Those Modernist Medievals

We are led to assume that we are innovative and the Middle Ages were conservative. In fact, we are now probably the most heritage-worshipping culture there has ever been. Already we have forgotten the Modernist era, when everything poky and medieval was to be pulled down and replaced with something that lunged inspirationally at the stars.

An irony of which no one seems to be aware is that the Middle Ages were themselves thoroughly Modernist. In fact, any medieval bishop or cathedral-builder would have heartily approved of the fictitious Howard Ruark. Their attitude to architectural heritage was invariably, “Knock it down and build something bigger, taller and therefore better”. They would probably have approved of Lara Croft as well; for they looted whatever they could get their hands on from older buildings. Nice bit of porphyry column you got there, guv.

Posted on April 22, 2009 at 11:26 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, The Past Is Another Country

3 Responses

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  1. Written by Urban Djin
    on April 22, 2009 at 15:18
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    Perhaps we need to retire the term “modernism”. The term becomes especially problematic in that it usually refers these days to a movement that flourished from the years immediately before the first world war until a few years after the second. How can a word which basically means “up to date” be calcified to signify a movement that largely ended fifty years ago?

    That there are opposing tendencies in human culture cannot be denied. One tendency would be to treasure that which “has stood the test of time”. The other would be to crave novelty. A tension between these probably exists in everyone. Why some cultures choose to rebuild what was formerly there after war, fire, or earthquake and others see destruction or decay as an opportunity for a fresh start is an interesting question.

  2. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on April 22, 2009 at 15:27
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    It gets worse, in that “Modernismo” is the Catalan edition of what is elsewhere called Art Nouveau or Jugend. Very confusing.

    Another question, which I should like to write about some day, is whether a given building is condemned by Prince Charles & co. because it is novel, or because it is hideous according to some canon of beauty that may even be hardwired in us. I have observed that there is nothing so ugly and dysfunctional that architects cannot describe it in terms of “dynamic contrasts” and so forth.

  3. Written by Urban Djin
    on April 22, 2009 at 16:17
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    Indeed “Art Nouveau” and “Jungend” are already in trouble.

    Architecture is such a can of worms. I live not far from the University of Illinois Chicago Campus. Though designed by a famous visionary architect, Walter Netsch, there clearly was no concern about what the campus was for. It is designed to be photographed from the air, not for students to use in getting an education.

    The one concession to practical issues was designing the campus to allow efficient movement of the National Guard in the event of student riots which never happened. There were big fences which were designed to divide the campus into quadrants and overhead walkways to facilitate troop movements between these controllable spaces.

    Meanwhile there are bottlenecks that thousands of students need to negotiate between classes and offices that every student must visit during registration that can only be accessed through two banks of unreliable elevators. There are long waits just to get into an elevator.

    If the campus were beautiful photographed from overhead I’d still have problems with it, but it isn’t. It’s grotesque. Architecture out of control. But that’s not how the project was received by critics and journals. They proclaimed it a masterpiece.

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