chapter  3
Modernity and architecture
Pages 14

Architectural modernism – as everyone who has read a book on postmodernism

knows – died in 1972 when an unpreposessing and hitherto utterly insignificant

housing estate was blown up in St Louis. When the demolition contractors fired

the detonator they flattened not only the Pruitt-Igoe housing but also, according

to the postmodernist account, the final pretensions to authority of a modernism

that was condemned as intellectually bankrupt and barren. The great reforming

hopes of the 1920s, of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der

Rohe, had run aground on the rocks of social pragmatism. In the process the

dreams of an architecture that might improve the general lot of humanity were

exposed as elitist and reductivist, with an unfashionable tinge of Calvinist

dogma and asceticism. After the dust had settled and the twisted steelwork been

cleared away, the site was cleared for the patricidal infant postmodernism,

which offered pluralism in place of monotony, and joy, delight and wit in place

of the purged white walls of a second reformation. As they swaggered their way

on to the empty building site, with Serlio up their sleeves and styrofoam

voussoirs under their arms, the apologists of postmodernism brought with them

a simplified history that traduced the true complexity and inventiveness of

modernism. The architectural revolution that had dominated the century was

presented as the ‘victory [of] the square, the crate, the box – the multipurpose

case as universal packaging’,1 or as ‘a Protestant Reformation putting faith in the

liberating aspects of industrialisation and mass-democracy’, led by the likes of

‘John Calvin Corbusier’, ‘Martin Luther Gropius’ and ‘John Knox van der Rohe’.2