Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"Modern, Post Modern and the Intervention of the Effete" by Christopher Charles Benninger, Architect.

The spirit of a piece of architecture is the spirit of continuity:

each work is an answer to the proceeding ones; each work contains all of the previous experiences of the world of architecture! But the spirit of our time is firmly focused on a present that is so expansive and profuse that it shoves the past off of our horizon and reduces time to the present moment only. Within this system a building is no longer a work of art, or what the French would call an “oeuvre.” It is no longer a thing made to last or to connect the past with the future. It is just one current event among many, a gesture with no tomorrow. This is the situation of an effete society, with effete architects producing an effete collection of meaningless objects that belong to no one, contribute to nothing and add nothing to the future. It was due to the modern project, due to the emergence of modern architecture as an aesthetic and social movement, that the thinking community of architects grasped an image of themselves. Having a vision of their place in history, a mission came to light allowing architects to take control of their art, their lives and their destinies. The words that follow attempt to put this phenomena within the perspective of time and of history.


Modern is a commonly used adjective employed to describe many things. What does it mean? In architecture we all know of the “modern movement” and we have heard of “modern architecture.” Without really knowing what modern architecture is, we have heard of “postmodern” and we really don’t know what that means either

If we don’t know what these movements are all about it probably means we are designing in a vacuum? Hopefully some kind of rationalist logic is guiding our work toward the creation of functional and livable buildings. Hopefully we are learning from our contextual tradition how to solve problems that we encounter in our day to day problem solving.

But most young architects are lured by magazines and journals and the media into designing “for the press.” We see spectacular building stunts on television and in the newspapers, and we think, “Can we ever create something like that?”

In the argument that follows I am arguing that we are all barking up the wrong tree. We, in effect, don’t know what we are doing. Instead of using our brains and thinking things out logically we are in effect looking at PAGE THREE, the social news, in order to decide on the clothes we will wear, as if life is some huge fashion ramp, and as if we will be judged by the outrageous costumes we will wear. All of us want to be modern, as opposed to “traditional”, we want to be liberal as opposed to conservative and we do not want to be left behind by history. In my argument I am stating that being “modern” is not just being different for the sake of being different, but that we have to be a part of a value system, have a vision, know our mission, and set an agenda around these. We are architects, not a political party! Our agendas and visions are evolving and each of us has to set our own agendas and confirm our own values through work. Thus, this dialogue is not a prescription, but a “sifting of ideas” so that each one of us can settle into our own comfort zone of who we are and what we want to be in this great profession. I feel it is important that we start with a discussion of what the word “modern” means to us.

American Modern
In America the word modern means the “latest”, something new or contemporary! There is a tinge of the innovative, or of a discovery. But it may just imply a style, fashion or the way something is packaged. It could be a “new look,” or just the “in thing!” Each year the American automobile industry changes the style of each car and these are rolled out with great fanfare as if the last year died and the New Year’s birth is a world event. On the other hand European and Japanese auto manufacturers go on making little by little improvements, but the body of each car, its style, year to year, looks the same. In fact they may involve more unseen improvements in the technology that what is taking place behind the “new body” of the American car. In a consumer market what is seen is what is purchased! Fashion shows have models walking the ramp, showing off preposterous costumes, just to grab attention. Strong boys are wearing little bikinis and emaciated thin girls are looking bored, sashaying in huge outfits on the ramp. But this is the game of style and we are all supposed to play.

Architecture is a more serious craft. Once built, we can not just throw our designs into the washing machine, or give them to a poor aunt. Our efforts will be around for some time. Perhaps the word “contemporary” is a bit kinder as it may refer to the era in which we are living and building, its technology, and its social structure, modes of production and machine processes.

American “modernism” deserves a close look. Most Americans carry with them the luggage of a foreign culture. They want to keep the good things and throw out the trash. They want to free themselves from the bondage of the past traditions and redesign themselves and be “free!” Perhaps it is this parting with tradition and it is the exploration of self that makes American modernism attractive.

European Modern
“Modern” in Europe defines an age, or an era. In the sciences and philosophy the work of Galileo and Descartes tempered the birth of the “modern” age. God, testaments and religion were replaced by empirical observation and scientific axioms. It was now mankind that declared the truths of the world. Having its roots in Greek philosophy, the modern European spiritual identity found itself immersed in questions to be answered. It interrogated the world, not in order to satisfy any particular practical need, but because the “passion to know had seized mankind.” Man desires a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished as he has an innate and irrepressible desire to judge before he understands. Religions and ideologies are founded on this desire. This “either-or” encapsulates an inability to tolerate the essential relativity of things human, an inability to look squarely at the absence of the Supreme Judge. This makes the wisdom of uncertainty hard to accept. The modern European novel is the journey of this narrative from a closed traditional society into one or relativity and uncertainty. As God slowly departed from the seat whence he had directed the universe and its order of values, distinguished good from evil, and endowed each thing with meaning, Don Quixote set forth from his house into a world he could no longer recognize. In the absence of the supreme judge, the world suddenly appeared in its fearsome ambiguity; the single divine truth decomposed into myriad relative truths parceled out by men. Thus, was born the Modern Era. The thinking self, according to Descartes, is the basis of everything and thus one has to face the world alone! This anoints a heroic attitude on man’s personality. Cervantes takes this further making each individual face the world of uncertainty; to be obliged to face not a single absolute truth alone, but to deal with many contradictory truths. One’s only certainty in this conundrum is the wisdom of uncertainty. “I think, therefore I am!”

Modern Architecture
Modern architecture emerges out of our times. But how young is modern architecture. Surely Paxton’s Crystal Palace created in 1851 was young! And the Watt and Bolton’s spinning mills in the first decade of the Nineteenth Century were new and dynamic! What about the Eiffel Tower, or the Galleries des Machines built in 1889? All of these are “modern architecture” not because they are “new”, or because they are “contemporary”, but because they address the modern human condition and the social and economic era in which they were conceived. They are “modern” because they express themselves through technologies that did not exist prior to their realization. Perhaps technology is the key to their claim to being modern. All of these structures are a counter-blast to the fake, and false plaster of Paris Neo-Greek, Neo-Egyptian, neo-Spanish Colonial and Neo-Roman buildings that were cluttering cities in their times. Buildings in Europe looked like one thing on the outside, but were something different on the inside. Even today, the mercantile architecture of our times makes up 99 percent of our urban landscape. These false, untrue and effete statements are a travesty to our intelligence and taste. Maybe the people also look different on the outside from what they are within? Maybe they seem to be what they are not! Thus modern architecture lies in the fault line between seeming and being; it creates an inbetween space between lies and truths. Out of this chasm emerges an agenda which characterizes “modern architecture.”

*. Thus modern architecture has a three tiered agenda:
*. The fight against the lie of effetism!
*. The search for improvements in the human condition!
*. The employment of technology for the human good and for beauty!
About fifty years ago, around 1970, the history of architecture began to stagnate into a stasis, while this hibernation was anointed with a label of postmodern. It seems all of the concerns of the modern movement were just forgotten in a long sleep which engulfed the minds of architects. A French movement in literary criticism and philosophy became the opiate infusing illusions into the great art! Like the impact of the Ecol des Beaux Arts in the late nineteenth Century that smothered the modern movement in America and Europe, this hallucinatory drug captured the spirit of architecture and took us off on a dream. Quietly we left behind the search of function. Commercial ornamentation again crept in to our language. Community design, mass housing, open spaces and the public domain were quietly put on the back burner, and gradually out of site. Honesty of expression, a dialogue with materials in the search for their capabilities, nature and expression faded. The aesthetics of honesty was replaced by consumerism and marketing. In place came cute ideas, clever little stunts, even spectacular monuments and on the main street superficial packaging, fashions of the season, styles and bill board architecture. A huge chasm gradually emerged within the city culture of the modern era, through a growing alienation between individuals and their urban settings. Lost in a heartless urban ennui, in a mental daze of sleepy acceptance, the consuming public lost touch with community, neighborhood and even neighbors. Television and shopping replaced conviviality.

Hundreds and thousands of buildings have been produced in the past five decades. But these structures add nothing to the nature of being. They neither inspire not catalyze human interaction, nor sponsor “coming together,” which happens naturally in urban fabrics like Granada and Seville. These buildings discover no new segment of existence only confirming what has already been built and said. In confirming what has already been said, what everyone is saying, they fulfill their purpose. They confirm the stupidity of life that everyone is living. By discovering nothing, they fail to participate in the sequence of discoveries that constitutes the evolution of architecture. They place themselves outside the history of architecture, or maybe in what is meant by postmodern; that is they come after the history of architecture!
Postmodern Architecture

The sole raison d’ĂȘtre of a building is to explore that which only a true work of architecture can discover. A building which does not express some unknown segment of existence is immoral! Revealing knowledge is architecture’s only reality. The sequence of discovery, not the sum of what is built, is what constitutes the history of modern architecture. The truth of architecture is contextual, but not nationalistic! There are analogues between meaningful work in India, Europe and Latin America. It is only in such a cross-national context that the value of work can fully be revealed and understood.

The rise of the sciences propelled man into the tunnels of specialized disciplines. The more he advanced in knowledge, the less clearly could he see either the world or his own self and he plunged into the forgetting of being? Architecture followed suit and soon modern man was living in a Spanish Colonial House and driving to teach in a Roman monumental IT training centre. Perhaps at night he would buzz over to the Corinthian Club for a Cuba Libre. Every thing is false and make-believe! All seems and nothing is reality. Imagineering has become the science of pretending and even one’s life becomes a pretense. In the modern world commercial building sells dreams, fashions, pretending and imagining what is not. Modern housing estates and shopping centers are becoming amusement parks for escape.

If Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, along with Cervantes and Descartes were founders of the Modern Project then the end of their legacy ought to signify more than a mere stage in the evolution of architectural forms; it would herald the death of the modern era! We have seen the murder of architecture! We know that architecture is a mortal as the human race itself. We have visited schools of architecture where there has been no birth, much less a murder. As a model of the human spirit, grounded in the relativity and ambiguity of things human, architecture is incompatible with the mercantile dominated universe. This incompatibility is deeper than the one that separates a human rights campaigner from a torturer; or a secular man form a fundamentalist. Because it is incompatible in the very nature of artistic expression, as opposed to just a moral, or political paradigm; because the world of the various truths of architecture, and the world of commercialism are molded out of entirely different substances. The new world of marketing; of salesmanship; of the new economy based on a few multi-nationals, of the new urbanism is a kind of totalitarian world. This postmodern world deals with issues and decisions around them in terms of black and white; good and bad; right and wrong; and The Truth. Branding has no place for ambiguous messages. The branding experience is not an exploration, an adventure or a journey. It is a statement pounded into one’s head again and again through cut and paste graphics and cute ideas. Architecture deals with nuisances, relativity, personal perceptions, ambiguous lyricism. The commercial and the mercantile world excludes relativity, doubt, questioning and it can never accommodate the spirit of architecture.

The Modern Architecture Agenda

Modern architecture does not mean a bunch of modern buildings. It is a state of mind, conceptualized within a social, economic and historical framework. Modern architecture is a reality only because it emerged through an agenda of change and actions with a mission and a vision. The modern architecture vision is to create a better world, an ideal world or even a perfect world equally for all citizens. That mission can be seen in the spirit of Leonardo da Vinci’s Ideal City designs and the designs of many of his predecessors and followers. Humanism, the human being in the centre of things, has been the flag that rallied thousands of young architects to the modern architecture cause. Civil life, city life, urban life and urbanity have been the central focus. Civic spaces, boulevards, parks, gardens, river fronts and concepts for entire cities have been on the pallet of architecture for centuries; but at the heart of these utopian dreams is simply a journey toward the good life! Often this work involves nostalgia for a simple, green, clean rural life lost in the rush toward industrialization and urbanization. Even through the design of sophisticated country villas, architects have attempted to illustrate a possible future. Arcadia, a romantic image of a lost rustic world of perfection, a world at peace within itself, has been a binding artistic concept linking learned people in hamlets, farms and cities. The city planning and urban design agenda are not those of great design statements and heroic monuments, but the plans that fit in “everyman” into a world of beauty, work, recreation, family life and reflection. Le Corbusier’s La Ville Radieuse, or the Radiant City, was a well thought out place where masses of people could live and work. It was a place where each seeks out his or her own individual opportunities? Wright’s Broad Acre City put the same search into the American context and made a statement of an ideal way of living which fit everyone into the template of life! In the midst of the last century, JosĂ© Lluis Sert sponsored some of the first charters of good urban design and founded the first course in urban design at Harvard. In our own studio we have promoted The Principles of Intelligent Urbanism through our planning work in Sri Lanka, India and Bhutan.

While creating a harmonious living environment for all was central to the agenda, technology was of equal importance to the agenda. As Le Corbusier said, “a house is a machine for living.”

To push this agenda, is to fight other agendas! Mercantile architecture has its own rationale, its own frame work and its own agenda! Commercial architecture follows the rule of Floor Space Index; cheap materials; flashy facades and creating false dreams. There is also the academic agenda of writing and theory, a museum agenda of the high priests of art, and a media agenda of making and breaking artists. All of these agendas make alliances and strategies for dominance. Thus we are not silent spectators to life and the continuous changes going on around us.


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