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The following text in English is a somewhat improved as-read version of a paper
presented at the School of Architecture Conference "Fixed?"
at the Plymouth University, Great Britain, on April 7, 2011
The text is to be expanded and equipped with endnotes and literature references; it's still a work in progress.


- or: Please, do not disturb.

Busy producing art historically correct
expressions of the Modern Epoch.

By Jan Michl

1. IT'S ABOUT MODERNISM. The organizers of this conference suggested in their call for papers that there is an ingrained suspicion on the part of contemporary architects to the use of their buildings, with its attendant adaptation, alteration, and personalization, and that this might have something to do with architects seeing their buildings as "pure" works of art. I would like to follow on that idea with some theoretical and historical speculations and arguments. I presume, however, that we are in fact not speaking of architects, or buildings, or architecture as such, or in general, but of modernist architects, modernist buildings, and modernist architecture. Or, in other words, that the problems sketched in the call for papers have something to do with the nature of modernism itself.

2. MODERNISM WAS ABOUT A HISTORICALLY CORRECT IDIOM. We think of the abstract aesthetics, the dominant visual idiom of today's architecture, as the correct idiom pertaining to the modern epoch, in contrast to the incorrect visual language of the die-hard historicists still popping up here and there. I submit that it is this idea of correct (or incorrect) idiom - not the fact that it simply was a new idiom - that is the defining feature in modernism, and one that bears on the problems formulated by the convenors. For a correct idiom must necessarily mean a historically correct idiom (correct for a particular historical period), and a historically correct idiom must, in its turn, imply a historically foreordained idiom. This is exactly what the architects of modernist orientation since around the middle of the 19th century wanted to bring about, and what they after the First World War finally felt they had implemented: the intrinsic, and ultimately foreordained visual language pertaining to the modern epoch. In that context it was perhaps not surprising that modernist architects tended to conceive, and conceive of, their buildings as the latest, until then missing, historically correct pieces in the great style panorama of art history - as historically authentic art objects not to be tempered with.

I'd like to continue now with further comments and speculations on what can be called the modernist obsession with the historically correct and ultimately metaphysically warranted visual idiom, and on its development, further implications and problems.

3. ABOLISHING PLURALISM WAS TO MAKE WAY FOR "THE TRUE EXPRESSION OF THE EPOCH". We know that modernists aimed at doing away with stylistic pluralism, that came to characterize the Western society from the late 18th century on. Since around the middle of the 19th century, pluralism came to be seen by an ever expanding number of architects and theorists of the modernist persuasion as a deplorable, Babel-like confusion of tongues. Why was the new pluralism not embraced as the uniquely modern phenomenon, reflecting the growing wealth of the modern society, and bound to stay? Here enters the new 19th century discipline of art history. The novel modernist obsession with a single, new, authentic, all-encompassing style that was supposed to replace the previous 'style chaos' was namely hardly thinkable without the entirely new image conjured up by the recently born art history discipline. Starting in Germany, the discipline of art history brought with it a novel, haunting mental image: an image of a chronological march of autonomous, stylistically unified periods, conceived of as authentic visual expressions of the particular historical epochs. This mental image, taken literally by more and more critics and architects, was instrumental in creating a growing anxiety about what was the "authentic" visual expression of the present modern epoch. It was by no means an accident that the three key ideologues of the post-World-War-I modernism, the art historians Siegfried Giedion and Nikolaus Pevsner, and the architect turned apologist historian Walter Curt Behrendt, were originally German language writers, familiar with the contemporary art history discipline, and steeped in the Hegelian imagery of a foreordained world. In rejecting the reality of stylistic pluralism, where architects tended to choose their visual idioms according to different building contexts, the modernist architects growingly turned their backs on the established communicative or linguistic view of design characteristic for the pluralists. What they embraced instead was a new and very different idea of architecture, derived largely from the art historical perspective - the idea of architecture as a historical expression: an expression of "functions", materials, constructions, production processes, and ultimately and primarily, as an expression of the modern epoch.

4. MODERNISM WAS BUILT ON THE PRE-MODERN IDEA OF A FOREORDAINED WORLD. The implicit modernist assumption of a historically foreordained world, on which, I suggest, the modernist thinking has rested all the way to the present, has admittedly taken a backseat in the architectural rhetoric of today. It was, however, very loud and clear in the early modernist writers, such as Louis Sullivan, or Sullivan's predecessor Horatio Greenough. Both of them, in contrast to later modernists, still unabashedly referred to "God", or "Creator", or "Infinite Creative Mind", i. e. to metaphysical concepts which were meant as warrants that their design theory made sense. Sullivan's key idea, providing the gist of the modernist philosophy of design, or rather of the modernist design metaphysics, was formulated in these words: "It is my belief that it is of the very essence of every problem that it contains and suggests its own solution. This I believe to be natural law." The quote comes from Sullivan's 1896 article "The tall office building artistically considered". Please note the words "artistically considered" - not "functionally considered". The point of the quote, just as the point of his notorious idea that "form ever follows function", coined in the same article, was that Sullivan's tripartite solution of the skyscraper body, that he argued for in the text, was in fact identical with how the "Creative Mind of the Universe" intended the skyscraper to look like. And not unimportant in this context was the implication that this Higher Intelligence communicated its intention through its most carefully chosen medium of Mr. Sullivan himself.

5. FUNCTIONALISM WAS NOT ABOUT BUILDINGS THAT WORK. Here it is perhaps opportune to remind ourselves that the utilitarian-sounding term "functionalism", seemingly aiming at a user-first type of architecture and design, was really nothing of the sort. The word "function" in "functionalism" served as a designation of the place where forms - the authentically modern forms - were to be quarried. Functionalism was in other words, from the very beginning, about forms. It was not a function-first, but a form-first philosophy of design. Functionalism is best understood as the modernist method of arriving at the art historically correct visual idiom for the "modern epoch".

But since the modernist metaphysical belief that "functions" contain their proper forms was never more than wishful thinking (the form-follows-function slogan was really an invitation to flog a cart that Sullivan, in his metaphysical flight of fancy, put before the horse) we have to remind ourselves as well, of where the modernist formal language really came from. The short answer is that it came from the world of pure art - from the post-cubist abstract painting and sculpture of the late 1910s and early 1920s. It was the American International Style promoters in the MoMA in early 1930s, who first and unequivocally pointed this out - and, at the same time, anointed the new abstract idiom as the legitimate source of the modernist aesthetic. Since then we have had two incompatible interpretations of the origin of the modernist aesthetics - the functionalist one (which reeks of a belief in miracles) and the "abstractionist" one, which is definitely closer to reality: the modernist architecture is still dressed in the garb originally devised by the interwar abstract painters and sculptors.

In our context it is nevertheless important to emphasize that both of these positions, i.e. both the "functionalist" and the "abstractionist" one, pursued the same formalist objective, i.e. to generate the allegedly proper expression of the modern epoch. This is the main reason why neither of them had any mental room for what rank and file users and clients might prefer. It has been all the time about the wishes of the mysterious entity, described first as "Higher Intelligence", and later in seemingly less metaphysical terms, such as "Epoch", or "History", or "Zeigeist", or "Nature" - as communicated to the mortals through the mouths of its mouthpieces, i.e. the modernist architects, critics, and ideologues themselves.

6. THE MODERNIST VISION OF AUTHENTIC FORMS WAS SELF-SERVING. Noting that neither 'functions', 'materials', or 'constructions', nor 'Epoch', 'History', 'Zeitgeit' or 'Nature' are equipped with mouths of their own - and that they express their "wishes" only via their mouthpieces - brings us to the issue of self-serving nature of the notion of historically correct aesthetics. With the notion of correct-because-foreordained solutions the 'Modern Epoch' - in fact 'History' itself - had now replaced the flesh-and-blood human clients as the modernist architect's prime client. In his own mind the architect was now an employee in the service of History. This was of course an enormously flattering mission. The individual human user now tended to be considered an obstacle standing in the architect's way of meeting the putative demands of the Epoch. So, given this modernist outlook, it was practically a foregone conclusion that the modernist architect saw architecture as the architect's own business, and that he was inclined to conceive of his buildings as autonomous works of art. For if the first criterion of value in architecture is its historical authenticity, i.e. its alleged correctness in relation to its Epoch, then to ensure this correctness it is best to leave architecture to architects alone, for they will only be able to bring about such correct visual idiom if they are left undisturbed by the generally backward-looking wishes of users and clients.

7. A CAVEAT: THE THEORY OF ART-FOR-ART'S-SAKE DOES MAKES SENSE, THOUGH. Let me come with a caveat, however. Architecture, just as any other kind of profession, has necessarily an autonomous dimension of its own, one which is subject to the profession's own rules and laws only, and largely unrelated to, and independent of the world of clients and users - a kind of art-for-art's-sake dimension. Had it not been so, then anybody could be able to do expertly what only experts can do. In this sense architects, just as all other specialists, can be said always to know better that their clients and users. My point in suggesting that architecture conceived as an autonomous art is a problem is not meant to deny or censure this above mentioned dimension. I only want to suggest that this autonomous dimension, as a consequence of embracing the modernist objective, has become inflated to the point of changing the traditional nature of architecture as a useful art, leading to the kind of disturbances suggested by the theme of this conference.

8. THE IDEA OF HISTORICALLY CORRECT/INCORRECT FORMS WAS A PIECE OF WISHFUL THINKING. Today, probably no architect is prepared to subscribe openly to the modernist notions of historically correct and historically true forms, and to defend the Sullivanian metaphysical reasoning. But, I submit, only a recourse to such Sullivanian (or perhaps Heideggerian) metaphysical obscurities can justify the current, seldom questioned persuasion that architecture belongs to architects alone.

We have embraced and internalized the modernist idea of historically correct and historically incorrect aesthetic expressions to such an extent that we no longer see that these ideas make no sense - yes, no sense whatsoever - without the pre-modern, metaphysical idea of a foreordained world, that props it up. And we see neither that today's apartheid-like one-idiom-only architectural education, that ignores most of other visual idioms of the present pluralist society, is defensible solely in terms of the same pre-modern design metaphysics.

When modernists insisted that it is imperative to be "of one's own time", their objective was - let me emphasize in conclusion once again - to arrive at the correct visual idioms allegedly pertaining to their time, and to avoid the allegedly incorrect ones. But if we reject, as I believe we must, the questionable metaphysical claims underpinning such ideas, the notion of historically correct or incorrect forms turns out to be a piece of wishful thinking, without any mooring to the real world outside the in-group sharing this self-serving pipe dream: for all forms - modernist and non-modernist alike - necessarily pertain to their own time. What else time could they pertain to than to each individual's own lifetime? With the modernist metaphysics out of sight, it becomes plain that all forms and all visual idioms produced today can be seen as "historically correct", and quite without any effort on anybody's part. Or, as George Boas, an American critic of the modern obsession with epochs and Zeitgeists, put it in 1941: "To be of one's time is a task which one fulfills through the fatality of one's dates."

9. ANY CHANCE OF CHANGE? HARDLY. So if the tremendous efforts that modernist architects still put into producing the historically correct architecture - that is into pleasing an entirely fictitious client who allegedly wants them to produce only "contemporary" idiom - if that enormous effort was spent in some more down-to-earth pursuits, for example in taking seriously the diversity of people's aesthetic preferences, we would, I believe, hardly need to discuss the kind of problems this conference is addressing. But is there a chance that both contemporary architecture and contemporary architectural education finally ditch the ideal of historical correctness, and move in a less self-serving direction? For my part I am not very optimistic. For as the great Scottish philosopher David Hume put it, more than ten generations ago, in his essay "Of miracles": "But what greater temptation than to appear a missionary, a prophet, an ambassador from heaven? Who would not encounter many dangers and difficulties, in order to attain so sublime a character? Or if, by the help of vanity and a heated imagination, a man has first made a convert of himself, and entered seriously into the delusion; who ever scruples to make use of pious frauds, in support of so holy and meritorious a cause?"

Head illustration: The church of Saint-Pierre at Firminy, France, by Le Corbusier, designed in 1960s, finished 2006.

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Online since July 4, 2011. Several small corrections/improvements: December 17, 2013.
Your critical comments are welcome: michl.nor[at]
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See also the author's RELATED TEXTS:

"On Seeing Design as Redesign" (2002)
"Without a godlike designer - no designerlike God" (2006)
"Taking Down the Bauhaus Wall" (2014)
"A case against the modernist regime in design education" (2014)
"Towards understanding visual styles as inventions without expiration dates" (2015)
All online articles IN ENGLISH
The author's workplace 2017: NTNU / Norwegian University of Science and Technology / Gjøvik, Norway

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