The Conservative Avant-Garde
Mid-century modernism grew out of the belief that technology was autonomous, which was common at the time. For example, the social critic, Jacques Ellul, claimed that technology can determine, rationally and quantitatively, the "one best way" to manufacture a product, design a transportation system, or do any other work of modern society: The engineers can do the calculations and show us the numbers proving that their way of doing it is best, so we cannot do it any other way.
The idea that technological decision-making controls us was summed up in the motto of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair: "Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms."
Mid-century modernist architecture was an expression of the era’s faith in technology. Extreme modernists used the slogan "form follows function" to mean that design was a product of the efficient use of modern materials to fulfill a building's programmatic requirements. The building was designed on purely technical grounds, and its new technology swept away traditional forms.
Modernist architecture became popular because it expressed the ideal of the mid-twentieth century. These glass, steel, and concrete buildings proclaimed that the modern era was so advanced that it could ignore models from the past and let the technological economy redesign society on scientific grounds.
Modernist urbanism had the same technocratic approach. Because large-scale development was inevitable and the automobile was the inevitable form of transportation in modern times, we had to design what one planner called "cities for the motor age" - large-scale superblocks surrounded by freeways and wide arterial streets.
And the same technocratic approach was common across the culture. There was widespread faith in nuclear power, chemical-based agriculture, processed rather than fresh food, and so on.
This faith in technology was considered progressive. The left believed that objective, scientific decision making would liberate us by doing away with traditional forms of authority. Across the political spectrum, people believed that technology and progress would free us from poverty and provide everyone with a comfortable, affluent way of life. Modernist architecture considered itself part of this general progressive movement of history - and its gleaming buildings were the most visible symbols of modernization.
During the 1960s and 1970s, however, the environmental movement made everyone aware that some technologies could be destructive, and it called for a choice of technology. It supported solar power rather than nuclear power, organic farming rather than chemical farming, fresh locally grown food rather than processed food sold nationally.
More generally, there were calls at the time for a humanized technology, adapted to nature and to human nature. Rather than allowing technology to develop autonomously and to control us, we need to control technology and use it for our purposes.
Initially, it seemed that architecture would be part of this humanistic movement, just as it had been part of the modernist movement of the early to mid-twentieth century.
Jane Jacobs criticized modernist urbanism and instead called for human-scale neighborhoods, and there was a widespread movement beginning in the 1960s to stop freeways and superblock housing projects. This rejection of modernist urbanism ultimately led the New Urbanists to revive traditional urbanism.
Christopher Alexander was the most important critic of modernist architecture, teaching that what he calls the "timeless way of building" was the basis of all traditional and vernacular architecture - a way of building that people are comfortable with because it fits human nature. These traditional styles were displaces by modernists’ fetish of new technology. But we can restore the timeless way of building, and use modern technology to build good places for people.
Yet beginning in the 1980s, the architectural establishment rejected the new humanism of the 1960s and 1970s and regressed to an extreme avant-garde modernism that is deliberately jarring and unsettling - just the opposite of a humanistic architecture that tries to design places where people feel at home.
There are some neo-traditional architects and many neo-traditional urbanists who continue to work in a humanistic style that rejects modernism, but the establishment condemns them with meaningless catch phrases, such as "nostalgia" and "pastiche."
The architectural establishment considers its avant-gardism progressive, because it rejects tradition more violently than ever. But this style actually has nothing to do with the progressive politics of our time, which is trying to control technology in order to preserve a livable world.
Instead, the architectural establishment focuses narrowly on esthetics. The mid-century modernists believed their style was part of a movement to build a better society, but no one believes that Frank Gehry's architecture is part of a movement to build a better society. It is pure "art," abstracted from mundane human concerns.
Today's avant-gardist architects repeat the esthetic gestures of the avant-garde artists of the last century. For example, Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao has the same feeling as Jean Arp’s art of the 1950s.
New construction technologies have made it possible to create buildings that are abstract-expressionist sculptures, and the establishment seems to believe that, if technology makes is possible, then we should do it - even if the result is so dehumanized that it give its users vertigo, as many of Gehry’s buildings do. The avant-garde esthetics of the last century prevents the establishment from coming to grips with the key issue of our time: the need to control technology and use it for human purposes.
By rejecting humanism in favor of high-tech esthetics, the architectural establishment has cut it self off from the progressive politics of our time. It has become a conservative avant-garde.