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?