“Lomo Manifesto” is my term for posts on the general theme of “why The Lower Modernisms of Architecture Are Important Enough to Bother Thinking About.” Click here for an index of all “Lomo Manifesto” posts. These posts might get a little shaggy around the edges – rather than refine them to perfection, in the spirit of blogginess I am trying to expel these out through my haze of confusion and pain.
The discourse of Modern Architecture was at its most vital and sophisticated in its later years, but this very vitality contained the seeds of Modernism’s downfall. On the strength of seductive straw-man arguments asserting the failure of Modernism, Postmodernism rose as its apparent successor movement. Although many aspects of the 1970s critique against Modern Architecture still seem valid, the response should have been not the wholesale abandonment of the Modernist Project, but rather the expansion of that Project to include the Lower Modernisms.
The heady and tumultuous period of architectural discourse from 1965 through 1975 gave rise to many compelling works of 20th Century architecture, a time when many of the great early pioneers were still at work and Modernist practice was sufficiently experienced and entrenched that practitioners knew what they were doing and were able to work with confidence and skill. The Huntington Beach Central Public Library serves as a fine example of such work – completed under the design leadership of Dion Neutra after Richard Neutra’s death, this building embodies the potential for a thoroughly Modernist Architecture, all finished in glass, steel and rough concrete, to create a genuinely humane and tremendously popular public facility. This late-modern period gave us beloved classics like the Pompidou Center, the Ford Foundation and the Salk Institute, as well as countless smaller projects lacking renown but just as successful. Just as architects as a class were starting to pull their shit together and figure out how to design Modernist buildings that people actually liked, however, the rug was pulled from under them.
Arising out of that same vital and diverse discourse was a strain of criticism asserting that Modernism, as a whole, had failed to reach its own aspirations. Contemporary books like Form Follows Fiasco by Peter Blake, From Bauhaus to Our House by Tom Wolfe, and The Failure of Modern Architecture by Brent Brolin mounted this critique with zeal. The arguments of these writers vary in their details, but concur that “functionalist” buildings have functioned badly; buildings intended For The People have been hated by those People; and that the tastes and preferences of Modern Architects have not aligned with those of building users. That the works of Modern architects had frequently failed to live up to the high-minded, progressive ambitions of Architectural Modernism may seem self-evident, but each of these books presented the criticism with a tone of self-astonishment, as if the hegemony of Modernism were so impenetrable that surely the reader must be shocked, shocked! to learn that architects’ buildings were failing to meet their aspirations.
By the sleight-of-hand of conflating the failure of individual building designs with the failure of the Modern Movement as a whole, this line of reasoning tossed the baby with the bathwater by suggesting that Modernism’s ideals of Functionalism, Progress, and Social Welfare were responsible for this failure and therefore needed to go. The seductiveness of this fallacy was such that architects, rushing to abandon the old virtues, could convince themselves that Modernism was indeed finished, making way for its successor.
Just one of many competing contemporary trends in these years when Modern architects were doing their best work and figures such as Robert Venturi, James Wines, and Charles Moore were performing the noble work of expanding the boundaries of the discipline in new directions, Postmodernism was ideally situated to inherit the momentum of the anti-Modernist critique. The wagons were soon circled around the underachieving historical re-enactment architecture defined as Postmodern by the brilliant propagandist Charles Jencks. I believe that the twenty-year dominance of the double-coded, historicizing style was due in large part to Jencks’s being clever enough to assign it the name of “Postmodernism,” referencing fashionable concepts in literary criticism and the arts. The name suggests both closure and inevitability, implying the arrival of the Mannerist phase that would precede Whatever Big Thing is Next. Jencks’ claim in The Language of Post-Modern Architecture that “Modern Architecture died” on the 1972 day of the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe tower block was the nail in the coffin, a memorable cocktail party bon mot that ended the conversation.
Postmodernism’s dreary triumph would have been unnecessary had Modernism’s critics been open-minded enough to appreciate what could be found in the Lower Modernisms. A broader perspective would have revealed that these ignored or disdained typologies on the lower commercial fringes contained numerous works that embodied the creativity, populism and human scale those 1970s critics were after and successfully sidestepped the crimes they ascribed to Modernism. The Modernism pilloried by Peter Blake in Form Follows Fiasco, still a persuasive read today, is the Modernism of the Plan Voisin, the Yale Art and Architecture Building, master-planned communities, windswept plazas in front of skyscrapers, and segregated zoning practices – decidedly not the populist modernism of coffee shops and mini-golf courses. Brent Brolin in The Failure of Modern Architecture gave us blanket statements of anti-Modernist polemic wherein the counterarguments can be found within the Lower Modern canon:
The modern architect’s personal vision is infused with a sense of moral superiority (45).
Instead, modernism has remained an elitist movement, aesthetically inaccessible to the majority (58).
In an alternate history, a Lomo answer to this anti-“Duck” critique might have emerged triumphant. Instead of suffering a twenty-year plague of pretentious, humorless historical retreads, we could have hallucinated through a twenty-year carnival of a triumphant Lomo architecture – growing ever-wackier, its creativity ever more unrestrained, the Jaunty prevailing over the Butch.
Blake, Peter. Form Follows Fiasco: Why Modern Architecture Hasn’t Worked. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977.
Brolin, Brent C. The Failure of Modern Architecture. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1976.
Jencks, Charles. The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. New York: Rizzoli, 1977.
Venturi, Robert, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour. Learning from Las Vegas. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972.
Watkin, David. Morality and Architecture: The Development of a Theme in Architectural History and Theory from the Gothic Revival to the Modern Movement. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.