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Where is architecture truly ‘modern’?

Too often, we in Europe and the English-speaking world presume that we have a monopoly on both modernity and its cultural expression as modernism. But this has never been the case. Take, for instance, the case of sixteenth and seventeenth century urbanism in Europe and Asia. One can focus on the different ways in which classical precedent was deployed in Europe, teasing out the distinctions between the early and late Renaissance, not to mention Mannerism and Baroque. These had no exact counterparts in the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires, which stretched east from Budapest to what is now Bangladesh. Indeed, even many northern Europeans were slow to be impressed, although the revival of antique classicism certainly left its imprint upon Iberian colonial outposts (one can find sixteenth and seventeenth century churches with Roman-inspired facades in the Yucatan, Macau, and more). But from Madrid to Delhi, many capitals nonetheless shared the same new features during these years. The emergence of large, logically organized public spaces lined by uniform facades, broad tree-lined boulevards, and domed houses of worship tied these places together and evoked paradigms that were established even earlier to the east, especially in Beijing. The court cultures of Istanbul, Isfahan, and Delhi made almost exactly the same breaks with their medieval pasts as their counterparts in Paris, Madrid, and Rome.

And yet real differences do endure. Over the course of the last century, what is striking is not that cities and buildings around the world have become more similar, but that the Latin American, Asian, and African urban middle class have typically been far more receptive than Europeans to 1920s avant-garde architects who broke away from historical tradition. Liberation from the past is also uncommon in the English-speaking world, where timber, brick, and other references to the pre-industrial rural vernacular characterize most suburban housing; living rooms and parlors, if not kitchens and bathrooms, often contain replicas of furniture first produced more than two centuries ago. But this is much less likely to be the case if one is an accountant, engineer, surgical nurse, or elementary school teacher in Shanghai or Santiago. Here, home is also more likely to be a multi-story tower, an option still associatedin much of Europe and the English-speaking worldwith warehousing the poor or the luxurious aeries of the super-rich.

640px-Plaza_Mayor_de_Madrid_06
“Plaza Mayor (square) in Madrid (Spain) at dusk” by Sebastian Dubiel. CC BY-SA 3.0 DE via Wikimedia Commons

Architecture does not necessarily reflect reality. It is more likely to give concrete form to the fantasies of those with the agency to shape their environments, a group that has always included consumers as much as architects. The Safavid and the Spanish courts shared a focus on court spectacle in support of the highly centralized rule that, like prosperity rooted in intercontinental trade, proved difficult to sustain. Public spaces like the Maidan and the Plaza Mayor were intended to facilitate both, despite being wrapped in architectural languages that spoke to distinct inheritances, that of pre-Islamic Iran in Isfahan, and the Roman empire in Madrid. When both were new, Isfahan may have lookedand indeed may have beenas modern as Madrid, but political and economic development would first be achieved by Amsterdam and then London. Here, prosperity, rather than being mapped out by monarchs, bubbled up from the compelling collective endeavor of the middle class, despite less spatial coherence. Similarly, the splendor of Baroque Rome far exceeded anything erected by Popes who still controlled all of western Christendom.

Today, few searching for a dynamic architectural present and future look to Europe or the United States, where cities are increasingly ceded to tourists rather than inhabitants. Meanwhile, modernism’s purported identity as an objective representation of an industrial future has often proved to be nothing more than a rhetorical stance, its boldest new expressions designed to glorify spectacles such as the Olympics, whose efficacy is likely to be on par with the Counter-reformation’s success at stamping out Protestantism. While nothing about the slated gables and bay windows of Mount Merrion precludes living an entirely modern life, (children raised in both settings are more likely to end up as physicians in Australia or engineers in Canada than gentleman farmers in rural England), lived modern urbanity now lies elsewhere. The rapidly changing, impoverished, and abysmally polluted streets and skylines of Dubai, Mumbai, and Shanghai are seldom beautiful, but they are abundantly alive. They are as emblematic of our shared future as the palaces and plazas of Madrid and Isfahan are of our shared past.

Image Credit: “Naghsh-i Jahan Square, Isfahan, Iran” by Arad Mojtahedi. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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