Jürgen Habermas, “Modern and Postmodern Architecture,” 1981.
Jürgen Habermas is associated with the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School—as are many individuals in the later half of this anthology—and he is known for his thoughts on advanced capitalism and democracy, the public sphere, and modernity. Also like many others in the anthology, he is not an architect or designer, but a theorist who dealt with architecture as a medium of politics and capitalism.
Despite the gravitas around Habermas, this essay is remarkably accessible and its historic interpretation of Modernism in a positive light is a nice contrast to the mostly negative anti-Modernist narratives we’ve encountered thus far. The purpose for this lies in Habermas’s philosophical agenda—“maintain[ing] the Enlightenment’s promise of emancipation over and against the actual failure of its ideas within the trajectory of capitalism” (Hays)—and the interpretation of Modernism was (apparently) critical for late-20th century hopes for a way out of advanced capitalism. Apparently, this paralleled a flashpoint issue in architecture theory in the 80s between pro-Modernist and anti-Modernist postmodern movements. (See the upcoming Frederic Jameson post for more.)
Habermas beings with the meat of his argument: since the Enlightenment, the prefix “post-“ was (and is) often used to designate a desire for discontinuity, “gestures of hasty dismissal...suited to periods of transition,” a way to distance or evolve previous ideas. Of course, the authenticity of the Post-Modern discontinuity from Modernism depends on one’s understanding of Modernism and the “pre-history of Modernism.” Habermas argues that only by understanding the nineteenth century problems facing architecture, and Modernism’s response to them as a means of self-actualizing, can we figure whether the various postmodern movements are truly discontinuous from Modernism or if they are merely further advancements on the same problems.
Habermas recognizes that the nineteenth century problems are already familiar to any student of architecture. First were new needs for Design and Architecture, beyond the typological diametrics of previous architecture (court and church, country and city), precipitated by industrial capitalism: department stores, production facilities and design quality, housing, transportation, &c. Second were new opportunities in construction materials and methods. Third was the “capitalist mobilization of labor power.” Housing construction became a new market, requiring alternation in housing tradition and laws to govern the construction, demolition and speculation on that market. Not only did this affect the urban fabric (itself a relatively new, dynamic entity) but it also affected the urban poor and impoverished working class whose plight was mostly left to utopian social theorists. (We are pointed to George-Eugéne Haussmann’s interventions in Paris under Napoleon III as an example of Architecture’s absence from the urban fabric issue.)
According to Habermas, architecture had ‘sensed’ the first two problems and their material potential, but was wholly unprepared for the third problem until the dawn of the Modernist movement. “Modernism” overcame the stylistic pluralism of the nineteenth century and the problem of monumentalism; it took over the domains of industrial production, housing, &c.; it penetrated daily life by integrating industrial production and form with utility. Most importantly, it did this with “an inherent aesthetic logic”: functionalism—as much as production-logic system as it was informed by Constructivism and the artistic avant-garde. The power of this Functionalism to integrate the earlier problems into its own “production-logic system” is essentially the root of the Modernist power; the failure of Functionalism was its own artistic self-investment, a telltale sign of modernity.
(“Modernity” here is a significant item to deal with. “Modernization” signifies industrial and scientific progress, production, administration, and the emergence of the mass market. Baudelaire coined “Modernity” in 1864 to describe the individual’s experience with the urban Metropolis. Habermas’s “Modernity” adapts this to include the development of science, morality, law, and autonomous art according to their own inner logic. Eisenman familiarized this idea as the “modern sensibility” in 1976, in an effort to link his own “post-functionalist” object with the artistic inwardness of Functionalism, sans the production-logic of Modernization.)
The collective failure of Modernism, according to Habermas, comes down to three things. First, it’s helplessness against advancing capitalism: systemic dependencies on the market and administrative planning. Second is their fundamental misunderstanding of the City: a cultural misconception of the City’s real nature, which Habermas postulates is something not altogether material (architectural) but is a changing, mutable immateriality; the Modernists’ failure to realize this led to their failure on the urban front. And thirdly, Habermas generously absolves Modernism’s social slant by chalking it up to an overeager excitement to incorporate life styles and the “life totality” into the realm of Architecture, which they obviously totally underestimated. All of this was laid bare by WWII and the subsequent paradoxical success of the International Style without its corresponding social utopia.
Most of this is familiar to those who have read through some other critical narratives of the Modern movement from the Hays anthology. But here, Habermas uses a particularly political (and Modernist-forgiving) slant to present the following typology of postmodern movements. First there are the neo-conservatives who exhibit an eclecticism and traditionalism, conforming to a pattern of neoconservative escapism that masks problems of one degree (social issues caused by advanced capitalism) as problems of a different degree (architectural style). The second is arguably the “Post-Modernism” of Jencks, counting Eisenman, Graves, Hollein, and Venturi—all of whom are free of nostalgia and try “to express in code the system relationship that can no longer be given architectonic form.” (That is, they correctly endeavor to materially express immaterial elements of the City misunderstood by the Modernists.) The third is a ‘vitalism’ that has something to do with collaborative urban renewal work and historic adaptations, something that Habermas says is most in the spirit of Modernism in terms of its genuine urban interests but also something that he doesn’t seem that interested in.
The types of architectural conservatism delineated by Habermas within postmodernism is a one-to-one adaptation of a political conservatism typology he put forward in his 1980 essay “Modernity—An Incomplete Project.” On one side, the significance of this is the persistence by theorists to see architecture and the urban environment as the material field of various political apparatus. On the other, we must see that architecture theory in the 80s was becoming dominated by legitimate philosophical debates that were also trying to find ways out of capitalism and conservatism, and that saw architecture (past, present, and future) as having a role in that world.
Hays: “One is convinced by [Habermas’s] argument that the wholesale dumping of modernism constitutes a regression. And surely he is right that an adequate account of the modern or postmodern must attend to both societal modernization and cultural modernism, not just one or another.” However, Hays also notes the incompatibility with Habermas’s forgiving and inclusive narrative of Modernism with certain tendencies within the cannon that undermine the strength of the pro-Modernist agenda. Most glaring are the nihilistic tendencies in the work of Mies and Loos, as well as in the functional-productive work of Hannes Meyer, in addition to “Frank Lloyd Wright’s anti-modernization, Alvar Aalto’s romanticism, Giuseppe Terragni’s classicism, and Louis Kahn’s historicism.”