Defining the Lower Modernisms as those categories of design endeavors that are Modernist in style and intent but fall short of the standards of legitimate Modernism begs the question of what the vague and overused term “Modernism” means in this context.
As the foregoing definition alludes to, Modernism as a critical category is simultaneously at least three things: an Architectural Style, a Mode of Practice, and an Ethos. The shared collection of visual traits that identify the style of Mid-Century Modernism, such as flat roofs, glass walls, and the avoidance of ornament, is easy to describe and to reproduce for such purposes as imitation or satire; but the mode of practice and the ethos of Modernism are both broader and more abstract.
Concomitant with the development of Modernism was the 20th-century reconception of architecture as a practice of evaluating design problems and elaborating solutions that satisfy objective performance criteria. At one time the basis for the rallying cry “form follows function,” this concept is now fully internalized into the methodology of design. Since the rise of Modernism, buildings are understood by architects as systems, collections of assemblies addressing technical requirements such as programme, circulation, envelope, structure, lighting, HVAC, power, and plumbing; and the architect’s job is to unite these independent elements into a cohesive whole.
This mode of practice is the unassailable legacy of Modernism in its broadest sense and it remains unchallenged in its utility. Postmodernism challenged only the style of Modernism, but not the substance – the process by which the office of Michael Graves (or more accurately, executive architect Emery Roth & Sons) designed the Portland Building, once you look beneath the surface, was business as usual. Just as in Modernist buildings, the architects coordinated elevators into structural cores, tried to get all the beams, ducts, and sprinklers to fit without lowering the ceilings, and figured out how to hang the curtain wall panels off of the structure.
Best exemplified by Lou Kahn and the New Brutalism of the Smithsons, devout Modernists sanctified this process by expressing the distinctions between these disparate elements on the form of the building. By assigning such loaded terms to this mode of expression as “honesty,” “integrity” and “truth to materials,” design philosophers charged this mode with an ethical imperative; to dissemble architectural elements became “dishonest” and hence, sinful. This Ethos of Modernism, seductive though it may be as a rhetorical position, proved utterly vulnerable to the attacks of Modernism’s critics in the 1960s and 1970s, among them David Watkin’s Morality and Architecture, which traced this ethical line of reasoning back to the Gothic Revival of the 19th Century.
The “Legitimate Modernism” to which our working definition refers is therefore that which successfully integrates the Modernist mode of practice and ethos with a Modernist style. This characterization implies an alternate definition of the LoMos as “Illegitimate Modernism,” that category of design endeavors that either fail to integrate the Modernist ethos with a Modernist style, or fail to integrate the Modernist style with the Modernist ethos.