Neo-Modernism: Revival of High Modernism in China

Neo-Modernism: Revival of High Modernism in China

China over the past several years has accumulated an immense amount of wealth. The country is eager to catch up to the rest of the world and has been impressively spending its wealth on updating its cities for the rise of its middle class. In that growth however, it seems China has shunned away from the mistakes the rest of the developed world has already made during their specific periods of growth. History and precedent have taken a back seat to flashy forms and inefficient density strategies that are the opposite of good urbanism. The world’s most populated country is erroneously following verbatim the ideals of 20th century modernism. This time around the stakes are raised.

There are many high-modernist designers and theorist. I will use two that I am familiar with to summarize modernist theory – Architects Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW) and Le Corbusier (Corb)

American Architect Icon Frank Lloyd Wright

American Architect Icon Frank Lloyd Wright

Swiss-French Architect Le Corbusier

Swiss-French Architect Le Corbusier

Frank Lloyd Wright is credited as being the architect to define a truly American architectural style. His most praised work his Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.

FLW most famous work, Fallingwater. It displays all his ideas of horizontality, usoian-sim, open-floor planning, and what Wright calls organic architecture.

FLW most famous work, Fallingwater. It displays all his ideas of horizontality, usoian-sim, open-floor planning, and what Wright calls organic architecture.

But what most don’t realize is that he is almost single handedly responsible for the explosion of modernist planning in America. On a physiological note, it is my opinion that through his writings he has helped cement the “American Dream“ mantra of living in the minds of many in this great country.  In his publications he describes the breakdown of the centralized dense city. Fueled by the false assumption that the American landscape is infinite, he vividly describes a landscape dominated by super highways surrounded by vast green expanses. To Wright, people would be freed from the “limitations” of dense cities through automobile and flight travel. The city, by these and other technological advances, could now be expanded to vast boundaries. Tight and sometimes congested living spaces would be supplemented by large suburban acre lots set back from the street and segregated from all other functions of daily life. Perhaps, admirable in his motives, Wright accurately describes the condition of the automobile sprawling cities we live in today. FLW embodied these ideas in his work designing many lavish private homes on large lots further increasing the popularity of the isolated suburb as a type of living. He even visualized and foresaw the gas station as a structure that would dominate the intersection roads. A true testament to Wright ideas about the city can be most accurately seen in his theoretical project: Broadacre City.

Images of Broadacre City; FLW

Images of Unite d' Habitation; Le Corbusier

Most of Le Corbusier’s theories fall in line with Wright’s. Where the two differ is in their attention to object oriented architecture at the urban scale. Wright focused on the detached single family home whereas Le Corbusier speculated more on the larger city and public buildings such as churches and public housing developments. His projects tended to be singular objects surrounded by tremendous amounts of space, a theory in architecture informally dubbed “object in the park” planning. His most famous projects convey that very style and his more urban projects also included other modernist planning principles such as singular land use and wide super highways.

Images of Ville Contemporaine (Contemporary Housing) in France; Le Corbusier

The ill effects of modernist planning can be summarized simply as planning that is Utopian. It is a notion that is idealistic, allegorical, abstract and inefficient in forming well-functioning cities. “Objects in the Park” are too often ostentatious displays of architectural bravado done primarily as works of art rather than places where people dwell. Lafayette Park in Detroit, Michigan is one of the few global successes of “object in the park” towers, primarily because of the other uses that surround it. But most projects of this nature remain inefficient or end up like the Pruitt-Igoe project in Saint Louis, MO.

And Arial Image from the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis before it was demolished. The entire complex stood for a mere 20 years before being imploded. This image displays the apparently strong juxtaposition of two very different ideas on what the future of cities look like. The towers have no relationship to the rest of the city and are surrounded by blocks of land and parking lots. Pruitt-Igoe became synonomous with crime, poverty, and unsanitary living conditions which were the very aspects the project was supposed to end. It ultimately led to its destruction. (Photo credit to wikipedia)

And Arial Image from the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis before it was demolished. The entire complex stood for a mere 20 years before being imploded. This image displays the apparently strong juxtaposition of two very different ideas on what the future of cities look like. The towers have no relationship to the rest of the city and are surrounded by blocks of land and parking lots. Pruitt-Igoe became synonomous with crime, poverty, and unsanitary living conditions which were the very aspects the project was supposed to end. It ultimately led to its destruction. (Photo credit to wikipedia)

Superhighways often spanning 8-10 lanes wide (min 90’) destroy blocks as the splay through cities making it dangerous – sometime impossible – for pedestrians to cross intersections. Single use blocks separate residential, commercial, and civil uses which make daily tasks in capable without a car and promote “dead” zones within the city. What occurs from this style of planning is the complete disintegration of what makes a city exactly that - a city. The aftermath of such can be seen in cities like Detroit, Baltimore, Philly, Miami – and now virtually every city in China.

China has not taken heed to studying the lessons that Modernism has already taught to countries like the United States and various places in Europe. It has embraced the modernist ideals completely. What makes the situation even more intense is the architecture is a pure mimic of things seen from around the world without understanding the implications of what is being copied. In my opinion this shows that the planning/design culture in China is more concerned with imagery and financial turnover than creating truly functional cities that are rich in ideas, the sharing of culture, and the beauty of livability. America in particular should be a prime example to our friends in the east. American modernism and urban renewal initiatives nationwide have ripped our cities apart. My thoughts maybe subjective but I am confident that there are many Americans that share the same opinions as I. We live in a country of superficial standards, in cities spaced to far apart, in neighborhoods that lack fellowship, in communities that are difficult to commute through, and dwell in places that are place-less. Modernism has had a hefty hand in promoting such a lifestyle and only in recent decades have we tried to reverse the effects of “Utopian-ism”.

Images of current developement in China

(The above images of China are work of the author)

We now know that this ideal way of life is integral in atmospheric carbon pollution and the depletion of non-renewable resources because of the heavy use of cars and the massive scale of construction. Being the largest country in the world places a heavy responsibility on China to grow in a way that works, for the world’s sake. China’s population is currently hovering around 1.4 Billion and expected to jump to 2 Billion by 2050. This augments the severity of pollution and fossil fuel consumption. If the country does not take heed to the history of its wealthy predecessors they will surely head down the same path. Perhaps, worse. This time it not only effects a singular county but the entire world. 

I end with a stunning quote from famed art critic Robert Hughes taken from his book, The Shock of the New,..

...The car would abolish the human street, and possibly the human foot. Some people would have aeroplanes too. The one thing no one would have is a place to bump into each other, walk the dog, strut, one of the hundred random things that people do...being random was loathed by Le Corbusier...its inhabitants surrender their freedom of movement to the omnipresent architect
— Hughes, Robert. The Shock of The New. London, Thames & Hudson; 1991
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