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« Elsewhere | Main | Moviegoing: "A Prairie Home Companion" »

June 18, 2006


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Modernist buffs -- and modernist haters too -- should enjoy this package of stories from The Guardian. It's pegged to a show at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Robert Hughes is as full of caustic, blunt good sense as always. He visits Le Corbusier's legendary Unite d'Habitation (much doted-on by art-history and architecture profs when FvB and I were in college), and finds it to be anything but a modernist paradise:

It was in pitiable condition. Corbu's beton brut couldn't be cleaned, the metal-framed windows were hopelessly corroded, the electricity kept shorting out, the brise-soleils or concrete sunscreens were permanently foul with pigeon shit, the "shopping street" halfway up inside was locked and shuttered because ordinary French people prefer to do their marketing on real streets (an obvious aspect of social behaviour that eluded the intellectual grasp of the formgiver, who believed that folk ought to behave in accordance with the dotty authoritarian notions of idealist philosophes like Saint-Simon and Fourier).

Deyan Sudjic sneers at those who aren't enraptured by modernism's purities and austerities but has the grace to run a lengthy statement by the British New Classicist Robert Adam:

Modernism was founded on a frighteningly arrogant idea that an elite group of people could remake society into something supposedly better, regardless of what the general public actually wanted. It was labelled 'true architecture' by people who believed they had found the gates to heaven ... Paradoxically, Modernism is still around today and in fact it completely dominates the architectural profession. So much so that if you meet an architect, you expect him to be a Modernist.

Modernism ... can be seen as a style but I believe it is more than that: a historical theory, based on the idea that only the things that are different in each period are important. So in the engineering era of the Twenties and Thirties, everything had to conform to what was new in engineering, otherwise you weren't being modern. It's like saying that because we have the ability to produce blobby things with computers today, that's all we can do.

In architecture courses now, if you do traditional work they fail you or recommend you go into conservation. It's like a cult and if an architect is to be recommended or chosen through a competition, you will invariably end up with a Modernist building.

Simon Jenkins found the V&A's show "the most terrifying exhibition I have seen."

The modernists were the neocons of 20th-century art. They took a sound methodology -- the questioning of conventional wisdom -- and made it a dogma that brooked no opposition, even from reality ... Modernists approached the past not as an aesthete does, respectfully building on it, but as an autocrat, destroying it and substituting his own values and rules.

And ain't that the truth.

All the best,


UPDATE: Thanks to Mr. Tall, who points out this hilarious, sensible, and well-illustrated James Lileks visit to Minneapolis' avant-garde, Jean Nouvel-designed, new Guthrie Theater. Here's a rather more conventional -- as in dutifully impressed -- look at the building.

posted by Michael at June 18, 2006


See Lileks today for his take on a nice fresh steaming modernist monstronsity dropped on the twin cities.

Lileks updates daily, so after today, try this link.

Posted by: mr tall on June 19, 2006 2:35 AM

Think of it as "the dictatorship of the architecturiat".

It seems that political correctness has followed directly from this Modernist dogma. It's only a short step from cultural autocracy into social and political autocracy, is it not?

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 19, 2006 8:36 AM

Mr. Tall -- That's a great find, thanks. I'd been thinking about calling attention to the new Guthrie, but Lileks outshines anything I might have done.

Charlton - With Modernism, I don't know if even a short step was involved. The idea of doing (supposedly) beautiful work, of reforming society into something better, and of being in power all at once seems to be part of the appeal of the movement. It's funny, as in funny-scary, that propagandists for modernism are now trying to reposition it as just another style, and an attractive one at that. It's as if Stalin were to make a reappearance, promising that he's learned better and offering up his skills. What are we, fools?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 19, 2006 9:38 AM

Le Corbusier: right up there with Hitler and Stalin in the evilest man of them all competition.

Posted by: ricpic on June 19, 2006 10:22 AM

As somebody who appreciates contemporary architecture, I gotta say I don't see the appeal of the new Guthrie, or even the new Walker in the same city. Sure, I should probably take a trip up nord to see them in person, though at first glance they both seem to be proud of their ugliness, their clunkiness, and that's a bit dismaying, especially for renowned European architects (in those Modernist circles most readers here abhor) with their first buildings in the States.

For an almost mirror-image of Lileks's commentary on the Guthrie, see Blair Kamin's incessant gushing here.

Posted by: John on June 19, 2006 5:50 PM

Thanks for that Trib review, John.

It's like an object lesson in the vacuous sycophancy of American wannabes in the face of their cultured European betters. Check this out:

This is the essence of Nouvel's refreshingly thoughtful stance -- which is not about novelty for novelty's sake but about newness made newer by a complex, rather than saccharine, engagement of the past.

"Modernism is a friend of history," Nouvel said during a recent tour, "because history is a succession of modernities."

Barf, already. But then – please, just shoot me, now! – this one:

On the other hand, the building deftly separates itself from the past with such elements as three LED-equipped sign masts and its tough but elegant dark blue steel cladding. Nouvel calls the color "twilight blue," saying it represents "l'heure entre chiens et loups," the hour that separates the dogs from the wolves. (Ah, the French. You don't hear that kind of talk in Chicago.)

Sorry, Michael, if this ends up turning even you against the French . . . .

Posted by: mr tall on June 19, 2006 8:41 PM

We hear a lot of spanish in Chicago, though.

One of the reasons not discussed for the dominance of Modernistic ideologies in literature, architecture, visual art, and certain other fields is that there is no longer enough popular interest in these subjects to serve as a countervailing force against the mental illness of modernism. It's really a bit funny when you think about it. Modern architecture seems to have receeded into highly non-decorative and ornamental geometric shapes. Yet, even the architecture of the Chartres cathedral plays so much more artfully with simple geometric shapes than these shiny glass-and-metal turds. It appears that the Medievel mind was far more creative and skillful than the Modern One. Amazing.

Posted by: I Beam on June 19, 2006 10:24 PM

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