Fragments of the Modern

By Sherer, Daniel | Art Journal, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Fragments of the Modern


Sherer, Daniel, Art Journal


Alan Colquhoun. Modern Architecture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 272 pp., 50 color ills., 74 b/w., 38 line ills. $18.95 paper. Fragments of the Modern

Alan Colquhoun's long-awaited survey of modern architecture opens with a broad distinction between "all buildings of the modern period, regardless of their ideological basis" and "an architecture conscious of modernity and striving for change" (9). By identifying his area of inquiry with the second of these options, the author advocates a thesis that will probably seem self-evident to many readers. Yet something more problematic is involved, as this clarification conceals an important theoretical aporia. For while Colquhoun seeks to provide an interpretation of modernism whose critical premises are substantially new, a dimension that would have been useful for the realization of this aim-a focus on the norm/exception dialectic that has shown itself to be favorable to the unfolding of modern architecture-is strikingly absent from his account.

This oversight and the omissions it entails are noteworthy because Colquhoun was the first to ask what it might mean to attempt a redefinition of modern architecture that gives equal attention to inherited norms and to the exceptions that resist them. This much is clear not only from his early essay, "Modern Architecture and Historicity," which argues that criticism must have at its disposal norms belonging to architectural tradition that enable evaluation of the contingencies of the present, but also from well-known analyses of Le Corbusier that reveal a new development of Colin Rowe's formalism in their emphasis on the inversion of classical norms.1 A peculiar irony results. Colquhoun, who in the heroic period of the architectural journal Oppositions from 1973 to the early 1980s was acutely attuned to the relation of norm and form in modern architecture, now largely ignores this problem and its critical implications for the historical trajectories of the modern.

The effects of this lacuna are felt from the outset in the choices made regarding periodizalion. Colquhoun's polemical decision to start his twelve-chapter text with Art Nouveau is not only questionable in itself. It also has unfortunate consequences linked with his assertion that this movement represents the first systematic attempt to replace the classical system of architecture. For though this may well be true, it does not justify leaving out the rest of the nineteenth century from the historical compass of modernism.

As one moves beyond the Art Nouveau chapter, it becomes immediately evident that some of the book's most drastic omissions are due to its refusal to come to terms with Frank Lloyd Wright's legacy (chapter 2).The only buildings by this architect that are analyzed are the Ward Willits, Coonley, and Robie houses, as if this exceedingly tight focus on the early residential work could suffice as an adequate overview of the achievement of this titanic figure. No mention is made of any of Wright's other important domestic commissions (e.g., the Thomas H. Gale House, Fallingwater, the Ennis House), or of seminal projects such as the Larkin Building, the Unity Church, the Johnson Wax Factory, or the Guggenheim Museum. This disregard is difficult to accept, even if one acknowledges that a survey can only afford to deal with a limited number of works, carefully chosen as emblematic of their architect's essential concerns. Colquhoun's tacit demotion of Wright suggests that the detached tone of the analysis conceals an implicit operative dimension-one as questionable as Bruno Zevi's account of the organicist tendency in modernism that errs in the opposite direction by giving this architect exaggerated importance.

Of Wright's teachers, rivals, collaborators, and contemporaries, Louis Sullivan fares better, receiving a perceptive treatment, as do Charles Rennie Mackintosh, J. M. Olbrich, and Josef Hoffmann. And it is precisely with reference to Sullivan that an explicit assessment of what constitutes a modern, as opposed to a classical or BeauxArts system, is first undertaken. …

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