Modernism: Good or Bad?

I love looking at, talking about, walking through and around new buildings. Usually I like new ones more than old ones. At the risk of revealing possibly bad taste: Paris is full of pretty buildings; oddly, my favorite is La Grande Arche de la Defense. The building is usually regarded as a failure (e.g., here mentioned along with a bunch of supposed architectural mistakes). Yet, I’ve always thought the way that it completes Paris’s monumental central axis is sublime.

Modernist buildings — especially in combination with modernist urban planning — have not infrequently received sustained criticism over the years as abjectly inhumane. In particular, modernist projects of urban renewal were reviled for the way that they tore up the textured fabric of cities in favor of highly rationalized, functionalist “machines for living.” San Francisco’s Western Addition was subject to post-war urban development in the 1950s and 1960s. Many there still lament the loss of blocks and blocks of the neighborhood’s precious Victorians, especially in a city that only 50 years before had suffered the cataclysmic destruction of the 1906 earthquake and fire.

The memory of that loss, and of the mistakes of redevelopment, still governs San Franciscan attitudes toward modern architecture. Unfortunately, that means that San Francisco now seems to consider its Victorians sacred. No urban project is ever announced in SF without facing the opposition and wrath of neighborhood activists. So rather than a modern city at the hub of one of the world’s most important centers of technological innovation (the Bay Area, yo), it can sometimes seem like a theme park complete with unique and thrilling rides. SF’s modern gay and lesbian center was forced to accomodate the demands of preservationists, and instead of an important piece of architecture on its main axis, it has this:

Modernist city planning, the anthropologist James Holston writes in The Modernist City, was based on a utopian ideal and a revolutionary program. In the mid-twentieth-century, more than one developing nation embraced the progressive ideals embodied in modernist planning as a means to hasten social and economic ‘advance.’ But, as Holston points out, the results were not infrequently mixed to negative. The city was radically defamiliarized and ‘de-natured’ in the new designs: not an organism but a machine. A new book connects up the development of modernist architecture to training in new engineering and manufacturing techniques. Transparency of materials (think glass) and monumental public spaces were thought to materialize a critique of private property. The ostensible equality of city residents was one goal.

Holston focuses his ‘anthropological critique’ on Brasilia, the now-legendary Ur-modernist capital of Brazil, and here he finds that the revolutionary program of the city’s planners failed, in part because the city’s inhabitants actively resisted it in their everyday lives and forms of dwelling. And we have become accustomed to such critiques. Imagine the surprise, then, of Tapiola, a suburban development on the outskirts of Helsinki.

You can learn about Tapiola in minute historical, cultural, and architectural detail at Tapiola 50, a website celebrating the development’s 50th anniversary. Tapiola was, to my knowledge, constructed under exactly the same design principals that other mid-20th-century urban developments were. I have lived in Tapiola for less than a month. And far from a modernist dystopia, the place seems like Le Corbusier’s Valhalla. Families roam clean and crisp public squares pushing distinctively Finnish super-strollers (most are equipped with huge wheels, the better for pushing through snow I’m told): SUVs for babies. Clusters of intelligently designed apartment buildings are seperated by birch glens and walking paths. Public buses, bikes, pedestrians, and cars co-exist. The overall impression is youthful, fair-skinned, orderly, and pleasant.

I can assure you that this is exactly what the place looks like in real life (minus the pixelation). It raises a question: is the modernist aesthetic in fact appropriate to particular sorts of ethos? A Finn might respond (and some have, when I asked a few) that Finns are not in fact predisposed to the Mediterranean life of the street that might be more characteristic of a Brazilian/Portuguese mode of dwelling. Perhaps, then, the modernist aesthetic ‘works’ in some places more than others. Perhaps the emphasis on ‘organic’ cities versus ‘denatured machines’ needs to take account of places like Tapiola, where modernist design appears to exist in felicitous harmony with a style of living. Or perhaps I haven’t lived here long enough to know where the fissures and dissatisfactions lay.

One thought on “Modernism: Good or Bad?

  1. Interesting. Modernism as a “finished project”?

    I personally think the problem with most modernist buildings is that they are not done well, not modernism per-se. Years ago there was a great article in the NY Review of Books comparing Corbusier’s Chandigarh and Louis Kahn’s IIM in Ahmedabad. The big difference, it argued, was not that Kahn was less of a modernist, but that he was less arrogant about his modernism – visiting the site, using local materials, etc. whereas Corbusier insisted that he could do the whole thing from Paris (he didn’t) because “a grid is a grid.” There is nothing in modernism which says you have to disregard the needs and lifestyle of the inhabitants. I’d be interested to know what the process was of planning and building Tapiola?

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