Sunday, 2 November 2014

Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014 Part 1

The following was prepared as part of panel discussion which took place in the Ulster Museum on 25/10/2014 as part of the Belfast Festival's 'Ulster Museum Day,' looking at 'Absorbing Modernity' in Northern Ireland.

Modernity is often described as a total break with tradition. Certainly stylistically this appears the case, yet theoretically it is part of a continuum which began with the Renaissance, by way of the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution. The rejection of medieval spiritualism and superstition in favour of logic and reason applied by freewilled individuals lead to a period of intense scientific and technological advancement which changed the world at an exponential rate over the proceeding centuries until, at the end of the 19th century, our newly urbanised cities felt like threatening and inhuman environments, detrimental to the delicate human body and the life it was seen to contain.

The new speed of the world, created by international travel and transatlantic TV and radio broadcasts, allowed mankind a previously unthinkable ‘God’s Eye’ view of global societies. Ironically, the work of the logical and rational freewilled individuals of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment lead to a new radical understanding of the multitude, now on an international level. The analogy given to us by Descartes of the human form as an objectified machine, albeit one possessed by a soul (the ghost in the machine), was now applied to all human life, including the socio-political discourses which are seen to form societies.

Descartes’ dualist model, that we are a mind resident within a physical body, combined with Thomas Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’ model of society and state began to deny the individualism which had allowed the Renaissance thinkers to question the religious and spiritual superstition of the dark ages. The soul as a metaphysical concept could be in possession of an entire society, the body-politic as opposed to the individual human form.

The Victorian pre-modernist proto-planner Patrick Geddes used these ideas, along with Darwin’s model of evolution, to suggest a kind of benign eugenics in which the city, as mankind’s habitat, can be laid out in an idealised way to enable the human animal to evolve into a better organism. The foundations of contemporary planning were established on the ideal that the city, as an environment, could be organised in such a way as to satisfy the needs of society as a multitude of individuals of a single species, in possession of mechanical bodies.

Corbusier advanced these ideas by claiming that the house should be ‘a machine for living in.’ Corbusier’s ideals, much like Geddes’, suggest that the city and it’s architecture could be conceived of mechanistically and that it’s human users would interact with it in a similar way as ballbearings within a machine. A well designed urban and architectural system would elicit a predetermined and prescribed response from each and every individual that enters the system.

The spatial problems caused by an increasing urban population across Western Europe in the first half of the 20th century desperately needed to be addressed and, much like every other major city in the UK and Ireland, a set of regional proposals based on modernist principles were developed for the city of Belfast. The most ambitious was the ‘1962 Belfast Regional Survey and Plan,’ commonly known as the ‘Matthew Plan’ after it’s author Robert Matthew, the ambitious Scottish architect-planner. On the back of this came an urban motorway system, the utopian new town of Craigavon and high rise ‘streets-in-the-sky,’ all of which can be said to have failed to varying degrees and for a range of reasons both local and more broadly theoretical.

For me the problem really is at the theoretical root of Modernism, in it’s strict adherence to determinism and the belief that we are machines. To do so is to reject the subjectivity and individuality of each and every individual who goes to form the multitude of society. 

While the analogy of the anatomical to mechanical is compelling, the analogy collapses when it comes to individual mindfulness. In it’s hurry to totally eschew the superstitions which dogged society prior to the Renaissance it appears Modernism entangled the idea of the mind became with the idea of the metaphysical soul and, in turn, rejected them both in favour of the mechanical body with it’s on board computer in the form of the brain.

It’s my view that the complexity and diversity of subjective human experience creates innumerable variables which simply cannot be accounted for in any scientifically based architectural scheme or urban masterplan. I think we need to be mindful of the deep theoretical basis of Modernism and grateful for what it has given us while at the same time learning from it’s mistakes and not falling victim to these same subtle theoretical failings.

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