A New Social Construct

Modernism may be dead, but the world desperately needs radically new ideas about living, working, and governing in the 21st-century city.

It is said that modern architecture died July 15, 1972, at 3:32 p.m.—the precise moment demolition experts set off a series of dynamite charges inside the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects in St. Louis. Built just 17 years earlier by the modernist Minoru Yamasaki (who later designed the World Trade Center), Pruitt-Igoe was at first hailed as the future of low-income living in America. That was correct, in a way—like much public housing around the country, it soon was plagued by crime, rats, and structural decay.

But if modern architecture died, the debate about it—or, rather, one side of that debate—did not. While a few architects still publicly consider themselves modernists, architecture itself has moved on to various “posts” and “isms.” Nevertheless, the critics of modernism—from Prince Charles to the neoclassicists at Notre Dame’s School of Architecture—continue the attack. It is as if, knowing the beast is dead, they continue stabbing to make sure it doesn’t come back to life. Every few years another strike at the modernist legacy arrives, and now we have Nathan Glazer’s From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture’s Encounter with the American City, released earlier this year.

In Glazer’s telling, modernism—the aesthetic of clean lines and efficient structures born from the social radicalism of early 20th-century Europe—did produce a trove of beautiful buildings. But as an applied social theory, the notion that humans value utility over ornament and that mass production and uniformity should define the cityscape could not survive the real world of urban life. At a critical moment, intellectual hubris laid great claims to the power of good design, claims that happened to sync with theories about environment and social conditioning to produce a massive experiment in living. But even the best ideas, like the best battle plans, rarely survive initial contact with the enemy: the bureaucrats, politicians, and even residents who have to deal with these buildings as real places to build and occupy.

As Glazer puts it, “In a democratic society the architect, even if he conceives of himself as a prince, has no greater right or power to reform society than does anyone else, and less mandate than our political leaders.” Modernism quickly became the stuff of soulless office buildings, glitzy museums, and bureaucratically engineered housing. What was once a cause has become just a style.

But while the object of Glazer’s critique may be deceased, his argument is timeless. And indeed, just as 20th-century Europe and America needed sweeping new ideas and building forms to deal with massive urbanization, so today must developing-world metropoli grapple with a flood of migrants who, according to the United Nations’ recent “State of the World’s Cities” report, will push their already-bulging infrastructures further beyond capacity:

Cities of the developing world will absorb 95 per cent of urban growth in the next two decades, and by 2030 will be home to almost 4 billion people, or 80 per cent of the world’s urban population. After 2015, rural populations will begin to shrink as urban growth becomes more intense in cities of Asia and Africa, which are set to host in 2030 the largest urban populations, 2.66 billion and 748 million, respectively. Poverty and inequality will characterize many developing-world cities, and urban growth will become virtually synonymous with slum formation in some regions.

Such growth mirrors, albeit on a massive and more dire scale, the post-World War I European housing crisis—a prime generator of the explosion in modernist architecture during the 1920s. Mankind desperately needs radically new ideas about living, working, and governing in the 21st-century city. Can a new paradigm emerge? And can it avoid the traps Glazer so eloquently identifies?


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In terms of architecture, we are still living in a world defined by the ideas articulated a century ago primarily by European artists, architects, and intellectuals. Declaring “ornament is a crime” and “less is more,” they created simple but powerful designs that completely changed the faces of cities worldwide. “Simpler design,” Glazer writes, “would mean easily reproducible forms, suited to the needs for which they were designed, perhaps eventually to be manufactured in factories rather than shaped by skilled craftsmen, and so reducing the cost of housing and making more available for less.” Incorporating new technologies, philosophies, and ideas about social life, modernists developed forms that could be readily recreated around the world—and were, from Dhaka to Detroit.

Just as 20th-century Europe and America needed sweeping new ideas and building forms to deal with massive urbanization, so today must developing-world metropoli grapple with a flood of migrants.Their work has been on display in a mammoth traveling exhibit that closed this summer in Washington, D.C., after visits to London and Hamburg. “Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939” was an exhaustive and often exhausting trip through the movement’s currents and sub-currents, with a heavy focus on architecture and product design.

The show’s argument was clear in the still-contemporary quality of the objects on display: Modernism as a movement may be dead, but we are still living in its shadow. It is no coincidence that when designers reach into the past for “retro” inspiration, they most often turn to objects like the Breuer club chair or the fabrics of Gunta Stölzl—for all their age, they still feel new. The show also elucidated the cross-border crossbreeding of ideas that allowed, for example, Frank Lloyd Wright to influence the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who later came to the United States and spawned a generation of American modernists. The interwar years were by no means idyllic, but they proved fertile ground for the internationalism that lay at the base of modernism.

The exhibit’s dozens of galleries prompted the question: Is such a movement possible again? Communications today literally know no borders: Aside from residents of a few hermit states, anyone in the world can talk with anyone else over email or cell phones; traveling around the globe is easier than it ever has been; and the lingua franca of English allows ready, if not perfect, interaction among artists, students, and activists. The popularity of emerging Chinese artists in the New York gallery scene, the speed with which organizers can tap a global network to gather thousands of protesters outside a free-trade conference, and the borderless worlds of social networking are the dark loam from which new ideas and movements will emerge. Whether a new movement as total as modernism will arise is a question for another essay; what is clear is that the need for such thinking exists, as does the medium for its growth. This, then, is the real value of Glazer’s book. It is a lesson for future world-altering intellectual movements on the limits of idea-driven social change.


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What Glazer does not answer, though, is the paradox he uncovers. He clearly feels that modernism, particularly in architecture and urban design, needed to be hubristic, to issue manifestos declaring the status quo corrupt and the past useless, to make vast claims about its own ideas. “Modernism was not simply a new style,” Glazer writes. “It represented a rebellion against historicism, ornament, overblown form, pandering to the great and rich and newly rich as against serving the needs of a society’s common people.”

Whether a new movement as total as modernism will arise is a question for another essay; what is clear is that the need for such thinking exists, as does the medium for its growth.But in demonstrating the myriad ways in which that new social commitment became compromised, commoditized, and co-opted, Glazer leaves unsaid whether it was possible for things to have been any different—and whether, then, it is possible to do things differently next time. Certainly today one has a hard time imagining an aesthetic, particularly in a field as intricately tied to social intercourse as architecture, existing outside of our hyper-commercialized environment. As soon as a new idea about design emerges, it gets shoehorned into the plans for the next blockbuster museum or lavish seaside residence. Glazer, in essence, accuses modernism of selling out; but today everything and everyone is already sold out ab initio.

This is not to say that there are no brilliant, world-changing young architects and designers out there at this very moment developing the ideas that will transform the way we build and live in cities for the next 100 years. But add to the paradoxes raised by Glazer the paradoxes of working in the 21st century: Technology and global culture allow a limitless exchange of ideas, but they also facilitate instant cooptation and manipulation of those ideas. Never has the world been so ready for grand new ideas—and so willing to convert them into high-priced styles.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen