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The very term ‘modernist architecture’ evokes a sense of inevitability – as if architectural modernism is a simple fact of modern life. But as recently as the late 19th and early 20th centuries, modernism was just one of many competing architectural styles.

In a fascinating article for Resilience, Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros explain how the modernist style came to dominate the built environment:

  • “…this radically novel form language became unexpectedly popular and entirely displaced its contemporary competitors, many of which are largely forgotten today… innovative architectural form languages that… included Jugendstil, Secession, Art Nouveau, Stile Liberty, Edwardian, and Art-and-Crafts as well as the early F. L. Wright.”

The key to modernism’s triumph was its unique compatibility with the technologies of mass production:

  • “It employed the repetitive production of standardized machine components, conceived in the most limited sense (eliminating complex artifacts, tools and utensils, and complex architectural components). It was an extreme strategy to exploit economies of scale and quantity to achieve efficiencies. Those industrial parts — blank flat sheets, razor-straight line cuts, simple unadorned squares, cubes, and cylinders — were standardized to allow for easy and low-cost assembly.”

And yet there was much more to modernism’s dominance than mere economics. The expulsion of all other styles from the theory and practice of mainstream architecture was an ideological project. Modernism was pursued as a deliberate break with tradition – and one of the key theorists of this rupture was the Austrian writer and architect Adolf Loos:

  • “…Loos presented an argument for the minimalist industrial aesthetic that has shaped modernism and neo-modernism ever since. Surprisingly, he built this argument upon a foundation that is accepted today by almost no one; the cultural superiority of ‘modern man’, by which he meant Northern European males.”

Loos readily admitted that modern methods had left us unable to produce “authentic ornamental detail.” But he went on to argue that this was not something worth having, the proof being that ornament was something that “any Negro” (his words) could obtain.

For Loos, ornament was ‘primitive’, while the plain, repetitive, geometrical uniformity of modernism was ‘advanced’ because only the latest technology could produce it. Far from being a regrettable by-product of our methods of production, modernism’s bleak aesthetic was to be celebrated as the embodiment of the age:

  • “Indeed, the continued use of ornament was, for Loos, a “crime.” The “Papuan,” he argued, had not evolved to the moral and civilized circumstances of modern man [sic]. As part of his primitive practices, the Papuan tattooed himself. Likewise, Loos went on, “the modern man who tattoos himself is either a criminal or a degenerate.” Therefore, he reasoned, those who still used ornament were on the same low level as criminals, and Papuans.”

Charming fellow.

Fast forward a hundred years, and the cities that modernism made are all around us. Yet though the buildings are, for the most part, devoid of ornamentation, many of the people who live in them are not. In fact, with, every passing year, it seems as if more and more of them sport the tattoos that Loos so despised.

Instead of ornamenting his buildings, modern man now ornaments his skin instead. 

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