Tuesday, May 13, 2014

High Modernism returns to DC (the Utopian Potential)

City Center, Washington Post, 4/23/2014
In my last post, I talked about the dystopian nature of high modernist architecture, as architecture for multinational corporations, global finance, the wealthy, an elite society. In DC, high modernist architecture replaced the vibrant communities of SW and was the object of protests by historic preservationists on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. We can see high modernism returning to DC at City Center and on the Waterfront. Yet, at the same time, modernist architecture has always also had a utopian potential, reflecting or encouraging an inclusive democratic society.

This weekend in his Post interview, How the “Sassiest Boy in America” became the most interesting man in rock-and-roll, Ian Svenonius so succinctly expressed the utopian potential of modernism. The excellent Post interviewer, Chris Richards, captured so many interested comments by Svenonius. Svenonius talked about his band from the early 1990s, Nation of Ulysses:
In a sense, Nation of Ulysses was a pastiche band...We loved James Brown and the Futurists and Situationism. I'd say the band was innovative in that it was presenting an immersive package that wasn't a revival. And punk is essentially a revival -- a revival of modernism. Punk comes out of postmodernism, but it's real desire is to inhabit modernism in that it says, "Art has meaning and is revolutionary." 
Postmodernism says, "Oh, Bauhaus looks cool, but we don't have to subscribe to the ideas of Walter Gropius. We can just have this cool thing and still be bankers." Know what I mean?
Bauhaus Dessau, built 1925-1926
From my quick education in Walter Gropius and his art school called Bauhaus in Germany, I learned that he sought to integrate art (sculpture, ceramics, weaving, metal work, painting, wood carving, stained glass), industry, architecture, nature, etc., as well as sorts of elements, such as rich wood, broad expanses of glass, pre-fab concrete, and so on, to create a new kind of building for "A society such as ours, which has conferred equal privileges on everybody, will have to acknowledge its duty to raise the general level of responsiveness to spiritual and aesthetic values, to intensify the development of everybody's imaginative faculties..."(1) Modernist architecture was seen in contrast to "charming Tudor mansions with all modern conveniences" and was a critique of pure commercialism and pure materialism.(2) Modernist architecture, especially imagined and built in collaboration with artisans of all sorts and in dialogue with nature and society, could be broadly meaningful, radically inclusive, and revolutionary.

This practice of modernist architecture is quite different from what seems to be going on at DC's City Center and elsewhere in DC (see end of previous post). Maybe City Center looks like modernist architecture but really is postmodern?
Hotel Bonaventure, L.A. Weekly
The amazing Professor Fredric Jameson at Duke University argues that we are living with postmodern architecture that is merely pastiche, bringing together all sorts of elements arbitrarily and superficially. Thus, modernist forms can be appropriated without the inclusive democratic politics. The modernist forms can be used to create exclusionary, elitist worlds. Postmodernism represents the victory of commodification of all spheres of life.(3) Jameson specifically discussed the commodified world within the Hotel Bonaventure (image to left), but we can see a similar commodified worlds created in DC's City Center: "Dior, Hermès, Longchamp, Paul Stuart, Salvatore Ferragamo and Zadig & Voltaire. Tumi and Allen Edmonds have both already opened their stores and Burberry, Hugo Boss and Kate Spade have announced their plans to follow." (Post, April 23, 2014). As Svenonius said, postmodernism says, "We can just have this cool thing and still be bankers."

What were people thinking when they destroyed the communities in SW during the 1960s and built the modernist architecture that stands there today? Was there an original utopian potential that was undermined? Or was it realized in some ways and not in others?

(1) Hoffa, Harlan. 1961. "Walter Gropius Innovator," Art Education 14(1): 12-15+26+28. 
(2) Murphy, Kevin D. 2011. "The Vernacular Moment,"  Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 70(3): 308-329.
(3) Modules on Jameson, "On Postmodernity" and "On Pastiche." 
(4) Washington Post, April 23, 2014.

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