Friday, September 9, 2011

What does 'modern' mean anyway?

If you are one of the many people who attended a Design school of any type within the last 30 years you probably were taught to be somewhat forward thinking.  Most schools today try to best prepare their students for the world which they will enter upon graduation.  And let's face it, that world is a MODERN world.  It is a world full of technology and opportunity for those who wish to embrace it.  I don't know how many successful architects are still using a T-square and a drafting table, but I doubt it's very many (Glenn Murcutt may be the only one).  

That being said, when the conversation turns to Architecture, the word 'modern' has a very negative connotation.  Modern buildings are thought to be harsh and cold, made of steel and glass and very often devoid of emotion.  Modern homes are thought to be reserved for movie stars and egomaniacs who like the idea of living in a place that looks like it's meant to be on display but not really 'lived in'.  Even the real estate industry has turned it's back on the word 'modern' by replacing it with 'contemporary' in its listings.  If no one disputes that we all live in a 'modern' world, then why are modern buildings so few and far between?  I don't see people driving around in Model T's, so why would people build their houses in the styles of by-gone eras?  I think the answer lies in the fact that no one really knows what 'modern' is.

Let's start with a textbook definition.  Modern is defined as 'of or relating to present or recent time'.  By that definition anything that exists today is Modern.  If you went out and built a pyramid tomorrow, it would be a modern pyramid.  This is part of the problem.  I don't really think that the definition of the word itself is applicable anymore based on how quickly our society changes.  Relatively speaking, a Sony Walkman relates to recent time.  Compared to a record player,  a Sony Walkman is modern.  It is also extinct.  

The next problem is that there are very few examples of great modern design.  If you open a trade publication you will find that most of the modern buildings that get published border on the ridiculous.  They may photograph well and appear very progressive but in fact are borderline dysfunctional and very expensive to maintain.  To me, this is not what inspires people, or at least, it doesn't inspire me.  Judging from the widespread lack of modern housing, I'm guessing it doesn't inspire alot of home buyers either.

A few years back, the American automobile industry was headed for extinction.  For years they had just regurgitated the same old designs and relied on the American consumer to buy their cars regardless of the competition.  For 'the big three' there was only one way out  of the crisis and that way was 'modernization'.  They had to update their product lines, focus more on design and fuel efficiency in their fleets and start creating products that reflected the technology of the day.  They introduced features such as parking assist, voice commanded automation, and better engine technology.  All of this in sleeker more interesting modern designs.  It has been shown time and time again that creating well crafted, socially relevant products will yield great success.  To circle back, we have to ask ourselves:  "Is the building industry really doing this?  Are they giving modern design a good name?"

I think that modern architecture is not about building something that relates to present time.  I think it is about building something that relates to present life.  And in that pursuit it cannot be contained within an Architectural style.  When I look at the homebuilding industry at present, I see the automobile industry three years ago.  Unfortunately, there are no major homebuilders leading the way with socially relevant, modern designs.  They just keep reformatting different versions of the same thing.  If we as a society are truly to embrace modern design as a medium then we have to look at the most successful examples from Joseph Eichler to Steve Jobs and understand how the tools that we have available to us today can carry us into a better tomorrow.   

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