chapter  1
Analysing modernity
Some issues
Pages 20

Just over a century ago, in 1896, Otto Wagner published in Vienna what is prob-

ably the first modernist architectural manifesto – his Modern Architecture.1

Despite its theoretical weaknesses, it was read by his contemporaries as a rejec-

tion of the historicism of the recent past and a plea to create an architecture

appropriate to modern life. Indeed, in architecture ‘the sole starting point of our

artistic endeavours should be modern life’.2 Architecture, like other modern arts,

‘must represent our modernity, our capabilities and our actions through forms

created by ourselves’.3 And Wagner’s answer as to where this modern life, this

modernity, is most visibly located is unequivocal: ‘the most modern of that

which is modern in architecture are indeed our metropolitan cities’.4 Yet the

identification of modern life and modernity with the physical location of the

metropolis is only one of the possible sites for the origins of modernity. But if a modern architecture is to represent, reflect or mirror modern

life and modernity, even in the somewhat naive positivistic manner in which Wagner stated it, then it must presuppose a reading of modernity that can be given architectural form. Unlike many of his contemporaries in fin-de-siècle Vienna, Wagner’s reading of modernity focuses not on the fragmentation and disintegration of modern experience that we associate with the city’s other modernist movements, but rather on unlimited practical progress and the possibility of an unbounded metropolis. The features of modern life which Wagner chose to highlight can be subsumed under the processes of abstraction and levelling (quantitative expansion of the metropolis, a quantitative conception of progress, democratisation as abstract political participation, the levelling of forms of life, the rented apartment block as a ‘conglomerate of cells’, the significance of money in time calculation and purposive action, and increasingly abstract ornamentation in street facades), movement and circulation (the acceleration of circulation of individuals and commodities in traffic systems, including the straight – as opposed to crooked – street, the circulation of money

and capital in apartment block building and investment), and the monumental (the modern continuous street facade as monumental, the demand for a modern monumentalism). What disturbed many of his contemporaries was Wagner’s emphasis on a close connection between modernity and fashion, not merely in terms of the cycles of fashion but also in relation to fashion’s role in the creation of the new in architecture.