Here is another selection from Architecture in a Technological Society: The Humanists Versus the Reactionary Avant Garde
. For longer selections from this work in progress, see http://www.preservenet.com/archtech/
What is Progressive?
Avant gardists claim that, because their architecture is
futuristic, it is politically progressive, while traditional architecture is
politically conservative or reactionary.
To make our architecture relevant to the key political
questions of our time, we need to reject this way of thinking. In today’s
technological society, the modernists support the status quo while the
humanists are working for social change.
From Radical to Establishment
The avant-garde style began around the time of World War I,
became generally accepted during mid-century, and has become today’s
establishment style—which is why it is now “avant gardist” rather than
genuinely avant garde.
Its gestures seemed radical a century ago, because they
rejected the traditional society that dominated Europe and the United States at
that time, when it still made some sense to believe that radicalism involved a
total break with the past.
During the 1950s, modernism still had some of its early
radical spirit. It was not only on the leading edge esthetically but also on
the leading edge of progressive social reform. In 1950, the freeways and the
high-rise housing projects were still part of the progressive project of
getting the masses out of the slums by providing suburban housing for the
middle class and providing sanitary public housing for the poor.
Glass-steel-and-concrete modernism was still an exciting break with the past,
symbolizing the rejection of oppressive traditions.
During the 1960s, the modernist vision was put into practice
widely enough that everyone saw it was failing. Modernist housing projects
became vertical slums that were worse than the old slums they replaced.
Freeways spread sprawl and blighted older neighborhoods. There were citizens’
revolts against both of these modernist impositions on existing
neighborhoods—and these citizens’ movements represented a new direction for progressive politics.
During the 1970s, it began to become clear that modernism
was now the status quo, and it was oppressive. The glass and steel office
buildings towering over the old downtowns of our cities, and the high-rise
housing projects towering over the old slums, looked cold and impersonal—like
the impersonal technological economy that produced them. Social critics said
that we live in a technological society, where ordinary people are powerless.
Environmentalists created a political movement dedicated to controlling
In the 1970s, mid-century modernism was exhausted. The
modernists’ glass, steel, and concrete boxes, which had seemed so striking in
the 1950s, were now anything but new and different. Serious postmodernists
began to look for ways to build on a more human-scale, while other architects
searched for fresh novelties that could still shock and surprise people - leading
to the ironic side of postmodernism and then to today’s avant-gardism.
Our avant gardists produce futuristic architecture, like the
early modernists, but are no longer capable of the social idealism of the early
modernists. The political meaning has disappeared because today’s avant-gardist
architects are not responding to the needs of our time in the way that the
early modernists responded to the needs of the last century. A century ago, the
modernist esthetic fit right in with the progressive goal of building a
technological economy that could eliminate poverty and sweep away traditional
forms of oppression. Today, this technophilia has faded, and our avant-gardist
architects create high-tech forms purely for the sake of novelty. They are not
part of a larger progressive political movement, and they have no social ideal
to give their forms meaning.
Modernism changed from a radical movement to the status quo
because our society changed. The modernists criticized the traditional society
of the early twentieth century in the name of technology and progress. But they
have no critical insight into the new problems of today’s technological
The task of our time is to use technology for human
purposes. The avant garde tries to create totally new forms, and it is so eager
to reject that past that it rejects principles that were common to all
traditional and vernacular architecture because evolution hardwired them into
human nature. The avant gardists are not part of the broader progressive
politics of our time, because they work against the key political task of our
time, using technology in a way that is consonant with human nature.
Avant gardists as Conservatives
Today’s avant gardists keep the esthetic dogmas of early
modernism—its rejection of historic ornamentation and its search for strikingly
original designs—but their buildings no longer symbolizes any social ideal.
Avant gardists sometimes play at being radical by claiming that their
architecture is subversive, but their attempt to "subvert conventional ideas of
what a building is" obviously have no effect at all on the real world of
politics. They are just precious esthetes talking about subversion to other
esthetes. They are not part of a larger movement to reform society, as
mid-century modernist architects were part of the larger progressive movement
of their time.
In fact, avant gardism is the preferred style of our
technological corporate economy. It should have become clear decades ago that
the glass high-rises of the mid-twentieth century modernists, far from being
politically progressive, were symbols of the dominance of the modern
corporation—towering over the city, expressing the power of the corporations
that built them. And today’s avant gardists have inherited the modernists’
London’s skyline was marred by boxy modernist office
buildings decades ago, and now it is being ruined by even larger avant-gardist
office buildings with nicknames that describe their strange shapes, such as the "gherkin" and the "shard of glass." The mayor of London explained to a
journalist why he wants to build more high-rises in this style: 'In the global
tussle between world metropolises for investment and jobs, he says, companies
will choose London only if they can occupy "signature buildings."
their self-consciously radical posturing, these avant gardist high-rises are
today's corporate architecture, just as boxy high-rises were the corporate
architecture of mid-century.
The avant gardists' conservatism is most obvious on the rare
occasions when they touch on real political issues—for example, when Ouroussoff
talks about the beauty of cities built around the freeway. Freeway revolts were
an important part of the progressive politics of the 1960s and the 1970s, and
many progressive environmentalists today want to remove some existing freeways,
with the Congress for the New Urbanism taking the lead. Ouroussoff is
blissfully ignorant of the progressive politics of the last five decades, and
he has moved backward to the thinking of Siegfried Giedion and Robert Moses.
But this conservatism also pervades their work more generally.
Their designs express the idea that we should any flashy new technology that is
available, no matter how inhuman, at a time when progressives are trying to
control destructive technologies.
Humanism as Social Change
Unlike the avant gardists, the New Urbanists are part of a
powerful movement to reform society. Environmental groups across America
support New Urbanism and smart growth in order to fight suburban sprawl, to
conserve energy, and to slow global warming. When environmentalists in Portland
wanted to stop the Western Bypass freeway, they got the New Urbanist planner,
Peter Calthorpe to draft a regional plan based on transit-oriented development,
and they got other New Urbanists to design transit-oriented suburbs, such as
The New Urbanists use models from the past, building
developments that are like the railroad suburbs, streetcar suburbs, and urban
neighborhoods of a century ago - and this is a real challenge to the modern
economy, because it implies that Americans would be better off living more
simply. Suburbia and the automobile were the mainstays of postwar American
consumerism, and the New Urbanists are saying that we would be better off if we
lived in homes that use less land and in neighborhoods where we have the choice
of walking rather than being totally auto-dependent.
Environmentalists support New Urbanist design because it
preserves open space and reduces energy consumption. The people who move to New
Urbanist neighborhoods like them because they let you avoid the tension of
driving in congested traffic on high-speed roads and because they have a
stronger sense of community than conventional suburbs.
If New Urbanist neighborhoods are more livable than
conventional automobile-dependent suburbs, that fact is a real challenge to
ExxonMobile, General Motors, and Wal-Mart - while the radical posturing of the
avant gardists does not challenge the modern economy at all. New Urbanism
challenges the modern economy, because it implies that we should replace our
single-minded focus on economic growth with a new focus on quality of life.