Sterile Spaces, Synthetic Humans, and Disentanglement: High Modernism and Our Alienation From Nature, #3.
By Otto Paans
[High modernism] is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws. (Scott, 1998: p. 4)
TABLE OF CONTENTS
2. The Center Does Not Hold
3. The Deadly Danger of Playing God: Prometheus and Covenant
4. High Modernist Space: Four Aesthetic Themes
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4. High Modernist Space: Four Aesthetic Themes
Given the elective affinities between Ban’s architectural gesture and the visual aesthetics of the Alien series’ latest installments, how can we characterize the aesthetics of high modernist space? And given the high-modern fixation of overcoming the unpredictability of nature by means of technological control, how can we characterize the aesthetic of the resulting spaces?
Before delving into the details, it is worth pointing out that my reading of the high modernist spatial aesthetic has little to do with beauty-as-such. Instead, it deals with the normative framework that forms the background for what the high modernist mind considers beautiful, valuable, pure, harmonious, and desirable in the face of the untamable power of nature. Correspondingly, I’ll discuss four core themes: objectivity, immutability, distancing, and asceticism.
There are significant doctrinal links between early 20th-century high modernism in architecture and developments in the natural sciences during the same period. The key word of this historical period is, perhaps, “objectivity.” Just as the engineering sciences and natural sciences promised to usher in a new period of universal progress by means of probing and manipulating the deep structure of the natural universe, so too was architecture destined to realize universal well-being for the human race by means of technology grounded on the engineering sciences and natural sciences. A glorious future, built for success, and all of it flowing from the “imagination of cold reason” and the “use of the slide rule” (Le Corbusier, 1929/1987: p. 147). The new architectural space was made for Man, and it expressed one thing: control and mastery of nature through technology. In turn, technology demanded objectivity. The Vienna Circle declared confidently that philosophy had to describe the “neutral system of formulae” that represented the deep structure of the universe. By doing so “neatness and clarity are striven for, and dark distances and unfathomable depths rejected” (Vienna Circle, 1929/1996: p. 5). Here, we encounter again the pathological fear of “unfathomable depths” yet combined with a strange confidence that the light of the human intellect would tame and survey these dark recesses.
In turn, the arts would emulate this sanitary gesture in a different register and represent through purposive experimentation just how perfect and eternal the modern world view was. To illustrate this attitude, we can cite Theo Van Doesburg (1923) and Le Corbusier (1929/1987):
Our epoch is hostile to every subjective speculation in art, science, technique, etc. The new spirit, which already governs almost all modern life, is opposed to animal spontaneity, to nature’s domination, to artistic flummery and cookery. In order to construct a new object we need a method, that is to say, an objective system. (Van Doesberg, 1923/1981: p. 195)
The use of the house consists of a regular sequence of definite functions. The regular sequence of these functions is a traffic phenomenon. To render that traffic exact, economical and rapid, is the key effort of modern architectural science. (Le Corbusier, 1929/1981: p. 195)
In Van Doesburg’s remark, subjective speculation is portrayed as animalistic, and an objective system is proposed to break away from this oppressing hold of subjectivity.[i] In addition, Van Doesburg equates method (in this case: a systematic approach) with objectivity. It seems that he regards subjectivity and systematic approaches as mutually exclusive. Le Corbusier shares Van Doesburg’s emphasis on objectivity, when he speaks of usage as a regular sequence of definite functions. The conviction that the usage of a house (or city) can be fully determined in advance is directly mirrors the idea that no problem is outside the reach of science or engineering — again, no dark recesses and unfathomable depths here! Thus, Le Corbusier treats architectural design as a practice that manipulates fully determinate and exact symbols in configurations that are themselves fully determinate and exact. And in turn, the resulting “living machines”, “healing machines,” or “production machines” represent the triumph of reason and efficiency. Optimization becomes the core value for design, and the justification for any measures taken. In turn, objectively measured values and strategies serve to ground the entire creative enterprise in the technological foundation that promises the overcoming of nature and finitude.
Not surprisingly, at its core, high modernism was a sanitary movement: it promised to rid society of the unhealthy evils of the 19th-century metropolis. Cholera epidemics, industrial pollution, cramped living quarters, traffic congestion: high modernism aimed to overcome it by large-scale sanitary operations. Not coincidentally, the emphasis was on clean spaces, clean surfaces, clear electrical light, clean air and water, and a form of nature that was domesticated and servile to the sanitary aims of high modernity.
Objectivity in everything — including predefined daily routines, the presence of tamed nature and fully mechanized processes — would create a new civilization. Indeed, it was order, the segmentation of daily life and the factory-like logic of routine that was promised as the new remedy that would rid civilization from the specter of unpredictability. But to get rid of unpredictability, one must get rid of spontaneity first.
One strategy for getting rid of spontaneity is to keep nature at arms’ length, to distance oneself from it. In high modernist architecture, this strategy is on full display: Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoie was placed on columns in order to enjoy the treetops — it was literally set apart from the earth. And, for him as for many high modernists, sterile white or neutral grey colors would cover the walls. Geometric shapes would replace the “jagged and anxious” forms of previous architectural styles with the purity of form and absence of ornament. Purity was the aesthetic leitmotif.
And so enters the second pole of the dialectic: high modernist spaces not only distanced themselves physically from the unpredictability and unfathomable depths of nature: they simultaneously created spaces where one could look out over nature, and convince oneself that one is “lord and master” of it by sticking to self-imposed routines and forcibly shutting nature out. Indeed, the routine is regarded as the overcoming of nature by means of its rational purpose, its reliability, and the possibilities for planning and control it invites. If nature is present, it is as a play of “definite functions” that can be controlled and anticipated.[ii] A clear visual example can be found in Ludwig Hilberseimer’s treatment of settlement form, wind direction and avoiding building in areas where the smoke of heavy industries passes. The diagram seems to harness natural forces, but in reality, we deal with an almost machine-like approach to natural phenomena.
Unpredictability is banished from the white spaces of high modernity, and only the core tenets of functionality, regularity and exactitude reigned supreme. High modernist space is ordered to maximize predictability through exact functional descriptions. These assignments are again based on categories that formally constitute human life, its “neutral set of formulae” as dutifully deciphered by the sciences. Nowadays, these spaces are more and more relegated to facilities and the hyperspace infrastructure that envelopes the planet. The routines that reign in these spaces allow indeed for predictability and functionality. Yet, they feed reality back to the user. Like the entirety of the modern project, it becomes self-referential and reflexive, and thereby self-enclosed. But it is life itself that is kept at bay, in its open-endedness and its capacity to morph, adapt, and subvert.
To be truly a lord and master, one needs to be able overlook one’s kingdom and “see like a State” (Scott, 1998). And here, as in Friedrich’s Wanderer, we can introduce another figure who can teach us something about the pitfalls of distance and control. This time, however, it is the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar on his tower, proudly looking out over his kingdom, not unlike Ozymandias. High up in his tower, the surrounding nature is perceived from out of an aesthetic space. It is reduced and framed as a spectacle that is at a distance, safe to look at, and above all defanged. By consciously creating a distance towards nature, the high modernist human can look down on it, satisfied with the fact that the uncontrollable is put in its place by means of technology, power, planning, and control.
This distancing creates a feeling of power and cements the legitimacy of a ruler as controller of nature. But should we not read the madness of Nebuchadnezzar as his moment of profound — yet involuntary — realization, instead of interpreting it as a divine punishment for his pride?
Suddenly, Nebuchadnezzar realizes that his distancing solves nothing, and the fact that even while playing King, he could never be up to the task: he is simply too small and too fragile in the face of nature itself. This would have been the moment to turn towards an ecological (i.e. fully engaged and entangled) attitude towards nature, but instead, the very animality of nature is projected back into Nebuchadnezzar’s psyche. The very displacement that he sought to create backfires and erupts into himself: he experiences the traumatic split of the anthropocentric attitude in its full force.[iii] It’s no mere coincidence, then, that Percy Shelley’s chilling poem Ozymandias could very well refer to Nebuchadnezzar or kings like him; and no coincidence that it plays such an important role in the narrative of Alien: Covenant.
Those white high modernist spaces are ascetic spaces, away from the concreteness of life towards the aestheticized, carefully calculated pleasure of routine, order, and a materiality of total control. In those spaces, order is glorified. In Alien: Covenant, the opening scene features the high modernist white spaces, in which artworks play the role of uprooted, decontextualized, and alienated objects, almost as if they are remnants of a historical world long gone and superseded by the universal and unstoppable aesthetic of high modernity.
The presence of these artworks serves only to accentuate the universality and totalitarian, overwhelming, minimalist aesthetic of high modernity (Aureli 2013). We can cite as cases in point the design aesthetics of Apple, UNStudio, Santiago Calatrava and Zaha Hadid Architects here. Purity, whiteness, sleekness and above all a kind of cleanness invoke a world of total order — and one without algae, specks of dust, scratches and impurities. This clean, sleek and pure style did not fall from the heavens ready-made. As Reyner Banham contends:
In picking on Phileban solids and mathematics, the creators of the International Style took a convenient short-cut to creating an ad hoc language of symbolic forms, but it was a language that could only communicate under the special condition of the Twenties, when automobiles were visibly comparable to the Parthenon, when aircraft structure really did resemble Elementarist space cages, when ships’ superstructures really did appear to follow the Beaux Arts rules of symmetry, and the additive method of design explored in many branches of machine technology was surprisingly like Gaudet’s elementary composition. (Banham, 1970: p. 328).
In fact, Banham goes so far as to say that the “universal” or “organic” rules that the modernists claimed dictated their design method did not exist at all. The modern visual aesthetic developed in a time when a confluence between technological advancements, cultural values, and aesthetic sensibility combined with a dose of Utopian rhetoric gave indeed rise to a new world — one, that is, with a curious absence of the detailing that made classical architecture so rich. In fact, it seems as though the visual aesthetic developed extremely quick and with a soaring vision in mind, while the entire tactile aesthetic lagged behind or disappeared altogether behind glass, steel, white stucco or smooth concrete.
In today’s parametric architecture, we witness the same impoverishing effect. The swooping gestures are dynamic, the finishing sleek, the aesthetic seemingly rational, the construction machine-like and proudly presented as the spatial backbone of rationality. Yet, a curious and often awkward absence of tactile detail conveys the strong suggestion that this world is not meant for human habitation, but for habitation by a race of Synthetics.
Likewise, the artworks and objects in Covenant are completely engulfed by this sterile white aesthetic of space, whereby that space is not intended to interact with them. Like the alien lifeforms that are parasitic on their host, everything is absorbed into the sterile grip of high modernism. Everything serves as a source material or as a raw resource to be converted, just as Loudon, Marx, and Engels envisioned it. Nevertheless, nature as such is beyond the reach of the high modernist aesthetic, and that is exactly why it is distrusted.
The concreteness and inherent unpredictability of natural life itself is ordered, tamed and through functional division segmented and streamlined. Engagement with the world takes the form of following or instantiating a protocol. This feature was already noticed by Max Horkheimer, when he wrote in 1947 that driving a motorcar amounted to being subjected to an endless number of imperatives (Horkheimer, 2013, p. 69). The same diagnosis was repeated by Zygmunt Bauman, when he wrote that modern society filled the lives of individuals with “oughts” (Bauman, 2007: p. 9). You ought to get up at 6.30 AM, you ought to have a steady job; you ought to be successful; you ought to obey instructions, etc. Every day is just “a regular sequence of definite functions” (Bauman, 2007: p. 9).
In high modernist space, the last isolated piece of nature (the human body) is regimented and displayed, like the David of Michelangelo. On the one hand, the perfection of the human body shaped by the laws of nature is admired. Yet, this admiration takes the form of an object: a block of marble chiseled into a sculpture. High modernity acts on an utterly materialist “object logic” — everything is viewed as a material to be transformed. But transformed into what? Well, into objects that are frozen in time, that are “definite” and “objective.” High modernity conceived of the world as a place to be frozen. Only the “play of light” makes architecture, according to Le Corbusier. We merely provide the shapes, while the laws of nature determine the objectivity and eternal qualities to which the essentially mechanical universe is subject. Of course, there is a nuance here: the play of light indeed works magical effects and the skilled designer utilizes this. But the very self-conscious gesture of only engaging with nature on rationalized terms betrays a deep insecurity towards its very presence.
Thus, in its very focus on a timeless asceticism, high modernity is under the spell of a generic eternal: an ideal world that functions like clockwork, like a steam engine, or like a digital computer (pick your favorite mechanical metaphor), in perfect harmony with the mechanistic worldview. The most extreme example in this category may be Bruno Taut’s 1917 Alpine Architecture, and its proposal to chisel the Alps into giant gemstones.[iv]
There is a deep and elective affinity between Taut’s proposal and Michelangelo’s David: the Alps and the marble in their natural state are simply not good enough, so the high modernist ideal world has to be chiseled out of it. Just as the capitalist leaders of the Industrial Revolution regarded nature as a conglomerate of raw resources, so too must the high modernist mind fail to cope with nature as it is. Nature must compulsively be transformed into commodities, products, and utilities. Nature as an autonomous, spontaneous, non-mechanical or organic domain simply does not figure in high modernist thinking, for nature in this sense is not a giant set of recusrive functions.
High modernist spaces are frozen: they are symbols of a spatialized generic eternal. This seems very strange in view of the obvious facts that materials weather, that white painted surfaces gets dirty, that concrete surfaces become rough and greenish, and that how even the neatest pavement is slowly displaced by roots and weeds finding their way into its interstices. Correspondingly, architectural theorist Lars Spuybroek aptly referred to high modernist spaces as existing in a “frozen condition”:
The classic Greek lattice grid is a system that separates the infrastructural movement from material structure…. We must consider the orthogonal grid as a frozen condition. (Spuybroek, 2008: p. 137)
Indeed, the high-modernist archetype for planning is the grid: a neat order imposed from above, segmenting and regulating flows, movement, and distribution. It serves as an ideal projected on the reality of life itself. This is not to say that grids are in themselves bad, or that the structural continuity they provide is necessarily bad. Instead, the badness arises from the fact that the high modern mindset made the grid into an imperative, an order that requires obedience, instead of an ecological order that consists in a process of interaction with the environment. High modernist space is one in which everything is detached or at least detachable from everything else and exists as a sequence of inputs and outputs. It is meant to be untarnished, running like a computer, and controlling all that moves within it.
The projected high-modernist future was made to be eternal, so that any possible fundamental change was discounted from the get-go. If we follow the high modernist’s reasoning, and are indeed dealing with an eternal, unchanging mathematical order that has been transcribed into space, there is no point in considering reality in its processual flow, creative spontaneity, and ceaseless self-organization and self-transformation.
In a gesture of ideological defiance, high modernist space aims to keep nature out, to disentangle itself from it, and to represent it as a domesticated, framed phenomenon. Anyone who glances at planting plans of modernist gardens cannot help but be struck by the strange fact that the plants exist simply as planes of color or as formalist compositional elements. They are fine as architectural elements, but the deeper fact that they are alive and changing is regarded as a nuisance, an unfortunate state of affairs that cannot be avoided, but that necessitates regular maintenance and pruning.
The same point can be made with regard to the layout and intended functioning of the high modernist city: it exists as a functional grid that endures and technologically adapts. But it exists in a deeply schizophrenic way, embedded in a reality that encroaches and undermines it daily. It is a frozen space in a flowing world. This applies not only to the modern cities of the 1960s and 1970s, but equally also to the large metropolitan areas around the world today. They are punctuated and engulfed by slums, informal settlements, and various makeshift constructions with which they must interact but actually can’t.
The scene at the beginning of Covenant takes place in a paradigmatic frozen space: in fact, the Synthetic is more at home in it than the human being. The sterile materials, the utter functionality, the extreme minimalism, and the nature that is kept behind a glass plane all convey the wish-for-eternity. But eternity comes at a double price: first, the continual fear of change; and second, the need to keep things the same by sheer force of will.
While the subjectivity of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer is the site of a deeply conflicted view of nature, the 21st century human being is torn between two different poles than its 19th-century counterpart: to accept the flow of Nature and its inherent organic processuality, or the choice to combat it in a bid to stay aloof and immutable.
There are no empty spaces in nature. There is barren ground; there are rocks and deserts. But even these places teem with life. Each piece of barren land is quickly colonized. A layer of organic material forms itself in the undergrowth, and bacteria, lichens, and fungi provide an entire system from which insects and plants profit.
One day in the future, someone might sit outside his house, looking up at the starry night sky. He might even be part of a civilization that has rethought its relation to nature and life. In short, it is a civilization in which creative piety is at the center of all values and beliefs. It might be a civilization that has learned the true nature of co-existence, the importance of adaptability, the futility of control in a universe that grows, changes, and remembers.
Somewhere high up in the mountains, a ruin has been repurposed. The engineering ingenuity and geometric simplicity it offers has been put to a new use. Instead of creating a distance between itself and the surrounding world, the new building invites the environment in and sometimes keeps it out.
It plays with it, entangles with it, and interacts with it. Its materiality is of a disarming directness and purposiveness. This is not a purposiveness that seeks to optimize a high modern view of control, an anthropocentric fantasy cast in concrete. Instead, if there is a search for efficacy at work here, it is a processual exploration of the interaction between the built and the growing; the artifice and the organism; the flow and the static.
There is an element of interweaving and reciprocity at work here: natural processes are utilized, as they set the boundary conditions for matter and form. Instead of keeping them out, can we surf on them? Can we float on the breeze? Does the trickle of the water gurgling from the mountainside float into a carefully designed pattern that keeps an entire ecosystem alive along the slope? Is the play of the sun utilized in how the house is inhabited; is there shelter for the storm, but space for a breeze?
Such an architecture is a gesture of reconciliation by natural entanglement. Instead of either controlling the forces of nature or subduing them in a controlled representation, there are countless possibilities of co-existing with them, of familiarizing ourselves with them, and of accepting them as indispensable part of an interconnected, organicist universe. As such, the new architecture will be a non-anthropocentric one, in the double sense, first, that it is home to many organisms, but also second, that is can be no longer an image of humankind that is one-dimensionally projected out into the world. To interweave with the world is our imperative; not to control it. Fully to engage with it is to appreciate life as such, without having to distance, distort, or control it.
[i] Van Doesburg’s ideological predecessor, Adolf Loos, had already argued in his 1904 book Ornament and Crime that only thugs and criminals were tattooed; and he didn’t shy away from characterizing people who decorate their body as “animals” or “degenerates.” Again, the image of “animality” is invoked to do away with spontaneous or personal expressions. Contrariwise, the image of “purity” is invoked to represent objectivity.
[ii] Interestingly, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy claimed that his architecture was searching to accommodate the “biological needs” of humanity. See (Banham, 1970: p. 318). Similar themes can be seen in the work of Ludwig Hilberseimer on city planning. See (Hilberseimer, 1944).
[iii] Nebuchadnezzar was by no means the first human being to experience this distancing. Adam can be credited as the archetypical human being: in the Fall, Adam suddenly realizes that he does not belong in Paradise any longer. The moment of being expelled is the beginning of human agency divorced from an Arcadian unity with nature as such.
[iv] Interestingly, Taut was in search of a deeply spiritual connection to the world, and as such, he’s not the archetypical rationalist modernist. However, the very means with which he sought to realize this ideal display much of high modernity’s ideological program. Moreover — and this is a recurring theme –modernity and spirituality in some form or the other had a long and fraught relationship. We can see this in the artworks of Malevich, Klee, and Kandinsky, as well hear it as in Scriabin’s music.
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Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 22 May 2023
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