The Hijacking of 'Modern'

By Clem Labine ,

HISTORIC ARCHITECTURE: Completed in 1958, the Seagram Building in New York City is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Created by Mies van der Rohe, the building is an icon of Modernist and International design – and continues to influence nostalgia-inspired architects who work in the historic Modernist Revival style. Photo: Ezra Stoller

Like Somali pirates marauding on the high seas, architecture critics have captured the word “modern.” They reserve its use to honor architects who design in styles approved by the architectural establishment. This egregious use of “modern” has now been insinuated into Wikipedia. Enter the term “Modern Architecture” into Google and the first listing is Wikipedia’s entry that describes a simplified form of design without ornament – and illustrates “modern architecture” with the 1958 Seagram Building!

It’s time for New Traditionalists to rise up and take back the word. According to the first dictionary definition, “modern” merely means “of or relating to recent times or the present.” It’s a time-dependent word; no style or value judgment is attached. Thus, any new building by definition is modern architecture. However, architecture critics have deliberately – and erroneously - conflated “modern” and “Modernist.” As a result, only a radical-looking new building is called “modern architecture” – with the clear implication that it’s also “good.”

However, a new building in traditional style will never be called “modern” by the critics, even though it is of our present time. Critics reserve terms like “pastiche,” “bland,” “Disneyesque,” “derivative,” “old fashioned,” “nostalgic,” etc. for traditionally inspired new buildings. Critics would rather donate a kidney than concede that Allan Greenberg, David M. Schwarz, Marc Appleton and hundreds of other similarly inspired architects create "modern architecture."

MODERN ARCHITECTURE: The new 1,900-seat Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, TN, was completed in 2006 – and thus by definition is “contemporary modern architecture.” But it certainly is not “Modernist,” having been designed in a refined classical style by David M. Schwarz Architectural Services, Washington, DC. Photo: © Steve Hall/Hedrich Blessing

Inside-the-box thinking exhibited by architecture critics is rooted in the historical determinism that is a central tenet of Modernist ideology. This dogma asserts that Modernism is the inevitable, inexorable result of “progress.” Anything that looks back in time for guidance or inspiration is therefore retrograde, decadent and contrary to the dictates of history. Thus, it couldn’t be “modern.”

Rather than dispute that philosophic point here, on purely semantic grounds I challenge the Modernists’ seizure of the adjective “modern” for their exclusive use. Their expropriation is quite ironical, because Modernism is now almost 100 years old – and qualifies as a historical style. The current renewed interest in Modernism can be called a historical revival, just like the Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, and Classical Revival.

A new building by Rem Koolhaas is modern architecture. But so is a new building by Robert A.M. Stern. When it comes to use of the word “modern,” contemporary traditional architects have the right to demand equal time!

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