Modernism In Fragments

Nathan Glazer's <em>From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture's Encounter with the American City</em> reveals how this influential social movement's good intentions shaped the look of the 20th century.

September 24, 2007, 9:45 AM PDT

By Josh Stephens

Photo: Josh Stephens

Anyone born in the second half of the last century might be surprised to learn that the architecture that has dominated their landscape began as one of the most ambitious social movements ever conceived. As Nathan Glazer describes it in From a Cause to a Style, modernism was not intended to depress us with right angles or erase history but rather save the common worker from squalor and promote equality throughout the land.

For all its permutations, a single, breathtaking ethos dominates modernism: it was the first, and perhaps the last, movement to envision an idealized, everlasting future and-politics, culture, and the vagaries of humanity be damned-then actually build it. But even modernism's notion of social and technological progress, and the countless buildings it spawned, has turned into an anachronism, as America has awakened to sterile downtowns and vapid highway strips. Now that the future has come and gone the time may finally be ripe to evaluate modernism in full.

Cover: <em>From a Cause to a Style</em>

From a Cause to a Style poses as just such an inquiry, analyzing the connection between the social mission of modernist architecture and the aesthetic tradition that it inspired. The title implies a narrative about a transformation-a buldungs roman about buildings, if you will-in which a noble social experiment succumbs to fashion and the winds of time. It's a fascinating premise for a book. It's so fascinating, in fact, that someday I might try writing it myself-because Glazer didn't.

Despite its purported thesis, From a Cause to a Style does not offer a cohesive analysis of the rise and persistence of modernism. An eminent Harvard sociologist and co-author of the seminal Lonely Crowd, Glazer is a keen observer of humans in their habitats. But he belies his expertise by stapling together loosely associated essays, speeches, and papers and calling it a book. Anyone who skipped the introduction would suffer roughly the sense of confusion and disjunction that modernism was trying to avoid. Glazer writes about modernism, but From a Cause to a Style is pure Dada.

Like hit singles amassed in an album, each chapter stands on its own, often brilliantly. Glazer begins with a masterful synopsis of modernism and lays bare the relationship between the social and formal elements that led to the Glass House and the Seagram Building and, as well, Pruitt-Igoe. Glazer is clearly a fan, and he contrasts modernism with potentially problematic trends such as postmodernism, New Urbanism, and the new avant garde whose "style has become more personal, idiosyncratic, [and] sometimes fantastic."

Glazer attributes modernism's rise to its holistic approach to design: "Modernism was so powerful because it had both aesthetic and social roots, working in tandem." Those roots ran so deep that modernism obliterated everything else. The result is that every new office complex and public building that is not a McDonald's or big box follows the modernist dictum to cast off ornament and history in favor of something functional and pure-even if the developer and architect has no such intention. Glazer notes that though some modern buildings "are indeed masterpieces, the earlier logic and rigor of modernism are cast aside" in a contemporary world that doesn't quite understand what the ideological fuss is about.

Glazer is old enough to remember firsthand modernism's origins and the squalor that it was supposed to replace. But a book published in 2007 ought to convince the rest of us that the sprawling, glass-enclosed world we have inherited was not intended as a cruel joke. Instead, Glazer takes for granted the modernists' belief that redemption lies in towers, clean lines, and stark green space.

He reverently paraphrases modernism as "simplicity and directness, the rejection of ornament, the most rational accommodation of needs [that] would better serve the poor and working classes." But, however resonant they may be, those words are his, not those of an authoritative source. Solid evidence could be sought in the writings of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Mies, and all the rest. But with this omission, Glazer fails to prove that modernism has ever amounted to more than a style, shielded by an unimpeachable mission.

This omission leaves Glazer without a historical tether, leaving him free to swans about the American city (mainly New York, with some D.C. thrown in) and comment on everything from government buildings to public sculpture to war memorials to low income housing to Prince Charles. Glazer illuminates his respective topics in a way that can enrich any stroll through any American city but leaves tantalizing questions.

Explorations of sculpture and monuments, modern and otherwise, imply that good sculpture can appropriately provide the ornament that modern buildings must reject. Yet, it remains only an implication: Glazer never explains the relationship between art and structure and in doing so offers satisfying commentary on neither. Likewise, Glazer brings up the reluctance of domestic architecture to embrace modernism, but this assertion escapes into the gloaming all too abruptly.

Less forgivable is the redundancy that plagues many of Glazer's chapters. Vestiges of stand-alone essays include the tragedy of Penn Station and multiple introductions of Lewis Mumford (who hardly needs introduction in the first place). Glazer's fascination with sculptor Richard Serra surfaces several times with only thin connections to the theme at hand.

But whatever catches his fancy, Glazer consistently presents a human-scale view of architecture unsullied by the pseudo-intellectual jargon and otherwise abstruse view of the architecture critic and, too often, the practitioner. Glazer also understands the complex relationships among architects, planners, public institutions, and the public itself, and the book as a whole offers a compelling vision of the status quo: a world in which ornament and history are no longer accepted but also in which not ornament and not history are no longer accepted. It is a style---and a cause-that does not know how to respond to itself. As Glazer notes, when buildings become mere vessels for ideas, it seems like the end of architecture is at hand.

But of course, architecture will go on, and perhaps modernism will take its place among all the other historical styles of the past, to be altered, drawn upon, and rejected by the current crop of contemporary architects. Whatever they produce, it is likely that nothing in our future will ever be so new, shocking, or well intentioned.

Josh Stephens is a former editor of The Planning Report and the Metro Investment Report, two monthly publications covering, respectively, land use and infrastructure in Southern California.

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