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July 05, 2006

Modern vs. Modernist

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards--

John Massengale shows off a hilarious (and fast) Paris Hilton slideshow -- how much time do you suppose that girl spends rehearsing herself in the mirror? Then he points out that the Institute for Classical Architecture has begun its own blog. Don't miss this gorgeous posting about the fabulous American architect Arthur Brown Jr.

A little Michael Blowhard input here: Feast your eyes on Brown's buildings (as well as others by such underknown giants as Paul Cret, Bertram Goodhue, and Bernard Maybeck), then remind yourself that these structures were all built in the 20th century.

Where architecture-history is concerned, the establishment wants us to think of the 20th century as the era of glass, steel, concrete, and geometry; as far as they're concerned, anything else simply isn't modern architecture. Yet Brown, Cret, Goodhue, and Maybeck didn't do steel and geometry. Instead of glass boxes, these architects gave us what high-end architects have always given us, at least until the modernists (patooie) came along: pillars, domes, clocktowers, arches and arcades, etc., as well as ornaments galore. That's glorious -- as well as likable, comprehensible, and accessible -- stuff.

Takeaway lesson: There's an important difference between "modern" and "modernist." Modern means nothing more than "current or recent." Modernist means "buying into the ideology of modernism."


In the foreground, modern architecture (Goodhue's 1919 St. Bartholomew's); to the left, modernist architecture (who cares?)

Do you need to know the theory behind it to be wowed and moved by Goodhue's modern church in the pic above? Yet what kind of sense does modernist architecture make -- except as Darth Vader-ugly -- if you aren't familiar with the justifications its apologists and propagandists have dreamed up for it?

In any case, say hello to the kind of "modern architecture" that the schools and the critics don't want you to know about. Why? Because if too many of us woke up to the fact that we have the choice -- that we're under no obligation to love cold surfaces and sharp edges -- we wouldn't put up with modernism.

Thought for the day: Traditional architecture is like tonal music -- instantly comprehensible and accessible to everyone. (And, yeah, sure, as with tonal music there's a lot of crap traditional architecture around.) Meanwhile modernist (and modernist-derived) architecture is the equivalent of atonal music. Each work is supposedly unique, each one is a closed system, and each one demands to be decoded on its own terms. Because they're all partaking of the same open language, pieces of traditional architecture tend to come together in harmonious, interrelated, and organic wholes -- ie, neighborhoods, blocks, towns. Because they speak only to themselves and/or insiders, when pieces of modernist architecture cluster, they almost always result in spikey chaos.

The Classicist also points out a wonderful -- a typically wonderful -- Christopher Gray article about an architect completely new to me: Gaetan (sometimes Gaetano) Ajello, a Sicilian immigrant who designed many New York City apartment buildings. (Christopher Gray's superb book about New York's buildings can be bought here.) Rick Darby compares the gorgeous old -- but still modern, still 20th century! -- Morgan Library to the hyper-modernist Renzo Piano addition that was recently grafted onto and into it. (Great Rick line: "Piano's contribution [is] made for high-class, adult mall rats, not scholars or philosophers.") Long ago I wrote a posting about another example of modern-not-modernist architecture, the amazing Addison Mizner, the man single-handedly responsible for establishing the Mediterranean Revival as the style of ritzy Florida.

There's a lot more to 20th (and 21st) century architecture than the mainstream press, critics, profs, books, and magazines let on.



UPDATE: Thanks to Ian Lewis, who turned up this sensational page devoted to the Belgian Art Nouveau -- modern, but not modernist -- architect Victor Horta. Ian is a big fan of Horta's. Hey, does anyone else care to vote for their fave modern-not-modernist architect?

posted by Michael at July 5, 2006


One of the reasons, or maybe the main reason, Paris Hilton poses like that is that she has a lazy eye. When she looks to the side, it's not noticeable.

She's a sort of remarkable phenomenon, no? What is her reason for existence on this earth??

Posted by: missgrundy on July 6, 2006 12:01 PM

I always assumed Paris posed that way because she was trying to look coy. But Miss G has it pegged about the lazy eye.

Posted by: marvin on July 6, 2006 12:45 PM

If we are voting for some of the greatest late 19th - early 20th century architects, then I definitely vote for Victor Horta. Personally, I think that he created some of the loveliest pieces ever, and they were certianly modern:

Some Great Examples

Posted by: Ian Lewis on July 6, 2006 12:48 PM

What you call Modernist architecture (a good distinction, btw) really didn't get rolling in the USA till after WW2. Up through the 20s, things were pretty eclectic (as they remain for residential architecture). Then the Great Depression pretty well put things on hold aside from WPA projects. And following that was the war.

So the first third or maybe even half (depending how one chooses to round the numbers) of the 20th C featured non-Modernist architecture.

I suppose the Modernist share of the pie might be sliced even thinner if PoMo architecture is factored in. But from my POV as a "consumer" of architecture as I walk/drive around, Modernist and PoMo strike me in the same (largely negative) way.

It's nice to see more Web sites popping up featuring non-Modernist architecture and art. My regret is that I didn't see much (if any) Horta architecture the one time I was in Brussels.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 6, 2006 2:10 PM

Tom Wolfe offers a an amusing reverie on how much the San Francisco City Hall workers loved working in Arthur Brown Jr.'s masterpiece in Wolfe's "Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers"

Posted by: Steve Sailer on July 6, 2006 3:50 PM


I've just come across your posting which makes a good point: there is indeed a difference between modern and modernist, and you correctly define it. I try in my blog posts to make that distinction, labeling modernism as a aesthetic movement that emerged in Europe during the interwar period.

I will submit that architectural history is taught quite selectively in schools, and many young architects are quite ignorant of the architectural styles that preceded the Modernist movement. Still, you're never going to convince young people to become architects by telling them that you wish they could all just produce tried and true architectural vocabularies of the past.

I indirectly address many of your points in my blog post:

For a primer on post-modern architecture, read my article on Houston:

Posted by: corbusier on July 8, 2006 12:45 AM

Hi Michael

Heres three for you

1) Charles Rennie Mackintosh
2) Otto Wagner (way too cool)
3) CFA Voysey. I think it was Pevsner who described him as one of the first of the Moderns. His architecture is beautiful. He was able to blend traditional forms with modern construction techniques.
Check out the Sandersons Factory.

Posted by: Steven Zebic on July 11, 2006 7:50 AM

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