A 21st Century

Modernism and the
Ongoing Project

‘Modernism is a weasel of a word,
whose meanings slip and slide’.

Robert Hughes
The art critic Robert Hughes had a good point.1 For the ever-widening label that the Modern Movement encompasses can mean very different things to different people. To some Modernism was a philosophical and cultural movement that first emerged as early the 1880s, kick-started by the Arts and Crafts movement, which itself began as a result of the move towards a more urbanised society.

To a few more, the story goes back even further to the increasing rationalism of the mid-18th century during the Age of Enlightenment, when the emergence of ‘modern science’ and its groundbreaking, mind-bending theories, was blowing considerable holes in many of the belief systems formerly taken for granted – including previously considered impervious teachings of the imperial state and the Church.

Others are more familiar with Modernism’s later synthesis post-WWII. When its philosophy began to shine through the aesthetics of everyday utilitarian objects, products and architecture – which applied the philosophy of ‘thoughtful reduction’, or simplicity and purity of form. Whilst leaning towards the construction of a better, or as some might say, more utopian future, Modernism left its strikingly simple fingerprints absolutely everywhere.

On the flip side, Modernism is a movement whose meaning is much simpler than this, its definition extending not much further than the envelope of the ‘modern’ or the ‘new.’ ‘Modernity’ was once described by the German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas as ‘the ongoing project.’ As a term, ‘Modernity’ didn’t even exist before it was formulated in the 18th century by the philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment. Before that, life simply happened. There was less celebratory reverence towards the new, and no recognition of its ability to save humankind.

The mass mechanisation brought about by the Industrial Revolution needed to happen first, and the mass destruction brought about by two world wars, certainly helped nudge the collective human conscience in a more thoughtful direction. Meanwhile, and not to be underestimated, our ability to document these events had advanced to the point where artists shared a much stronger vision for our future, because they also had a much greater understanding of our past and present actions.

Inventions such as the radio, cinema and television gave us windows through which we could watch, re-watch, examine, and learn from ourselves on a level and to a scale not previously experienced. Modernism was thus inspired by rapidly accumulating knowledge and the spread of empathy, as much as it was projected into existence by a new collective vision.

The historian Alan Powers describes the beginning of this period: ‘So momentous were the changes that between 1900 and 1930 more hope was invested in architecture’s ability to bring the emerging condition of the world under control and to rescue it from disaster than at any previous point in time.’2 Modernism was a spectacular dream, but it was also a functional label which brought all this human activity under one umbrella.

V&A curator Christopher Wilk also helps us here: ‘Modernism was not conceived as a style, but as a loose collection of ideas… A vociferous rejection of history and tradition; a utopian desire to create a better world, to reinvent the world from scratch; an almost messianic belief in the power of the machine and industrial technology; a rejection of ornament and decoration; a belief in the unity of the arts.’ A belief which as we’ve discovered also shone brightly at the Bauhaus, that ‘design and art could, and should, transform society.’3

Therefore, everyone’s idea of what constitutes ‘modern’, is naturally inclined to differ. For some, the transformation of society to a more caring and open democracy defines what it means to be modern-thinking and thus free – to look after all of humanity as one. A billboard by the Scottish artist Robert Montgomery in Shoreditch, London, recently defined Modernism this way, as a continuously progressive vision.

‘Modernism isn’t a style. Modernism is a dream of free education and racial equality and libraries full of books and dreams no longer full of tears ... Modernism isn’t a style. Modernism is a dream of fair taxation and gender equality, a rise of beauty and kindness. A blind dream of love, a promise of civilisation. Modernism is a psychic love wave. A big gush of sky breath. A shimmer of kindness sung by the ancient Earth. It is in the voices of the wind in the trees. It is wild and high in the beauty of the wind turbines that will one day scythe the hair of the troglodyte Trump.’

Perhaps the reality of the more recent postmodern era, is that following a century consumed by trends leaning towards self-expression, Modernism can now be whatever you want it to be – and here we fall back to the hazards of eclecticism’s trap door. If Modernism is to remain the ‘ongoing project’, then it is in desperate need of a reboot, and some tighter redefinition.

We’ve discovered that as early as the 1930s Modernism was already assimilating as a style stripped of its social and political beliefs, as it descended to become part of the American consumer marketplace. A trend continued after WWII, as the distractions of capitalism and consumerism began to suffocate the expansive zone of possibility.

Therefore, in reality, Modernism in its purest, utopian, most generous sense, only lived through ‘a very brief period where its philosophy rang true, and a long extended period where its ideals were very poorly implemented.’4 A variety of practical requirements and distractions, as they ever will, 
got completely in the way.

During the massive European rebuilding programme after WWII, some historians accuse the French architect Le Corbusier and dreamers like him of ‘inspiring poorly designed concrete towers that actually had little to do with his work.’5 Yet the reality was they were urgently required to rehouse large numbers from slums and desperate inner city conditions. The need and speed of production meant ideas were poorly thought through, and the critical importance of context was often lost as ideas were thoughtlessly appropriated from one building to the next; with insufficient care for a full interrogation of all the details, or the full needs of relevance to external factors like location and so on.

These new towers might have been taller and more Modern than what had come before, but they were not always reliable in the basics of their design, makeup or function. We were slowly becoming bedazzled by the spectacle of the ‘new.’ And it is here in the midst of Modernism’s youth and period of greatest vitality, that, only with hindsight, historians can identify the cause of its own demise. For in terms of external pressures such as demand, Modernism was always ‘dwarfed by the demands of the market.’6

Many buildings to this day are still built largely to Modernist principles. Some are finally much more successful at achieving these aims than their 20th-century counterparts. Yet whilst they may succeed in the basics of functionality, many now fail for not reacting fast enough, or accommodating strongly enough, the incoming needs of today’s age.

An important lesson we can take from this complex path that Modernism followed, is that the birth of the Sustainable Movement will be just as fragmented. Its furthest tentacles reaching back even further in history to pre-industrial times, when the human race was already living by more sustainable means and using renewable energy sources. The windmill for example, used originally to grind grain in Persia, dates as far back as the 10th century. And the water-wheel is dated in Europe as far back as 200BCE.

Modernism’s song was loudest through an era of revolutionary new materials such as plastics, concrete, affordable steel and cheap oil. Yet it was actually the Age of Enlightenment during the 18th century, which provided us with the basic ideas and strongest foundations: objective science, universal morality and law, and autonomous art according to inner logic. This was the rational organisation of everyday social life on which everything following it in the ‘modern world’ has thus far been built.

Perhaps a return to more prudent forms of logic might be beneficial to us, over a senseless pursuit of rehashing the new. Today’s new technological possibilities hold all the power to knock humanity further off course unless we put rational, mindful, compassionate thoughts at the core of everything we do. Utopia will certainly need to be laid to rest as a 20th-century pipe dream, replaced by more realistic and less lofty aims.

Arthur Erickson once said: ‘Modernism released us from the constraints of everything that had gone before with a euphoric sense of freedom.’ Yet within all the excitement hid an innocence, for which we’re only just beginning to pay the full price. The 21st century already holds a great paradox in that a huge amount of our future activity will be rooted in us reversing the damage caused by last century’s ‘modern’ dreamers. 

The creative path we tread in the future might look narrower at first glance, but on closer inspection, instead it offers much greater depths yet to be fully explored. Through a period where utopian and dystopian narratives are playing out side by side, staying close to a direction we can identify as the staying true to more of the details, will offer us steady onward passage. Here dreams can still flourish, even where there is no utopia to be found.

Wikipedia’s entry on Modernism describes the poet Ezra Pound’s 1934 declaration to ‘Make it new!’ as the touchstone of the movement’s approach towards what it saw as the now obsolete culture of the past.7 It embraced a spirit of constant change, which when fully flexible to external factors, still shines brightly with great promise today. 

However, Ezra’s mantra suffers from a naivety that is much in need of some redefinition. It is no longer good enough to simply make something new, and in fact it can be wasteful to even try. Today’s requirements are altogether different than anything experienced before. So for the ongoing project to continue, the need now is to ‘make it much cleverer’, whilst asking more questions, with greater interrogation, and wiser holistic understanding. The need is there to ‘make it more mindful’, ‘make it aware’, ‘make it replenish’, ‘make it lighter with less impact’, and sometimes, to not make it at all!

Illustration: Make it Mindful — Quote from Dörte Lange

Next ︎
Chapter 10 —
Capitalism Eats Itself

Credits & Notes

Robert Hughes
‘Paradise Now’
The Guardian
(20 Mar 2006)

Alan Powers
The Modern Movement in Britain,
Merrell Publishers (2005)

3 – 5
Christoper Wilk
Modernism: Designing
a New World

V&A Publishing (2006)

Jonathan Bell
The Modern House
Artifice Books (2015)

Wikipedia Page
‘Modernism’, wikipedia.org


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