Saturday, July 4, 2009

Who said, "we won't get fooled again?"

Modernism 2k - Sustainability

This school's self-righteous claim to self-criticism is founded on the Cultural History program. The first Cultural History course is dedicated to demonstrating the failure of the Modernist program. It wasn't a complete failure - a lot of good things came from it - but it did fail.

There are theoretic and pragmatic reasons we must consider Modernism a failure. Theoretically, the claim of universal progress is unfounded, unrealistic, and logically nonsensical. Progress toward what? Unless there is a clearly defined goal, or set of goals, progress isn't progress - it's just change. The high Modernists believed in a progress toward a perfection of type; the perfect housing unit, perfect factory, perfect museum, etc. No one really ever disputed this idea; at a certain point people just started laughing at it.

The pragmatic failure of Modernism is far more devastating as a criticism. The logic of Modernism produced the means of destroying ourselves as a species and the proof of our moral capacity to do so - nuclear weapons and Auschwitz respectively.

I think about the projects coming out of an architecture school in the fifties and the dismay anyone not converted to the doctrine of modernism must have felt. I feel the same way about sustainability. Where Modernism wanted more daylight in factories because it the factory nicer for the workers, sustainability justifies it in terms of energy savings and employee sick days. Where Modernism wanted better design for workers housing because it was better, sustainability argues in terms of daylight autonomy. Modernism was as logically incoherent as sustainability but it was nicer - kinder to people. Designs were based on what was best, not most efficient (even when these overlapped).

Sustainability patently available to the same criticisms that killed Modernism. It ought to be, it is the continuation of Modernism. But unlike Modernism, it isn't nice. Modernists wanted to do their thing because it was better than what had come before - sustainability is a desperate attempt to save our asses.

Take the mega-metropolises in the Southern hemisphere - one half of the world's population now lives in cities and it isn't because Kitchener has gone from 300 000 to 30 000 000. It's because of the giants in the South. They didn't get so big because they are swell places to live. People were forced into them on an unprecedented scale because the logic of development derived from the Modernist principle forced them from the land. And the same logic keeps them in abject poverty.

Sustainability is a stop-loss - the system (I know, I hate that word too and will qualify it later) trying to perpetuate itself when its mortality should be obvious to all. Here's what I mean by the system - our way of developing land, planning cities, designing buildings, governing the people in those cities, providing for our protection and our use of materials, and our corporate yet individual sense of how things ought to be done. It long ago became self-evident that no fixes, no tweaking, no alterations were going to make this system into something compatible with our long term survival. We are watering a dead bouquet.

I guess it beats doing nothing. But not by much. My response has been to retreat into the Ivory Tower (now made of Ivoroid) of academia so that I don't have to deal with the problem. This is far from optimal. I just don't know what else to do. I used to believe the way to make the world a better place was by making myself a better person. I still think that's a good start but it is going to take more.