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Being modern today; what does the future hold?

Christian De Portzamparc

Being modern today; what does the future hold?
By Christian de Portzamparc -

Language is in crisis. Politics ideology and the very the “logos” of Western reasoning are in crisis. Yet if worthwhile architecture continues to exist, it’s a sign that our civilisation is still on the right path. Sometimes our visible world is further advanced than our language.
The city doesn’t lie. Whether well heeled or poverty-stricken, its neighbourhoods reveal the raw truth of our world. If good architecture could speak, I think it would often seem like an oracle. For architecture is the unspoken truth of an era. It speaks of space but also of the spirit of the times. I have always seen the city and its buildings as a vast metaphysical calendar - one that shows all the epochs down the ages yet is never complete. We live our “today” in places of the present but also of the past and the future.
The calendar shows how for centuries architecture was concerned with perpetuating an existing order. The past provided the model of reference. Since the Second World War, however, the lodestar became the future. To be suitable, architecture had to show it was “resolutely modern”.
What did it mean to be modern in 1930 and 1950, and what does it mean to be modern today in a period that has seen constant change since the 1960s? We live, it is often said, in a time of transition that is not yet over.
We have seen the rise of globalisation and with it the acceleration of intangible communications, in other words, the birth of the digital era. For the architect, the act of drawing has changed. Gone are the painstaking working drawings of perspective views we used to make, just as they did during the Renaissance. Today we modelize.
Digitalisation can produce surfaces and shapes by calculation, propose daringly irregular structures that could never have been calculated or drawn before in timeframes compatible with the economics of getting something built. We have seen our drawings order digital machines to calculate the exact shape of individual formwork segments. They have been exhilarating times for we realised we were living through a revolution as important as the development of printing or geometric drawing by Brunelleschi.

A different awareness of time
The period brought with it much more far-reaching upheaval: a completely different awareness of time.
Starting with the Renaissance and then with the Enlightenment, our civilisation has been progressively projected towards the future. We see time as a signpost to the future, pointing the direction forward. Progress and modernity are inherent to our world. This outlook was even further accentuated from the 19th century with the development of the steam engine and factories. A new period started, the era of technology, a solid guarantee of an immutable order whereby the world moved on from the past. Architecture, however, took a century to catch up with this new mindset.
In the 1920s Le Corbusier, looking at the lessons of the industrial revolution, formulated his declaration of the ideal union between skin and usefulness in his “Vers une architecture”. It marked the modern renaissance of architecture.
Until then, aesthetics in architecture had always been a question of addition. Eiffel had to accept to hang an arch from the first floor of his tower to make it look good. Although influenced by technology, architecture was still under the sway of the past. At least that’s how the modern pioneers saw it, and resented it. For them, the decorative style of the Arts and Crafts movement of Art Nouveau was a reaction against the technology and machines that were about to sweep across the landscape. For them, things were at a stalemate. But architecture was lost and would disappear, swept away by the new events. When Loos, Gropius and the Werkbund Association announced, “we are the first in history to have seen the machine”, they were referring to how modern architecture would relate to the industrial world. Le Corbusier’s radical reaction was a programme for the reinvention of architecture: architecture would have a “grandeur”, a mission, a new sense in history, untrammelled by the past. Use, usefulness and “function” would become its reference points, taking the place of the symbolic. It was not all rhetoric. The first modern constructions - glorious in their quiet beauty - stand as lasting proof of this.

Modernity: a golden age of certainty or doubt?
While this new vision belonged more to the realm of theory between the two wars, it became dogma in the post-war period. The mid-20th century was the golden age of modernism.
Enthusiasm for things new, the imperious hold of the future, and the optimism of the planner mindset were generalised drivers. The word “modern” was a banner indicating what to do and in what direction to go.
In 2000 Renzo Piano talked of how he had lived his youth with the feeling that every day following the Liberation we were taking a step further away from barbarism. There was a vibrant, self-assured intensity about the times, like there must have been during the Quattrocento. Economic growth led to a spectacular speeding up of modernism, which inevitably affected all areas of human activity: agriculture, health, the administration, politics, war, transport, communications, building, cooking, trade and art. Not even religious practice was immune.
The Modernist Movement had its successes and failures in every domain. Modernism affected the lives of everyone, bringing drama but also happiness.
Urbanism shows how in an era dominated by technology, the city was conceived as divided up into a series of distinct sectors, types of performance or service and work. When Le Corbusier decreed the “Death of the Street”, he was thinking in terms of industrial methods. It is as if after analysing the many functions afforded by a city street - transportation of all kinds, illumination, air, addresses, trade, a mix of living quarters and work activities, and utility networks - he had separated them and proposed a zone for each function, velocity and technology, such as living, working, leisure, moving about etc. Fast transport channels, for example, should slice through areas and allow rapid circulation. This was taken up throughout the world and city streets became a thing of the past. They were swept away in Singapore and Beijing. They were no longer given any attention in Paris or Manhattan during this period. No one had any idea at the time of the dire consequences waiting to happen with the advent of the “périphériques”, or ring roads.
In all sectors technology allowed great strides forward. In all sectors it controlled the relationship between cause and effect. But we have learned from politics that, as an intrinsically analytical approach, technology is unable to answer the overarching questions, the “holistic” issues posed by people having to live together. In politics, the idea of mastering the world through modern technology led to totalitarianisms. In urbanism, after zoning guidelines and technology-regulated transport systems, it has left us with disjointed, ill-managed quarters where life has been carved up into separate segments. But life, the city, architecture and “good governance” cannot be reduced to a simple sum of performances.
So there came a moment in every sector when its glaring mistakes cast modernism into question. A turnaround was made. The energy crisis, migratory flows following changes in the labour market, local unemployment and food pollution and the problems faced by cities themselves, were the first issues to prompt questioning during the 1970s. These were followed by unemployment and climate change.

Being Modern today? Two faces of modernity
In a break with the past, the Modernist Movement took the future as its guide. Today however, we live in fear of tomorrow. In recent decades, moving forward has become a perilous adventure. The road ahead leads to new uncharted lands, very different from the forecasts. The landscape is constantly changing. Planning, once the guiding star supposed to light the road as we advance, has now been more or less abandoned. We have lost our ability to predict what will happen. Doubt, caution - the famous “precautionary principle” - are foremost in our minds. The expression “sustainable development”, not supported by any real environmental programme, allows decision-makers to formulate prudential, reassuring discourse about the future.
The future is no longer visible and yet we are constantly moving towards it. Nothing is fixed for very long. Should we then backtrack? Downsize? Develop differently? What are the tools to do so? The meaning and implications of the word “modern” cannot remain the same. They have to be constantly reviewed. Being modern today means answering the new questions that world trends place before us.
I have always thought that Modernism has two facets for us architects: one allows us to produce, the other emancipates. The first, fuelled by science and technology is rational, drives the economic, commercial and industrial machine. The other has to do with individual independence, yearns for freedom, embraces universality, dream and adventure. Although two contradictory approaches - also in terms of practical results - they are nonetheless complementary in the long term. Both tend towards universal answers. Yet my work as an architect and urbanist has been sustained by this paradox, and springs from these two different aspects.
Obviously architecture and urbanism have been profoundly changed by technology. That’s the glamorous side, the “science-fiction” aspect, commonly seen as “avant-garde”. But considering technology to be the major reference of modernity today implies casting it into question. The last Biennale presented a series of building methods or technologies considered the building blocks of architecture and perhaps the cornerstones of modernity. Yet this vision of “modern” is no longer a valid landmark. It does not allow us to see ahead any more clearly - even if, of course, technology remains the baseline condition of our existence, as it is for several billion other human beings, an overwhelming achievement of civilisation.
Begun two thousand years ago as a formidable drive to master our environment, technology has lately become a dangerous adventure that has to be managed differently. For our relationship with space and the landscape is being transformed.
Virtual technology, the marvel of our times: grandeur or impoverishment
The most spectacular technology of our times is the new virtual reality - the cyber world. It is the driver propelling us forward. With Internet, ocean cables and information flow control, space has ceased to be the medium we knew. We are now witnessing “de-spatialization”. Intangible technology has led to a concomitant loss of control of physical space, which has become too difficult and expensive to change. It is also a situation that demands rapid return on investments, which in turn has led to the adoption of the most lightweight solutions: offices and housing can be placed pretty well anywhere whereas large-scale game-changing urban programmes are too cumbersome, too slow and too expensive.
The city no longer brings people together. On the contrary it shuts out, its urban plan locked in a grid of fast-lane thoroughfares. Today the metropolitan space separates, divided into blocks that have become quasi ghettos. The catastrophe of the megacity is a threat in many countries. But it is not too late to act.
The Modernist Movement put programme before place, “topos” therefore “logos”. Taking action in the metropolitan area requires an ambitious plan to go back to the basics of physical places and infrastructure that makes them liveable. But that means returning to the long-term view, without which there can be no infrastructure. We have to catch up on thirty years of short-termism, of seeking rapid return on investments, and failing to recognise and take on board the consequences of impetuous urban development.
Practising urbanism and architecture means going back to the basics of things and places, looking after the places we live in by bringing together technologies that make sense. I realised that each of my projects casts into question the technology used in the particular place and the very concept of modernity. Perhaps we have to learn gradual development.
Returning to the basics of place: being modern is to answer the new questions our world poses.
Ours is a world in which we find ourselves increasingly less able to manage our physical environment. Nonetheless we continued to walk, see, listen and speak to each other from the same distance. Cyberspace fascinates us and stands for the future, but in the changing metropolitan environment we have inherited space from previous ages. In fact we live in three cities belonging to three intertwined ages; the Neolithic, the industrial and the virtual cybernetic.
We have recently entered the cybernetic age in which virtual communications allow further discontinuous, heterogeneous extension of the city, often dubbed “chaotic”. This city of cyberspace, ubiquity, globalised connections and an accelerated economy has led to sprawling conglomerations stretching far beyond the capacity of their actual physical size and networks.
For decades we have lived in the industrial age of rapid motorised transport and flight from the land, with the resultant impetuous growth of cities.
Yet we have always lived in man’s centuries-old community space: the space of the street, the block, or the distance of a walk or horse-ride. This has been man’s space since Neolithic times. Even today we are still that man who walks, breathes and sees in tune with that same distance. We are also still that man who since time immemorial considers it natural to impose man’s physically superiority over woman. We must turn back and reclaim that community level space. Space is and remains the baseline medium. And it is what makes architecture so important today.
We live in an era in which we have had to learn, starting from the real world, that “being modern” means supplying answers to the issues of the present in a changing world. We have changed the very concepts underlying our times, not as a result of peremptory assertions but rather in the light of repeated local experience. Being modern today implies the opposite of dogma, a particular style or taste. It is more an ethical mindset.

Christian de Portzamparc



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