It has taken me weeks to write this post because the discussions about modernist architecture are so politically complicated and politically important. I hope that this post conveys this.
By Johanna Bockman. In my “Cities in Global Society” graduate course, we read James Holston’s The Modernist City from 1989 and his Insurgent Citizenship from 2008. Both books are excellent (the second one is particularly fascinating and insightful). Both are about cities in Brazil, though from very different angles and different time periods. The first is about the creation of the modernist capital, Brasilia, in the 1960s, while the other is about the more recent emergence of cities and citizenship out of the new illegal settlements at the periphery of Brazilian cities, like Rio and Sao Paulo. In the interval between the publication of the two books, the global modernist architectural movement changed dramatically.
In The Modernist City, Holston examines the building of Brasilia from 1956 to 1960 and then the life of the residents in the city. Like many other critics, including Jane Jacobs, Holston declares the failure of modernist city planning because it destroys street life, separates living/consuming/producing spaces, and creates a sterile city. Furthermore, the modernist city is a utopian project “to develop alternatives to bourgeois capitalist society and consciousness,” but to create this new city older forms of hierarchy are maintained in new ways. Therefore, Brasilia recreated class segregation and exclusion. In the end, Holston rejects not only the utopia of Brasilia and of modernism more generally but also, seemingly, all other utopias. His book Insurgent Citizenship suggests that the informal settlements might be the space of hope and of new forms of political power.
Modernist architecture was blamed for the failures of not only Brasilia but also the failures of U.S. public housing projects like Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis (see the great movie The Pruitt-Igoe Myth and Katharine Bristol’s excellent article). The emerging New Right in the United States saw modernism and a whole range of social projects — including public housing, the welfare state, public education, and public transit — as intertwined. Furthermore, in 1972, Oscar Newman argued that the public space around and inside modernist buildings was “indefensible” and thus prone to violence and crime. So, from this perspective, the only way to have safe public housing was to privatize it. High-rise modernist housing was also seen as inappropriate for poor people. Thus, modernist architecture came under attack from both the right and the left.
During this time, modernist architecture has continued. With the debt crisis of the 1980s and the austerity programs in the 1990s, Third World governments stopped commissioning large-scale modernist projects. As a result, large-scale affordable housing projects ended and the illegal periphery and slums became the primary housing for those with very low incomes. (We might be seeing a resurgence of affordable housing construction in countries like Brazil and Venezuela?) Architects had to focus more on commissions from corporations and wealthy individuals both seeking the now luxury symbolism of modernist architecture, a symbol of the global flows of capital. As I mentioned above, high-rise modernist housing was seen as inappropriate for poor people. Thus, global modernism changed a great deal after Holston wrote his book in 1989.
Modernist architecture is not a homogeneous form of architecture. It reflects the social context within which it is created. Pruitt-Igoe was created within the 1950s and 1960s fiscal crisis in St. Louis caused in part by white flight to the suburbs and continuing racial discrimination. While Brazilia was created, Brazil became a military dictatorship (from 1964 to 1985). Then it was governed by leaders who were primarily concerned with financial crisis until Workers’ Party candidate Lula became president in 2003. Those in informal settlements both helped to bring Lula to power and have gained new forms of political power in their now more socialist oriented country. Brazil in a sense became a fundamentally different place and thus modernist architecture would also be fundamentally different. Modernist architecture created in more liberatory places might function very differently.
Old modernist buildings continue to exist today. Brasilia is still around. In the photo above, one can see many people walking across the wide expanses of grass. Around the world, many socialist-era modernist buildings remain in use today. Many people seem to have come to enjoy modernist buildings. Those living in massive modernist projects now find these projects to be quite pleasant. In October, I visited the so-called “panel” housing in Prague. The well-kept buildings are surrounded by full-grown trees, fields of grass, playgrounds, pubs, and so on. The buildings I visited mainly housed middle-class professionals, who are now embracing this affordable housing. At the same time, worldwide, run-down modernist buildings continue to provide housing for the very poor.
Furthermore, while modernism has been coopted by authoritarian leaders like the Brazilian military and by global bankers, modernism emerged as a revolutionary movement in which everyone could create a new world. In a Washington Post interview, Svenonius of the early 1990s punk band Nation of Ulysses captured this distinction:
In a sense, Nation of Ulysses was a pastiche band…We loved James Brown and the Futurists and Situationism. I’d say the band was innovative in that it was presenting an immersive package that wasn’t a revival. And punk is essentially a revival — a revival of modernism. Punk comes out of postmodernism, but it’s real desire is to inhabit modernism in that it says, “Art has meaning and is revolutionary.”
Postmodernism says, “Oh, Bauhaus looks cool, but we don’t have to subscribe to the ideas of Walter Gropius. We can just have this cool thing and still be bankers.” Know what I mean?
Modernist architecture, like the Druzhba Holiday Center in Yalta, Ukraine, may capture this spirit in ways, which would not necessarily be apparent in military-dictatorship-era Brazil nor in the capital-strapped Brazil of today. Thus global modernism looks very different today from its origins in the 1920s and its highpoint in the 1960s.