“Architects make buildings.  People make history” 
Prof. Tony Schuman

Transforming Design: Architects and Social Responsibility

     For all of its inherent short-comings, modernism in architectural design was initially rooted in a socio-political consciousness that spoke to the needs of the masses of working people.  An experiment of unprecedented scope, many of its architects set out to create livable modern houses for the very people who were being organized in healthier modern factories, and apartment complexes were being built with social amenities to facilitate folks’ daily routine.  Yet, when the modernism was brought to the shores of America as a style, it was stripped of its social program and class-conscious ideology.  In the main, modernism here was applied to build corporate factories of steel and glass ever faster and taller.  No longer taking form from a working class becoming conscious of itself, it came to reflect a powerful class of corporate robber barons made fat off the spoils of a World War and ensuing economic collapse at home.  Meanwhile, an orchestrated effort to purge social consciousness from art and architecture began to emerge through public hearings by the FBI’s House on Un-American Activities.   Thus, once the outward cultural expression that reflected the underlying political movement was co-opted, commodified, and stripped of its revolutionary content, any potential for social transformation associated with modernist design was lost.

     The 1960’s saw the maturation of a new social consciousness.  Progressive and revolutionary ideas and cultural expressions once again began to affect a qualitative impact upon the fabric of American society.  And again, it was widely viewed as the very task of the artist to address the needs of a society demanding justice and equality.  Reflecting this, Team 10 Primer, the manifesto of a “dissident group [that] took over CIAM (Congres Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne)”, declared in 1962 that the architects’ responsibility “towards the cohesion and convenience of the collective structures to which they belong is taken as an absolute responsibility.”  [My italics]  However, it has been noted that “in the 20 years between the publication of the Team 10 Primer (1962) and Peter Eisenman’s House X (1982), the dialogue between social practice and architectural theory has been ruptured.” (Schuman, see below).  Like the preceding generation, any programs for progressive and revolutionary transformation in this era were aggressively suppressed, this time through the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program.  And again it followed that cultural expressions associated with this movement were attacked and purged from the public arena.  This made it possible for public resources for the arts, housing, etc. to be turned over to private interests at an unprecedented and alarming rate, the spoils of class war.

     During the generations following the co-optation of modernism, new forms have dominated the world of art and architecture which have sought to question basic assumptions of the modernist style.  Post-modernism, and more recently deconstructivism, have critically challenged modernist form, even suggesting radical departures from the latter, yet neither have taken the step to revisit the democratic ideological debate—the hundred flowers blossoming—that defined modernism in its inception.  It follows then that these later movements have only redefined the outward expressions of a culture reflecting, or at least friendly to, imperialist interests.  Needless to say, social transformation has not been part of this agenda.

     The task, then, of artists and architects is to reopen the flood gates of public discourse, of ideological debate, of critical analysis.  We must revisit the successes and failures of past movements in the very context from which they emerged.  We must insist upon an uncompromising examination of political trends and economic interests, past and present, in the pursuit of intellectual integrity and truth.  We must vigorously defend what few public forums and resources are left.  Finally, we must reunite our artistic and architectural expressions with a broader movement for social equality and the advancement of the human condition.   In the words of the humanist architecture critic Lewis Mumford: “Once the conditions are ripe for a good architecture, the plant will flower by itself.”

note:   quotes are from “Forms of Resistance: Politics, Culture and Architecture,” Prof. Tony Schuman, NJIT.