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Modernisms, Perceptions of Utopia

Updated on April 17, 2016

Two grand ideals ruled the modernist architectural profession, summarised by the belief that affecting social change and imposing universal order, architects could improve humanity. This change was to be brought through technology and its application. The ever growing middle class of twentieth century society sought to abolish the traditions set by the bourgeoisie rejecting the recurring notion of Enlightenment and Positivism, the belief that everything could be understood through science, of the 19th Century in favour of contemporary industrial possibility. Society’s focus was fixed on change and this inspired a new way of thinking that gave the creators of the city fresh tools to recreate the world. For instance, without the new internationalist character of architecture, the “Hi-Tech” experimentation of French architects with glass, and the evident need for reinvigoration; it would be unthinkable to imagine the erection of La Défense district in Paris during the 1950s. Former traditions were abolished as new ways of living was becoming apparent; it was common knowledge that the modern movement was to improve everyday life “through a rational contact with technology, science and economics for the tasks of the future” . Through this belief, industrial advances gave light to new opportunities.

Moreover, “Starting from Zero” was a repeated phrase since the emergence of the Bauhaus that defined the objectives of modernism effectively since it depicted the underlying situation and the need for a new architectural power to emerge. It referred to nothing less than re-creating the world. It is in this context that modernism thrived, striving to emulate the concept of tabula rasa; in Europe there was a need to start anew and the trend would follow globally as the avant grade visionaries sought to follow the example set in Europe. For instance, the Rockefeller family established the MoMA in New York in 1929 and the museum has since been used to broadcast the most influential ideas of art. The modernist état d’esprit has inspired a new conception of the world, a fresh possibility of utopia. Globalisation has ensured that development be enhanced allowing for the International Style, inspired by the Bauhaus but thereafter prolonged, to reign everywhere. Consequently we strive to implement a modern response to any faltering neighbourhoods, hoping to combine the two together to provide an immediate response to existing problems. Similarly, the “Collective Dwelling” project based in Faversham focused on the rejuvenation of an area, attempting to reinforce the tradition of the town through a contemporary addition. This project is relatable to the ideas put forward in Colin Rowe’s Collage City which argues that urban proposals now come to life through a process of fragmentation, replacement and enhancement to draw closer towards utopia. It would therefore be possible to wonder in what sense has modernism changed our perception of utopia? In order to respond to this, this essay shall commence by analysing the reaction of modernist minds to the progress and development of the inter-war period, before exploring how the modernist utopia became interlinked with forgetting the past and improving the present. Finally, it would be possible to identify how late modernists strived for design based on the hopes of inspiring a future utopia.

Looshaus (1911)

We must firstly identify the developing urbanist ideals throughout modernism in order to see what trends followed the état d’esprit of revolution. Charles Jencks gave an intriguing definition to modernism when he stated it as the “universal, international style stemming from the facts of new constructional means, adequate to a new industrial society, and having as its goal the transformation of society, both in its taste and social make-up.” Through this perception, he naturally put architecture at the heart of the revolution and allows it to act as a cause for society’s transformation. Adolf Loos’ Looshaus (1911), may act as a relevant example of this, since it defined a form of resistance to ornament. A much revered modernist, Loos used form to adapt to the mass production encouraged by society with the advances made prior to the First World War, and therefore places architecture as a type of antidote and response to the context of the time. In relation to this, Anthony Vidler, stated that public architecture was “otherwise assassinated by the apparently endless cycle of production and consumption”, highlighting the influence that the machine age was having upon the city. An upheaval of public architecture was taking place, with its role drastically changing in face of the machine compared to the importance of public institutions during the nineteenth century. Having derived that architecture, the city and society have undergone drastic change through the architect at the beginning of the twentieth century, the following analysis of the changing aspect of public spaces offers insight on how a new sense of place was created.

The public realm was undergoing drastic change, and it is known that “one of the most noticeable changes in modern architecture was the diminishing distinction between public and private buildings”. Sir Leslie Martin underlined the importance of public space in the modernist era when he imagined his own utopia as a low rise alternative to New Yorks’ industrial mountain of skyscrapers, by showing that the public space around a building was just as important as the building itself. In his “The Grid as Generator” Martin highlights that the courtyard and the pavilion offer equivalent floor spaces, and continue to show that public space acts as the inversion of the buildings which surround it. Therefore, public space holds as much importance as the building. Although these thoughts were published in 1967, they reflect on modernist precedents and they may be seen in Le Corbusier’s Towards A New Architecture in 1923, which discuss his low-rise high density planning in his early urban proposals. The insistence on careful planning within the public realm developed solutions for needed light and greenery within spaces, that thereafter strengthened the aura of a building.

The role of public space was to be further developed in his unités d’habitations where his ideas were to hold a great influence on future urban thinking. In Radiant City, Le Corbusier sought to give a new sense to the concept of dwelling by abolishing the border between public space and housing. The Maison Radieuse in Nantes is a relevant example of this principle since it places an entire community of apartments at the heart of a park. The apartment block strives to create the sense of community through design decisions that include dimming the lights in the corridors and increasing their width to create “streets”. Public space was seeping closer into private space; the barrier was being broken. Le Corbusier’s ideas highlighted the changing nature of public space. The recurring notion of tabula rasa steered planners and architects away from emphasising the importance of the existing public realm. Le Corbusier had plans to demolish several of Paris’ historic districts in order to give way to a symbolic, imposing architecture. It is important to note that there was a great desire for change, which gave way to drastic new ideals. Therefore, these beliefs allowed modernism to superimpose existing public space.

This possibility was conceived during high modernism and made apparent thereafter during the birth of postmodernism. Colin Rowe’s Collage City is known to have inspired certain postmodern ideals, especially in relation to the existing real but especially succeeds in highlighting the issues concerning modernism. In his influential work, Rowe explores how modernism has sought to create a stronghold within our world by starting anew, the concept of collaging depicted the mind frame of modernist building. The architect had taken it upon himself to reinvent the area, as Le Corbusier says “I call utopia implementation, because I often implement utopia” . In this sense, the modernist was to cut away and add almost recklessly, much like for Collective Dwelling. Remnants of this idea of modernism still exist today with Frank Gehry for instance, who characterises architecture as an act of “cutting and slicing” where there is a need for metamorphosis in a world that is constantly changing. His Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris follows this modernist collaging since it is located deep in the Bois de Boulogne. Whilst it proposes an interesting alternative to typical museums, the building sits strangely in the forest, and appears as if it was added rather than moulded into the area.

Fondation Louis Vuitton (2014)

However, key points highlighted by Kostof discuss our changing perception of the city, and the urban fabric which binds it together. The hegemony of modern projects did not come without consequence on public space. Kostof states that the urban fabric of a place would consist of the streets, the institutions and the places which have survived over the ages, and which give a real sense of being to an area; the urban fabric of a city is what transforms it from a space into a place. It has become apparent, however, that through modernism’s fixation on starting anew, architects’ proposals appeared to care less for the existing parts of the city. Instead, they hoped to act as imposing structures in order to arouse new opinions. This was synonymous to ignoring existing public space. Only in places where history could not be forgotten could an area resist to this, yet it became apparent that “our public spaces were proud repositories of a common history. We have largely abandoned that sense of a shared destiny and our public spaces show it”. This can be seen on the university campus through the lack of imposing public space. We may notice the most recent creation of a public square between Marlowe, the new crit space extension, Jarman and Essentials. More people are using this space throughout the day to gain access to the buildings, to walk through the square or even to reside inside whilst making conversation or consuming a meal. Yet what is significant is that it exists only as a product of the buildings. It was not an “intended” public space. The proposal for Faversham sought to use the frontage of new buildings to create a new square. Thereafter, these revolutionary ideas should each be considered as a modernist utopia, the ideal state that each of its architects imagined. Modernism was focused with utopia for it was now necessary to give society a new hope. Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Lyon are considered to be “Utopies Realisées” (Conceived Utopias) for their innovative ambition and role as political symbols, therefore taking a significant stance at the heart of the society. They imposed themselves, and succeeded to carve a new character at the heart of the city. Revolutionary modernist ideas,, therefore allowed the possibility of imagining utopias.

KSA, University of Kent

To progress, it would be possible to refer to Rem Koolhaas’ essay entitled The Generic City, which argued how modernism has almost ended architecture’s path and ensured that everything will now look the same, that instead of creating new spaces we are merely in the process of constructing generic cities. Since we continue to find cheaper and simpler ways to construct buildings, we condemn ourselves towards the production of a generic architecture, that is further strengthened through globalisation. As Koolhaas puts it,the “serenity of the generic city is achieved by the evacuation of the public realm” and this instantly links back to the deductions stated concerning the weakening of public spaces. Even if we would identify the generic city as a utopia; it has been made clear, primarily through Collage City, that such an ideal would not last. The overwhelming need of modernism to stay in the present leads to its own downfall, for it only provides an ideal solution for the present, without embracing the past or imagining the future. The past may well be neglected, as Le Corbusier explains by saying that ridding the city of all memory of the past is the only way to fully respect its memory for the “past should not become the grave digger of the present.”

Having identified the main concern arising from modernism, it would be possible to find the consequences of the generic city throughout the century. This may firstly be seen by looking at the writings of Jenck, who proclaimed the death of modernism in the 1970s, citing Pruitt Igoe as an example of its downfall. Designed by Yamasaki, Pruitt Igoe was considered to be an exemplary modernist building, but failed to fit into the existing surroundings and succumbed to tragedy. There were no places of entertainment, and the disillusioned area attracted the wrong crowds of people leading to its demolition in 1972, less than twenty years after it was built. We may develop this point by looking at the powerful surge of Brutalism in London during the 1950s and 1960s, inspired by the Smithsons. The high-rise vision of modernist utopia propagated by the USA was considered, but quickly rejected seeing the failure of projects like the Ronan Point in London. One of the few high rise schemes to be realised in London, it did not fit into the existing area and was not accepted by society, succumbing to a quick destruction. London took part in a resurgence through the path of New Brutalism, acquiring new character. There was therefore a change in the state of mind of theorists at this point; architects were slowly beginning to realise the importance of the past and especially that of the future. Post modernism appeared to partially thwart the principle of rash, design concerned with striking the present in order to think ahead. For instance, we may think of Cook’s “Plug-in-City” and Heron’s “Walking City” inspired by Buckminster Fuller, which both encouraged ephemeralization. The building’s success would be measured not by aesthetics but by its degree of ecological integrity, and therefore designing for the future. Yet modernism would not fade so easily, and whilst architects realised the need to include historicism in their buildings and public spaces, they were very selective about it.

Ronan Point (demolished in 1968)

At this point, we must identify a key element of the contemporary utopia. Despite the insistence on starting anew, architects and planners would soon realise the need to commemorate the memory of a space and to use its rich history selectively. The existing parts of a city were therefore seen differently. Architects were identifying which elements would define the character of a city, which elements have remained timeless and have proved to be an irrefutable addition rather than a questionable space within the spirit and the functioning of the city. A.Rossi identifies these crucial elements as urban artefacts and argues that they represent a fragment of the city’s spirit and count as a real contribution towards utopia. He focused on “works which participate as original events in the formation of the city endure and become characteristic of the time, transforming or denying their original function, and finally constitute a fragment of the city”. To develop this point, we may refer to the Roman Forum, which has remained timeless. Its function may have changed but its presence has remained fixed. It has justified itself into the core of the city and stands as a beacon of its existence and, more importantly, success. Consequently, we may suggest that to achieve utopia we must avoid the generic city.

Jeremy Till has highlighted this in his influential work Architecture Depends where he reverts to the platonic belief that architecture is reactionary to the world in which it resides in. This can be related to modernism in the sense that it needed to return to a more reactionary rather than revolutionary state. What started as a worker orientated movement transformed into a fashion trend, even reaching a climax where truthful construction could now be contested as extreme applied decoration. This is the case with Van der Rohe’s Seagram Building for instance, which insures the exposition of steel. He coated the steel on the interior but fought for its exposition on the exterior. In this sense, rather than expressing the structure he is arguably dressing the building, which is what modernism had fought against since its birth. Modernism therefore inspired various interpretations.

It would now be necessary to establish what influence post modern ideas held on the quest for utopia. Compared to the present thinking of the earlier modernists, during the birth of postmodernism in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a greater need for thinking ahead. The original principles of modernism appeared highly questionable, and it became clear that quote “the gospel according to Giedion and Gropius that preached functional and formal purity and rejection of the past is being increasingly debated and denied”. We may refer to the example of Constant in his proposal for New Babylon in 1964. He proposes a scheme that would satisfy current occupiers, yet be prepared to accommodate a future utopia, turning his concern to the dynamic city of the future rather than the consumer city of the present. This thought was representative of the unitary urbanism movement which criticised current modernism. Constant strived to create a place where people were completely liberated, where imagination could reign and where everything what is fleeting and transient acquires the importance since it signifies future possibility.

New Babylon (1974)

Moreover, throughout the twentieth century more ideas were arising and spreading and there appeared to be a strain of similarity which held them together and orientated them towards a school of thought; this was exposed during the 1980s, known as the gilded age of theory which produced a record number of publications. Firstly, it is crucial to understand that architects and theorists now tied the problem of utopia to the issue of conceiving a beautiful picture of the world without being able to bring it to life. For instance, Denise Scott Brown had proclaimed that urbanists were extremely successful in conceiving a beautiful picture of the town, but they were not concerned enough with designing for the people. This issue still exists today, with architects like Jan Gehl and Robert Stern advocating for a new approach which ensured people-oriented designs and spaces. This type of future thinking was encouraged with the introduction of New Urbanism on the playground of architectural theory.

Lastly, by the end of the century architects and buildings started to be concerned with future possibility. The aim exceeded the longevity of the building, even hoping that buildings would in the future to fulfil their potential in relation to their context. For instance, we may look at the Yokohama Port Terminal designed by FOA which strived to create “a single warped plane that would be sometimes highway, sometimes ramp, sometimes parking, and sometimes roof.” In this sense, we experience an architecture that surpasses its current existence which ceases to be relative to the present. Architecture depends, but becomes more useful through such flexibility. Another comparable example would include the Thermal Baths at Vals by Zumthor, who seeks to design “buildings that, in time, grow naturally into being a part of the form and history of their place”. The development of modernist ideas has therefore brought architects to make creations that will not simply last or make an impression, but would adapt.

In conclusion, whilst 19th century cities preserved the past, the beginning of 20th century drastically changed cities to focus on the present, before later focusing on the future coupled with selective historicism. Modernism represented the promise of a different future and provided the opportunity to use it, explaining why architects acquired so much will for introducing drastic change, and believed that they could insure it. Utopia is the limit that we will never reach, but we shall never cease to strive for.


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