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Notes on Modern Architecture and Technology

Author(s): Antoine Picon

Source: Positions, No. 0, Positioning Positions (Fall 2008), pp. 78-83
Published by: University of Minnesota Press
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Accessed: 11-10-2016 19:07 UTC
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Photo's from the 1940s,

partly from American

organized and inter

nationally circulating



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Antoine Picon

Notes on











Among the founding assumptions regarding modern architecture one finds

the belief that it was successful in establishing a much closer relation with

technology than its nineteenth-century predecessor. Before becoming a

commonplace for theorists and historians trying to assess the scope of the

modern legacy, this assumption played a fundamental role in the emergence

and consolidation of the Modern Movement. The opposition between the
sterility of nineteenth-century architectural academicism and the creative
power of industrial-age technology runs across the seminal texts of the


movement, from Le Corbusier's Towards a New Architecture to Sigfried

Giedion's Space, Time and Architecture. For their authors, it was evident that
modernity had successfully recaptured part of this creative spirit and that such
spirit had transformed into a full-fledged architectural resource.

For a very long time, the dogma remained unchallenged. By choosing to

concentrate on architectural formal codes instead of pursuing a new
technological agenda, the only notable exception being early experiments in
computing, postmodernism recognized implicitly its validity, as if technological
relevance had been once and for all achieved by modernity.
This situation had various consequences. The first one was to obscure the
relation between nineteenth-century architecture and the Modern Movement,
or rather to reduce it to excessively simple elements like the legacy of Eugene
Viollet-le-Duc's rationalism or the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement

on the German Werkbund. Many other elements were left aside, like the

major steps taken by nineteenth-century architecture toward prefabrication

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and standardization, or its early attempts at what Reyner Banham would later
call the "well-tempered environment".1 Above all, nineteenth-century attitudes

toward technology were misrepresented. This was especially the case with
the Beaux-Arts tradition, which was reduced to a mere formalism, an approach
oblivious to the complex relations between the practice of architectural

composition and an analytical approach to design problems in profound

accordance with the way engineers reasoned. Failing to recognize this
community of thought, Giedion?and subsequent historians defending the

modern agenda like Leonardo Benevolo?greatly exaggerated the gap

between nineteenth-century architects and engineers. Despite Cesar Daly's
famous pronouncement that "architects and engineers look at one another
more with bewilderment than with good will, as if the god a+b and the goddess

Fantasy were glaring at each other",2 cooperation between the two

professions was far more frequent than conflict.

A second consequence of the uncritical acceptance of a natural link between

modern architecture and technology was to promote an excessively unified
vision of modernity that was far from reality. The visions of technology
developed by founding figures of the Modern Movement like Le Corbusier,
Walter Gropius, or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe were already quite different
from one another. Despite his claims to the contrary, Le Corbusier was never

as keen on industrialization as his German counterparts. The discrepancies

became even more evident in the subsequent evolution of modernism. In many
cases, this ever expanding diversity went together with the question of the

limits of modernity. To what extent was the spectacular postwar development

of space and tensile and inflatable structures linked with the modern agenda?
From Buckminster Fuller and Robert Le Ricolais to Frei Otto, many of the major
figures in the field were only marginally involved in the history of modern
architecture proper. Conversely, relatively few representatives of the Modern
Movement tried to escape from the "cubic prison" of concrete and steel
frames by using the new structural resources of the century.3 In that respect,
the contrast could not be greater between architects and engineers, the latter

enthusiastically endorsing these resources. Contrary to the cliche popularized

by Giedion and others, the real split between architects and engineers
occurred in the twentieth century rather than in the nineteenth, despite the

recurring exhortations to "bridge the gap."4

Beside the diversity of the attitudes toward technology developed by modern
architects, the underlying ambiguity of their interest was often underestimated,
as if these architects approached technological subjects in an entirely rational
way. In fact, the quest for rationalization and standardization was only part
of the story. The seduction exerted by objects like automobiles, ocean liners, or

airplanes, a seduction bordering on the fetishistic, was at least as important.

In addition to the role played by these objects, the ambiance of certain places
and situations like the factory workshop or the battlefield was also crucial
in the shaping of the modern approach to technology.5 From the seduction by
objects to the auras projected by places and situations, the interest taken by
modern architects in technological subjects extended far beyond the sphere of
the rational.

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This interest is all the more remarkable because it contrasted with its nineteenth
century counterpart in its exclusive character. Unlike their forerunners, such as
Viollet-le-Duc, who did not separate science from technology, modern architects

were not as curious about science, even if Albert Einstein's theories appealed
superficially to their belief in the underlying regularity of the universe.6 The

connections between modern architecture and science, when they existed,

functioned mostly at a philosophical level, like the analogy pointed out by
Peter Galison between logical positivism and some founding intuitions of the
Bauhaus.7 Beyond isolated episodes like the influence exerted by Julian
Huxley's biological theories on the conception of the London Zoo's Penguin
Pool,8 one has to wait until the late 1950s to observe a real reconnection of

architecture and science via the new perspectives opened by cybernetics and
system theory.9 But these perspectives opened up at a time when modernism
was already a challenged reality.
What were the real roots of the almost exclusive interest taken by modern
architects in technology, beyond the avowed aim to improve the construction
process by making it cheaper and more efficient? This is probably the central
interrogation, and I am counting on the new journal Positions to play an

important role in fostering contributions on that subject.

The time has now come to deal with it head-on, for we are no longer blinded
by the assumption of a totally transparent link between modern architecture


and technology. Indeed, in the past decades a series of contributions has

enabled us to take the full measure of the ambiguities of the Modern

Movement on that matter. What used to be presented as the logical outcome

of a rational approach to construction now appears more and more often as
the result of a complex bricolage in which the desire to look "modern" is often

as important as the technological reality. This desire played, for instance, a

determining role in many early uses of concrete by modern architects.10 More
often than not, what architects are looking for is not the truth of materials and
structure but rather the spectacular appearance of truth, an expressive
verisimilitude. Despite its rationalist creed, modern architecture was in that
respect not fundamentally different from its predecessors.

The political and social agenda that accompanied its references to technology
and industry is also proving far less clear than had been generally assumed.
Regardless of its claim to serve the masses, modern architecture was often
more in tune with the tastes of the upper classes.11 There again, beyond the

veil of avowed intentions, complexity prevailed.

Given these premises, it is highly probable that the interest in technology

displayed by the Modern Movement did not obey a single motive but followed
a series of contrasting objectives. This alone should cast doubt on the possibility
to reduce it to the quest for tectonics studied by Kenneth Frampton.12 Such a
quest was at stake with architects like Auguste Perret, Frank Lloyd Wright, or

Le Corbusier, but to transform it into a pivotal point of the modern agenda

looks much like an attempt to preserve the kind of artificial unity that Giedion

and others had so carefully staged.

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Other than tectonics, many other objectives may be invoked. Among them I
would like to mention the use of technology as a "purifying agency," as

Gropius put it in his 1936 The New Architecture and the Bauhaus. For many
modern architects technology was certainly not an aim in itself but rather a

path leading to a better understanding of what architecture is truly about, the

mastery of space. There again Gropius was explicit in the formulation of this

The liberation of architecture from a welter of ornament, the emphasis on
its structural functions, and the concentration on concise and economical
solutions, represent the purely material side of that formalizing process

on which the practical value of the New Architecture depends. The other,
the aesthetic satisfaction of the human soul, is just as important as the
material. Both find their counterpart in that unity which is life itself. What
is far more important than this structural economy and its functional

emphasis is the intellectual achievement which has made possible a new

spatial vision. For whereas building is merely a matter of methods and
materials, architecture implies the mastery of space.13
Technology mattered as a revelator of what was beyond its realm, the unity of

life expressed through spatial means. To put it another way, technology was

used negatively to enable the architect to distinguish between the accessory,

such as the ornament or its lack, and that which is truly important. To get rid of
ornament in the name of structural integrity was not what mattered. Once
again, what was at stake was to capture the essential vibration of life itself

using technology as a means of purification.

This use of technology is not without analogy with its mobilization by many
Utopian discourses of the industrial age. During the first half of the nineteenth

century, a movement like Saint-Simonianism in France had already used the

perspective of industrialization as a way to reveal what was supposed to await
mankind beyond its material promises, namely a new spiritual awakening.14
Despite the ambiguities of its political and social agenda, many modern
architects mobilized the technological possibilities of their time in a similar


To take into account this analogy does not imply a return to the old debate
regarding the Utopian roots of the Modern Movement, with the usual criticism

of its shortsightedness in domains like urban planning and design.15 It should

rather constitute an incentive to investigate the structural homology between
the Utopian realm and the field that modern architecture was ambitious to
cover. In other words, neither did modern architecture borrow from the Utopian
discourses of the industrial age in a systematic way nor was it intrinsically
Utopian. It was confronted with problems often similar to those that the Utopian

discourses of the industrial age had addressed, like the desire to restore a true
cultural unity in an era of divided social representations and practices. There
again, my hope is that Positions will contribute to this new approach to the
relations among modern architecture, technology, and Utopia.

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Reyner Ban ham, The Architecture of the Well

tempered Environment (London: Architectural Press,


See Peder Anker, 'The Bauhaus of Nature," Modernism

12, no. 2 (2005): 229-251.

See for instance Reinhold Martin, The Organizational

Cesar Daly, Ingenieurs et architectes (un toast et sonComplex: Architecture, Media and Corporate Space
commentaire), in Revue generale de I'architecture et (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003).
des travaux publics (Paris: Ducher & Cie, 1877), 4.
See Cyrille Simonnet, Le beton: histoire d'un materiau
(Marseilles: Parentheses, 2005).
See Anna Maria Zorgno, "Beyond the Cubic Prison,"

Rassegna, no. 49 (1992): 74-83.


This is the central theme of a recent dissertation:

Schuldenfrei, "Luxury and Modern Architecture
See for instance the symposium proceedings
in Germany,of
1900-1933" (Ph.D. diss., Harvard
in Bridging the Gap: Rethinking the Relationship
Graduate School of Design, 2007).
Architect and Engineer (New York: Van Nostrand



Kenneth Frampton, Studies in Tectonic Culture: The

of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth
On the importance of specific objects and scenes,
Century Architecture (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press,
Jean-Louis Cohen, "Architecture et culture technique
au XXe siecle," Bilan International research report

(Paris: Ecole d'Architecture de Paris-Villemin, 1990).
Walter Gropius, The New Architecture and the
Bauhaus (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1936),
On Viollet-le-Duc's scientific curiosity, see Laurent
Baridon, L'lmaginaire scientifique de Viollet-le-Duc
(Paris: L'Harmattan, 1994). On the general question
See Antoine
of the relation between architecture and science,
seePicon, Les Saint-Simoniens: raison,

Peter Galison and Emily Thompson, eds., Theimaginaire

Archi et utopie (Paris: Belin, 2002).
tecture of Science (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press,15
See for instance
1999); and Antoine Picon and Alessandra Ponte,
eds., Peter Blake, No Place Like Utopia:
Architecture and the Company We Kept
Architecture and the Sciences: Exchanging Modern
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).
(New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003).

Peter Galison, "Aufbau/Bauhaus: Logical Positivism

and Architectural Modernism," Critical Inquiry 16

(1990): 709-752.

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