About twenty years ago, Anatole Kopp found a particularly effective title for one of his historical essays on modern architecture: Quand le Moderne n’était pas un style mais une cause, When Modernity was not a style but a cause.
Because of his cosmopolitan intellectual background, encompassing Russia and the United States, passing through France, Kopp was able to assume a critical stance with regard to the post-modernist fashions of the time, highlighting how any accusation towards architectural modernity could only stem from a careful evaluation of what the latter had represented, between the two World Wars, within a broader political project of social reform.
Although it originated from the middle-class intellectual elite, modern architecture developed in Europe, above all to respond to a precise problem, that of social housing. A theme which, not by chance, plays a key role in the formulation of historical materialism, above all through Engels’ three articles of 1872, subsequently compiled in the well-known pamphlet Zur Wohnungsfrage, The issue of housing.
Starting from the 1920s, the rationalist siedlung thus became a kind of icon, a metaphor of Modernity, opposing the mietskaserne which instead symbolised degradation into which the reactionary middle classes forced the working classes. But the siedlung was also the basic cell of the progressive and modern city, just as the mietskaserne was for the 19th-century reactionary city.
A radical transformation of Modernity began with its conquering of the United States. In the course of this adventure, we could say that something happened to Architecture that was very similar to what happened to Psychoanalysis the moment it fulfilled the same transmigration across the ocean. Since American pragmatism could not accept the founding principle of Freudian theory, according to which “the id is not master of his own home”, the city of New Deal did not know what to do with the rationalist siedlung.
What is more, the Anglo-Saxon garden city, above all the Wrightian version of Broadacre City, essentially rejected the European city, conceived as an urban structure based on a series of mass and void, corresponding with the alternation of buildings, streets and squares.
Undoubtedly, Le Corbusier also aimed “to kill” the rue corridor, with his Ville Radieuse, but nonetheless rather slavishly revisited very European and urban concepts, adding Fourierian phalanstère structures to the industrial city of Garnier, to the town-planning prophecies of Hénard, to the futurist “città che sale”, rising city.
American organicistic modernism instead harboured deep disdain for the city in is broadest meaning. This clearly emerges in the writings of F.L. Wright, exemplified in this extract from The Future of Architecture.
«Is the city a natural triumph of the herd instinct over humanity, and therefore a temporal necessity as a hangover from the infancy of the race, to be outgrown as humanity grows?
Or is the city only a persistent form of social disease eventuating in the fate all cities have met?
Civilisation always seemed to need the city. The city expressed, contained, and tried to conserve what the flower of the civilisation that built it most cherished, although it was always infested with the worst elements of society as a wharf is infested with rats».
Although in the same years the extraordinary American intellectual, Lewis Mumford, offered a neo-humanist vision of urban culture, the idea of the city as a “wharf infested with rats” prevailed until becoming a kind of common denominator of almost all American town-planning theories. And this same image appears to be fixed in the American collective unconscious right up to the present, emerging for instance in films such as John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981), Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1982), or in Martin Scorsese’s recent Gangs of New York (2002), to cite some well-known examples.
So Modernity, in its American translation, is essentially characterised by its ideological disinvestment, in the sense of a radical detachment from politics, understood as the art of envisaging the city. American modernity thus looks not to the siedlungen of the Weissenhof, but to the Californian villas of Neutra, and in some cases clearly assumes an anti-urban character, transforming the city into a group of places designed purely for cars.
Today, the Americanisation of Modernity has reached maximum levels owing to globalisation processes. This translates into a sort of neo International Style which I define “Modernette”, precisely for the involutional characteristics it presents in relation to Modernity, rather like what Rococo is to Baroque.
But what are the compositional principles of Modernette? First and foremost is the intentional rejection of the perspective urban space, that is, of the street and the square, the founding elements of the European city. On the basis of such a principle, when Modernette intervenes in a traditional urban context, instead of stitching together the existing fabric, it produces further lacerations, generating self-referential islands, antithetic to the context. This formulation originates from the very American tradition of conceiving buildings as isolated, free-standing objects, removed from the continuity of the street front and placed in the centre of huge lots, where the green areas have the main aim of softening the impact of the vast car parks.
In this sense, the American city, with the exception of Manhattan and few other historical towns, takes shape not so much as an anti-perspective space but more as an a-perspective space, because indifferent to the point of view of the observer who wanders through it. But owing to its refusal to measure itself through the eyes of passers-by, the American city ends up being completely estranged from perspective, not just as an optical phenomenon but above all as “symbolic form”. This factor is clearly understood when observing the way in which monuments are conceived. Standing before the Washington Monument, for instance, an enormous obelisk designed and positioned according to classical canons on the Washington Mall, even the most inexperienced European tourist feels a strong sense of agoraphobia created by the void, from the surrounding urban nothingness. Beyond any symbolic implication of monument/memento, laden with varying degrees of evocative power, the monument in the European city is always functional to a precise perspective space. In the above-mentioned case, it is essential to make comparisons with the obelisks of Sistine Rome, but when we also think of the various fountains, triumphal columns, equestrian and pedestrian monuments that form the urban landscape of almost all the European cities, we realise that in no case is the monument without its precise urban container, provided by nothing other than the architecture of a square or a street. The same counts for the monument-building, be it a church, public or private palace. Its positioning is well defined within a space where the residence plays a fundamental role as urban continuum, as a frame and backdrop, as a connective element, structured according to rapports of reciprocal necessity, to the point where it cannot be considered a city if it has no residence or monument.
The incomprehension of rapports between monument and urban space, based on perspective as “symbolic form”, is at the root of another distinctive aspect of Modernette, revealed by the tendency to equate architecture with sculpture, as if to suggest the fact that the building, on a par with the sculptural object, is not destined to be lived in its interior, but to be essentially observed from the outside. This is why all the buildings conceived by Modernette, independently of their typology, aspire to obtain credit as landmarks, as iconic elements of the urban landscape, as out-of-scale objects intent on demonstrating their artistic qualities merely because of the fact they are inconceivable as buildings. And hence there are no longer residences or monuments, a situation which is translated into a new form of rejection of the city, steering us back to that disdain for a rat-infested place where it is preferable to get around by car rather than by foot.
This method of conceiving and designing the building, no longer in relation to a front and back, a top and bottom, left and right sides, is subsequently stimulated by the diffusion of computer programmes of 3D modelling. The possibilities that these offer to graphically represent quickly and easily what once could only be viewed through means of expensive solid models, brings us to a fundamental axiom of Modernette, which could be summed up in the following principle: we no longer represent what can be built, but we build what can be represented. And since it is possible to represent any form, any geometry, the consequent challenge lies in the endeavour to achieve the impossible. However, instead of stimulating an evolution of building techniques, this leads to a decorative use of them, insofar as the materials and building technologies are applied in an illogical way, against their very own nature, with the sole aim of stupefying.
This is why, paraphrasing Kopp and Panofsky, we could say that today, Modernette far from being a cause, is also no longer a style, but rather a “stylism”, precisely because perspective has mutated from a symbolic form to a symbol of form in itself and for itself, indifferent to the eyes of those who wander through the city, dictated by the eye of the machine, be it computer or car, which have become the sole real meter by which the urban space is measured.
© Stefano Fera, April 6th, 2007
(Published in the architectural magazine Area, n. 92, May/June 2007)