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March 19, 2004

Massengale on Modernism

Dear Friedrich --

You won't want to miss John Massengale's brilliant posting about Modernism, here. John has managed to squeeze several books' worth of thinking and knowledge into a few thousand words. Long live the blogosphere: where else are you going to find this kind of to-the-point, essential (and free) cultural history? IMHO, of course -- but, grrr, disagree with me at your peril.

John got my own thoughts, such as they are, firing off in a variety of directions. The one that's making the most noise is a question that's been ricocheting around my head for years now. It's this: can Modernism ever take its place as just one style among many?

The obvious, level-headed, easy, and probably correct answer is: Sure, why not? John thinks so, and it's certainly to be hoped that he's right. But I can't help wondering if this Modernism-thing isn't a bit more complicated than that.

Why? Because of the nature of the grip Modernism had (and still has) on some people. For many years and for many people, it functioned as ideology, as vision, as credo -- really, as a substitute religion. Although Modernism was meant to be an approach that suited a post-religious age, it quickly took on all the characteristics of a traditional religion, not that it was ever able to deliver the satisfaction and happiness traditional religions sometimes manage to. Like those other 20th century pseudo-religions Marxism and Freudianism, Modernism depended for its zing and popularity on the promise of redemption. Over time, it developed religious trappings too: a priesthood, a gospel and a doctrine, sacred spots to which believers made solemn pilgramages.

Modernism was art as a way, or rather art as The Way. Buy into it sincerely enough, pray hard enough, submit to its imperative to go on finding new ways to defy tradition and -- who knows? -- Greatness might strike. The Self would find liberation and fulfillment, the masses would be set free, bliss would be attained ... Probably not, of course -- gotta keep the masses supporting the cause and kowtowing before the Genius we all serve, after all. But you never know, do you? Maybe life really can be transformed in its very nature. And gosh, we all sure hope so, don't we? Don't we? Thwack!

My question seems to boil down to this: does enough remain of this kind of pseudo-religion when the spark goes out of it to constitute a viable style? Does Modernism -- Modernism simply as a style -- have enough going for it to stay alive as one option among many? It seems to me that styles that have staying power resonate; they've got some real appeal, something that not only fascinates but pleases, and perhaps even serves. If Catholicism, for instance, were to lose its hold, I'm sure that the "culture" created in its service would still transfix; it's a mighty rich one.

But of course Catholicism is a real religion. How about a pseudo-religion like Modernism? How do its cultural goodies compare? Flatness, abstraction, truth to materials -- by themselves, are these qualities powerful and pleasing enough to appeal and beguile? In a light-camp kind of way, sure: I can easily imagine a Modernist room being looked at fondly as this silly, dear kind of thing that people inexplicably once took seriously. But in any longer-lasting way? What valuable part of life did Modernist style-things ever serve? Besides the need to believe, I mean.

(BTW, and a propos of very little: I remember a discussion I once had with a modernist-painter friend, a very bright and talented guy but a Modernism believer nonetheless. I foolishly went off on some tangent about how I wonder how much longer the whole "flatness of the picture plane" thing is going to go on hypnotizing artists. Would it be in five years that arts people would start looking at the phrase "the flatness of the picture plane" and simply say "well, duh!" Or would it have to wait another 20 years? I was gabbing mirthfully along about the inevitability of this development when I caught his expression -- he was horrified and indignant. I'd slandered his religion. So I swallowed hard and let him semi-berate me for not understanding that the "flatness" thing was art's equivalent of the discovery of Relativity, blah blah. My mistake, once again.)

Hmm: how about a comparison? What remains, for example, of Marxism and Freudianism? As creeds, they still seem to be hanging on, if by aging and brittle fingernails. But how about as styles? What goodies have they bequeathed to the cultural menu? A few icons -- Freud's cigar and couch, Marx's beard and fist. An attitude of red-flagged, dire, over-fervent suspicion and paranoia, perhaps. And, y'know, there were those great revolutionary graphics from early on; those seem to me to be keepers.

But much else? Of course, Marxisim and Freudianism were never much concerned with arty matters like look and feel; that was more the business of art-Modernism. I asked John what his hunch is about all this, and he emailed back that he does indeed have the impression that, to non-architects at least, Modernism has become nothing but a style option.

So maybe that's all there is to it, and wouldn't it be lovely if it were true. It's more than possible that I'm being a hysteric; perhaps, having lived through the final flowering of Modernism, I'm terrified that we'll never really be done with it, that it'll keep coming back like the monster in "Alien" unless we go on bashing it. On the other hand, Modernism did have virus-like qualities for far too many decades; it did seem to have the power to seize hold of perfectly good minds, drain them of all common sense, and even then not let go. So maybe it makes sense to keep up our vigilance.

Hey: on the third hand, maybe John's polite, reasonable suggestion that Modernism be taken as just one style among many is a strategic move. Hmm: if so, that's pure genius. How can anyone object to the suggestion? And then, once it's been allowed that Modernism is nothing but a style after all, the juju vanishes and the whole Modernism enterprise collapses into thin air, just like the old Soviet Union did ...

Anyway, your thoughts here?



posted by Michael at March 19, 2004


Not to sound inappropriately Nietzschean here, but... It seems to me that the fundamental Modernist 'problem' or 'issue' was how to create art in a Darwinian, death-of-God, essentially nihilistic era that was also witnessing unprecedented technological advance. So 'new and improved' was, more or less, the inevitable slogan of the day. But wasn't this always a sort of transitional, not-gonna-last thing? Modernism reminds me of 16th century Mannerism--they're both interesting, and absolutely valid as responses to their times, but essentially reactive art movements to a particularly unsettling environment. But today's hard-edge modernist establishment seems to be standing in the way of a post-nihilistic design order, and ferociously trying to hold the line against any historical reference (other than references to the icons of the brief modernist period) which is contrary to the tendency of art in virtually all times and places to reference deep traditions.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 19, 2004 12:52 PM

It's funny, to read your comments, and FvB's...the art establishment, which is supposed to reflect this fluid, emotional, evocative, current state of affairs...has instead become the most rigid, reactionary, close-minded place on the planet. Like a university that is proud of the fact that the Flat Earth society was founded there. It's stopped reflecting the death of religion, and BECAME religion. How bourgeois of them---to need order and constancy? How irrevocably middle class! Maybe they should just go back to a real Church, and let the arts keep being fluid and judegement-free.

Posted by: annette on March 19, 2004 3:59 PM

Actually, to be slightly contrarian, Mannerism is more analagous to Post-Modernism. Modernist architecture never claimed to be a free-form, anything goes style. It was seeking a universal, "international" style to define the world. The obsession with strict geometric form is based on the idea that those forms are the pure building blocks of the universe. For instance, De Stijl (Piet Modrian paintings and the Schroeder House) is supposed to represent taking a small piece of an infinite field of geometric form.

So Modernism is like a statement of principle. "This is what we want to achieve, this is defnite." Post-modernism is a response or reaction to those principles, saying that, no, nothing is definite. The world can be percieved from many different perspectives. This is thus analagous to the Renaissance statement and the Mannerist response, or the Baroque statement and the Rococo response.

With Post-Modernism waning, I sense that a new statement is arriving, one in a very nascent form right now. I suspect the new statement is something like a humanistic modernism, blended with environmentally responsible design.

Posted by: Christopher Davis on March 19, 2004 5:24 PM

There is a great desire for order, in the human breast (yes, I can be as pompous as the next man).
But it's true. Order, expressed by art as beauty, harmony, cannot and will not be denied.
Ergo, the dessicated priest caste manning the ramparts of the dessicated fortress known as modernism (who are now promoting chaos, disorder) won't be able to hold off the peasant hordes (us) forever.
How will they be overthrown?
Who will storm the fortress?
My guess is it will take a genius (who may not appear for quite some time; but will, eventually).
At the end of the 16th century an upstart came out of nowhere and revolutionized western painting: Caravaggio.
What he brought into painting couldn't have been imagined until he brought it.
Something similar will happen (whether in architecture, painting, sculpture, laser beams, who knows?) again.
Some beautiful live, unimaginable to us, new thing will break through the old dead skin.

Posted by: ricpic on March 19, 2004 5:25 PM

Mr. Davis:

I must disagree. The geometricism of Modernism is an attempt to find a substitute for religion (in the case of De Stijl, in another religion, theosophy; in the case of Futurism, in the religion of technology, etc.) Hence, this principle is not analogous to the geometric strategies of the High Renaissance which expressed the synthesis of Revelation and Reason, but is rather a more hysterical response along the lines of the Mannerist horror vacuii. There was nothing serene or culturally assured about the last decades of the 19th and the early decades of the 20th centuries that would have responded to a sort of new, Modernist, classicism. In short, Modernism, like Mannerism, is an art form of an Age of Anxiety. As that anxiety has waned (if only because one cannot be perpetually anxious for centuries at a time) there is a movement towards a new statement which the forces of Modernism are attempting to oppose.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 19, 2004 7:31 PM

I think Modernism must be a religion. There's no other way to explain its persistent devotion to ugliness.

Posted by: Gorden Borden on March 19, 2004 8:46 PM

What is this post about?

Posted by: David Sucher on March 20, 2004 12:00 PM

FvB -- You write, "It seems to me that the fundamental Modernist 'problem' or 'issue' was how to create art in a Darwinian, death-of-God, essentially nihilistic era that was also witnessing unprecedented technological advance." Seems key to me, as well as helpfully succinct, something I appreciate more and more.

Annette -- That's really well-put too, thanks. The arts world has become a really odd one -- it's stuck in 1970 in many ways, all the while marketing itself as this advanced, exciting thing. But they're carrying on as though the Iron Curtain (and its many metaphorical extensions) never came down. My feeling is that its time to abandon those silly dreams, and my hunch is that the kind of down-to-earth people and thoughts we get a kick out of promoting and showing off here (Alexander, Fred Turner, Denis Dutton, Nikos, all those others) are what's going to take the place of the old utopian dreams. Which, IMHO, will be a great relief. We'll be speaking to each other as human beings again, rather than as religious aspirants. A big question: What'll become of religious feelings, and the need to believe, if it can't channel itself into political or artistic hopes? I've got a friend who jokes that we all seem to have a gene for religious belief, and I agree with her -- it seems to be an unavoidable part of life. So what to do with it? And what will become of it? Will we ... rediscover an appreciation for traditional religiouns? I suppose that's one possibility. Any hunches about this? And what will the arts be like if and when they're drained of most of our religious zeal? Or is that the wrong question to ask?

Christopher, FvB -- Well, I for one think you're both making good points, and I see no real conflict between them. So there. I mean, wasn't he Modernist period both 1) a rather hysterical, anxious one that in its anxieties resembles a mannerist age, and 2) a search for abstract universals, which is reminsicent of the Renaissance? OK, now I'm ducking my head and running for cover.

Ricpic -- The Modernists are hard and fun to wrestle with, aren't they? I mean, annoying as the whole episode can be. Partly because they seem so intent on defying what I think you're so right about -- inborn tendencies we have to look for order, beauty, harmonies. But also because at the same time they werent just about imposing chaos (although the current decon people are about exactly this) -- they were doing their best to impose a kind of anti-beauty order on us, a higher-order order, if you will. I come away from the whole thing with a certain amount of taste for Modernist art things. I like some of the lit and painting and music quite a lot. But I also come away thinking, Wow, that's really quite a bizarre and specialized taste. (I object to modernist architecture because it's a public act -- imposed on people whether they choose it or not, which I suspect most of them wouldn't do.) I wouldn't expect anyone else to share these tastes, and I'd never prosyletize for them. I mean, as private pleasures, they don't bug me at all, and I dig some of them. As public ideology or as religion-subsitute, I object violently. Do you have, after all's said and done, any taste at all for Modernist things?

Gorden -- I'm with you on that. And I think your hunch raises an interesting question too, which is, can a nontraditional, rationalized thing like Modernism support and sustain people's religious zeal? Can it deliver what they're looking for without cracking under the strain, or without turning on them and betraying them? I've read people who propose that Marxism and Naziism were the political forms of Modernism -- rationalized, de-sacralized systems that turned into wannabe religions. And then people, er, got a little carried away, as (lord knows) they did in the arts with Modernism. We had hopes for them, and they turned on us. (Or they made us turn on ourselves, or something.) Which leaves us where? Kind of standing around, too weary and smart to buy into Marx or Freud or Modernism (let alone Fascism), but still (being human) full of religious hopes and feelings, and incredibly uncertain what to do about them, or where to put them. And probably feeling kind of shamefaced about this predicament. Or do you think I'm 'way off here?

David -- I'm not sure, really. Although the question, "Can modernism behave like nothing but one art style-option among many, or does it depend for its appeal on our hopes that it might be the One True Way?" comes to mind.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 20, 2004 12:57 PM

Michael, as I said, I am not quite sure that I understand much of this post. For me, it doesn't have the clear & vivid specificity that you offered a few days ago when a writing about those goofy designs for the NY's proposed Olympic Village. It's something about being against idealism? And against Freud and Marx?

While I may be missing the larger point, it seems to me that the answer to your question -- "can Modernism ever take its place as just one style among many?" -- is obviously (I hope) "yes." i.e. I can envison a comfortable, walkable, pedestrian-scaled street in which the buildings were constructed (to quote John Massengale) with "various combinations of flat roofs, lots of glass and metal, and an absence of traditional moldings and ornament." I have certainly seen streets with individual buildings like that and they can be very neighborly and human.

The key -- and have I mentioned this before? :) -- is that the building, no matter the style, must enfront the street and be permeable to street life with doors, windows etc. etc.

I know we agree on that to the core. So what is the big deal about whether there are classical elements or not? They are fine and the market clearly prefers a textured facade of some kind -- just go look at what commercial developers are doing in their higher end projects (even in car-dominated shopping centers).

So I guess I am a bit lost. Why are you bringing in Marx and Freud? It seems to me that the big battle is to, in Huxtable's own words, drive a stake through the heart of the notion that the continuous streetwall is NOT the essence of urbanity (and to be varied from only as an exception.)

Duany (in the same dialogue from which you quote) also says very clearly that the Modernist "idiom" can create great streets IF its rules are set forth:

"The plea that I'm making is to create a modernist architecture, based on the tradition of modernism. Because this does not occur, we the new urbanists resort to the vernacular tradition of architecture. So let's get modernism going, so that it meets the criteria of the normal, the useful, the dependable. Let's write a charter on those conditions."

Posted by: David Sucher on March 20, 2004 1:16 PM

David -- The question I'm hoping to raise is whether Modernism can be made to behave. I hope it can be, but (rightly or wrongly) I suspect that there may always be problems with it. Given that historically, Modernism (partly) arose from the thrill of throwing out the rules for the greater glory of innovation and "creativity" -- given that it has its source in that impulse -- can it now be made to play alongside everyone else?

An analogy: if a kid defined himself and grew into who he is as an adult by virtue of telling everyone else to screw off, can he realistically be expected to morph into a helpful and social human being without collapsing entirely?

In other words, if Modernism isn't a world-transforming religion-substitute (which is how it was taken for decades, and where it got some of its zing), what remains? Is the "modernist" style that emerged appealing and helpful enough to flourish as a mere style option?

I don't have an answer, obviously, just the suspicion that dealing with what's become of Modernism will be a little more complicated and demanding than just a matter of saying, "Oh, behave."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 20, 2004 2:15 PM

In terms of buildings, at least, I think that "Modernism" has been cleanly shorn of any ideology (utopian or otherwise) through it's wide-spread use by corporate America in untold TIPs, business "parks" and shopping centers.

I guess that's what puzzled me about the post -- I think that ideology is gone. A guy like Koolhaas, for example, who would probably rightly deny being a Modernist in the International Style sense but whom most people would say is a Modernist because his buildings are assymetrical and have no doric columns -- well what is his ideology? He doesn't have one. I'd say. Try and read his books and see if there are any ideas there, much less an ideology.

So I'd suggest that attacks on Modernism as an ideology are about 50 years late unless one is attacking the core values of America such as tolerance and diversity of choice.

Posted by: David Sucher on March 20, 2004 2:47 PM

Let's hope!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 20, 2004 3:05 PM

If Modernism has been cleanly shorn of any ideology, why is it still being utilized? No one, not even corporate America, chooses a design for purely utilitarian reasons. A design (excepting very rare situations where functional demands override everything)has to make some affective statement--like, "This design spells 'new' and 'hip' and 'successful' and 'exclusive.' " And such affective statements are constructed out of cultural-historical associations (or the explicit contradiction of those associations, which is pretty much the same thing). Hence, it is still Modernist ideology that is powering the continuing use of the Modernist design idiom. Koolhaus may be a poor writer (or a dishonest one) but he knows what traditions he is pushing and which he is avoiding very well, as do his clients. And Michael's long-running point is that post-Modernist ideology is really just Modernism in drag, and I haven't noticed that post-Modernist thinking becoming passe, at least not in academia or the advanced architectural press. Just because ideas are cliched or implicit rather than new and explicit doesn't mean they're not there on display.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 20, 2004 6:34 PM

(I guess I am still confused about the explicit meaning and sub-text of this post. Modernism -- essentially dead and long gone as any sort of intellectual movement -- strikes me as one of those all-purpose goblins which can be brought out to scare the children. I dispute that there is any intellectual content at all in the words of guys like Muschamp and Koolhaas. If so, show me a critique of their ideas as opposed to their conclusions; I don't think you will find any as there is no "there, there" to discuss.)

Anyway, Friedrich asks something like "But then why is Modernism being used?"

The short answer is, "It isn't, as an ideology. It is now simply a style." (And a destructive one style, at that; but there is no ideology there, just lack of care for cities.)

The answer, when applied to architecture, and it is applied almost nowhere else -- is cost/profitability and management simplicity. TIPS provide profit and do not have the management issues involved in a mixed-used building. They are suburban thinking by suburan people who have no understanding of a sidewalk. Do you really think suburban developers are reading Herb Muschamp, much less Derrida? Give me a break. :)

No one here questions that the TIP (as the prevalent urban vernacular) is a bad idea. But can anyone here claim, plausibly & with a straight face, that Modernism as an ideology is expressed by, say, the Enron Tower of Houston, TX? That building is simply a manifestation of profit maximization and management simplicty. If anyone thinks that what we are viewing as the crystaline distillation of Modernist ideology -- the TIP -- still has any ideological content, please let them step forward and in the words of either the designer or the owner demonstrate their case.

I simply do not believe that Enron's Bobby Boy (or whatever his name is) had anything in mind at all except more money when he and the Board authorized that tower. If I am wrong -- and of course I use that tower as a metonym -- show me what you got.

Posted by: David Sucher on March 20, 2004 8:36 PM

The one place where (implicit) Modernist ideology might be as dangerous as Michael fears is in East Asia. I believe that cities like Shanghai are going to reap a bitter harvest in a few decades due to the architectural and planning decisions they're making today.

If we're lucky, we won't have to live with Modernism in its "strong form" here in North America, but it will be a dominant force across the Pacific.

However, in contrast with David, I do see "Modernism as ideology" still expressed — maybe not in Houston, but in the WTC designs by Libeskind and others. While the ideology is wearing off and Modernism is becoming more of a habit than anything, the gospel still has a hold on the priesthood and the true believers.

Finally, I've got to say that I suspect that I followed, um, like 1% of the preceding discussion.

Posted by: Haystack on March 20, 2004 9:55 PM


Why do I feel like you're handing me the short end of the stick? You get to make a simple declarative statement--modernism is finished as an ideology--and leave it to me to prove otherwise. How did I end up with burden of proof? Let's trade places: I'll assert that Modernism is in fine shape, cite the continuing vitality of the skyscraper (the Modernist form par excellence) as proof, and ask you to prove me wrong!

This is an interesting topic, but if I do the research to answer your question I'll write it up as a post. I'm way too lazy to do this for a comment.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 20, 2004 10:00 PM

David -- Do you think there isn't a big body of theory behind what Liebeskind, or Hadid, or Tschumi are doing? Of course there is. The architecture mags and the schools and the chic architecture books are full o f it. I think the question of to what extent this kind of thinking is meant to be taken seriously is open for dispute, as is the question of whether or not it's worth paying any attention to at all. And I think your insistence on dealing with these matters in a practical, down-to-earth way is brilliant -- knocks the head-in-the-clouds crowd off their perches.

But, just as simple fact, there are tons of profs and critics and journalists beavering away at the job of inventing rationales and advancing the theory ball for edgy architecture. Or do we not haunt the same part of the architecture bookstore? Tschumi poses as a theorist himself, Liebeskind's deconstruction has scads of volumes of "philosophy" behind it -- it's supposed to be a good political/philosophical thing to pull apart and interrupt shapes in the way he does. It's an extension or variation of the Modernists' idea that with their buildings they were making "interventions" in the city's fabric. And his designs are like embodiments of deconstrutive philosophy. People aren't just impressed by what whacky, far-out buildings they are; they're impressed that they seem so advanced, and brilliant, and difficult. Why, he must be really smart.

And, FWIW, yeah, sure I can spell out the ideology informing Muschamp's writing. I've read some of the same books he has. It's what's become of Paris '68, basically: full of ideas about transparency, jouissance, undifferentiated sexuality and revolution, dematerialization, the role of the artist in all this, the oppressiveness of tradition and of solid and weighty material, the bliss of simultaneity -- a notion of a gargantuan, theorized, infantile "playfulness" as a desirable, creative, redeeming state and force. French theory is why he writes the kind of criticism he does; it's why he rhapsodizes in the style he does. And I know a fair number of people who see him as a brilliant guy, and a thinker who's spreading The Word.

I mean, maybe Muschamp just likes warped, blobby, crystalline perfume-bottle buildings -- maybe it's just a taste. But, if so, he's done a lot of reading to come up with rationales for it. My guess is that it's some combo of a genuine taste with an addiction to High Post-'60s Academic Theory -- to some extent, he's talked himself into these tastes. And to that extent, he's got an ideological bias against, say, traditional buildings and traditional urbanism. He sometimes goes into amazingly vicious, name-calling mode when confronted with new-trad stuff -- he doesn't just not like it, he thinks it's morally and politically offensive.

You're certainly right to insist that what people who try to build decent buildings and neighborhoods are mostly wrestling with are down-to-earth zoning problems and such. And I admire you for focusing on that so strongly. I'm not sure, though, why you think that the ideas-domain is of no significance. It exists, and it's going to be filled with something -- so why not see if something can be done to ensure that the ideas are better, more solid, and more helpful? Young architects and architecture fans are still being fed a lot of nonsense Theory and bogus "issues" that have nothing to do with, say, the 3 Rules. Why aren't they being taught the 3 Rules? I think there's an ideological bias against it. It's no secret, at least here in NYC media circles, where people wave their ideological/aesthetic allegiances like flags. To be interested in architecture is to be interested in it via the Muschamp/Theory way. It's got a kind of impressive, advanced-thinking, intellectual glamor that seems to dazzle a lot of people. Art and radicalism are still seen as nearly synonymous, at least in certain crowds, ludicrous though that may look to the rest of the world.

Whether wrestling with any of this is worthwhile's a good question. Doing so may be plain silly, though I tend to think it's worth giving the shiney crystal intellectualizing a good kick occasionally. You may disagree. But I don't think there's any question about whether the intellectualizing exists. The bookstores, the media, and the schools are full of it -- how can you miss it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 20, 2004 11:09 PM

"Do you have, after all is said and done, any taste at all for Modernist things?"

Michael -- I can remember coming, for the first time, upon The Seagram Building.
This was at least thirty years ago, maybe more. I was walking east on 52nd Street? 53rd? from the park. It was late in the afternoon. As I approached Park Avenue the building began to emerge. A sliver of golden light had pierced the canyons and was lighting a vertical swath of The Seagram.
The power! The somber power of it!

So yes, there are great modernist works.

Posted by: ricpic on March 21, 2004 11:07 AM

Oh I think it is definitely worth rasslin' though clearly we do frequent different parts of the bookstore.

But ohmygosh! Homework assignments! Hey guys, this blogging is supposed to be play? Do I have to go out and actually re-read the tripe written by these so-called modernists like Koolhaas and Libeskind --

("So-called" because I do not believe their designs would even remotely fall under the rubric of the International Style -- but as they do not use any classic elements maybe in a very loose sense they qualify)

-- so as to demonstrate to you that there is in fact nothing of any consequence in their "theory?"

What a dreary challenge! It is not as if I even disagree with what they say -- they say nothing of enough weight to disagree with! But we seem to disagree on that point...i.e. is there even an arguable, coherent statement in their writing with which one can have a rational agrument? The only way to really get into this is to examine some of their "texts" and try to find a declarative sentence in them. I think that one wouldn't.

Here's another way to look at it, in the interim. Can you Blowhardistas ever remember reading someone refer back to their writings/speeches etc? (Some of thyese folks may not write books so it's fair to examine their entire verbal expression.) Do you ever go to a party and hear anyone say "I was just reading XYZ by ABC and he is just so correct/wrong about ..." I venture to say NO. The big fraud that these people pull is that others refer to them as "theorists."

Another approach. You have offered a series of words to characterize Muschamp...but can you form them into a sentence with nouns and verbs? Such as Muschamp says that the good city is characterized by -----. I do not think you or anyone can as their ideas are just so incoherent or obvious or irrelevant....the closest I have seen to anything arguable is that silly quote from Huxtable where she says that the continuous street-wall (as the basic verb of the city) is not the core to create an urbane city least that is an emperically arguable statement. I think you give Muschamp et al too much credit as thinkers. Try to form those terms into a sentence...where does he stand on the architect as "artistse"...incoherently, I believe: the architect/artistse must be given complete freedom to create but must be socially-responsible. Hey Polonious!

The real test would be to get some of the leading works by these folks and try to read them fairly to discover if there is really anything there which is solid enough to talk about. I assert that they say little/nothing which is even "arguable." You say that there is. Hey I have been wrong before. But why don't I ever hear anyone quoting that great theorist Koolhaas? It's because there is nothing to quote.

Posted by: David Sucher on March 21, 2004 12:21 PM

Michael, Friedrich, David:

Are you familiar with the work of Alan Gowans, a 'historian in art'? In 'The Restless Art' he illustrates the change of painting as 'high art' to a 'fine art.' High art is art that serves one of four social functions, 1 conviction and persuasion, 2 substitute imagery, 3 illustration and 4 beautification. There are times in the history of civilizations when historic art transforms into Fine Art. Fine art is art that co-opts the role of the purports to 'reveal reality' or to connect one to 'Ultimate Truth' almost as a form of taking dictation from the Spirits. When the role of the artist becomes confused with that of the priest, art becomes increasingly unintellibible 'private expression'. Wnen you look at one of Hadid's space blobs, how DO you know you are looking at a building? Same as how you know it is a 'nude descending a staircase.' By those wonderful literary conventions we call 'lectures' or 'titles.' In themselves as objects, the painting and the blob are anything.

When you don't know what it is, how do know to believe what the artist or architect SAYS it is? If 'Art' is what I, the Artist (capital A), says it is,' then 'Anything IS Art.' We have entered the practical world of highbrow postmodernism, where texts have no objective meaning, because the text must intersect with a Subject to be read. All Subjects are individual, so there can be no universal meaning. We are reaping the whirlwind of Nominalism, and the Post Modernism of Tschumi, Eisenman, Koolhaus, et al is simply adult Modernism which was adolescent Nominalism. Throw in ANY explanation of what the Libeskind Spiral or the Wexner Center or the Acropolis addition Means, and these l'Enfente Terribles (excuse my hillbilly French...) laugh at you all the way to their next interview with a breathless critic/groupie. That is because they mean nothing except the dominance of technology over humanity and historic culture, because these forms are impossible to achieve apart from the latest digitizing technology. The head and heart have been killed by post modern nihilism, the death of the mind and of emotion, and in a sort of childish holding of hands up to one's ears and screaming to 'make it go away (the inhospitability of an environment made more accommodating to machines than to men)' the post modernist erects his monuments to irrationality, bad faith, to the death of thought and feeling.

Corbusier and his ilk were going to evangelize the world to the inevitable conquest of Scientific Socialism. Their forms were a conscious symbol making to convict and persuade of this ideological underpinning.

Eisenman wants to build Architectural Zen, the 'presence of absence'. Libeskind in 'the spiral' wants to transcend the limits of matter. Hadid wants us to enter the Monolith of the eternal present without beginning or end.

But are these creations *doing* what Historic Architecture does? No. They disregard function, in order to 'challenge' our bourgoise preach to us!

Gowans has some interesting comments about what happens to the culture in which Fine Art arises and crowds out Historic Art.

David, they have 'nothing' to talk about because that is precisely the object and meaning of their work.


Posted by: Carl Jahnes on March 22, 2004 12:43 AM

I'm being won over to David's argument that there isn't much in the way of an ideology behind Libeskind's work.

I think, though, that Modernism is still present as a "habit", as a reflexive mode of operating. If you leave that mode behind, with all its tics and conventions, you don't get invited to the right parties anymore.

Modernism as Ideology? No. Modernism as residual frame of reference? Maybe...

Of course, the real driving force in Libby's work is the product of two things:
[need to maintain status in Avant Garde] x [conception of architecture as Sculpture]

Posted by: Haystack on March 22, 2004 6:04 PM


I can't escape the feeling that a lot of the theory is not just nonsense, but post hoc nonsense. It exists primarily to justify, to legitimize, to obfuscate, and most importantly, to pre-emptively destroy other claims to legitimacy. I don't think that the theory acts as a creative force so much as it confers legitimacy, the way canonical texts confer legitimacy on a religion.

But you're right, the existence of the body of theory is non-trivial.

To look at it a different way, I'd liken the situation to the all-purpose Theory that took over the humanities in the '80s and reached its high point well over a decade ago. My take on this is that we're in the "eighties of architecture" right now, and I think Respectable Opinion will soon lose patience with a lot of this Theory in a few years' time.

Hopefully, by then, Tschumi will be out of work...

Posted by: Haystack on March 22, 2004 6:21 PM

David -- I think it's worth the effort every now and then to point out that the Emperor has no clothes. These towers and buildings are being sold not just as groovy visual inventions but as representatives of what's made out to be the best advanced thinking. Demonstrate that the thinking is, as we both agree, just a lot of chic fog, and maybe the projects will look less attractive. Such is my figuring anyway. I wonder if we differ on this because of the different crowds we hang out with. Perhaps you spend time among sensible and down to earth people. The folks I'm often among actually buy the rhetoric and genuflect before the, ahem, "thinking." Their attitude is often that if you get the thinking, then you'll love the architecture, so any failure to love the designs is a sign that you're just too stupid to get the thinking behind it. Bizarre but true.

Carl -- Thanks for reminding me of Gowans, who I should obviously read pronto. And thanks for another beautiful set of ruminations.

Haystack -- Is an ideology not an ideology simply because people have begun taking it for granted? Hmm -- interesting question. Was Communism no longer Communism when people living under it were no longer consciously applying it but were just living under it? Anyway, I think you're right on the money when you write that architecture, or rather the academic would-be avant-garde is trapped back in the hell of '80s theory. Bizarre how un-edgy they are really, isn't it? All the while posing as exciting radicals. Any thoughts about why this is, or how they get away with it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 23, 2004 8:53 PM

" any failure to love the designs is a sign that you're just too stupid to get the thinking behind it. Bizarre but true."

We agree there. I was talking to a fellow who was raving about the new Koolhaas-designed public library the great "design theoetician" and how brilliant it is etc etc.

I asked him "How so?"

His reaction was to turn red in the face and sputter.

My simple act of questioning design authority was enough to upset him greatly.

(I apologized to the hostess.)

Posted by: David Sucher on March 24, 2004 10:41 PM

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