the machine.” We can be truly modern without giving up on our human propensities to leave tracks and even age gracefully.

Let’s keep it real!