“Modern architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri, on July 15, 1972, at 3:32 p.m.,” declared architect Charles Jencks in the first chapter of his book, The New Paradigm in Architecture: The Language of Postmodernism (New York, 1977), referring to the demolition of the massive Pruitt-Igoe housing project which typified modernist ideals. For Jencks, the page had been emphatically, and happily, turned. It was the end of a putatively universal style, marked by a belief in progress, the marriage of technology and humanism, and based, aesthetically and economically, on functionalism.
But can we dismiss modernism so easily? Questioning characteristic features of our era, artists are showing interest in what it once was and what remains of it today, though it is in a ruined and ghostly state. Significantly, this reassessment is accompanied by the production of models and miniatures replicating constructions of the twentieth century. Thus, while adopting very different methods and theoretical approaches, Jordi Colomer, Nicolas Moulin, and Wilfrid Almendra have all produced models after the fact, not to plan for future constructions, but to reflect on what has been done in the past, for, as Moulin points out, “we are in an age where the concept of speculation has replaced that of the project.”1 1 - From an email interview with Nicolas Moulin, March 2010. With these three artists, models become formal strategies for examining what modernism has become.
Brasilia and the Bifurcating Pathways
Catalan artist Jordi Colomer, who studied architecture, takes a critical stance with regard to both modernism and anti-modernism. “I was ‘educated’ in standard modern urbanism, where the mobile, functional box was deemed an essential form,” he said in an interview. “But I also experienced the radical criticism of the modernist program.”2 2 - Interview with David Bennassaya, 2003; see www.jordicolomer.com. His Anarchitekton (2002‑04),3 3 - This portmanteau title is composed of the words “anarchy” and “architecton,” from the name Kasimir Malevich gave his models, calling for a new Suprematist, metaphysical and Utopian architecture. a series of videos shot in Barcelona, Bucharest, Brasilia, and Osaka, challenges the dogmatism on both sides regarding modernism, and its counterpart, postmodernism. The videos follow the peregrinations of the artist’s alter ego, Idroj, who traipses through residential neighbourhoods, whether on city fringes or in centres of power, brandishing models that are rough sketches of the surrounding buildings. The contrasting scale between the models and the large edifices, along with their similarly deteriorated condition — the models are constructed haphazardly of bits and pieces while the buildings are often prematurely dilapidated — hint at a blistering and ironic critique of big modernist projects. That said, Idroj’s ambling, his effort and involvement in this solitary parade suggests something more than a critique. The character embodies a breath of freedom that can even blow through these buildings. “The fact that these neighbourhoods were often built outside city centres,” says Colomer, “had the effect of creating poorly defined intermediate spaces between city and countryside, between civilization and nature, where a kind of appropriation of space is possible.”4 4 - Interview with David Bennassaya. A dialogue is established between inhabitants and their architecture, because, while it changes their way of life, they in turn give it their own inflections. Brandishing these models, Idroj is defending the freedom residents exercise in adapting the architecture to their own needs. This is particularly the case in Brasilia, where Colomer’s hero parades with models of the National Congress and of a housing unit close to the government buildings: he doesn’t run along the straight-drawn avenues, but rather takes the footpaths formed by pedestrians.5 5 - See Marie-Ange Brayer, “Anarchie-architectone,” Fuegogratis, Jordi Colomer (Paris: Jeu de Paume, 2008), 57. Idroj sides with the life that has gradually infiltrated this solemn environment. By marking the terrain with their habits, demonstrating, expressing their points of view, residents have reappropriated the space.
Brasilia, however, is an exception. Where modernist architecture, already softened by Oscar Niemeyer, was quite livable, the view in Ceaus¸escu’s Bucharest — here, the video was produced in the rain, facing housing units in ruin because they were never completed — is quite the opposite, and much less optimistic. But perhaps modernism should be distinguished from its proselytization, the pioneers’ idealism from its followers’ dystopian practices.
In the end, because they are rough-hewn and half-finished, lending them an air of parody, and because they are portable, Colomer’s models express both modernism’s failure and the liberty one can sometimes take with it. In any case, they would certainly admit Colomer into Enrique Vila-Matas’ “society of portables,” a secret society of Libertarian artists and writers who turn the smallness of their work to advantage in “that lost battle of life.”6 6 - Enrique Vila-Matas, Abrégé d’histoire de la littérature portative (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1990), 17.
Pyongyang and the White Elephants
In a perspective more global and sombre, French artist Nicolas Moulin also uses models to question the contributions of modernism. Like Colomer, he observes: “As opposed to Philip K. Dick’s reality, which continues to exist though one no longer believes in it, modernism ceased to exist while some continued to believe in it, with the conception of linear time, for instance… But today, it is postmodernism’s turn to become obsolete, for the ‘end of history’ was only a phase.”7 7 - From an email interview with Nicolas Moulin. In Moulin’s work, the issue is revisited by way of replicas of the most colossal, self-indulgent edifices, typifying what he calls “supermodernism.”8 8 - Ibid. His models reproduce existing monuments or propose archetypal reconstructions of modernism through invented buildings that re-examine the transformation of the utopian into the dystopian. Moulin borrows from Philip K. Dick’s idea of “Perky Pat” dolls, first introduced in the short story “The Days of Perky Pat” (1963) and developed further in his 1965 novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Here, the dream of extraterrestrial conquest has turned into a nightmare for human settlers on Mars who live out their harsh existence in inverted towers that plunge below the surface. They find comfort whenever they can in a hallucinatory drug used in tandem with Perky Pat, a Barbie-like doll that comes with a complete environment, including miniaturizations representing objects from an idealized life on Earth. For their group hallucinations, under the influence of the drug, the settlers imagine they are having a dream life on Earth, while manipulating their Perky Pat outfits. These miniaturizations lie on the cusp of pleasure and horror, the hallucinatory vehicles of a to and fro between a life of near incarceration and that of a Beverly Hills star.
Inspired by Perky Pat, Moulin creates his own miniaturizations of reality, though he inverts the relationship between horror and pleasure: his objects transport us not into a dream universe, but into totalitarian states, including that of North Korea, taking us into the very existence Dick’s settlers refuse to accept. Thus, Datchotel Ryugyong (2007) is, like a Perky Pat accessory, the 1:100 scale model of the towering Ryugyong Hotel, whose actual construction began in 1987 in the North-Korean capital Pyongyang. Commissioned by Kim II-Sung’s totalitarian regime, this hotel was to have 3,000 rooms, be 330 metres high, and have 105 floors. Still unfinished, it was to be the highest hotel in the world, overshooting Singapore’s Swiss Hotel, built by Pei in 1986, which held the record at 226 metres, 71 stories.
Designed from documentation found on the Internet, this sculpture was followed by other models, these ones representing imaginary buildings inspired by what the artist saw on his visit to North Korea in 2008. The installation Badaggi Domoria (2008) consists of three models representing three buildings of reinforced concrete. Here, reality has given birth to frightening fictional structures — monochrome and empty, like monumental ghosts.
With these models and miniatures and their depiction of a speedily deteriorating world, Moulin is helping us rediscover modernism, touched by a hint of romanticism, a vision mid-way between Blade Runner and Robert Smithson’s “ruins in reverse” (Monuments of Passaic, 1967).
Los Angeles and the Killed in Action
Modernism appears under a different light in French artist Wilfrid Almendra’s models, Killed in Action (Case Study Houses); here is a generous and nearly accomplished modernism allowing for subjective and sensitive modulations. These models present a series of villas that were part of a design program that Arts & Architecture magazine launched in 1945 as a response to the post-war housing crisis. The magazine had invited architects that have since become very well-known — Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray Earnes, Eero Saarinen — to design cheap but comfortable and mass-producible dwellings for all. “Because most opinion, both profound and light-hearted, in terms of post war housing is nothing but speculation in the form of talk and reams of paper, it occurs to us that it might be a good idea to get down to cases and at least make a beginning in the gathering of that mass of material that must eventually result in what we know as ‘house — post war.’”9 9 -
Such was the magazine’s call for proposals in the January issue of 1945, see
Far from inviting theoretical debates, then, it was a question of putting ideals into action. Of the thirty-seven proposed projects, however, only twenty-six were produced, somewhat tarnishing the sheen of this fine program. To highlight this partial success, Almendra chose to make miniature reproductions not of the built villas, but of projects in the program that did not come to fruition: not having found clients or adequate locations, they are the eponymous “killed in action”: “like soldiers of modernism fallen in the fields of honour.”10 10 - Press release for the exhibition Killed in Action (Case Study Houses), Cosmic Galerie, Paris, December 11, 2009, to March 13, 2010. Almendra’s models thus gave life to projects that were “on stand by,”11 11 - Wilfrid Almendra, « Faire du sensible et du poétique avec du brut », interview with Frédéric Bonnet, Le Journal des Arts, December 11 to 24, 2009. which afforded him “free reign to interpret and extrapolate.”12 12 - Ibid. Starting with the villa plans, he made some substitutions, especially with respect to materials, often different from those specified in the initial projects. He introduced elements that were either dear to him or of personal significance. The models, hung on the wall, vertically, are part sculpture part painting, offering spectators an aerial view of the houses, which almost become abstract compositions. His interpretation of Richard Neutra’s Omega (1945), for instance, one of the three projects the architect conceived for this program, emphasizes several bold innovations, including a slightly inclined sheet metal roof, as aesthetic as it is economical, and a cross-shaped plan that maximizes outdoor spaces. But Almendra arranges the house as he pleases, imagining extensions and openings, just as the owners might have done had the structure been built. His modifications recall Le Corbusier’s well-known dwellings at Pessac in 1925, which had been altered by their residents. The terraced-roofs had been replaced by gabled roofs, the clerestory windows sectioned to accommodate furniture along the walls, the piled ground-floor spaces turned into garages — the master architect’s œuvre had become unrecognizable. Almendra’s work, on the other hand, would seem to invite such alterations. “It’s this idea of a constantly evolving house, changing with the environment, the person, and other factors, that spoke to me.”13 13 - Ibid.
Wilfrid Almendra is thus at one with Jordi Colomer in Brasilia, where residents adapt modernism to their tastes. This optimism is tempered, however, by the neglect of the unrealized projects. As with Nicolas Moulin, a certain romanticism emanates from the incompletion, which one may attribute to the impossibility of fully realizing these Utopias. What is happening with modernism today? Though it may not have come to a speedy end in St. Louis, it is certainly languishing. Yet, as the models of these three artists show, it can still help us reflect on our current situation, if only to take stock of what we’ve relinquished.
[Translated from the French by Ron Ross]