We talk a lot about modern design and architecture around here. In light of this, I thought it would be worth exploring what exactly it is that we are talking about. As it turns out, the way we at Set in Stone use the idea of “modern” (and even “postmodern” for that matter) is really strictly an aesthetic reference, but modernism as a design movement was so much more. Modernist design grew out of a response to new manufacturing and material technologies emerging during the early 20th century. Which is really to say that modernism was borne of the convenience and speed of manufactured processes and industrialization.
Historians are now beginning to call this period “the oil interval” because it was a time in which societal progress rested massively on a system of cheap oil and fuel. That is why it is being said that modern (and postmodern) design is ultimately unsustainable. We now know that the resources simply do not exist to carry on planning, designing, and building within a modernist ethos (an ethos in which most of today’s design is conducted whether it looks like it or not). This is not to say that we can not or should not use the bold clean aesthetic of modernism; that would be a travesty. We need to take the beauty and expression of modernism but forget, lose and otherwise remedy the broken model of construction, growth and consumption that accompanied its birth. We can make it better now.
The clean bold feel of modern design is a direct result of using standardized manufacturing products and techniques. Not only were these new techniques and materials heralded as the idyllic future of humanity; they were brought into direct and aggressive competition with traditional methods of craftsmanship. There was now no room or time for human handicraft in building, progress was calling and she is impatient. Modern design replaced centuries of traditional materials and building skills with the “new and improved” methods; all of which were completely dependent on cheap fuel, petrochemicals and industrial systems. These traditional methods were traditional for a reason; they functioned well within very specific environmental and social constraints. In modernism’s push for universal solutions these constraints were thought to have been solved by the power of technology. The infinite variety of challenges in geographical environments, social environments and cultural narratives were ignored or thought to be equally solved with reductionist solutions. Eighty years later, at the end of these material’s life cycle we are now seeing how little was actually solved and how elegant the “old” ways were. The holistic integrated nature of modern design process turned out to be one of its greatest weaknesses. What was sleek, beautiful and brutally cohesive has now become near impossibly expensive to repair. That means great pain and/or expense must be taken to extend the life of these objects and buildings. There is no graceful weathering or aging; modern design in its attempt to stand outside of time “merely cracked and deteriorated”. There is no life; only failed stasis.
So where does this leave us as lovers of modern design and architecture? Whats the next step? In my humble opinion, the craftsman needs to be revived. The men and women that not only understand the unique strengths and weaknesses of materials, but also the needs and challenges of locality. Can we not keep modernism’s clean, bold and dramatic presence and add the character, uniqueness and appropriateness of human craft? We are seeing more of this and it is indeed exciting. We are now seeing many shops springing up all over the country of men and women that are bringing their skills and souls to market fully developed in the modernist aesthetic but with the next generation sensibilities. This, I believe is the next step. I hope to see this trend grow beyond being a trend and just become the way we approach our collective material lives.