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15 Years Ago..

November 9, 2013

I wrote this piece, and nobody published it.

 It served as a platform for a bunch of lectures and future writings. It’s interesting to note this was written as the economy was in the flux of the Tech Bubble and pre-Housing Bubble Boom, and pre-the latest sculpture obsession variant on the Canon of Modern. But the piece’s thoughts presage our current ongoing uneasiness born of the lingering economic crater.

Architecture’s public and academic persona hopped onto one horse in the race in the cultural sweepstakes – and a single competitor in any contest makes it a binary Win/Lose proposition where the contestant is always first for some, last for others.

Humans tend to the easy, not the complex. Fundamentalism is seductive in its close-minded assuredness. The best and brightest in my profession slid into unthinking orthodoxy a generation ago, and wallow still.

We are the furthest we have been from “Complexity and Contradiction” in my 35 years of practice.  There are two choices when institutions go into crisis: Change or Hunker Down. The Catholic Church initially hunkered down when its clay feet were shattered in scandal. The new Pope seems to be a change agent.

The profession of architecture is in crisis by any definition: we are being shoved aside by LEED Professionals, Licensed Interior Designers, publicly available technology, and, most importantly that what we offer is less useful and affordable than other alternatives. We are grotesquely underemployed and new graduates have little success in finding jobs when unemployed professionals must work for Internship wages because work is still scarce.

Modernism, for all the reasons I cited in 1998 embodies the Hunker Down response to this crisis:


Modernism is Just Too Easy

by Duo Dickinson

In the last 5 years, magazines and media dealing with buildings have welcomed a new era, (actually it is a new old era)– the era of “Neo” Modernism.  House Beautiful has touted houses for the next millenium that are basically poignant retro-prescriptions for a romanticized Modern future, while record breaking quantities of neo-traditional spec homes are pumped out (and sold) during a recession.  Professional publications and main-stream periodicals like the Sunday New York Times Magazine all proclaim that “the New Modernism” is now the dominant paradigm put out for our viewing.  As a non-Modernist architect, I have trouble with this new reality.

The complaint is an old one – that in featuring self-consciously Modernist buildings that are graphically seductive and sound-bite friendly, the elite architecture publications and academia promote work which is often doomed to cultural, environmental and financial irrelevancy.

Just as religious fundamentalism declares salvation for the simplistically passionate, Modernism (new or otherwise) promotes a rulebook that is written by the players. Much of what is being lauded as the future of architecture promotes the desperately inadequate visions of the past – occupied sculpture that is often budgetarily impossible, aesthetically self serving and openly contemptuous of the values of the contemporary culture.

In the first half of the last century, Modernism did prove that the emperor had no clothes.  It showed the absurd lengths to which historic conventions ham strung buildings into silly preconceived notions.  As with labor unions at that time Modernism addressed undeniable problems with clearly evident truths.  Just as unions have lost their moral outrage, Modernism is now just another surface detailing technique—devoid of its moral underpinnings.

What has been inherited from that old time Modernism is fashion designer esthetics of two-dimensional meaning. Modernism has been relegated to a “means to an end” involving ever more dramatic exploitation of photographic visualization. When combined with graphically seductive cyber imagery, “really neat” neo-picturesque designs virtually locomote across the page (screen). Neo-Modernism’s intentionally unrooted reality gains the pure techno-pop 1920’s designers could only fake with ink and Strathmore board. Such sexiness is truly compelling, but does it sustain interest and live well beside, around and with us for more than the ephemeral on screen/on page glimmer?

The question then arises: Why do intelligent, well-meaning mirrors of our profession focus on work which is arguably irresponsible to the exclusion of subtler, more contextual work? Presentations of multitudinous approaches aesthetics promote conversation, anointing of The Way can prove embarrassing when looked back upon.  My sense is that our memories are too short and our souls are too lazy.  It is hard to remember the screaming failures of war-zone housing projects, desolated downtowns, and absurdly dysfunctional houses, town halls and churches once they’re gone, fixed or achieve benign tolerance through long term occupancy.  Beyond short-term memory loss, building-specific knowledge is easier to input than general wisdom.

It is so easy to celebrate something, which is ignorant of the world around it.  Professors can simply allude to intent, rather than deal with content.  They can teach sculpture versus building: It is too easy.  Architects can think of the finished result only and not how it actually is derived.

A building built with hip fine arts sensibilities to the exclusion of its weatherability, affordability or usefulness has a short list of design criteria to talk about.  Brevity is the soul of wit.  A one-liner, sound bite or Commandment has an instantaneous delivery-to-judgment sequence.  Form and materials that are intentionally distilled to scaleless abstraction have no “moral” imperative to shed water or resist rot.  Art lives in its own world, where success is self-determined.

The profession of architecture is more like religion and less like law, medicine and engineering.  Effectively, those who believe in what we do (Modernist or not) think that we are very important in their day-to-day lives.  The unconverted simply think of architects as a quaint or obnoxious side show, the direct corollary to irrelevant fashion designers offering up garments that neither fit typical human bodies nor 99% of family budgets.

It is also too easy to declare that this emperor is naked, to fearfully react to something as stark and dynamic as Modernism and play The Fountainhead’s pandering architect,Peter Keating, to this brave new world’s Howard Roark, but the truth is that intellectual honestly does not often result in scaleless sculpture.

On the other hand, to act in the rejectionist posture of Modernism once again puts architects in the now classic position of societal oddities worshipped by a shrinking few and respected by only a few more.

If the consensus is that heroic Modernism is the salvation for cultural mediocrity, then what we will ultimately achieve is the inheritance of the last generation of Modernist work – namely the spectre of terminally dysfunctional buildings built for a brief celebratory presence and then sentencing their occupants to the abidingly dysfunctional “out years”.

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