(my take on) Manifestos on Modernism

Recently, a group of highly respected local architects participated in a panel discussion entitled “Manifestos on Modernism: A lively dialogue on the evolving meaning of ‘Modern’ in Colorado architecture”.  Held in the Sharp Auditorium of the Denver Art Museum’s Hamilton Building, the night was full of interesting topics, exciting project examples, and as promised, a lively dialogue on ‘Modernism’.

To my dismay however, the night’s conversation seemed to start off centered around the question of aesthetics as a defining metric for a entering the realm of ‘Modern’.  Style at times seemed to trump substance in defining what is and what is not ‘Modern’.  Decoration, roof shapes, cornices, finishes…these lines of thought took center stage for the majority of the discussion.  As architects should we not move beyond questions of style and move into more robust realms?  I was happy to see the tone begin to shift as the night moved on.

One project that was critiqued during the night was the recently completed Renaissance Uptown Lofts for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, located at 571 East Colfax Ave.  The simple question was asked: is this building ‘Modern’ or not?  From a strictly aesthetic point of view it would certainly not be considered ‘Modern’, as was suggested by a few of the night’s panelists.  How could it be with its stylized storefront base (19th c.?), detailed cornice, and even includes decorative finials on the corners!  What would Adolf Loos think?

Now let’s look at the project through the lens of social consciousness instead of aesthetics.  The Uptown Lofts provide 98 units of affordable housing in an area ofDenverthat is in dire need of transitional housing.  The CCH even included in their development program training and employment opportunities for the residences, increasing their potential in life, and aiding in the recovery of those in need.  As a young architect, those ambitious objectives strike a cord in my soul, one that resonates far beyond the discussion of style.  Throw your concept of aesthetics out the window…this is a ‘Modern’ project beyond any doubt!

 How about we come at it from another perspective?  Imagine coming upon a single family home built in a typical suburban neighborhood.  It has the standard tract home appearance, attached garage and all.  With its gable roof, lap siding, and “phoney-stoney” this thing could never be considered ‘Modern’, right?  What if you later learned that the house had been built to Passive house standards or was a net-zero energy building?  Would that change your mind?  What if it was 90% pre-manufactured, the on-site work had been accomplished in under 4 days, and there was little to no construction waste?  Is that a ‘Modern’ project?

So here it is, my own personal manifesto: Modernism is no longer a question of style or aesthetics.  Modernism in architecture now involves processes, delivery, and intent.  Integrated Project Delivery systems are ‘Modern’.  Sustainable solutions are ‘Modern’.  Social motivations are ‘Modern’.  Shouldn’t we push ourselves to move beyond traditional notions of a ‘Modern style’, and to look for opportunities to improve our communities and citizens through design?

This is ‘Modern’ to me.  What about you?

8 thoughts on “(my take on) Manifestos on Modernism

  1. Being an absolute outsider to the world of architecture, I would have assumed that the term “Modern” is all about style, perhaps specifying a range of 1950s-1980s or something. So, to me, it looks like you’re looking for a new term that talks more about the purpose, usage, and technological underpinnings of the design. Wouldn’t defining a new term be easier than trying to redefine “modern”?

    But that’s a layman’s view. Could be totally in left field.

    • Perhaps a new term is in order indeed…
      BTW, you have more insight into the world of architecture than you perceive!

    • Very insightful! Thanks for the links, and for sharing your thoughts. Perhaps the dual definition creates an issue (or why else would it be such a hot topic that a panel discussion was warrented)? Personally, your second definition speaks to me. A style is a style is a style. I like the “style of Modernism” in terms of aesthetics, but so what? That is my personal taste. Others like deconstruction, or classicism, or even post-modernism (yes some are out there). These are simply subjective discussions IMO. The second definition is much more objective. Helping the underprivileged is a good thing, sustainable solutions are a good thing…I don’t think anyone would argue with that. Thoughts?

      • I would agree with you that helping the underprivileged and sustainable solutions are good things. But here’s a twist are they even modern concepts?
        You write, “Modernism in architecture now involves processes, delivery, and intent.” There may be modern (2nd def.) technology helping to achieve these concepts but folks having been helping others and building with their environment for generations. So maybe processes and delivery are modern but I would argue the intents they achieve are timeless.

  2. In my industry modern can be defined by the material used and what the end result is architecturally as well as functionally. We build out of light gauge metal which is fire proof, easy to form, always straight, able to span much further than a wood product and can be ordered pre-cut to specification to increase productivity.
    We can create almost anything an architect can draw, almost! That to me is modern, whether it’s the Guggenheim or homes for the homeless.

  3. It is more accurate to distinguish between “modern”, which in certain disciplines emerges with the Renaissance when architecture itself becomes a distinct professional endeavor, and “modernism,” a diverse ideological and stylistic movement beginning at the turn of the 20th century and flourishing following the Second World War.

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