Monday, January 17, 2005

Part 5: Modernism Takes a Tumble

First: some people have written to complain that I don't have a proper site feed or RSS set up. I've gone thru the settings and they seem all right for such a service, though I admit I am a klutz at that level. Feel free to check it out and let me know. And now to resume.....


In 1894, philanthropist John Jacob Astor wrote a best-selling novel, A Journey in Other Worlds, about the year 2001 -- a future transformed by science, enterprise and human good will. Keeping with the can-do spirit of his era, when men used rails and canals to subdue continents, Astor foresaw progress vanquishing inequity, reducing poverty to vestiges, conquering ignorance and offering average folk privileges undreamt-of by his millionaire peers. And all of it happening under the leadership of a fluid but responsible entrepreneurial class.

Why not? At the end of the 19th Century, waves of immigrants shared those hopes, eager to feed, educate and advance their children as never before. Projecting this momentum to a time of future plenty seemed credible, not arrogant or silly.

Astor died with a famed flourish of noblesse oblige aboard the sinking Titanic -- the first of many garish calamities that began quenching this naive zeal for progress.

In his book "Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?" (2004), David Fromkin speaks of the decade just before calamity struck. “A panoramic view of Europe in the years 1900 to 1914 would show prominently that the continent was racing ahead in a scientific, technological and industrial revolution — powered by almost limitless energy — that was transforming almost everything.” Alas, it was not to go on. “What Europe was building up toward was not a better world, but a giant smashup, as — in the first 20th century war among modern industrial societies — the accumulated explosive power that advanced science had developed was concentrated on the goal of mass destruction. “

Soon, world war taught millions a brutal lesson -- the first use of new technology is often its horrid mis-use. Suddenly it wasn’t just conservative preachers railing against modernity, but some of society’s very brightest. Survivors of Flanders battlefields returned disenchanted with the Machine Age. Intellectuals, from Tolkien and Lewis to Eliot, veered toward romantic nostalgia while writers of the Lost Generation prescribed a compulsory literary template. Blend stylish cynicism with brooding suspicion of tomorrow. Never show enthusiasm, or admit hope for progress.

Indeed, that attitude seemed accurate. The 20th Century spent its first half wallowing in horror - the second teetering at an abyss. Radio, and later television, brought countless tragedies right into our homes. Vague Sunday sermons about apocalypse were replaced by hourly talk of a civilization, a species, a planet imperiled by our cleverness, doomed by our own skilled hands.

Not only in war, but also perhaps by establishing some permanent tyranny, far worse than brutal kingships of old, because the next wave of ruthless overlords would be empowered by terrifying technologies. While Fritz Lang and George Orwell disagreed over which aristocracy might achieve perpetual despotism - a capitalist elite or a communist party nomenklatura - both Metropolis and Nineteen Eighty-Four showed chilling futures in which a few could look down upon the many, like gods.

Modernism had spokesmen, too. Although he kept swinging from optimism to pessimism and back again, H.G. Wells never ceased fighting back, in the name of progress. His oft-excerpted review of Metropolis held that Lang’s dark warning was based, ultimately, on contempt. People, according to Wells, will not let themselves be made into sheep. Not in the long run.

--> on to part 6


Tony Fisk said...

David, your site feed works fine for me on Firefox. (probably too well if you don't want pesky comments like this popping up every time you post and take a breather)
Don't feel too bad about being a 'klutz': a colleague who, like me, has been investigating some web apps and how to set them up turned to me yesterday and said ruefully "I'm ashamed to call myself a software engineer these days"
... and that's with ~20 years experience apiece!!

David Ivory said...

I use this feed.. I'm avidly following this article as it unfolds.

David Ivory said...

...and I should get over my shyness and post here an email I sent to David last week that should have been a comment here...


As an Architect I certainly understand the ebb and flow of Modernism and Post Modernism throughout the 20th century. It is certainly true that Post Modernism was a reaction to Modernism, but what was the cause of this return to older forms?

In Architecture at least it was a reaction to the vapidness of Less is More becoming less is cheaper. Perhaps more to the point it was that the essence of Modernism in Architecture ( rationalism and sensitivity of purpose - Form Follows Function ) was not understood by mass practitioners and so souless monstrosities were built instead. It was thus easier for Po'Mo to hark back to the forms of an earllier age. Even if the spirit remained empty at least there was some reference to a richer history. But that was all Po'Mo did - refer - as if they reworked the famous saying and the function of the form is to refer to a past Golden Age of architecture.

I feel that a similar process has occurred in the wider cultural and political realm as well. The essence of Modernism has not really been communicated and understood by many people. There is a deep seated desire amongst everyone (myself included) for certainties and predictability in their lives even as they desire a better future. Or rather they are discontent with the present and hope for something better and we all do wish for change. Irrationally though, it is a desire for predictable change. Others then see this as an opportunity to be used to their own personal advantage of course.

So the Post Modern answer was to reimagine a romantic past and project it into the future. There is nothing Modern in that.

If one thinks of it there are many traditions that predict a better future that is in fact really just an imagined better past. Golden Ages to come again, the turning of the Wheel of Life. The Christian tradition makes much of this concept. It is a Second coming and not the First arrival of something new better and different. Communism has this idea too, a Proletariat Paradise harking back to a pre-feudal age of blissful equality showing that it too is really a part of the Romantic tradition.

I think the roots of Modernism should also be seen in this continuum, for modern thought arose from these earlier traditions - it was not born afresh from nothing. The Economist Magazine in their Christmas 2004 edition discussed the role of the Christian concept of a better future with creation of the Protestant work ethic and the notion of progress.

What (one hopes) Modernism did was make the leap to separate the divine from progress and put man at the centre of it all. Modernism has worked spectacularly well except now many people have forgotten the thought that runs underneath the form. Blindly following the form of modernism is the malaise that I think you have identified.

Interestingly modern architecture now is alive and well having had a renaissance of sorts in recent years. See the works of Foster and Associates, Arquitectonica, Richard Rogers, Herzog & de Mueron, and Zaha Hahid to see that modernism continues to grow... though some may see a Mannerist Modernism here instead.

It may be that we should seek a Mannerist Modernism in our culture too. One that takes the strict and rigid seeking of progress and injects a bit more whimsy into it. Afterall it is perhaps the austere and unspiritual aspect of Modernism that clashes with our innate affinity to irrationality and even mysticism that then causes people to seek an alternate romanticism - that predictability in the past.

I think I see this Mannerism in your writing - Kil'n People and all your wonderful sentient dolphins... what is that if it is not whimsical mannerist modernity?

So I'd like to read more than just a critique of the contemporary political and cultural regression idenitified by your earlier articles. I'd like to see a full flowering of your wry wit and see the creation of a Manifesto for the Mannerist Modernist.

You see I can be whimsical too :)

David Brin said...

VEry interesting re modernist architecture. I admit that while I admire architecture very much, I know too little about it. For example, my article desperately needs the name of that urban planner - architect from the 50s 60s who was responsible for so much ill-designed urban renewal and high rise "projects".

He and Le Corbusier, in my opinion, manifested the worst of modernism. Telling people how they "ought" to live. Wright did that too.

Have you read Stewart Brand's underground architecture book HOW BUILDINGS LEARN ? It suggests that a truly modernist architecture would be pragmatic, above all else, allowing users to modify it for their own purposes, over time.

Thanks again! db

David Ivory said...

The High Rise Projects... mmm... you know I think that is a really difficult issue as there is no real double blind test to say what the effect of living in a High Rise has on community and the people who live in them.

It could be that the corelation is more to do with the socio-economic groups that live in them and the poor level of services (eg schools) provided in those areas.

The reason I say this is that I live in Hong Kong and we all live in high rises and we have a notoriously safe city with a vibrant community life.

We have the densest population level of any city and that's counting the 80% of Hong Kong that is actually unbuilt land. When you count the actual city area and discount the unbuildable cliffsides and hills the living space is very compressed. Hong Kong island has 1 million people living in a 20km by 2km strip that winds along the north side of the island - the inner part of the island is steep cliffs full of nesting sea eagles.

But don't get me started on the urban problems that we do have ( I'm in the midst of struggling to get a road pedestrianised in my neighbourhood ) our problems are huge. But by and large Hong Kong people love the city and pay $millions to live in what other countries would call Projects.

The biggest issue for us here is that as we have got more wealthy we expect bigger homes - but with the huge amount of building stock already constructed when we were a poorer place there is little scope for mass rebuilding. The house extension business is frowned on by government... can't just stick a room off the side of your High Rise apartment. But amazingly people do try to.

My point is that the NY Projects may be awful - but don't blame high rise dense living conditions for the problem. There are bad houses and good houses. I find suburbs utterly appalling - impersonal places where everyone drives and never lay eyes on their neighbours. In Hong Kong people walk everywhere and it continues to be a fun experience just to people-watch as you walk around the city... it's Hong Kong's biggest hobby.

I swear in a city of 7 million people you get to recognise random strangers in the street just because you see them all the time, notice them and remember them. I think NYers may understand this. And the big reason for this in Hong Kong is that there is no sense of threat when you look at someone.

That because we have a sense of community and of belonging. I think that is what is lacking in The Projects - not because they are High Rises...

... but then I would say that being an architect ;)