Topic for Debate
Your thoughts on modernity
documenta, regarded as the most important exhibition of contemporary art worldwide, takes place in Kassel, Germany, every five years. This year, ArchNet members are invited to take part in a unique forum to discuss the exhibition's chosen leitmotifs, or themes, selected by artistic director Roger Buergel.

Please note: ArchNet member responses to this discussion forum may be republished online or in print in documenta publications. If so, ArchNet will send you a copyright release form.

  • Is modernity our antiquity?

For artists as it for architects and urbanists, the evolving conception of the modern plays a profound role in cultural production.

Totalitarian regimes and the modern capitalist order draw as much from a concept of modernity as architectural movements such as the Bauhaus and CIAM do.

As we search for new formulations of the politics and poetics of the postcolonial condition, of hybrid identities, and of fragmented and reconsolidated cultures, our relationship to modernity merits investigation and critical reflection.

Certain projects within the ArchNet Digital Library may provoke our community's critical engagement with emergent themes and debates in the visual arts:

Ait Iktel is a development project in rural Morocco that marries infrastructural upgrading with social programs.
Al-Azhar Park brings a new amenity, public open space, to the city of Cairo, which has one of the lowest ratios of population to open space in the world.

Ait Iktel and Al-Azhar Park force us to ask: Is modernization an appropriate paradigm for this kind of project?

Mali's famous mud mosque synthesizes local ecologies and technologies of construction and the global building type of the Mosque.

Le Corbusier's curvilinear concrete forms and Louis Khan's undulating bricks and marble bands attest to the lasting power and beauty of International Modernism and its resonances with various postcolonial nationalisms.

  • How do these projects help us, as architects and urbanists, to reconceive the modern as an ideal worth seeking or an impulse worth maintaining?
  • Is the modern necessarily complicit with the global and does it necessarily contradict the local?
  • Is it time for the 'historic' preservation of Architectural Modernism?
  • Is it time to abandon modernization as a normative goal?
  • How do these questions interface with emerging problems in the discourse of international development programs?
Cassim Shepard
Your thoughts on modernity
There is practically nothing in Modernity that is comparable to Antiquity. Antiquity is characterized by the slow (or occasionally rapid) development of traditional forms. Modernity has consciously cut off all connections to traditional forms and has, instead, pursued individualism and individualistic forms to its logical conclusion. Modernity, thus, for all practical purposes is anathema to the development of tradition forms. In that sense, Modernity cannot be our Antiquity.
Daniel Owen
Your thoughts on modernity
Modernism is the product of the technological applications of the last century. Whereas antiquity is the culmination of the last millennia and more reflective of the vernacular refinement of crafts and traditions of the place.

According to me, maturity and sensibility supports antiquity as it reflects humanity and the culture of the time. Modernity has brought us architects out of ORDERS prevailing at the beginning of the last century, hence it has it's own importance.

But this cannot be equated with antiquity.
Dushyant Nathwani
Your thoughts on modernity
I am not a practicing architect but an historian and preservationist whose research focuses on the politics of Islamic architectural heritage in modern social movements. And I have perhaps more questions than answers to this very provocative opening discussion.

Certainly I would agree that at a practical level modernity and antiquity would be difficult to equate for the reasons the two previous responses suggest. At a conceptual level, however, this discussion offers us a more intriguing question that begs us to consider not only the similarities between antiquity and modernity, but also the relationship between the current community of architects who build for future generations and our collective sense of origins.

I am very interested in how architects, facing Documenta's challenge to contemporary artists of modernity as a kind of antiquity, define their profession. Contemporary artists engage in critiques of the post-modern world around them, architects, on the other hand, have to negotiate this world in both practical and visionary ways. The question of how practitioners define what grounds their field therefore seems particularly interesting to those of us who do not practice but rather study the impact of architects' works. And this issue is especially compelling because modern architecture, as Cassim Shepard points out, is tied to both totalitarian regimes and capitalism. I wonder how a contemporary community of architects envisions its professional relationship to modernity in contrast to modernity's diverse regional social histories. Should we expect architects from specific regions respond to modernism(s) differently? What is the character of professional identity--does the contemporary community of architects in the Islamic world have radically different or relatively similar positions on the reference point of modernity?

My own work is more historical, but looking at the politics of antiquity raises some additional issues I will explore here. Communities continually reposition their point of origins as a way of defining their core beliefs. This is what makes the study of the social life of the past so rich and rewarding. Antiquity served as a point of origin for a rebirth in Europe. It was an ideal that grounded not only the Renaissance, but also an enduring reference point that shaped multiple new directions in urbanism including those tied to European imperial expansion. It also grounded colonial resistance. In my research on the late 19th century Princely State of Hyderabad, India, for example, I analyze how cosmopolitan Hyderabadi elites used the architectural forms derived from classical antiquity, particularly the Palladian palace. Such architectural forms were used to shape new international communities that were positioned against the policies designed to guarantee an imperial core and periphery model, and explicitly not centered within the civilization and territory of the European subcontinent. The Palladian style was chosen by patrons within Hyderabad as an extremely effective way to present cultural arguments for alternative social relationships and political visions because of antiquity's social life and cosmopolitan character of its monuments. Today the selection of the visual culture and monuments of antiquity as a reference point for the construction of new worldwide communities is not likely, because it is no longer a salient or desirable reference point. What do non-European patrons have at their disposal to take its place? Is modernity a useful cosmopolitan reference point for building new global networks of collective identity? Given the political history of modernism, could an embrace of cosmopolitan modernist visions really suggest a new kind of worldwide universal community rather than one that sees itself arguing against an all powerful civilization grounded in Europe, or the idea of civilization at all?

Modernity may well now be remote enough to be rekindled as an ideal, as antiquity was during the Renaissance. It strikes me as very interesting to consider no longer choosing to ground the practice of architecture in social visions that developed before modernist building. Does that position us as separate from the imperial visions and exploitative values associated with the political agendas that deployed images of antiquity? Would this be definitively post-colonial?

Social groups always pick and choose from the totality of what the past holds those points that are most relevant. To select from amongst the modernist field as reference points for the contemporary world those projects Cassim collected for his original post seem to offer a strong foundation for contemporary life.

Alison Mackenzie Shah
Alison Mackenzie Shah
Your thoughts on modernity

After reflection I must conclude that 'antiquity' is, in fact our 'modernity,' but in a more precise manner:

Daniel is quite right to state that modernity, when viewed as perspecttive 'school' is indeed an anathema to "development of traditional forms." But this is only true if modernism is exercised in disregard to cultural, historical values and mores. It is the nature, particularly in architecture that forms become utilized in traditional manners or they become largely ignored or discarded, becoming museum pieces at best.

Dushyant rightly points out that 'modernity' cannot be equated in any way with "antiquity.' I agree as antiquity must comprise of the totality of our previous knowledge and existence (still developing) and modernity as it reflects the future use (whose end totality cannot be known). So what does this mean?

Alison comes closest to defining the real issue, which in my opinion is not modernity or antiquity, but rather contemporaneous practice versus both past and the future design regimes, that the issues will always be most defined by current perspective and utility rather than future use or even precisely known, past utility. This frees 'modernism' from dominant struggle between past and future, but also from remaining merely a competitive vehicle between co-exising global cultures and societies.

Of course, it is always better to compete on the drawing board rather than in the battlefield...

I think this wanders off toward Zaha Hadid's use of deconstruction, so I won't go there here. However, Alison's idea of modernist visions suggesting a new 'worldwide universal community' provides a positive venue for new design thought - provided utilitarian and esthetic decisions are taken withn the fullest light possible of traditional experience and use.

True, modernity may refer only to the most recent past - but it always taken in context of future use, with the understanding that 'new' is supposed to be 'better' which is not always the case.

Why I agree that 'modernity is, in fact our antiquity' stems from the simple knowledge that both the future and the past are outside the present (which is where we do our design work).

In closing, I shall only say the 'modernism' as school has usually been dependent on technological advance. Fine, I could conceivably build a mosque out of plastic and do some really far out things, but in the final analysis it would be the utility as a mosque that defines the structure. So, if our traditional use is part of antiquity, truly it remains our modernism as well. Frankly, I'll stick to Falke Barmou for the present.

ma salemah!
Anthony Stewart
Your thoughts on modernity
In a sense, modernity has always been with us because humans alwways enjoy pushing the boundaries of the available materials and technology. The irony is that what survives from antiquity is the most durable in terms of mass or use. So in todays` modernity we are surrounded by a multitude of useless and rapidly decaying examples of modern technology which will simply vanish in the future. Therefore the passing of time will tell which are the useless designs and which are the useful. :))) designs.
Frank John Snelling
Your thoughts on modernity
for once, I agree with you frank... Only the practical design will survive through the test of time. The rest are nothing but passing trends... Age will teach us that as well... however, do architects replicate the old, or should we invent for the future and take passing trends as a series of trial and error experiments in design?
Maya Sanskrit
Your thoughts on modernity
Frank, Maya - salaam,

"The irony is that what survives from antiquity is the most durable in terms of mass or use."(FJS)

A nod to Prashant, that it is the passing of time that imparts "value to ruins..." Truly, modernity has always been with us!

Maya, perhaps it is that 'utility' that contains the traditional, while the form conveys the modern? Innovation and invention stem from core spiritual positives, use them! As art follows nature, so it goes that architectural and community design are in constant evolution over time. Only success remains!

To spark anew, invigorating fresh schools of thought and design, the soil must be turned over so seeds may take root. Architecturally, the world has waited over 80 years for a fresh start unhampered by deadening strictures of outmoded, esthetic conditioning.

"Is it time for the 'historic' preservation of Architectural Modernism?
Is it time to abandon modernization as a normative goal?" (Cassim Shepard)

It is always time to respect traditions, to preserve cultural and spiritual heritage - always time to find balance with innovation, exploration and adaptation: Modernism can never become 'normative' as it is always in flux, therefore mutually exclusive of traditional practice. The 'normative' resides in balance between the two. This is supported by known premises of sociology adn stable societie and provides essential range for innovative design across all cultures - a bridge, not a destination.

ma salemah!
Anthony Stewart
Your thoughts on modernity
All I can add is that antiquity and modernity react to one another in many urban areas and the question is not of choosing, but of harmonizing what is most valuable from the past versus what has evolved in the 20th Century. There is only limited space.

Since we are in the middle of an ecological crisis that has been slow in taking a stronghold of our consciousness, but nevertheless is becoming more apparent, we are facing new challenges that will question the machine ethos of the modernists for aesthetic purposes. Advancements that truly recognize what is needed at the present time, such as materials that are much more ecologically sound, economical and durable in terms of their raw materials and production along with construction methods that are more flexible, durable and efficient, will dictate more than anything else, the norms of what we think as modern. This combined with the ethnographic component of each society will put forward the examples of regional architecture that are best suited for an area.

Of course, there will be those architects whose work will be showcased as the "it" architecture all over the planet. But nevertheless, the majority of the built environment will be done by architects who understand their region first of all, and take this responsibility of being masters of their medium and stewards of their built environment very seriously.

I just hope they do since I have to work with them.
Maria Ayub


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