Monday, March 23, 2015

More About the Reactionary Avant Garde

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

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 destructive technologies.
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 society.
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’ corporate clients.
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." Despite 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 Orenco Station.
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.