April 29, 2005

I hate modernists, I hate modernists, I hate modernists.

I, Dianna Woolsey, firmly believe that:

  1. The appeal of severe right angles and flat planes is grossly overrated;
  2. Efficiency and beauty are not inherently the same thing;
  3. Conventional ornamentation is not a crime;
  4. The shapes that appeal to people's existing notions of things like "building" and "chair" do so for a reason;
  5. It's 2005 and you're all fucking yuppies who couldn't care less about the economy of mass-production or the social ramifications of making design widely available, and your $800 square glass table has shit-all to do with modernism anyway;
  6. The people responsible for turning a midcentury California bungalow into this eyesore should be fired. Yes, fired, from the company that I think they own. I found this in the latest issue of Architectural Record that just came into the office and it makes my blood boil. The print article included some pictures of the original bungalow, showing it as a 650-square-foot stucco house with a shady porch, sitting quietly in the middle of its lot with room to breathe on all sides. The new version, as you can see, is a massive weird box (sorry, a casual and funky home) that looms into its neighbors' space and shoves its huge windows into everyone's faces (sorry, it's breezy and airy and brilliantly merges inside and outside). It's antisocial and self-indulgent and deliberately attention-grabbing, and the architects have the nerve to say that what they've done is give the house a new look without changing its essential character unless of course you count tripling its square footage and redoing every visible surface in a new shape and material as changing it.

Total crap, you guys. Cut it out.

Posted by dianna at April 29, 2005 11:26 AM

Crap. My link isn't working. I'll see if I can fix it.

Posted by: Dianna at April 29, 2005 11:33 AM

Okay, it's fixed. You can all go and sneer at it now.

Posted by: Dianna at April 29, 2005 12:53 PM

Argumentative Mode on

1. Dude, I don't care what Architectural Digest might say, I'd call the renovated version of the house postmodern, not modern. For a lot of reasons, but the simplest is the overlay of the organic-style stuff onto the skeleton of the modern house. Now it's postmodern.

2. Maybe modernists don't like you either. Pthhhhbt!

3. Not all modernism equated flat planes and efficiency with beauty; not all modernism was concerned with function at all.

4. A lot of the best modernist stuff was not about imposing structure and order, but overthrowing it, and instead evoking absurdity and the unconscious: a lot of modernism was a reaction against modernity, and was concerned with the unrepresentability of the world, and the non-coherence of the inner and the outer.

5. You can't do modernism anymore. It's locked into a specific temporal period. There's a big fight about this, but I believe the side that says modernism became impossible after WWII. Now what you're stuck in is postmodernity - the sheer absurdity of trying to impose shape and order on the world, and the fact that science and progress can't create anything that isn't monstrous anymore.

6. I think the house is kind of cool, and most ornamentation is bullshit anyway.

Argumentative Mode off

Posted by: katie at April 29, 2005 04:03 PM

Now how did I know you were going to have to comment on this?

I can only think of responses to two of those things just at this precise moment, so here they are.

Argumentative Mode on

#4. Isn't a reaction against modernism inherently postmodern and therefore not within the scope of the modernist movement?

#6. I don't personally think all ornamentation is bullshit, but I sure do think that making siding for your house out of rows of fucking wire bristle brush things (can you even see that part in the online pictures?) is bullshit. That's total bullshit. I don't care what they say about it creating a fascinating dappled light thing. Give me a craftsman stained-glass window to dapple my light and then we'll talk.

Argumentative Mode off

Posted by: Dianna at April 29, 2005 04:27 PM

Argumentative Mode on
5. The characterization of the postmodern era as "the sheer absurdity of trying to impose shape and order on the world, and the fact that science and progress can't create anything that isn't monstrous anymore"
That really rubs me the wrong way. You might as well replace "postmodernism" with "future shock." That is, those pursuing postmodernism along those lines are having trouble understanding the world unfolding around them. But that certainly doesn't make their definition of postmodernism anything approaching realistic.

Romanticists *choose* to impose a numinous, chaotic view upon the world. Just because they don't understand its shape, doesn't mean the world is formless. Similarly, just because a romantic wishes for an imaginary past where everything was simpler, doesn't mean that technology and "progress" have been engines of horror.

Argumentative Mode off

Posted by: Jacob at April 29, 2005 04:37 PM

Possibly because you just happen to know that I head a modernist and avant-garde studies research cluster, and I like to argue?

Know-It-All Arse-head Mode on

#4. Not a response against modernism (you're right, that would be weird), but a response against modernity. In other words, the conditions of modern life (and by modern here I really mean something like 1860-1914) put certain pressures on the individual: there's a sense of constant acceleration, of incoherence, of the imminent obsolescence of the individual. There's a sense that history has become a weight that we had to try to climb out from under, at the same time as time was moving so fast that it was impossible to hold still, to take note of it or make sense of it. So a lot of "modernist" art actually rises from an impulse to, essentially, complain about these pressures on people, and to represent what human experience now looks like in this pressure-cooker of time. It's not entirely a positive thing, is all I'm saying. And even in some of the movements that really are about embracing this forward momentum (Futurism, stuff like that, with its unfortunate ties to Fascism etc), there's kind of a sense that they're trying to ride the rollercoaster before it runs over them.

This is why I'm so drawn to the modern. It's a really crazy time, and there's this huge, rapid succession of movements trying to figure out how to cope with it. And there's a sense of desperation to do something - anything - new, which I really admire. We've become so trained, says the modernist, in how to read and see and live, that we have to get more and more extreme in our efforts to find something we don't know how to deal with - something that can shock or outrage. Kind of like the house did for you, maybe.

Anyway, crazy shit, and I like it.

Know-It-All Arse-head Mode off

Meet-You-Halfway Mode on

#6. Also, I didn't see the wire bristle brushes. That actually sounds really cool, in that "it makes me happy because someone did it just because they fucking could" way - but it also sounds really silly.

My DH, of course, dismisses all this stuff that I like with a single word: "Gimmicky." We have a pretty much daily fight about this. For what it's worth.

Meet-You-Halfway Mode off

Posted by: katie at April 29, 2005 04:48 PM

Oh Crap Mode on

#5. What does "future shock" actually mean? I don't think I'm familiar with the term.

I realized that I backed myself up against the wall when I started trying to define postmodernism, in part because - I'll be the first to say - I don't really "get" postmodernism, or even begin to know how to define it. But it seems fair to say: the positivistic elements of Modernism pretty much ran up against a wall when the engines of progress they were trying to ride created - ta da! - the Holocaust. I mean this in a very literal way - writers and artists start throwing their support behind Hitler and Mussolini, thinking that authoritarianism offers a clear way through this problem of the modern. Then they turn out to have been contributing to this enormous, unspeakable trauma.

There's a huge epistemic shift that happens there, because the narratives we've been trying to use to (yes) impose form onto the world suddenly are revealed as (at best) incoherent and insufficient, and (at worst) actively helping to create really dangerous, destructive ideologies. So we have to generate new narratives, this time full of irony and skepticism, to reflect this sense of betrayal. Does that sound wrong to you? Why else is so much of postmodernism so dystopian? Why else is the postmodern (whatever it actually is) so filled with the unstable, the non-hierarchical, and the satirical?

Oh Crap Mode off

Posted by: katie at April 29, 2005 05:20 PM

Bork Bork Bork Mode on

I would define future shock as ultra-modernism. In the way you define modernism as, "time was moving so fast that it was impossible to hold still, to take note of it or make sense of it." So instead of being culture-shocked when going to another culture, one is future shocked within one's own culture by the constant acceleration of science/technology. "Kids these days" on steroids, basically.

Playing devil's advocate, why would one ever need to impose form on the world? Does the world have no form? Certainly, interpretations of what the form actually means change constantly. But I think that has as much to do with memes as with reality.

I mostly agree with your evaluation as to why the "dark-humor/humour" of postmodernism arose. So why has it persisted? The generation that had any involvement in WWII is rapidly fading. But every generation since has raised irony and self-mockery to greater and greater heights.

Partly, I think this has something to do with the acceleration of culture. Each generation becomes more and more accustomed to change, so that they're no longer future-shocked. Once you start down that road, why place much value on anything? It will all just change in 5-10 years (or less). Better to view everything in a skeptical light, so that you're not so jarred by the latest world-changing breakthrough.

Bork Bork Bork Mode off

Posted by: Jacob at April 29, 2005 06:06 PM

Distracted and Irritated Mode on

I meant to contribute something informed and constructive to this discussion, but while considering how best to do so I decided to pull out my big book of 20th century design and all was lost. Now I'm just drooling over pictures of squiggly wallpaper and not actually forming coherent thoughts. So here's an entirely separate list to reflect the fact that I can't seem to say anything useful in the numbering scheme of the previous list.

1. I'm pretty sure, now that I think about it, that where I'm saying "modernist" it might be more accurate for me to instead say "Bauhaus, Bauhausesque, Vkhutemas (the Soviet equivalent of the Bauhaus), Le Corbusier, everyone at the Bauhaus who was emulating Le Corbusier, and everyone since who's emulated any of it". That aesthetic and philosophy is what's pretty much taken up the entire square in my head labelled "what I know about modernism". See earlier comments on utility, standardization, mass production and mass availability, and see, now some of them are applicable.

2. I like Katie's #5 (the characterization of the postmodern era as "the sheer absurdity of trying to impose shape and order on the world, and the fact that science and progress can't create anything that isn't monstrous anymore"). It makes sense to me. Monstrous, though, I have to point out to Jacob, means misconceived and embarrassing and just plain stupid as much as it means horrific. That's where postmodernist mockery and distancing by sneering comes in; nooooo, no, we didn't take that modern shit seriously, come on, look how stupid it was. We'd never get caught up in anything like that.

3. I'm with Christian on the "gimmicky" issue. It's probably fairly obvious (at least to the other two people actually commenting) that my beef with modernism is mostly about its architecture and jesus christ is that a big pile of stupid gimmicks. Yes, you can make your house a glass donut on stilts and live only on the second floor. Yes, you can make a wall out of wire brushes. Yes, you can make that damned uber-green building on MLK with the recycled street signs for siding, unpainted so that everyone can see what you did and so your entire house turns into a glare-concentrator at about 2:30 pm on a sunny day. Yes, it's very clever-- really, it is. But just because it's unusual and cool-looking and people want to take pictures of it, that doesn't mean it actually fucking works!

4. Bitch bitch bitch. Shouldn't I have something better to do with my time on a Friday evening than this?

Distracted and Irritated Mode off

Posted by: Dianna at April 29, 2005 07:32 PM

[geekmode]You guys really ought to just use fake html or bbcode tags instead of "Whatever Mode on." It's just so much more efficient.[/geekmode]

Posted by: Chris at April 29, 2005 07:41 PM

Slightly Embarrassed Footnote Mode on

I just realized that my original list comprised two entirely different complaints and I forgot to distinguish between them. #s 1-4 were directed at, as previously mentioned, basically the Bauhaus and all of its affiliates and emulators. #s 5 and 6 were directed at the architects who remodeled that house and the people responsible for the wildly hypocritical Design Within Reach catalog. Hypocritical why? It talks itself up as something in line with Bauhausian modernist ideals but does it for $800 per table for the wealthy yuppie customer base. We got one at the house the other day (a catalog, not a yuppie customer base), thus setting up the background level of irritation necessary for a big boxy planular house that uses electricity in new ways to irritate me this much.

Make more sense now?

Slightly Embarrassed Footnote Mode off

Posted by: Dianna at April 29, 2005 07:42 PM