As European capitalism acquired momentum in the nineteenth century, Karl Marx identified many of its essential characteristics and prophesised how these would play out. In one of his famous quotes, he saw how “uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty, and agitation distinguish (this) epoch… All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”
Marx explained how the economic system alone would achieve this everlasting disturbance and how this was essential for the system. What he didn’t foresee was the detail of how architecture would contribute to this disordering. In late nineteen century capitalism, particularly in the new frontier of the USA, the constant expansion of cities in size, building height and quantity, as well as the scaling up of the economic, energy and transport systems upon which they were based, meant cities and lives in a state of upheaval. And all this was achieved without any new concept of architecture. Despite new building technologies that allowed buildings to scrape the skies, where they previously huddled safely below church spires, the forms remained traditional: stone-faced, with capital and base. Buildings still played homage to the ancient world, providing a lingering sense of solidity in an otherwise disturbed world.
It took the first major industrial war, the Great War, to knock out this last stable pillar. The carnage killed the pretence of solidity. Just as the Bolsheviks in Russia were making the world anew, ‘beginning from scratch’, ignoring any established notions of societal order, so Modernism would have buildings that began from zero. Equipped only with their knowledge of the laws of physics, geometry and materiality, and, of course, their heroic imaginations, the Modernist architects would make buildings that owed nothing to previous ideas, not only the now discredited historic styles but also, at least in theory, any previous Modernist form, masterpiece or otherwise.
While the vigour of the Russian revolution was destroyed by the corruption of the centralised system that was necessary for its creation, perhaps channelling Mao in the East, the new enlightened Western architects would allow no such impediments. Theirs was to be a pure revolution, constantly destroying itself so that it could rise again to a higher stage of design achievement with buildings perfectly reflecting the technology, ideas, and perhaps even mood of the time. Within twenty years of his revolution, Mao saw the need to overcome the forces preventing its full development (or, at least, recapture political power by destroying the forces around him), and so propagated the idea of continuous revolution. While Mao may have killed tens of millions of people in this Cultural Revolution (and the previous Great Leap Forward), at least in their minds, Modernist architects merely destroyed blighted suburbs.
However, the attack on the solidity of the old city went further. Fixed, regular building forms became transformed into any conceivable shape that technology would allow, and usually but not always, what commercial reality would dictate: the support of deep-pocketed governments was necessary to push the boundaries further than commerce would allow. While at least intended to have its own aesthetic integrity, the relationship of each building to its surrounding buildings, whether old or new, and to the street became secondary. The traditional street, with it multiple and sometimes conflicting roles, was to be replaced by transport ‘systems’, separated and often elevated. Most of all the old, easily readable, hierarchy of the city was no longer considered important, merely a left over from the days of commanding churches, parading armies of now redundant monarchs, or more broadly the impression of a natural order that pre-democratic regimes depended upon for their survival. A modern, democratic, open, efficient, flexible, and exciting city would need much more than this. There can be none of the old, easy, and indeed ‘lazy’, aesthetic rules. What beauty the new cities could provide was to be the temporary outcome of the complex and constant rearrangement of buildings and spaces based on conflicting ideas and styles. So, in addition to the relentless rearrangement that was inherent to capitalist city development, there was the equally ceaseless reconceptualization as Modernist architects experimented on their cities, possibly in pursuit of some ideal and presumably stable state, or more probably, architects would never be satisfied, design perfection could never be reached.
But, as things turned out, much of this was merely a fantasy in the minds of architects. In reality, like the political revolutionaries, the civic aesthetic radicals also quickly faltered and their movement became corrupted, as it was subverted from its original mission. This reflects a number of factors:
Impaired vision and incompetent execution. Shallowness of the notions of the eager post-war architects, impatient to remake cities, led to early and very obvious mistakes and these failures came back to haunt and constrain the revolutionaries. When the still young, stunningly ‘rational’ high rise public apartment blocks, so obviously a break from the past practice of cutting land into thin slices of terrace houses, began to literally implode by the 1970s, the game was largely over. Of course, many towers survive as financially constrained cities are barely able to patch them up and periodically remake them in some cosmetic way, in a vain effort to correct the Modernist mistakes.
Largely the result of the failures of early experiments meant the broad movement to reconstruct cities ended within several decades of its start. Modernism was quickly reduced to a mere style, the preferred approach of the corporate elite. Modernism enables these groups to project an image of high technological conversancy and competence to the world, combined with occasional daring experimentation. This applies both in their work places, either the glass towers of the city centres or the more recently the regulation informality of low rise offices in park settings, and to their houses of projecting glass boxes or sliding panels of marble and concrete.
Dialogue and process. Architects are less scientists in control of a laboratory than they are one small part of broad process of change and often conflict. Both the successes and the failures of Modernism at its post-war height created reaction. In parallel with the desire for innovation, has been the wish to preserve what works, whether it is in the name of cultural, and more recently environmental, conservatism. The fear of wealth, technology and wild ideas overwhelming the historic, familiar, regular, easily knowable city has grown in parallel with experimentation on cities.
When Modernists develop nostalgia for their own creations, lobbying for the preservation of some fine example of post-war office towers, it is obvious that the process has come full circle and that the heroic stage of the revolution is clearly over.
Resilience of the original. The city could take a lot of knocks and still survive with its core original characteristics intact. City authorities could demolish houses and obliterate the original street layout of areas which could easily be designated slums (from the outside), but such a wholesale reconstruction is not so easy in places where people with stronger voices lived. In addition, as Charles II, and would-be grand city reformer, Christopher Wren, found out after the Great Fire in London in the seventeenth century, in a commercial city, property rights are everything. Existing property ownership is not willingly surrendered and certainly not on a massive scale. Governments, and other promoters of bold projects to rearrange the city, were often left playing at the margins.
Perhaps in the end, it was mainly a failure of nerve. Rather than creating the uninterrupted disturbance of the built world and therefore all social conditions as intended, the everlasting uncertainty has been more in the minds of the would-be revolutionaries as they have questioned themselves and their mission, unsure of what they wanted, let alone were able, to achieve: a long retreat into a state of debilitating confusion, covered up by bouts of provocative display.