In his essay “Is Modernity our Antiquity?,” published on the occasion of Documenta 12 in 2007, the Canadian artist Mark Lewis noted that many contemporary artists identify “modernist forms as the subject, in one way or another, of a contemporary work. Why, for instance, are so many artists drawn to modernist forms and landmarks that are slowly crumbling and disappearing?
Lewis not only pointed out an urgent question that contemporary art deals with, but also suggested that the conceptual implications of what we understand by contemporaneity are at stake when one looks back at the disappearing forms of the past. Since the revaluation of modernism has become part of the larger project to reappropriate modernity, contemporary art sheds a critical light on the forgotten political and aesthetic promises and hopes inscribed in modernist forms. However, it puts our contemporary condition into perspective when modernism is seen as a lost phenomenon which could be unburied and made productive again.
Lewis’ essay was accompanied by a series of small color photographs. They depicted an unknown modernist apartment building which was originally constructed in the late 1950s at the outskirts of Vancouver. Even though there was nothing particularly remarkable about the architecture, Lewis suggested that the slowly decaying forms implicitly kept a secret. He described it as follows: The more the building seemed to disintegrate, the more it became obvious that the very political and aesthetic ideas inscribed in it were staged quite ambiguously within their ruined status quo.
Lewis continues: “Alarmingly, it occurs to me that this disintegration and decay might be the real reason why I am drawn to this building, and why I continue to think that it may have something to reveal (don’t I secretly pray each time I visit the location that some massive renovation and/or restoration has not taken place?). The idea of a modernist ruin in the making, while compellingly seductive, seems depressingly elegiac and tautological at best."
Indeed, there is an ambivalent form of seduction evoked when looking back at modernism’s decaying architectural forms. As Lewis points out, we might surrender to nostalgia when confronted with the failed dreams and utopian hopes inscribed in the ruins of modernism. Nostalgia, as Svetlana Boym has famously argued, would not be accidental here, since nostalgia itself is utopian, “only it is no longer directed towards the future”, as Boym states. In fact, it is the very rebellion against modernity as such, in the framework of its continuous progress towards a future history. Moreover, it is essentially utopian because it holds the promise of an overall obliteration of time. If we look back at the most prominent theories of aesthetic modernism, utopian thinking was often spelled out in terms of a transgression of history. For example, aesthetic theory identified the aesthetic form of modernism embodying an extra-historical form. For Theodor W. Adorno, the modernist work of art would hold the promise of human reconciliation to be fulfilled in a future world beyond historical time. Hence, modernism would establish its own specific regime of temporality: it would point towards a time beyond history. Adorno famously argued in his most enigmatic essays: the modernist work of art would be the “governor” for a utopia – the promise of a reconciled humanity yet to come.
Boris Groys, who wrote extensively on the aesthetics of modern utopian thinking, once noted that as utopian forms tried to establish a universal order beyond history, they would inevitably struggle with the inner-historical contingency of all human affairs. Once realized, utopia would not only reach a state beyond the time of history, it would rather deny all possibilities for further historical transformation and change. Hence, this is why utopia must inevitably fail. For human history is not only fundamentally discontinuous, but also inherently unforeseen. And as Groys further states: “when the extra-historical competes with the historical, it inevitably loses, because it is fighting on alien ground."
In relation to this argument, it becomes more evident why the ruins of modernist forms and landmarks picture utopia in an essentially ambiguous way. They expose the extra-historical idea of utopian timelessness within the context of its own historical situatedness. In this sense, the failure of modern utopian thinking is structural. But it is not only embodied in the decaying forms of 20th-century forms and landmarks that were built with utopian intent, it rather correlates with a theoretical shift in Critical Theory as well. Whereas the aesthetic theories of modernism were closely connected with dialectical modes of conceiving history as a narrative of necessary progress or decay, their metaphysical basis has inevitably become precarious today. Critical Theory has become skeptical towards the universalist and extra-historical claims of utopian thought and, more importantly, has shifted towards a post-metaphysical understanding of history and aesthetic form. From a contemporary perspective, utopia is not only perceived as inevitably lost in time, but also recognized as fundamentally wrong.
In one of Lewis’ more recent works, his film Pavilion from 2015, we nevertheless see an alternative approach towards the architectural forms of modernism, which showcases an allegiance towards the emancipatory ideals of modernity without lapsing into nostalgic evocations of the past. Here, Lewis turns to another landmark associated with high modernist architecture, namely The Toronto-Dominion Centre, designed by Mies van der Rohe in the 1960s. The massive complex is located in downtown Toronto and comprises six towers and a bronze-tinted glass pavilion. The entire structure stands less for an ambition to anticipate a universal state of utopian accomplishment but rather for a more grounded approach that combines historical ideals related to functionalism with the political demands for a more liberated social sphere.
The Toronto-Dominion Centre is nonetheless an ambivalent structure. It is the largest complex of its kind in Canada, providing offices for more than 20.000 people who work inside the buildings. Moreover, it serves as the headquarters of the Toronto-Dominion Bank and has been designated cultural heritage site since 2005. Putting the focus on the exceptional architecture, Lewis exposes its potential. It is precisely because the buildings do not point towards a utopian imaginary that they could exemplify a reflexivity in relation to what their social functions and purposes might actually be. Against the vulgar interpretation of functionalism that has become historically predominant, we can thus read the buildings in relation to what the philosopher Albrecht Wellmer pointed out as the normative core of functionalism as an emancipatory movement. Applying Wellmer’s ideas, the architecture would thus symbolize a “reflexion of the functional and purposive relations which would have provided the goals for functional […] construction,” and that is, the structure would embody and reflect on the various different social purposes as a form of communicative norm in order to create more equal social spheres. Even though Mies van der Rohe would certainly remain blind for the universalist scope of his architectures which fall short of addressing the specific social contexts of their implementation, he still stands for a model of architectural construction that is neither utopian nor merely an expression of a vulgar functionalist ethos, namely the interests of capital investments or bureaucratic planning. Lewis puts it right when he says that these structures embody something that “global capital can’t stand.”
But we should still remain skeptical with regard to such optimistic readings and interpretations of past modernist architecture, as the Toronto-Dominion Centre perfectly stages its broken authority with regard to the co-opting of any emancipatory ambition today. Like many other buildings from the same period, it has not escaped the common fate of many high-profile modernist buildings, which slowly turn into spectacular sites for contemporary capital accumulation or the marketing of urban development and city branding strategies. If we look at Chicago, such processes become even more visible and advanced. The city of Chicago refers to its high-profile pool of architecture as a driving force for cultural validity and distinction. Even though remarkable buildings like the 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments or the Chicago Federal Center, both designed by Mies van der Rohe in the 1950s and the 1970s, have not undergone massive restoration processes yet, many floors of the apartment blocks have long since been taken over for luxury refurbishment in order to extract financial surplus value from their celebrity status as cultural heritage. Keeping this inexorable process of value production in mind, it becomes more ambivalent to designate these structures as sites of resistance against the interests of capital, which actually organize and shape our contemporary urban spheres.
Without resigning to this, we should thus be more interested in how architectural form itself has appropriated elements of historical evolution from modernism while at the same time consciously being aware of the impossibilities of escaping from the realm of pure marketability. Some years ago, the artist Liam Gillick published an article that referred to the New York Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue showing that this architecture perfectly matches the psychopathology that follows a complete breakdown of any criticality outside of capital and contemporary power structures. Interestingly enough, the structure goes past high-modernist aesthetics and formulates an impalpable critique while at the same time obviously falling short of being non-eclectic. In Gillick’s reading, the building becomes the perfect stage for a “jumbled realignment” of different idioms of modernism while at the same time witnessing a more systematic appropriation of modernist aesthetics through the filter of postmodernist and minimalist strategies.
However, it remains sardonic to play out any legitimate critique of modernist architectural languages through an analysis of the fallacies of Trump Tower, irrespective of its critique of modern utopianism or the shortsighted abstractions of historical functionalism. The political point would actually be to not blame the building for being taken hostage by its namesake, even though it cannot be extracted from this history. But unless the structure advances some of the visual strategies of postmodernism as it puts an emphasis on surface-driven aesthetic languages and foregrounds the situatedness of the viewer in relation to architectural space, we would not see any of these gestures having notable critical effects. The building evacuates the totalizing visions from modernist aesthetic form, but at the same time, and more depressingly, it embraces the logic of just another utopia: the false virtues of capitalist utopianism embodied in visions such as the timelessness of pure financial exchangeability and capital flow.
Clearly enough, the Trump Tower perfectly fits into the representational systems of current global capital and power structures. But beyond the real psychopathology it evokes, we should not lean towards the conclusion that we would only have the option between either the mere acceptance of the status quo or the false revival in new utopian thoughts. Remaining faithful to the emancipatory ideals of aesthetic modernism means neither projecting utopian futures nor to retreating into the utopian legacy of the past. We should rather leave behind any ultimate horizon for emancipation and utopian reconciliation. Adorno, in one of his last essays, pointed out the idea of a negative utopia that might possibly be compatible with a perspective of continuous critique. He stated: “The utopian impulse in thinking is all the stronger, the less it objectifies itself as utopia – a further form of regression – whereby it sabotages its own realization. […] For its part, such thinking takes a position as a figuration of praxis, which is more closely related to a praxis truly involved in change than in a position of mere obedience for the sake of praxis. Beyond all specialized and particular content, thinking is actually and above all the force of resistance, alienated from resistance only with great effort.
However, we should still remain skeptical. There is neither a good reason to overcharge aesthetics with any purpose to anticipate utopian hopes nor does this count for any form of theoretical thinking. Rather than situating thinking beyond all praxis, critical contemporary art should address the specific forms of reification, domination and alienation that shape our contemporary world. Thus we should not fall for any image of a reconciled state, neither in an unknown future nor in an unforgettable past. Rather than escaping into imaginary worlds, we should resist giving in to the specific deficiencies of our times. Both of its most disturbing visions, the authoritarian logics of contemporary politics and the global organization of unrestricted financial flows, do not stop at the architectural forms, as embodied in the ruins of the past and its contemporary signs.