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Modern architecture and moral vision

You may have been hearing rumors about the death of modern architecture. The wake is being held in the better art and cultural journals. I do not agree. I believe that architecturee is an art in uneasy, but significant transition. The high period of modernism is over; the age of the masters -- Wright, Mies, Le Corbusier -- is finished. But whatever comes next will be the product and inheritor of modernism. Anything that follows now would be impossible without those unprecedented technological and aesthetic innovations.

However, the issue is not really death; it is failure. What we are being told is that modern architecture failed -- in philosophy and practice. we are given the irresistible clincher that most people never liked it anyway.

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Had modern architecture really failed? Or are we loading onto it our perceptions of another king of failure -- something far beyond the architect's control? I believe that we are addressing a much larger theme: the failure of a moral vision and the breakdown of ideals of a society in transition. The pendulum has swung to disillusion and despair.

We believed devoutly in social justice, in the perfectability of man and his world, in the good life for all. We believed that everyone could be housed and fed; that misery and hunger are not eternal verities. We joined hands and sang, "We shall overcome."

We also believed that everyone had a right to beauty, and that aeshetic values equaled moral values. What was beautiful was good, and what was good, was good for all of us; the arts, used properly, could bring both pleasure and practical benefits to society. Architects sincerely believed that health and happiness were the natural corollaries of the right way of building; they even believed that human nature could be conditioned or changed by the right physical environment.

In retrospect, this has been one of the most hopeful and humane of times. We have come as close to genuine civilization -- in the sense of ambitious and unselfish aims of human betterment at the highest levels of shared experience and universal concern -- as we will ever get.

Things were promised that could not be delivered. The architect produced no brave new world; he could heal neither the ills of cities nor of mankind. Architecture -- and architects -- are now taking a terrible beating for trying.

But in the process, modern archicture literally changed the world.

Modern architecture united revolutionary theory and technological development for an unprecedented, far-reaching, and unsurpassed creative and cultural synthesis. It offered the most cohesive, innovative, expressive and universal art form since the Renaissance. And it created masterworks to stand with any of the past.

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I never accepted the visionary, sanitized planning of modernism's neat division of life into segregated zones of activity. I have always detested the open house plan, as an assault on both privacy and sanity. I have never revered the high-rise blockbuster an an aesthetic icon; it may be impressive on the drawing bord but it sterilizes the street.

I have been fighting some of these battles for a long time, when it was very unfashionable to do so. But i have never believed, at any time, that calling the bad shots out loud denigrated or destroyed the validity of the art of our time.

Architecture viewed primarily as a visual and intellectual experience becomes a game of skilled and artful surface effects.

And so aesthetic hedonism is an acceptable substitute today for those earnest belief systems that have gone down the drain. The conviction that beauty and utility were to be found in new mterials and techniques, and that form and function could be united for a singular aesthetic truth, has simply been dumped. The results are often appalling. what is really being revived, alas, is not the past so much as its familiar errors, not history as much as its mistakes.

I have a feeling, when the scores are finally in and architects have stopped beating their father-figures, smashing icons, and turning somersaults of freedom like naughty children, that the art of architecture will have emerged into a new and very vital period. But I see it as a much broadened phase of modernism. I do not like the phrase post-modernism because it implies that something has been finished and replaced.I do not see this as a counter- revolution, but as a linked, continuous development, or the natural, if somewhat stormy evolution of modernism into something of much greater range.This can already be seen in the work of practitioners like James Stirling, designer of the new addition to the Fogg Mu seum, Richard Meier, Norman Foster, and others.

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