The Historicity of Modernism

Ana Maria Zahariade
Toader Popescu
Definitely, Modernism is history. Bauhaus is celebrating its centennial, _Vers une architecture _is almost one hundred years old, and no less than five years ago the Venice Biennale acclaimed a century of “absorbing modernity,” with the curator asking the participants to reflect on their own Modernism.
During all these years, its history was written and re-written many times. Nothing new here — it happened to all architectural movements, to many achievements and architects, since every generation of architectural historians looks back through a different lens, capturing new views of the past and recording new narratives — as Sigfried Giedion put it, “each actively living generation discovers new aspects of it.”
What is peculiar and new is that modern architecture evolved in an unprecedented parallel with its own historiography. Historical narratives have tightly accompanied, formulated and re-formulated Modernism since its beginnings — defending, opposing, running it down, loving or hating it. As such, historiography had to keep up both with the huge amount of buildings being erected, and with Modernism’s exceptional ambition — a secular, enlightened ambition, anchored in its present, in which societal and political involvement were incorporated into aesthetic aspirations and utopian, messianic hopes. It was as if the modernist ambition to express the Zeitgeist — the new Zeitgeist — compelled instantaneous recording. As a consequence, we are reminded that “even at the most foundational level, historians throughout the twentieth century played critical roles in defining and transforming the priorities of the Modern Movement.”1 This enables Panayotis Turnikiotis to consider that the narratives of modern architecture are in themselves “true architectural projects.”2
New is also the fact that, during the same hundred years, Modernism was vehemently proclaimed dead, right when it was universally embraced, extremely productive and confidently taught in architectural schools. Was its hasted eulogy prompted by the very impatience of its historiography? Its heroic narrative had been enthusiastically written by the supporters of its unprecedented architectural ambitions and artistic boldness, in a very short time and, arguably, without critical hindsight. In fact, critical insight had been permanently present at the very core of the movement, either through its promoters’ thorough searches for innovative ways to answer new societal needs while incorporating the opportunities of a new world, or through the awareness of its own temporality. It is highly unlikely to find in other moments of architectural history a reflection equivalent to Le Corbusier’s epitaph at the 1956 CIAM in Dubrovnik:
“It is those who are now forty years old, born around 1916 during wars and revolutions, and those then unborn, now twenty-five years old, born around 1930 during the preparation for a new war and amidst a profound economic, social, and political crisis, who thus find themselves in the heart of the present period the only ones capable of feeling actual problems, personally, profoundly, the goals to follow, the means to reach them, the pathetic urgency of the present situation. They are in the know. Their predecessors no longer are, they are out, they are no longer subject to the direct impact of the situation.”3
One could say that Modernism’s ideology and forms were overrun by the very _Zeitgeist _it had strived to express. In other words, the narratives that have proclaimed the end of Modernism, though hurried and sometimes frivolous, inspired its redefinition, while, on the contrary, it is precisely the attempt to make it enter a too geometric historical rationale that can lead to critical losses affecting its very essence. This may explain why we continually return and revisit the turning points of Modernism, as if we permanently try to reinvent it.
It is not by chance that the volume begins by evoking the 1974 symposium in Berlin, with the help of Stanislaus von Moss, noted theorist and historian of architecture, who actively participated in this event, reminding us about Modernism’s continuous self-questioning. This nostalgic reconsideration, repeated time and again – that of Heinrich Klotz, and that of Stanislaus von Moss – allows us to look back at modern history not only in search for newness or technological progress, but also to reconnect with Modernism’s unrealized possibilities, its unpredictable turns and crossroads.
As such, this continuous re-writing of history immersed in the theory and design of architecture becomes a form of practice that, as it embraces all aspects of the architectural field, might properly be called its “discourse.”
Based on the idea that outbreaks of nostalgia often follow revolutions, the article by Miguel Lopez Melendez selectively follows the problematic idea of architecture’s autonomy as it has developed since the beginnings of Modernism, from the formulation given by Emil Kaufmann, and linking in a rational genealogy Ledoux, Le Corbusier, Aldo Rossi, and Pier Vittorio Aureli. The author emphasizes an essential facet of autonomy as cultural critique, persistent until today through the political and historical dimension of architectural form, while echoing the modern sensibility of the Enlightenment during the twentieth century. Thus, autonomy can be seen as a form of nostalgy for “unrealized dreams of the past or the future,”4 and the article questions the very existence and agency of the architectural profession, as autonomy has never been a reality; it was rather a longing in itself.
Unexpectedly completing the investigations into architects’ attempts to motivate and reinforce their creative autonomy, Raluca Becheru addresses a particular relationship between ethics and aesthetics — “the phony ethics of aesthetics,” in the words of Jeremy Till —, a relation that speciously endows certain architectural forms with morality. Unravelling the problematic kinship between the modernist discourse and the past, the author emphasizes the line of argumentation through which — in her words — “the representatives of the Modern Movement and their supporters succeeded in promoting their aesthetic options as ethical, by both adopting a philosophical historicist position and using concepts derived from the classical theory of architecture, such as truth.” Eventually, the obligation to erect buildings truthful to the spirit of the age became moral, legitimizing a style by means of inaccurate ethical arguments.
As if responding to Lopez Melendez’s statement that “processes of cultural renewal must be persistent rather than exclusive to any historical period,” and to Becheru’s warning concerning “any attempt to impose a strictly determined content to the general and open obligation to improve the quality of life of individuals,” Cosmin Caciuc interrogates the historiography of Modernism as mirrored in anthologies of architectural texts, in order to identify features of “reflexive Modernism.” The choice of anthologies is not random; not only they seem to continue the enlightened “eighteen-century strategy for deploying history and criticality through the technique of collecting texts,”5but their symptomatic proliferation in recent times — a “will to anthology,” as Sylvia Lavin named the phenomenon — has certainly contributed to an important change in the interpretation of architectural history, design practice and present architectural education. This prompted the author to scrutinize at four levels (hermeneutic, historiographic, rational and cultural) two series of anthologies, from the perspective of Gianni Vatimo’s “weak thinking” and Richard Rorty’s pragmatism, both used as critical filters. Reflexive Modernism is recognized in this conflict as a medium of communication between unstable meanings, as focused on context, history, community, and transformations in contemporary philosophy, and promising a chance to reconcile the professional discourse with the material aspects of architecture.
The following section questions the way in which the “grand narrative” of Modernism has been received and absorbed locally. If one can argue that the death of canonic Modernism coincides with the advent of Postmodernism at the beginning of the 1970s, its smaller, local or regional narratives indicate continuities rather than oppositions. At this level, sheltered from the effects of a standardizing narrative, local modernist hybrids exhibited more vitality and innovative potential, irrigated as they were by their specific social, political or cultural contexts. The dossier features instances of the circulation of ideas and transfer of models which have set the powerful core principles of Modernism against the background of local circumstances, giving them new meanings and significances.
Such a phenomenon is observed by Jaime J. Ferrer Forés, with some important contemporary Spanish architects being influenced by the central figure of modern architecture’s “Third Generation” (as Siegfried Giedion put it), Jørn Utzon, long after the Danish master had established himself as such. Apparently, this type of top-down transfer has happened in Spain more than once, as Alvar Aalto, one of the defining architects of Modernism’s “Second Generation,” had also exerted a similar influence some years before. These late local reflections assert Spain’s remarkable position as simultaneously peripheral (influenced by) and central (setting the trend of) in relation to the main narrative of modern and contemporary architecture.
More or less at the same time, Romanian architecture was gradually being cut off from outside influences. Local architectural culture evolved, in the 1980s, toward a kind of _mélange _Modernism, described by Alexandru Sabău as issued from an architectural education embracing a modernist pedagogy and a practice influenced by the few and heavily filtered post-modern experiments it could access. In this case, the local hybrid is neither entirely top-down, nor entirely bottom-up, but rather situated midway between the two.
This type of top-down / bottom-up duality can also be followed throughout the more distant history. We can see it in the papers by Slavica Stamatović Vučković, Jelena Bajić Šestović, and Marija Ćaćić and, respectively, by Cristina Purcar and Virgil Pop, which both explore to Eastern European situations. In the first case, we see the top-down adoption of some of the core ideas of modernist architecture (the flat rooftop and the free ground floor) gaining new layers of significance in interwar and postwar Yugoslavia, and more specifically in nowadays Montenegro. In the second case, we are presented with Modernism as a political instrument, used for territorial appropriation in interwar Romania. The complex and contradictory local discourse featuring nationalism and modernity is illustrated by the architecture of railway infrastructure in the disputed area of Transylvania. In this case, the ideas and principles of Modernism are used in a bottom-up logic, arising from local political imperatives.
This section concludes with the article of Mirela Duculescu, who discusses the birth and evolution of Romanian design. The author argues that local modern design, at least in the postwar decades, did not evolve alongside mass production and industrial progress, as it did in the West, but was born “already modern”, often through individual initiative and academic means. The attempt to synchronize it with Western design was somewhat artificial, as the political and economic local context were not favorable to that endeavor.
The final section of the volume is dedicated to Modernism at past tense, something that, according to its own iconoclastic ethos, should be rejected or forgotten. Instead, it is honored as part of the cultural heritage of humanity — a condition that brings to the fore yet another relation between Modernism and time.
Conventional wisdom and understanding of heritage conservation imply that buildings included in this category are products of bygone ages. Conversely, the politically and professionally assumed intention to grant monumental status to modernist buildings could be interpreted as an acknowledgement of Modern Movement’s demise. The articles of this section point in several ways to Modernism’s afterlife, as heritage requires both a deeper and more nuanced understanding of its specificity and a more thorough debate as to doctrine and instruments of intervention.
The first article of this section, by Siobhan Barry, raises the question of the specific values and conservation potential of one of the building types most closely associated to modernity – the airport terminal. The quickly changing technical and functional standards of aviation are at the core of Banham’s characterization of airport terminals as being “always unfinished” and “always out of date.” How do we decide, in this very fluid context, what is to be preserved and how? How do we envisage the adaptive reuse of some of these very special buildings once they become obsolete?
The articles by Natália Kvítková, Levente Szabó, and, respectively, Ana Ivanovska Deskova, Vladimir Deskov and Jovan Ivanovski all discuss the specific problems related to the legacy of “Socialist Modernism,” or, as it has sometimes been called, “Eastmodern.” The continued existence and public reception of these buildings is being affected by a common characteristic of all modernist heritage – the fact that it is recent enough to be present in the emotional memory of the community, which makes it controversial and subjectively connoted in public debates. Central and Eastern European modernist heritage is also conditioned by the political significance of its appearance. This issue is quite significant, as some quality modernist architecture has often been the fruit of harsh and authoritarian public urban operations in socialist times, and is associated, in public memory, to an oppressive and authoritarian regime. This type of “reversed symbolic value” sometimes makes the preservation of these buildings a controversial issue in itself.
Other specific features of modernist heritage are also touched by one or more of the abovementioned contributions. For instance, the large number of modernist buildings makes it difficult to apply the criterion of “rarity / uniqueness”, a criterion usually adequate for determining the relative value of architectural heritage dating from more distant ages. International charters and good practices are sometimes hard to apply as such, because they are usually conceived in relation to the specific characteristics of “old” buildings and techniques. Also, modernist buildings were sometimes conceived and designed from the start as ephemeral or expendable, while conservation logic follows the opposite direction. All of the above constitute specific challenges to the preservation of modernist heritage, and there is no established consensus as to how to tackle them.
Finally, the paper by Ákos Zsembery and Maja Toshikj brings forth a type of “second generation” preservation, with its own specific questions and dilemmas. How do we approach modern interventions done a few decades ago on pre-modern monuments? Does this new historical layer hold the same legitimacy as the previous ones? What are we to do with the “modern prostheses” of restoration? And, in the larger context of the questions raised by this volume, can we look at these prostheses as a kind of “new life” inoculated to an otherwise “dead” moment of history, and which are now fighting for their own existence?
The dossier closes with “Meeting _Modernisms _in Gdynia,” a kind of dialogue between the account of an exemplary modernist city, Gdynia (by Robert Hirsch), and a very recent reflection on Modernism resulting from the international conference that took place there in October (by Ana Maria Zahariade and Karol Giełdon). The spirit of the conference in Gdynia summarized, in many respects, the subthemes we proposed for the volume, as well as the approaches of the contributors. Modernist architecture was there as an undisputed actor of our professional present.
Neither the participants in the conference nor the authors published in this volume were concerned with the conceptualization of Modernism, or with its more precise temporal delineation. On the contrary, it seems that the term Modernism has sprawled, losing in accuracy while more generously encompassing atypical architectures and approaches. Probably, as Maria Todorova put it, “modernity and modernism are concepts that suffer from overuse […]; they are with us to stay, among others because they have long ago left specialized scholarly discussion (or entered it too late) to become part of the everyday speech of many competing discourses.”6
1 Mark Jarzombek, “Review of _The Historiography of Modern Architecture _by Panayotis Tournikiotis,” in _The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians _60, 1 (2001), 108.
2 Panayotis Tournikiotis, The Historiography of Modern Architecture (Cambridge, MA / London: The MIT Press, 1999), 238.
3 Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture. A Critical History (London: Thames & Hudson, 1982), 271-272.
4 Sylvia Lavin, “Theory into History or, The Will to Anthology,” in _Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians _58, 3 (1999): 494-499.
5 Ibid.
6 Maria Todorova, “Modernism,” in Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States. Discourses of Collective Identity in Central and Southeast Europe 1770–1945: Texts and Commentaries, volume III/1, eds. Ahmet Ersoy, Maciej Górny and Vangelis Kechriotis (Budapest: CEU Press, 2010), 4-22.
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Zahariade, Ana Maria, and Toader Popescu. “Introduction. The Historicity of Modernism.” studies in History and Theory of Architecture, no. 7 (2019): -.