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Volume 13, Issue 3: Cultura

Modern Rubble

Roy Atwood

The horrid high-rise apartment buildings that glower over the cityscapes of Central and Eastern Europe and the crime-ridden housing projects that tower over America's vast urban wastelands are apt memorials to modernism's abject failure. Cold War rhetoric feigned a wide cultural divide between East and West ("Our centralized housing projects are better than your centralized housing projects"). However, it obscured their deeply shared commitment to modernist dogma. Long after the fall of the Wall, millions, East and West, remain trapped in the architectural gulags inspired by modernism.

In the bad old days, the Communists determined that each citizen had an unalienable right to seven to eleven square meters of living space.1 The central planners enforced this right by erecting vast complexes of identical block towers of tiny units stacked precariously upon other tiny units. Thanks to one-size-fits-all uniformity, families large and small were squeezed into these sterile cubicles in the Worker's Paradise. The mind-numbing uniformity and monotony of the gray block buildings were a perfect complement to the region's oppressive political, economic, social systems, and its depressing weather. Their centralized heating systems weren't turned on until after three successive days of freezing temperatures outside, and then once on, the only way to regulate the temperature inside was to open the windows. Today, the shabbily built housing projects are crumbling, but young couples can still wait years to call a post-Communist apartment cell their own. The sins of their Communist fathers continue to visit the third and fourth generations.
The Leninist-Stalinist architectural apparatciks of the East had their modernist counterparts in the West in the Bauhaus movement of Walter Gropius. Gropius founded the Bauhaus compound in Weimar Germany in 1919 when he was just 36 years old. Bauhaus was, by Tom Wolfe's description, "a commune, a spiritual movement, a radical approach to art in all its forms, a philosophical center comparable to the Garden of Epicurus." The mantra of the Bauhaus group was "starting from zero." Rejecting all historical connections, especially those of a Christian sort, Gropius and his groupies aspired to be true socialists, grasping after the highest of socialist virtues, the brotherhood of man.2 "A true modern architect," Gropius wrote, is one "who refuses to live by repeating the forms and ornaments of our ancestors."3
The Bauhaus style, like its Communist counterpart, assumed that modern architecture was for the working class, and it rejected all things bourgeois (except for the bourgeois architects who flocked to the Bauhaus movement, of course). Bauhaus was self-consciously a religious movement with Creativity (always "starting from zero") its god; the Great Sin was being bourgeois. Just what constituted being non-bourgeois was, of course, a point of great conflict among the devotees of the new artistic religion, but in application it meant flat roofs, no over-hanging eaves, sheer facades, glass corners—anything contrary to the stone, columns, spires, and pitched roofs that beautified the past. The angular, sleek, machine-like structures had to reflect the shedding of all bourgeois values in the Machine Age, "starting from zero." Le Corbusier, an architect of the movement famous for building almost nothing, called the houses he designed "machines for living."
The Bauhaus style swept the Western architectural community and extended its modernist-socialist vision particularly to apartment complexes and college dormitories. In fact, Gropius invented the modern undergraduate dormitory at Bauhaus as a way of creating communal living and reinforcing the Bauhaus socialist way of life in a university setting.4 His apartments were designed to reinforce socialist values among the young and working classes that lived there. Sparing them the indignities of high ceilings and wide hallways and other trappings of the bourgeoisie, Gropius and the Bauhaus-inspired architects gave co-eds and the poor working class stiffs low ceilings, narrow hallways, and the aesthetics of machinery. The Polish immigrant's high-rise apartment in Chicago was functionally and aesthetically indistinguishable from the Polish worker's flat in Warsaw.
Charles Jencks argues that modernism ended (and Postmodernism began) at precisely 3:32 p.m. on July 15, 1972. At that exact moment thousands of pounds of explosives ripped through the abandoned Pruit-Igoe housing project in St. Louis. This prize-winning exemplar of Bauhaus-inspired modernist aesthetics, high technology, and functional design collapsed into a monumental pile of rubble. Once touted as the future of urban architecture and community life, Pruit-Igoe became so unbearably crime-ridden and so impossible to patrol in its few short years that it was virtually uninhabitable. Modernism had given us housing suitable for breeding socialists, crime, and rats, but it could not sustain human life or itself. There is nothing left to do but turn modernism into rubble and return to an architecture with a spiritual and historical foundation.

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