Thursday, December 06, 2012

Avant-Gardists as Throwbacks

Today's New York Times resurrected its former architecture critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff, to write an obituary for the modernist architect, Oscar Neimeyer, and Ouroussoff inadvertently revealed that his avant-gardism is a throwback to the 1950s.

As architecture critic for the Times, Ouroussoff became famous for focusing almost exclusively on a handful of avant-gardist "starchitects," such as Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel. He was the leading advocate of this style.

Neimeyer became famous for designing Brasilia, the new capital that Brazil built between 1956 and 1960.

Despite the attempt to make it look glamorous by taking the photo at night, you can see very clearly from the picture that Brasilia makes all the errors that have led today's city planners to reject modernism.  Wide arterial streets separate the government buildings in the center from the housing next to it, like a textbook example of how to make cities unappealing to pedestrians.  The housing is a row of identical high-rise slabs with no other function than housing, like a textbook example of how to create sterile, dehumanized housing projects.  The government buildings are surrounded by large spaces that are empty and devoid of life. 
The city is designed as a work of abstract art rather than as a good place for people to live, and Ouroussoff loves that artsy design, saying, "His curvaceous, lyrical, hedonistic forms helped shape a distinct national architecture and a modern identity for Brazil."  If you were a hedonist, would you want to live in one of those slabs of housing?
What is most revealing, Ouroussoff admits that, despite its futuristic pretensions, the avant-gardism of our time is actually a step backward to the modernist esthetic of the 1950s.  
A decade or two after it was built, Brasilia was known as a model of everything that is wrong with modernist design.  As Ouroussoff says:
"Modernism was by then falling out of favor with the architectural establishment. Brasília soon became a symbol of Modernism’s failure to deliver on its utopian promises. The vast empty plazas seemed to sum up the social alienation of modern society; surrounded by slums, the monumental government buildings of its center exemplified Brazil’s deeply rooted social inequalities."
But beginning in the 1980s, the avant-gardists whom Ouroussoff loves began to admire Brasilia again, as he says:
"In the meantime, a growing number of people had begun to re-examine the legacy of postwar Modernism and appreciate his purist vision as a throwback to a more optimistic time."
Though he usually claims that the avant-gardists are progressive, while traditionalists such as the New Urbanists are conservative and "nostalgic," Ouroussoff admits at unguarded moments like this one that the avant-gardists themselves are throwbacks who are nostalgic for the technological optimism of the 1950s.

I do not think it is a coincidence that these avant-gardists became influential during the 1980s, at the same time the Reagan administration was basing its economic and social policies on nostalgia for the the 1950s.

We are not going to solve the problems of the twenty-first century by reviving the technological optimism of the 1950s.

Today, we have reached the point where we need to limit the destructive effects of technology, rather than blinding ourselves to them.  For example, city planners today recognize that we have to build a walkable street grid to connect business districts with nearby housing, in order to conserve energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Ouroussoff ignores this point completely because of his nostalgia for technological optimism, celebrating a design that creates auto-dependency by separating functions with high-speed arterial streets.

Though it seems strange, we have a reactionary avant-garde. Ouroussoff actually admits that they are "throwbacks" to the esthetics of the 1950s.

See Ouroussoff' article here.
available to registered New York Times users.