It seems the architecture and design community has forgotten a painful lesson. All through the 1960s and 1970s, the world saw a brilliant set of critiques of the colossal failures of modernism in architecture — Peter Blake’s Form Follows Fiasco, Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House, and many more. We also saw the beautiful historic cores of cities demolished to make way for ugly outscale boxes, meant as much to market the shiny new corporate world as anything else. “New! Improved!”
Out in the sprawling suburbs this new orthodoxy also brought in giant boxy department store malls and wide Le Corbusier-style freeways lined with slab-tower offices. The houses, superficially traditional, were also exceedingly modernized too — stripped of ornament, full of blank panels and crude window proportions. But it was all so… modern!
Of course these structures were incredibly profitable for the companies involved. Of course they all left us immeasurably poorer, in the environmental disaster of suburbia, in the civic life and the public spaces of the profoundly damaged cities.
In those heady activist days, Portland seemed to learn its lessons, and a wave of revival swept into the city: new traditional structures around Pioneer Square, historic renovations in Old Town, revitalizations in the historic neighborhoods, and revival of “old-fashioned” planning ideas like transit and walkability.
But now the fashion has shifted, and what was new and then old is now new again. A generation that forgot its lessons about human scale and public-space delights — or never learned them — is now profiting from the latest op-art fashions. It will be all right this time, they tell us. This time we will jam them together and put propellers on them!
It’s not like no one knew. All along, the critics have been very articulate about the problems of modernism, even up to the present day. All along we have witnessed the complicity with environmental disaster — which won’t be mitigated with a few bolt-on gadgets. Here is the world-famous “starchitect” Rem Koolhaas, speaking much more recently:
Modernism’s alchemistic promise – to transform quantity into quality through abstraction and repetition – has been a failure, a hoax: magic that didn’t work. Its ideas, aesthetics, strategies are finished. Together, all attempts to make a new beginning have only discredited the idea of a new beginning. A collective shame in the wake of this fiasco has left a massive crater in our understanding of modernity and modernization.
Where is the “collective shame” in Portland? It has been forestalled for a time — until the latest crop of failures catches up to us yet again. And then we will wonder, as we did a half century ago, how we let so much of our livable heritage be destroyed.
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