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Dutch architects MVRDV’s design for a cantilevered holiday home in Suffolk, UK.

We all admire heroic acts, but this is one I hadn’t expected. Author Alain de Botton (Consolations of Philosophy, The Art of Travel, among others) is commissioning architects to build purposefully experimental homes that he will make available for holiday rentals on a not-for-profit basis. His purpose is to “to help people get over the dichotomy that modernism equals awful and antiquated equals great”.

This is advocacy we need more of. The project was inspired by the Landmark Trust in England, a program that blends vacationing at a beautiful property combined with an educational experience. “You are more than just sleeping there – you are looking around and learning about modern architecture.”

The houses are designed by leading architects from various European countries and are deliberately experimental. The goal was to challenge preconceptions of what constitutes a holiday home in 21st-century Britain.

“The inspiration is the Landmark Trust [which lets interesting historical properties] – for people interested in a good holiday, but also an educational experience while they are in the property,” De Botton claims. He is calling the initiative Living Architecture.

The first group of houses are being designed by MVRDV (Danish), Nord Architecture (Scotland), Peter Zumthor (Swiss) and Sir Michael Hopkins (U.K.)

From an article in the Guardian by Robert Booth:

De Botton said he was inspired to launch the project when he was researching the Architecture of Happiness, his book and TV series which is a tour through the philosophy and psychology of architecture aiming to change the way we think about our homes. Visitors will be given an information pack about each building’s design, setting out what the architects hope to achieve, the historical precedents for the design and its influences.

“We have got a group of world-class architects to do projects that they wouldn’t normally do,” said De Botton. “These are probably the smallest and cheapest buildings they have done. They are realistic buildings, but they try to push boundaries and explore things.”

Alain de Botton’s project, Living Architecture, can be viewed in more detail here.

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warhol_campbells-soup

How heartening it is when you find a passage that captures the essence of some of your internal floaters—those inchoate, imprecise concepts that circumambulate in the mind and never quite land on two feet. I had the settling sensation of an exhale that comes when order has been brought to a previously perceived chaos when I read Louis Menand’s article about the writer/thinker Donald Barthelme in the Febrary 23rd issue of The New Yorker.

The whole piece is worth a read, but I want to share a few passages that crystallized my thinking about a whole slew of responses to modernism and postmodernism as applied to critical theory, thinking, art and culture. Writers more proficient than the rest of us in the evolution of consciousness have written about the sea change in thinking that happened during the 60’s and 70’s. But observing the flow of these ideas as a visual artist has left me with a mishmash of responses. At times this shift has been utterly euphoric, like my first encounter with the thinking in A Thousand Plateaus. At other times I have felt the white heat of an arid emptiness, one where there is a poignant absence of the salty sweat and heavy breathing of beings who are making real things that matter, to them and to others.

Menand captures some aspect of that ambivalence (and the need for definitional distinctions) in his piece on Barthelme.

Postmodernism is the Swiss Army knife of critical concepts. It’s definitionally overloaded, and it can do almost any job you need done. This is partly because, like many terms that begin with “post,” it is fundamentally ambidextrous. Postmodernism can mean, “We’re all modernists now. Modernism has won.” Or it can mean, “No one can be a modernist anymore. Modernism is over.” People who use “postmodernism” in the first “mission accomplished,” sense believe that modernism—the art and literature associated with figures like Picasso and Joyce—changed the game completely, and that everyone is still working through the consequences. Modernism is the song that never ends. Being postmodernist just means that we can never be pre-modernist again. People who use it in the second sense, as the epitaph for modernism, think that, somewhere along the line, there was a break with the assumptions, practices, and ambitions of modernist art and literature, and that everyone since then is (or ought to be) on to something different. Being postmodernist means that we can never be modernist again.

How (in the first account) did people like Picasso and Joyce change the game? They did it by shifting interest from the what to the how of art, from the things represented in a painting or a novel to the business of representation itself. Modern art didn’t abandon the world, but it made art-making part of the subject matter of art. When (in the second account) did the break occur? It happened when artists and intellectuals stopped respecting a bright-line distinction between high art and commercial culture. Modernist art and literature in this version of the story, depended on that distinction to give its products critical authority…

It is sometimes said that the distinction between high and commercial culture collapsed when artists and intellectuals discovered aesthetic merit in things like jazz and movies…If you propose to admire a popular movie because it’s formally interesting or morally exigent, you aren’t changing the system of appreciation at all. There may be some new stuff above the line, but there’s still a line. What killed the distinction wasn’t defining pop art up. It was defining high art down. It was the recognition that serious art,too, is produced and consumed in a marketplace. the point of Warhol’s Campbell’s soup-can paintings was not that a soup can is like a work of art. It was that a work of art is like a soup can: they are both commodities.

This calling into question, problematizing, deconstruction—whatever you want to call it—of the status of art is what makes a lot of people uncomfortable with postmodernism in the second sense. They don’t see that sort of postmodernism as demystifying; they see it as debunking. High art and literature have always been stimulated by popular sources (and have given stimulus back); and anti-art, art that thumbs its nose at aesthetic decorum, has an honored place in the modernist tradition. Duchamp and the Dadaists were making anti-art almost a hundred years ago. But you can make anti-art—Duchamp’s “Fountain”, for example—only when everyone still has some conception of authentic, stand-alone, for-its-own-sake art. Warhol’s work is not anti-art. Finding no quality on which to hang a distinction between authentic art and everything else, it simply drops the whole question.

Modernism, Part 2
Here are a few more selections from the Mia Fineman/Peter Gay book discussion from Slate. (For the full conversation between Fineman and Gay, start at the beginning on Slate.)

Mia Fineman:

Though I don’t think Pop Art brought about the end of Modernism by democratizing art, I do agree that Modernism suffered a kind of slow death in the early 1960s. The primary cause of death—and I’m certainly not the first to suggest this—was the steady assimilation of Modernist avant-gardes by mainstream institutions like museums and universities, and by the market. By the 1960s, Modernism had metastasized into the official culture of art. The shock of the new had grown old, and Modernism’s taboo-shattering transgressions gradually evolved into the highbrow equivalent of classic rock.

Which brings us to my next question: What comes next? In your final chapters, you entertain the possibility of a Modernist revival, pointing to the novels of Gabriel García Márquez and the architecture of Frank Gehry as works that carry the torch of Modernism into the 21st century. You end the book on a personal note, describing your experience of a recent visit to Gehry’s titanium-sheathed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. You convey your enthusiasm for the “wealth and elegance of the forms” through loving descriptions of the building’s “assortment of curves, of weight-bearing, slightly twisted pillars, of curved internal bridges, of enticing balconies, all of them enlivened by museum-goers wandering about the spaces.” Your verdict: The museum is a “Modernist masterpiece.”

Now, Gehry’s Guggenheim is surely innovative and thrilling to behold, but is it Modernist? Like many independent-minded artists, Gehry doesn’t like to be connected with any particular style or movement. Nonetheless, his work has been widely discussed in terms of architectural Postmodernism, and even more specifically, in terms of Deconstructivism, a style that arose in the late 1980s and is often associated with the work of Peter Eisenman, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, and Zaha Hadid, among others. Like these architects, Gehry rejects the Modernist principles of “form follows function” and “truth to materials.” His designs represent a radical departure from the straight lines and ordered rationality of International Style architecture. So, I wonder if you could say a little more about why you consider Gehry’s Guggenheim to be a Modernist, as opposed to a Postmodernist, work? And more broadly, I’d be interested to know what you think of Postmodernism as a term to describe the cultural and stylistic tendencies (like irony, fragmentation, hybridity, and self-reflexiveness, to name just a few) that have surfaced since Modernism’s demise in the 1960s.

Peter Gay:

As for Gehry and Postmodernism. Early on, I wrote a chapter on Postmodernism, which particularly worried and incensed the academy. I therefore decided not to get involved in quite another fight. I greatly enjoyed and enjoy Modernism (whether Picasso or Virginia Woolf or Orson Welles) but thought that Postmodernism was a fad and would not last forever. So I gave up writing about it and threw away the chapter. I don’t call Gehry Postmodern. I agree that he is unwilling to be enlisted in any school or category. He tries in the most interesting way to fulfill the client’s needs. But as distinct from Postmodernist architects like Eisenman and Libeskind, he does respect form following, or at the least not offending, function. To judge from his recent (say last quarter-century) designs, he does not construct things that simply play games or impose their moral prejudices on the public. Thus Eisenman’s balconies in Tegel or Libeskind’s voids, areas of devout silence (where you are supposed to feel terrible about the Holocaust), make demands on the public that Gehry and others like him would not dream of making.

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