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Owings & Merrill, and the Seagram Building (1958) by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, both in New York, became the paradigmatic standards for American corporate architecture.

As the curtain walls of those landmarks cloned themselves in the thousands of high-rises that made up postwar downtown America, however, the unhappiness of the public grew. The obtuse application of rational planning principles in urban renewals, including the brutal construction of highways through city centers, led to a loss of distinctive character and a sense of anonymity. The resultant decline in the quality of life and property values augured certain death for modern architecture. By the end of the 1960s, the austere schemes of modernist architects garnered only public condemnation. But 40 years later, modern architecture is being revived to popular acclaim. How is that possible? And why now?

Modernism, through all its permutations to the present day, has stood for an alliance with technology in the belief that this will yield the betterment of human life — in spite of the perennial elusiveness of this goal. Technology’s manifestation in architecture goes beyond the hardware that makes a functional building; it is an investment in the future of knowledge. As alarm over the maladies of the natural environment has engendered new faith in technology to make them right, so sustainable design is the latest incarnation of modern architecture, which has learned its environmental lesson and is responding accordingly. Diversity is the strength of this renewed commitment to modernism, rather than its contradiction. Architects such as Tadao Ando, Zaha Hadid, Renzo Piano, Rafael Moneo, Steven Holl and Frank Gehry can coherently coexist as part of the same trajectory without the straitjacket of a single formal language. Long gone are the days of the endless repetition of the Miesian high rise.

But in light of this modernist renewal, what explains the simultaneous comeback of the mid-century modern style? A major factor is nostalgia for the postwar period in which technology’s relationship with design was considered largely positive in the United States. We see it as a more innocent era, when technology brought us closer to nature and strengthened family life: large expanses of glass in the single-family home delivered suburban trees and grass into our living rooms, while new appliances reduced the chores of domestic life to free up leisure time. These changes helped produce a reassuringly solid and satisfied image of the typical American family. Today, as the digital revolution radically transforms our lives again, this recent antecedent, made familiar through the recycling of period lifestyle photography in fashion, film, and advertising, mitigates our anxiety about this ever changing technology with its pervasive newness.

Discussions about architecture are framed increasingly in terms of technological performance. But is that enough to make great architecture? Fortunately, some designers are committed to a cultural critique of technology itself. The work of Ettore Sottsass and Philippe Starck comes to mind: neither judgmental nor prescriptive, but a reminder that, along with the benefits of each innovation, technology also informs our notions of class, aesthetics and other social and cultural phenomena. Either way, the modernist marriage of architecture and technology is now stronger than ever. 

Architect Pierluigi Serraino is the author of four books, including Modernism Rediscovered and NorCalMod: Icons of Northern California Modernism. His projects and articles have appeared in Architectural Record, Architectural Design and ArCA. Page 1  |  Page 2  |  Page 3  |  Page 4  |  Page 5  |  Page 6  |  Page 7  |  Page 8  |  Page 9  |  Page 10  |  Page 11  |  Page 12  |  Page 13  |  Page 14  |  Page 15  |  Page 16  |  Page 17  |  Page 18  |  Page 19  |  Page 20  |  Page 21  |  Page 22  |  Page 23  |  Page 24  |  Page 25  |  Page 26  |  Page 27  |  Page 28  |  Page 29  |  Page 30  |  Page 31  |  Page 32  |  Page 33  |  Page 34  |  Page 35  |  Page 36  |  Page 37  |  Page 38  |  Page 39  |  Page 40  |  Page 41  |  Page 42  |  Page 43  |  Page 44  |  Page 45  |  Page 46  |  Page 47  |  Page 48  |  Page 49  |  Page 50  |  Page 51  |  Page 52  |  Page 53  |  Page 54  |  Page 55  |  Page 56  |  Page 57  |  Page 58  |  Page 59  |  Page 60  |  Page 61  |  Page 62  |  Page 63  |  Page 64  |  Page 65  |  Page 66  |  Page 67  |  Page 68  |  Page 69  |  Page 70  |  Page 71  |  Page 72  |  Page 73  |  Page 74  |  Page 75  |  Page 76  |  Page 77  |  Page 78  |  Page 79  |  Page 80  |  Page 81  |  Page 82  |  Page 83  |  Page 84  |  Page 85  |  Page 86  |  Page 87  |  Page 88  |  Page 89  |  Page 90  |  Page 91  |  Page 92  |  Page 93  |  Page 94  |  Page 95  |  Page 96  |  Page 97  |  Page 98  |  Page 99  |  Page 100  |  Page 101  |  Page 102  |  Page 103  |  Page 104  |  Page 105  |  Page 106  |  Page 107  |  Page 108  |  Page 109  |  Page 110  |  Page 111  |  Page 112  |  Page 113  |  Page 114  |  Page 115  |  Page 116  |  Page 117
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