A (Measured) Defense of Modernism

“Modern” is a word that gets thrown around in our everyday conversations but in the Art World, it means something very specific. A movement that arose at the dawn of the 20th century in Europe, Modernism has complex aesthetic, historical and philosophical implications. Anyone who has taken a class with me knows that I have strong (negative) feelings about the Modernist style. Simply put, I believe that it is architecture that functions more like aesthetic art than a viable living space. To me, it seems cold and unwelcoming.


However, our current social and political climate here in the United States has inspired me to reconsider this artistic movement and re-visit what it would be like to see these creations unfolding in their moment, with renewed empathy.

The central tenets of Modernism were to create a new way to live in a post-Industrial world. This reverberated in the realms of literature, philosophy and art in various ways but for the architecture world in particular, this meant the development of the “International Style” of Modernism.

First sown at the Bauhaus, an art academy in Weimar, Germany, the Modernist movement in architecture eschewed traditions and history in every sense of the word. At the arts academy, the distinctions between crafts such as weaving and traditionally “high art disciplines” such as sculpture and painting were broken down in a move of radical egalitarianism. In purely aesthetic terms, modernism meant stripping objects down to their fundamental elements and then streamlining from there. This holds true for the International Style, developed by Le Corbusier. Thankfully for us, there are only five points to remember when thinking about what Modernist architects had in mind when designing their buildings.

Corbusier’s Five points of Architecture are as follows:

  1. Pilotis (thin, simple white columns) will be the ground floor of any structure, replacing walls to bear the structural load of the entire building.
  2. The absence of an internal plan/”free plan”- “open plan” may be more familiar to us today
  3. The facade of the building will have no decoration/ornamentation or prescribed places to put windows or any other structures.
  4. Ribbon windows (long, thin, and usually placed in the center of the wall) shall provide even natural light for the room
  5. A Rooftop garden on a flat roof, for recreation but also to protect the roof.
Villa Savoye, Le Corbusier (1931).

These points can be summarized by the plan of the Villa Savoye and in any modern architecture class, you will see lots of buildings that have variations on these themes.

Personally, I do not enjoy this aesthetic at all. The whole point of this style being called “International” is because it is supposed to free us from the constraints of place, it is supposed to be timeless. I think that being able to use architecture to determine place is one of the most beautiful things about our built environments-they reflect our times and our places.

But Modernism is not without its merits. First, it was hugely influential on the developments of skyscrapers, which I love studying-so I am grateful for that.

The International Style and capital-M Modern architecture was largely experimental. Many of the structural elements we see so ubiquitously in them had never been used in those ways before, if at all. Prior to 1900, it would be inconceivable that you would use stick-thin columns to support massive buildings. Much of this innovation is due to engineering successes that allowed architects to re-define what a building could look like. They invented a new aesthetic from the ground up-literally.

Bauhaus Teapot, Marianne Brandt

Much of Modernist architecture focused on problem-solving. On the microscale, architects thought about how to redesign houses, down to even the teapots, to be more efficient and streamlined. On the macroscale, architects could plan large hypothetical utopian cities, designed to accommodate a growing post-war population. Because of this, architects also were more resourceful, attempting to utilize mass-produceable, industrial materials and design structures that can be pre-fabricated quickly on site.

Perhaps the most important point (and certainly the one that inspired me to write about this in the first place), is that Modernist architects tackled huge, philosophical questions with their work. Modernism arose out of the ashes of the most unthinkable tragedy of a global scale. In many ways, the institutions of the past (monarchies, traditions, academies) had failed and been quelled in such a short span of time. Facing these odds, Modernists created anew. They tackled the question of “How should we live?”. In the face of unparalleled violence and destruction, they created, they built. While I don’t agree with the rather ham-handed “one solution/way for all”, I admire that the modernists focused on creating  a better future through better buildings when it would have been so easy to be despondent and see art as a futile pursuit in the face of real violence and ugliness in the world. They built this style to be liberation, from tradition, constraints and clutter. When everything they knew from the past crumbled, they were there to begin again.

VillaSavoye.jpgI will still maintain that I think the International Style of Modern architecture is problematic. It is incredibly elitist-search for International Style homes and they will all be Villa Such-and-Such, hardly the style of the people like they originally intended. I find that the lack of ornament and the radical minimalism and simplicity render the style cold, a hardly welcome hearth. Not to mention that many of these designs simply are not practical for various climates-a flat roof in Boston could not handle the snow successfully and many structures that were built dealt with leaking issues from precipitation. These designs live in beauty on paper but do not thrive as well in the real world.

But at the same time, I also see the work of the Modernists as creative, hopeful and courageous in extremely uncertain and unhopeful times and this brings me great comfort now.

After all, unprecedented times call for unprecedented design.


5 comments on “A (Measured) Defense of Modernism

  1. […] International Style Modernism always struck me as being deeply entrenched in philosophy and more cerebral. It focused on the best way for all modern people to live going forward, one completely divergent from the past. That is to say, the design of the space and furniture is intended to shape the user’s life into a Modern Ideal, somewhat specific to Europe.  American Mid-Century Modern designs do the opposite; they accommodate the ideal user–a lower-case M modern American family. And having visited Europe, I have a deeper awareness for the fact that Europe and the United States experienced World War II in drastically different ways. While Europe faced the choice (and challenge) of rebuilding itself in the historical image or embracing modernity, this was different than the way things played out in America. After the War, the United States wanted to establish itself as a world power and leader in science and technology. Mid-Century Modernist designs also played to an ideal, but one linked to the material needs of a modern and stylish family in the suburbs. The needs of this user shaped the design of the space and object. […]


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