What comes after modernism? | icon 035 | May 2006

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words Marcus Fairs, Kieran Long, Justin McGuirk

The world has changed dramatically since the last great “ism” was codified almost a century ago. The social and economic conditions that inspired first artists, then architects and designers, to break with the past and propose a radical agenda for change now no longer exist in the West.

Yet the shadow of modernism still looms over us; architects and designers still broadly adhere to its tenets and nobody has yet managed to define a new “ism” for the 21st century. As the Victoria & Albert Museum in London prepares to open a major exhibition on the subject, the icon editorial team headed to the local branch of Costa Coffee to discuss why modernism still holds such sway, and how it might be toppled. The conversation rapidly turned into a feature as we got carried away and ended up proposing not just one but three potential movements to succeed modernism. We don’t claim that any of them are right – but we do believe it’s time that modernism was put out of its misery.

Marcus Fairs: We want to work out what comes after modernism – but are we even sure modernism is dead?

Justin McGuirk: It’s alive in the sense that architects are still making buildings that look like modernism and designers are still producing modernist-style products. The mainstream is still modernist – both formally and in its use of materials and construction systems. The only thing that’s missing is the ideology.

MF: In architecture the visual language of modernism is still relatively dominant isn’t it? But it’s just a style now.

Kieran Long: I think that modernism is alive in that sense too, but as one belief system amongst many. It’s not the dominant orthodoxy any more – there is now an astonishing variety of things going on in architecture and design. So many, in fact, that it’s hard to make sense of it all, and that white noise replaces credible manifestos.

MF: Yeah, there’s been this massive return to decoration, pattern and frivolity in design – think about Tord Boontje or Marcel Wanders, for example. There’s no ideological reason for it and it doesn’t solve any problems, but people just like it.

KL: But there are still architects and designers who design as if technology were going to solve social problems – which is essentially a modernist position – and who act as if an abstracted visual language is somehow more honest than a representational one.

MF: The modernists believed that they could make people’s lives better through design, but it’s an ideology that sprang from a specific set of social, economic and industrial conditions almost 100 years ago, along with the leftist political motivation of the people involved. But surely very few of those conditions exist anymore? Why has it remained the dominant “ism” for a hundred years?

JM: Partly because it was easy to understand and easy to emulate. Even bad architects could just follow the rules: Le Corbusier said you had to have piloti and horizontal windows and all these things and it was easy to do. Once the aesthetic got taken on board people didn’t think about why it had developed in the first place – it just became universal. I also think socialism underwrites the whole thing, and this is why it’s a good time to talk about what comes next because the era of ideologies is over. The same way that politics has atomised, so will design, so that it’s more about the individual than the masses.

MF: Capitalism is the only game in town now, isn’t it? It’s every man for himself.

KL: But modernism and capitalism are now interchangeable. Modernism became the aesthetic of capitalism. Once it broke free from the reconstruction-of-a-nation connotation that it had in Europe, it became the Seagram Building and a language of globalised commerce.

MF: And of blandness, of everything being the same. In other words, it stands for many of the conditions that we find abhorrent today.

JM: Well, at one point modernism stood for a sense of social and economic progress, and so people aspired to it. Firstly, I don’t think we believe in “progress” any more, and secondly, modernism became tainted by the cheap, identikit post-war housing estates that became popular symbols of, if anything, dystopia. Nowadays, people don’t want to live in identical units with identical furniture, they want to express their difference.

MF: But perhaps modernism is so popular among architects and designers because it briefly put them in the driving seat. It put them in a position whereby they could claim to be improving society on behalf of everyone …

KL: … and they could dictate how it was done. For example in 1925, you had somebody like Ernst May, who was an architect but also the director
of the entire building industry in Frankfurt,
and the director of the building society that financed the 15,000 houses they built in the five years up to 1930.

MF: I suspect there’s an intense degree of nostalgia among architects for the time when they could make decisions that affected hundreds and thousands of people, and that seems to be holding the profession back at the moment.

KL: I think that’s a natural consequence of the current state of education. One amazing thing about modernism is that everyone gets taught it, basically. You can’t go to an architecture school, apart from one like the Prince of Wales Institute, and say “I don’t want a modernist education”. It’s the same the world over: architects are trained
to be modernists.

JM: Which isn’t necessarily relevant any more, but they’re also trained to be creators, so it’s understandable that they have a sense of destiny.

MF: Architects whinge on about how things should be – for example, the Thames Gateway [a vast area to the east of London earmarked for 200,000 new homes but which many architects feel is being developed piecemeal], and how it would be better if they were in control. But why should they be?

KL: There are architects involved in the Thames Gateway of course, and they’re going to make a positive difference but it’s not going to be their plan that’s built – they have a secondary role. But perhaps to even be an architect or designer you have to believe that your work is going to make a positive, definitive contribution.

MF: We came here to talk about what might come after modernism, and I don’t see the answers coming from architecture. For me, the people who are finding new territories are those guys who are doing the Breeding Tables [Kram and Weisshaar] or the Bouroullec brothers or Committee or designers who are playing around with rapid prototyping. But architecture seems to be stuck in a rut, working out the endgame of modernism. Many designers have much more interesting ideas about the end of mass production and the start of mass customisation.

KL: Perhaps that’s to do with the techniques of contemporary design. There is no real way of doing functionalism with rapid prototyping, for example, because you can make anything. The instinct has been for people to express contradiction. You take a highly technocratic process which is controlled by computers, and then you make a flower out of it. There’s something perverse and beautiful about it that comes from a certain freedom.

JM: I would say that’s happening in architecture today. Computers allow you to design any form you like, and people don’t necessarily know what to do with that. So it’s decadent before you get started – it becomes more about making wild, sculptural forms just because you can.

KL: To me that’s all just modernism. You see it in all the graduate design schools that are doing computer-generated work. They’re all striving for a component or technology that solves a multitude of problems at the same time, and one that is universally applicable. It’s what Winy Maas would describe as “architecture as a device”.

JM: I wouldn’t say that was true of all computational design; I don’t think Gehry’s trying to solve problems. I think he’s trying to put expression back into a form that he obviously thinks has become devoid of it. So you could say it’s more akin to a kind of baroque or a fin-de-siècle decadence.

KL: To me Gehry’s the exception that proves the rule. His early work is clearly not modernism. But a firm like Foreign Office Architects has really obscure theories to describe their work in terms of form and function. But the thing is, because that has no meaning to anyone else, they are forced to say that their Olympic stadium design “looks a bit like muscles”. So the whole thing is just set up to then make a really banal metaphor, because it has no language of its own.

JM: I agree it all falls apart at that point. But it’s also possible that they might be playing with a new paradigm. If modernism used mass-produced, modular materials because they were the product of the machine age, today we live in the information age. So you have FOA, Rem Koolhaas and Thom Mayne doing data-based architecture. Information is the substance of a new form of architecture, potentially.

MF: You’re fundamentally right, because there’s been a shift hasn’t there, from an interest in the machine to a contemporary obsession with data?

KL: I think it’s the same thing as functionalism. Data-based architecture still has to choose which data to base itself on and what it always chooses in my experience of this is weather, tidal patterns, volcanic flows or other natural phenomena that can then be mediated by the architecture. It’s never whether the person who’s going to live in that house is a Catholic or Muslim – that’s not a parameter that the system can handle.

JM: But that’s because you can’t break down that parameter into numbers.

KL: It’s based on empiricism, which is basically about making primary the person who’s looking. It definitely has the potential to adapt to more parameters, but it will never adapt to them all.

MF: So where are we at in terms of identifying what comes after modernism? Rick Poynor wrote an essay in icon (icon 033) in which he said the critical infrastructure is just not there in the world of design. And maybe what we’re trying to do in our tiny little way here is to say: “what’s going on out there?” This amazing diversity of forms, techniques, technologies, of experimentation, coupled with a situation in the world with all kinds of social and environmental problems. Is there any sign that any kind of new ideology, any kind of “ism” is emerging? And if so, what is it?

JM: I think we can start with what we’ve already touched on, which is parametric design, or computational design. There are people out there gathering and responding to data about how pieces of architecture and design are used. What they are doing is treating information as a material. I agree with Kieran that it’s in the selection of that material that it falls down half the time – there’s a kind of pointlessness to it. But I think there’s another aspect, which is that today we can design any form we choose. I was talking to Greg Lynn about this and he said, let’s not forget that modernism was an aesthetic style – if you’re designing with a computer programme that’s entirely based on curves then already you’re using a system that is fundamentally anti-modernist because modernism produced rectilinear structures.

Greg Lynn would argue that modern construction processes and computer design obviate modularity – we don’t need things to be modular anymore because that’s not how we’re going to build these structures. He would also argue that by his very use of colour, he’s already separating himself from a modernist tradition that despises colour, or only uses colour in rare instances in its primary, industrial state. That’s a formal distinction, not ideological, but it’s a critical one.

MF: So could “dataism” be the new “ism”? What are you calling it?

JM: It’s data-driven architecture, though I know that’s not too catchy. Some people call it “ambient”.

MF: Is that an ideology, or is it just a process?

JM: I think there are two separate things: there’s computational design that is about producing eccentric form, and there’s the computational design that is generated from data.

KL: I think you’re absolutely right, though, that one of the great, powerful orthodoxies in architecture now is parametric design – and that’s everyone from Zaha Hadid and Greg Lynn, who I think are much more interested in form, to neo-functionalist designers who measure certain things, put them into a computer and then it all just pops out. To me, that is the endgame of modernism – it’s still not interested in history.

JM: But if it is ahistorical then, by definition, that means it could have the potential to be a new movement. There are plenty of polite modernists out there today who are trying to reconcile modernism with history. If these other people are breaking with history then that, to me, shows potential for a new beginning.

MF: So we’ve got an idea, which is … parametrism?

JM: I have to say, I hate that term.

KL: My view of the new “ism” was answered 25 years ago. The postmodern critique formulated a position that to me is absolutely relevant today. My feeling is that postmodernism still is the basis for what should come next and what is coming next.

MF: So effectively you want to rescue the term postmodernism from the people who played
Lego-like games with Classicism in the ’80s!

KL: Absolutely. I want to rescue postmodernism because I also think the critique still stands and I don’t think a lot of the work we were just talking about can deal with what postmodernism says – that history is important and people rely on their understanding of competing cultural narratives. An ingenuous postmodernism is what I would advocate, i.e. work that genuinely believes in the power of historical type to evoke memory and therefore meaning. FAT (see interview, page 114) honestly believe in people’s love of chintz – they enjoy that, they’re not taking the piss.

JM: But it’s just a visual language isn’t it? Why else are FAT building what look like Dutch gabled houses in Manchester? And that prefix “post-” betrays postmodernism as merely reactionary. If you think of modernism as the continuation of the Enlightenment project, then postmodernism is a form of escapism. It has two branches, it’s either going to refer to history or it’s going to refer to popular culture and try to make connections in visual ways that people understand. I think that’s entirely valid, but I also think that social and technological events will keep occurring that will make that kind of historicism seem silly.

KL: My argument is that what modernism took away from design and architecture was language and communication, in the name of expressing technology and function in some kind of “honest” way. What postmodernism tries to do is re-impose that. Admittedly postmodernism in the ’80s was too much about image but what I’m advocating is not images that evoke in some nostalgic way, but images that are appropriate for a place and a context. For example, when Herzog and de Meuron made the Rudin House – that concrete house that looks like an archetypal house form – they’re trying to rescue the power that recognisible types have over memory and emotion.

MF: What concerns me is that you’ve got this plethora of ideas being generated, none of which are solving any problems whatsoever – which are in fact creating a whole new series of problems. If there’s an endgame, then it’s the potential endgame of all of us – modern society. People are beginning to use the word design to refer to everything that mankind does, and proposing it as a solution to any problem – but design is actually fucking us up, it’s actually killing us rather than solving any problems.

KL: So what are you advocating then?

MF: My pet theory is that it’s all Neroism – that we’re all busy fiddling while Rome burns. We all pretend to care about the state of the world but in fact we’re killing it with design. And the logotype of Neroism is the Campana brothers’ Favela Chair. It is held up as a great piece of design but is in fact decadent and irresponsible. It’s a highbrow aesthetic statement based on the “poverty chic”of the Brazilian slums. It’s made out of high-quality hardwood and sold for £2,000. It pretends to care but it doesn’t. Or what about that shelter made of recycled crisp packets? Does that really make the world any better? To me they’re both symbols that are disingenuous and hugely cynical.

JM: I think that’s cynical, I agree. But the question you’re raising is whether architecture and design has to be solving problems. As Marcel Duchamp said, “There is no solution because there is no problem”. If everything just becomes about itself rather than trying to solve a problem, then there’s something in Kieran’s referential, make-people-happy architecture.

MF: But architecture just becomes entertainment if its aim is just to make people happy.

KL: The Favela chair is cynical, but I find FAT’s work poignant – I don’t find it cynical. It’s appealing to a world you’re familiar with. It’s also rather arch, but I think it has meaning. I don’t think it’s possible for all architecture to be like that. But it is possible not to have a cynical viewpoint – in the midst of all this chaos you just choose something you believe in.

JM: I think chaos is an important word because none of us really know how to make sense of our culture anymore, our environment – it’s just too complex, there’s just too much information out there that we have access to.

MF: And it’s too depressing …

JM: This is the point. Where modernism was “progressive” and seized on order and system, an architect like Thom Mayne embraces fear and complexity – things people experience in everyday society. Instead of trying to soothe us with clarity and legible forms, he gives us a taste of what we’re all feeling. It’s not medicine, it’s aversion therapy.

MF: But at least in modernism people felt that they were solving problems. Now I don’t think anyone’s addressing the bigger picture. Poignancy is interesting – but it’s hardly crucial, is it?

JM: Poignancy is a luxury. Or let’s just say it’s not going to be the cornerstone of a new movement.

KL: But it’s only modernism that makes us think that emotion, along with decoration, is superfluous. In fact, decoration is about decorum – one person’s relationship with another in society through culture. It’s a very historically specific viewpoint to say problem solving is the essential and decoration is the secondary thing.

JM: I’m not sure I’m making that distinction …

MF: It depends on the magnitude of the problem, surely. Modernism allowed creative people to think on a scale that they believed could make a difference. But you’re right – it’s scientists and politicians and economists who have the power to impose.

KL: My argument is that it’s the responsibility of the artist, the architect, the designer to be aware of those things and make their work about those things. Their work is unlikely to be the solution to either environmental degradation or social collapse. Those things are the subject matter of their work.

MF: It’s their job to contextualise it …

KL: Yeah, it’s their job to make us understand it.

JM: Okay. Can we go now?