Saturday, October 31, 2009

Who Killed Modern Architecture?

While I would like to believe that there are Modernists a plenty out there, all the evidence unfortunately speaks to the contrary. The latest evidence of this is how many Modern shelter magazines are either folding or getting noticeably thinner, while Architectural Digest seems to hold steady amid the rough economic seas. My latest issue of Residential Architect (which focuses mostly on progressive Residential buildings) tops out at a whopping 59 pages. While I don't fully understand most people's bias towards "traditional" styles, I have to wonder what it is about Modern Design and Architecture that turns people off? People don't seem to mind trading in their old car for the latest model or going down to Best Buy for the most technologically advanced Audio Visual experience. So why is it that in the year 2009, people still want to build houses in styles that were fashionable 200 years ago? After all, we weren't building Medieval Castles in the 1800's? So the question remains, Who Killed Modern Architecture?

When you look at the history of what we call Modern Architecture, it is hard to divorce its origins from the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Machines gave us the technology and the ability to grow buildings faster and stronger. Most people will cite structures such as Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace, the Eiffel Tower, and the Brooklyn Bridge as being some of the first truly Modern accomplishments. Those gave way to breakthroughs such as modern glazing, the elevator, and prefabrication technologies (the Crystal Palace was a pre-fab building in 1851). From there, the founding fathers of Modernism enter through the likes of LeCorbusier, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, and finally Mies Van der Rohe. In the early 20th Century, Modernism was in full swing, also commonly referred to as "The International Style". The Museum of Modern Art (under the lead of Phillip Johnson) organized a pivotal exhibition that changed the face of Architecture forever. By the late 1940's Modernism had arrived and permeated every publication and merchant builder throughout the country. Have you ever seen an issue of Better Homes and Gardens from the 1950's? How about Fortune Magazine? Google them sometime and you will be shocked. They're all progressive and modern. The prevailing style of that day is now known as Mid-Century Modern and objects from that era are highly sought after due to their originality and quality. What happens after the 50's is a product of two different phenomenon that was like a 1-2 punch to all things Modern.
First, you have the Depression era children growing up and reaching the age where they want to buy a home. Growing up during a depression leaves you with some pretty lasting memories. (I have a friend who still ties together broken rubber bands instead of throwing them away, but we'll save that for another day.) Since homes were (and still are) the largest single investment that the average person is likely to make in their lifetime, this group had no interest in risking their hard earned savings on the latest and greatest trendy home. They wanted security and comfort and chose older homes with time tested styling. The second part of the double whammy has to do with all of the wars which were being fought in the 40's and 50's. The world was not as small as it is today and resources were rare. Modern Architecture often relies on the latest materials to execute the greatest gestures with the least effort. Steel, Glass, and Wood were considered too valuable to be cladding houses with, so the era of vinyl began. And then all of these soldiers came home and needed somewhere to live. The Government was giving them cheap loans to go buy a house and everyone wanted to settle down and make babies. Builders saw the opportunity and started cranking out tract homes. Cities like Levittown in Long Island grew up overnight. And as you can guess, there were not many tract home developments where each home was designed by an Architect. Builders made alot of money building the fastest and cheapest house they could and they couldn't keep up with demand. And the rest, as they say, is history. The era of the tract home began and the media now had to change focus on how to decorate and style your brand new tract home. 50 years later, the major publications such as Better Homes and Gardens are still doing the same thing, except now they are decorating McMansions and faux bungalows.
Of course, there are still those who want Modern housing thanks in part to magazines like Dwell (my latest issue was REALLY skinny). But now that the latest recession has all but wiped out traditional funding for new and innovative companies, will the Moderns just give up or regroup? If only Ayn Rand were here...

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