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Thread: Modernism: Designing a New World at the V&A

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    Default Modernism: Designing a New World at the V&A

    Modernism: the idea that just won't go away
    The British reviled modernism at first, now it's part of the fabric of our nation. The largest ever survey of the movement suggests the defining aesthetic of the 20th century may be just as influential in the 21st

    Deyan Sudjic
    Sunday January 29, 2006

    Just 50 years after modernism first emerged as the style to end all styles, the design philosophy that tried to abolish history and reduced every shape to its supposedly timeless geometric elements was itself declared dead. I can still remember the day I picked up a copy of The Language of Post Modern Architecture to find myself transfixed by its traffic-stopping first sentence. 'Modern Architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3.32pm or thereabouts when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grace by dynamite.'
    Charles Jencks, the American critic, went on to claim that the fact that 'many so-called modern architects still go around practising a trade as if it were alive can be taken as one of the great curiosities of our age, like the monarchy giving life-prolonging drugs to the Royal Company of Archers'. Who knows what still more overheated conclusion he would have come to if he could only have known that another huge complex designed by the same architect was one day also going to come to an equally premature but far more violent end. Like Pruitt-Igoe, the World Trade Centre was designed by Minoru Yamasaki.

    At the time of Jencks's writing, people had already suggested that architectural modernism had run its course. But so calmly and so matter-of-factly to write it off as dead, to dance on its grave, had a breathtaking finality. This was not like saying that Art Deco was dead, or that pink was the new black. Nobody ever saw the Jazz Age as anything more than a transient fashion. But to be a modernist was to have a point of view about everything from music to psychoanalysis. It was to take a moral stand about the 'honest' use of materials, and to believe in the designer's duty to build a better world. If modernism was dead after shaping every detail of our everyday lives for so long, from the cars that we drove to the art in the galleries, and the typography of our postage stamps to the division of our cities into functional zones, what were we left with to provide a compass for the world?

    What did it matter, as Jencks later admitted to me, that he had made up the killer detail to pin the time of the blast down to the last minute. Or even that Yamasaki, with his taste for florid appliqué gothic ornament, was not, strictly speaking, a modernist. It was a genuinely breathtaking declaration that was intended to mark the end of something big. And, of course, Jencks was interested in trying to start something equally big, something that he called postmodernism. In Jencks's eyes, if not in everybody else's, postmodernism meant design with the wit, the emotions and the history that modernism had rejected put back into the mix. But for others, postmodernism was even bleaker: it was modernism plus French literary theory.

    Since before the First World War 'modern', a word carved in steel and concrete with such apparently unarguable clarity in an impeccably severe sans-serif font, had a power like no other adjective used to denote a cultural movement.

    'Modern' meant boiling down every complex shape into cubes, cones, and spheres. It involved using non-traditional materials and forms. Certainly no other adjective was applied with such promiscuous abandon to almost everything, or is still able to evoke a very particular way of seeing the world. Modern Art. Modern Architecture, Modern Jazz. Modern Movement. Modern Life.

    And for a while in the late 1970s 'modern' really did seem to be dead. Architects went through a kind of collective breakdown. Under the lash of the Prince of Wales, who famously suggested with singular lack of taste and judgment that, say what you like about the Luftwaffe, they did less damage to London than Britain's modern architects, they sheltered under a kind of vernacular style, or even a kind of stylistic pastiche of classicism. The ambition to build a sunlit new world that had driven modernism for so long had apparently evaporated.

    You might equally well argue that 'modern' died on the day, in 1929, that Alfred Barr and the Rockefellers captured it and put it in a museum, New York's MoMA, thereby turning a huge cultural force into a mere stylistic category. But to argue that is to risk losing yourself in a quagmire of definitions that has clouded the understanding of the modern movement from the start. 'Modern' isn't the same as 'modernism'. One can be equated with contemporary, the other has come to mean a very particular creative approach, and is one that has alternately fascinated and repelled us. It was only when modernism was domesticated in a pincer movement by Terence Conran and Paul Smith that Britain really took to the style, now to be found in every branch of Ikea and Pizza Express.

    Christopher Wilk, curator of the V&A museum's forthcoming spring blockbuster 'Modernism, Building a New World', has certainly never shared Jencks's glee about modernism's troubles. He began his career as a curator at MoMA before coming to Britain in the 1980s to discover a country deeply ambivalent about its place in the modern world. The nation that had made the first industrial revolution was so horrified by the experience that it had embraced the nostalgic cult of the country cottage like no other culture. It's an ambivalence that lingers to this day in the person of the banker in a Huntsman suit, with a neo-Palladian house and a 7-series BMW, and the burgeoning number of interiors magazines with the word 'country' in their title. Wilk has been waiting for a chance to set up an exhibition that tackled this illogic ever since he arrived at the V&A in 1988, and he takes a defiantly combative stance.

    'I want to take on all the antis,' he says with a passion that seems at odds with his mild, bespectacled exterior. His exhibition is nothing less than a counter-attack, and he is determined to celebrate the achievements of modernism. 'I was amazed that nobody had ever tried to do a big picture exhibition of modernism before in Britain,' says Wilk .

    'We live with the legacy of modernism. The buildings we inhabit, the chairs that we sit on, the graphic design that surrounds us have all been created by the aesthetics and the ideology of modernist design,' he says. 'We live in an era that still identifies itself in terms of modernism, as postmodernist or even post postmodernist. It is simply not possible to work in ignorance of the most powerful force in the creation of 20th-century visual culture.' And it seems that perceptions of modernism are changing. For the influential architect John Pawson, 'modern simply means good.'

    If modernity had its origins in the Enlightenment, modernism, with which it should not be confused, began to formulate around the time of the First World War, and its first and most energetic period is seen by Wilk as coming to a close 20 years later, though it was to spawn a second generation of modernists in the 1960s. It was shaped by developments in painting, such as the geometry of purism - Le Corbusier's architecture was a response to the spatial exploration of cubism - and influenced by cultural innovation in many different fields, from James Joyce's radical experiments in writing to Sigmund Freud's pioneering psychoanalysis. Its roots were not just in Paris, where Le Corbusier settled, but also in Weimar where Walter Gropius opened the Bauhaus, the art school that established the language of modern design, and in the Vienna of Adolf Loos. It had an early impact in Glasgow and Prague, Budapest and Helsinki.

    What distinguished modernism was its vociferous rejection of history and tradition. Gropius, Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the godfathers of the movement, were driven by the urge to design every chair and teacup as if no such thing had ever been done before. They had an almost messianic obsession with the idea of the machine, coupled with a tendency to equate design and morality. They believed that decoration was reprehensible because it hid the unadorned truth they professed to find in modern materials. Adolf Loos explictly equated ornament with crime, when he suggested that anyone with a tattoo was either already a criminal or about to become one. They used the modern house as a battering ram in their onslaught on conventional ideas, if not necessarily on how domestic life should be lived, then at least on how it should look. White walls, bare ceilings, lots of glass and chrome were in themselves an emblem of newness. There was a view that objects should at least be made to look as if they were machines, or made by machines, even if they were actually the product of laborious handcraft.

    Modernist designers were also narcissistic enough to redesign themselves in the spirit of their obsessions. They were forever coming up with simplified, 'rational' new garments, or adopting those thick black-rimmed spectacles in perfect circles, to blink photogenically at the camera. At the V&A you can see Vladimir Tatlin's 1923 design for standard 'worker' clothing, with detachable flannelette lining, and wide sleeves 'to prevent the accumulation of sweat'. The uniform is completed by a flat cap, and boots. Not far away is a photograph of Rodchenko in equally radical ' constructivist' clothing. This was the kind of thing that drew satire, as well as persecution from the Nazis.

    Wilk's V&A show finishes in 1939, and there are those who saw the war as the ultimate fullstop for modernism, revealing the machine age to have been as much about destruction as construction. Yet the sense that modernism was the path to a bright new future survived the Holocaust. Wilk has managed to bring together an enormous range of art and objects, familiar and unfamiliar, from Walter Zapp's Minox camera of 1936, eerily reminiscent of the iPod, and Marianne Brandt's ashtray, in production ever since it was first designed 70 years ago, looking just as contemporary now as it did then. There are Leger paintings and photographs by Man Ray. Wilk has aquired an example of the forerunner of the fitted kitchen, the so-called Frankfurt kitchen designed by Margarete Schutte-Lihotsky back in 1927 for the city's social housing programme. Schutte-Lihotsky designed the kitchen with family life in mind, and its inclusion is intended to demonstrate that modernism could indeed have a socially sensitive aspect.

    Wilk is determined to re-establish the crucial, and partly forgotten role of central Europe in modernism. For a short period between the two wars, Czechoslovakia saw itself as a proudly, self-consciously modern state. And in recognition of this, Wilk chose Eva Jiricna, a Czech, to design the exhibition. He has found a Tatra, one of the curiously reptilian cars engineered by Hans Ledwinka in pre-war Czechoslovakia that formed the basis for much of the thinking for the VW by Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, as well as work from Poland that is as striking as anything by Gerrit Rietveld.

    Wilk's combative stance does not stop at rehabilitating modernism; he is determined to transform British attitudes to modernity. Britain after all is the country in which Sir Reginald Bloomfield, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects in the inter-war years, could describe what he insisted on calling 'modernismus' as an alien plot.

    The British response to the startling eruption of smooth-skinned modernist boxy white concrete houses such as Mendelsohn and Chermayeff's Chelsea house in the 1930s was encapsulated by Evelyn Waugh's sinisterly comic invention, the fish-eyed Walter Gropius figure Professor Otto Silenus in A Handful of Dust. Silenus is discovered by Margot Beste-Chetwynde, 'in the pages of a progressive Hungarian quarterly' and is hired to replace the gothic revival family home 'with something clean and square'. 'The problem of architecture as I see it,' says Silenus, 'is the problem of all art; the elimination of the human element from the consideration of form'. As Wilk points out, modernism was being used in a derogatory sense even in 1737, when Jonathan Swift branded those who abused contemporary language as 'modernists'.

    Scepticism about modernism is not confined to Britain. In America, Tom Wolfe wrote From Bauhaus to Our House to mock America's risible deference to what he described as Europe's silver princes arriving in America straight from the Bauhaus to build museums masquerading as worker housing, and housing that looked like insecticide factories. He suggested that any attempt to actually sit in one of Le Corbusier's chaise longues was to invite a karate chop to the back of the neck.

    'Attacks against modernism's inhumanity, and, at their most extreme, anything that can be tarred with the epithet of modern have the absurd conclusion that no beauty can be found in modernism, and nothing of worth ascribed to its ideas,' says Wilk, who at heart still believes in the moral mission of the early modernists. 'Le Corbusier is thus found guilty of the crime of inspiring poorly designed, badly built concrete towers that actually had little to do with his work. Unless we understand modernism, we cannot evaluate it.'

    The violence of Jencks's attacks has abated, and even the Prince of Wales keeps a lower profile these days, but modernism is in another kind of trouble now. It has been embraced by Wallpaper, smothered in inverted commas, and has started to appear on Antiques Roadshow, killing it with kindness, rather than dynamite. For Wilk, as for a new generation of designers including Apple's Jonathan Ive and Jasper Morrison who are following in the footsteps of Mies van der Rohe and Charles Eames, modernism is too important to abandon. Wilk attempts to rescue it from both these fates, to demonstrate that it is neither cute nor monstrous, but a vital, enormously energetic and wide-ranging cultural movement that is as relevant today as it has always been. Modernism has defined our tastes to a remarkable degree. Without it, there would be no built-in kitchens, and no loft living. The massive school and hospital building programme would look very different. Without modernism, Britain's contemporary domestic landscape would be an entirely different place.

    · Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939, sponsored by Habitat, is at the V&A, London SW7 from 6 April. The Observer is media partner.

    Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

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  3. #3


    April 18, 2006
    At the Victoria and Albert Museum, Selling Britons on Modernism

    An Ekco radio from 1932, left, and a Tatra T-87 sedan, right, made in Czechoslovakia in 1937.

    LONDON, April 13 — The Victoria and Albert Museum wants the British to like Modernism. No easy task, you might think. Before World War II, many Britons viewed the movement's left-leaning politics and geometrical designs as suspiciously cosmopolitan. And since the 1960's, they have blamed it for the cheap and nasty reconstruction of many bombed towns and cities.

    Yet, to judge by critical and public reaction, the museum's new show, "Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939," is winning them over. Rarely has a London exhibition been accompanied by such media trumpeting. And heeding the clarion call, armies of visitors are heading to the museum, in South Kensington, as if Modernism held the key to life as we know it.

    Well, that may be the point. London is a pretty affluent place these days, and affluence has spawned interest in modern design. Even though this exhibition addresses only Modernism's golden age of innovation, it demonstrates that today's look — in homes and restaurants, furniture and fittings, even iPods and cellphones — was born decades ago.

    Christopher Wilk, who organized this show, goes still further. "Modernism is the prism for everything in the 20th century," he said in an interview. "Modernism was to that century what classicism was to previous centuries. After Modernism, there was only postmodernism."

    True, his definition of Modernism embraces far more than architects like Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto and Marcel Breuer, who abandoned ornamentation for rectilinear forms in glass, steel and reinforced concrete. Mr. Wilk also includes design, painting, photography, literature, movies, theater, even body culture (sun-bathing and exercise).

    Further, the show reaches beyond what is considered the movement's cradle: the Bauhaus, the German design school founded by Gropius in 1919 and closed when the Nazis' came to power in 1933. (The work of two Bauhaus teachers, Joseph Albers and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, can be seen at Tate Modern through June 4.) Modernism is also shown flowering in Russia, France, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Czechoslovakia, Israel and the United States.

    Through drawings, models, photographs, paintings, furniture, film clips and more, all facets of the movement are represented, in what one British critic described as the first exhibition "to treat the whole of the subject with grandeur, intelligence and rigor." "Modernism" runs here through July 23 before traveling to MARTa Herford in Germany this fall and to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington next spring.

    Of course, by its very nature, an exhibition focuses on appearance and, in this case, style. Yet in its heyday, what held the Modernism movement together was the belief that design should be defined by function, specifically by how it could improve people's lives. After World War I, there was evidently a need for a better world. And with the arrival of mass production, industry could be recruited to the cause.

    From Russian Suprematists to Italian Futurists, artists became fascinated with machinery, both its form and purpose. And from their imaginations sprang buildings and cities that still evoke science fiction. Wassily Kandinsky, who taught at the Bauhaus, painted semi-abstract geometric forms. Fernand Léger moved on from Cubism to create "machine art," tubular shapes in bold colors; he even made an abstract movie with Man Ray called "The Mechanical Ballet."

    Still, if Modernism is most identified with architecture, it is because architects were the most effective, or at least the most visible, in translating their ideas into reality. Perhaps inevitably, then, the ghosts of Le Corbusier and others haunt this exhibition. After all, designing chairs, lamps, even kitchens is one thing; changing the appearance of cities is on quite a different scale.

    To carry the flag of ideas through such an eclectic display, Mr. Wilk has used the leitmotif of utopia, a notion as appealing as it has proven dangerous. The show opens with "Searching for Utopia," covering the movement's most imaginative and impractical era when, after the Soviet revolution, creating the "new man" seemed like a worthy objective: poor fellow, he even had his clothes designed for him, some resembling overalls.

    The "Building Utopia" section comes closer to anticipating today's way of life. Le Corbusier and others began creating public housing amid debates about the minimum space required for comfortable living. One genuine breakthrough is on display: a fitted kitchen designed by the Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, one of some 10,000 installed in new Frankfurt apartments in the late 1920's. Efficient, practical and hygienic, it matched Modernism's ideals.

    Finally, in "Rethinking Utopia," the show points to the perils implicit in any elitist movement that claims to speak for the masses, including the temptation to ally with political power. By the early 1930's, Socialist Realism had swept away Modernism in the Soviet Union, but some Italian artists were drawn to Mussolini, and even Mies offered a design to Hitler. Most disturbingly, Modernism's body cult was soon enthusiastically adopted by the Nazis.

    Mr. Wilk said he decided to end the show in 1939 only partly for reasons of space. "Given the level of anti-Modernism that exists in Britain, I want to educate people about its formative period," he said. "I did not believe I could tell that story by including the postwar period, where the issues were very different. In Britain, when people said they don't like Modernism, they are thinking of 1960's tower blocs."

    One prominent British political commentator, Simon Jenkins, was not among the converts. Venting his fury against Modernist architects, he wrote in The Guardian: "It is the most terrifying exhibition I have seen because it is politics disguised as art. It opens with a word that says it all — utopia — and ends with an unspoken lie, that this nihilist ideology became merely a style and is no longer a threat. If only."

    Certainly, Modernism survived World War II; indeed, it has survived postmodernism. Yet the success of this show appears to have less to do with architecture than with design. And here Modernism's legacy is arguably democratic: while the poor and the rich can often be identified by their taste in furniture, modern design is classless. Whether expensive Italian or accessible Ikea, it is something that Britons crowding the Victoria and Albert Museum these days seem to recognize and understand.

    A design for a postcard for the 1928 Moscow Spartakiada (the All-Union Olympiad).

    Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

  4. #4
    Disgruntled Optimist lofter1's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jun 2005
    NYC - Downtown


    Petra Cabot, Designer of the 1950s-Era Skotch Kooler, Dies at 99

    Woodstock Artists Association and Museum
    Petra Cabot, in an undated photo.
    October 29, 2006

    Petra Cabot, whose first and deepest love was painting but whose most famous work was an insulated pail covered with plaid, the ubiquitous Skotch Kooler of the 1950s, died on Oct. 13 at her home in Woodstock, N.Y. She was 99.

    Her friend Nancy Kline announced the death. Ms. Cabot also had a home in Manhattan.

    The Skotch Kooler, copyrighted in 1952, was made by the Hamilton Metal Products Company of Hamilton, Ohio. It could keep ice cream firm for two to three hours without ice and was handy for a fishing trip: it kept groceries cold on the way to the lake and fish cold on the way back.

    The container held four gallons and had three layers of insulation: one of fiberglass, one of inert air and a heat-reflecting outer surface. It was airtight and waterproof and, long before the practice was common, it carried the signature of its designer. (Knockoff versions, without the signature, were made as far away as Thailand.) The coolers are now popular collectibles.

    “I decided to make the best-looking bucket anybody ever saw,” Ms. Cabot said, according to an interview several years ago with Ms. Kline’s mother, Polly Kline.

    Emma Mearns, who later changed her name to Petra (pronounced PEE-tra), was an only child born in Philadelphia on Feb. 21, 1907. She was educated in crafts and fine arts and started winning design prizes in her teens.

    She designed costumes and sets for stage productions, then spent a year painting in Europe. In the Depression years, she participated in two federally sponsored arts projects and became involved in the lively art scene in and around Woodstock. She also taught at the City and Country School in Manhattan.

    Petra Cabot ink on paper with a repetitive abstract pattern in black.
    Marked in pencil, "Honorable Mention/Peter Meaons"; "Petra Cabot" on reverse.
    Image: 4" x 5"

    In 1945, she designed a mural depicting the history of the National Maritime Union. It occupied 840 square feet of wall space in the union’s Manhattan offices, now a hotel, and was a montage of newspaper clippings and photographs.

    From 1938 until 1950, she worked for the designer Russel Wright, who brought modernism to the American home with his inexpensive, mass-produced dinnerware, furniture, appliances and textiles. One of Ms. Cabot’s first assignments for Wright was the food pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, which received favorable mention from critics.

    Mural by Witold Gordon
    The mural on the Food South Building -- designed by Philip L. Goodwin
    (who also designed the Museum of Modern Art in 1939),
    Eric Kebbon, Edward Durrell Stone, Morris Ketchum, Jr.,
    and Richard Boring Snow -- measuring 6000 square feet.

    Ms. Cabot married Laurence Jordan, a poet, when she was 19; the marriage ended in divorce in 1931. In 1937, she married Blake Cabot, a medical writer and publisher, who died in 1974. She left no immediate survivors.

    Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

  5. #5

    Default 125th Anniversary of the birth of Walter Gropius

    Walter Adolph Georg Dorphios (May 18, 1883July 5, 1969) was a German architect and founder of Bauhaus[1]. Along with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, he is widely regarded as one of the pioneering masters of "modern" architecture

    Walter Adolph Gropius

    Walter Gropius (circa 1920). Photo by Louis Held.

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    There is much that is muddled here about what is called "modern" and to what effect.

    Art Deco, for example, was applied to Classicism in a number of skyscrapers, if they are both categorised as the same thing, more or less, then how would you make any sense out of any of these deliberate choices.

    Then there is a passage that "Modernism's golden age of innovation" as if it has been in nadir ever since. Talking about a rhetorical flourish with profound over-simplification.

    This is all too glib to be defended in earnest.

  7. #7
    NYC Aficionado from Oz Merry's Avatar
    Join Date
    Oct 2002


    From Mad Men to Mies: Why Modernism Holds Sway

    By Vanessa Quirk

    © Megan Jett

    It’s June 1966. Mies’ iconic Seagram Building dominates New York City. Bob Dylan has just released Blonde on Blonde. The Vietnam War is escalating. John Lennon has yet to meet Yoko Ono. Martin Luther King, Jr. has yet to be assassinated. And Don Draper is readjusting to married life – with his 25 year-old secretary.

    The excitement over Mad Men, while always eager, was positively explosive last Sunday. The season 5 premiere resulted in the show’s highest ratings to date (3.5 million viewers, up 21% from last year). While the show has always received critical acclaim, now, for whatever reason, it has reached a fever-pitch of popularity.

    On a purely aesthetic level, it’s easy to explain. The show draws in audiences with a meticulous, sumptuous set design that allows a nostalgic journey back in time: when design was innovative & clean, architecture was confident (cocky even), and modernism still held its promise.

    But on another level, the show is successful because of its inevitability. The very knowledge of the ephemerality of that confidence, a theme particularly relevant to audiences in the wake of the Recession, is what strikes a chord, what makes the show positively hypnotizing.

    Watching Mad Men is like watching a Modernist car crash. A beautiful demise.

    Chase Manhattan Plaza. 1961. By Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. Ezra Stoller © Esto

    Confidence Men

    From the Google Doodle to our own popular infographic on Mies‘ life and works (150,000 hits and counting), the hooplah surrounding Mies’ 126th birthday this week showed us that Modernism‘s appeal still very much holds sway.

    And Mad Men tells us why. Season 5 sees the characters settled in their new office environment – from Madison Avenue (where they were in in Seasons 1-3; hence the term “Mad” Men) to the Time & Life Building on 6th.

    While no Seagram building, The Time & Life building was, as The New York Times recently noted,”the perfect location for an upstart firm nurturing an image of being cutting edge.” The building was 92% rented before it even opened its doors; could boast tenants such as The Times, Liberty Steel and Metal, and Sterling-Cooper; and had an opening move-in that made breaking news.

    Mies Google Doodle, Crown Hall © Google

    The characters’ perspectives and ambitions offer a non-jaded look back to what these buildings signified at their inception: confidence, possibility, power. As Blair Kamin has noted for the Chicago Tribune, Mad Men reflects a ”time when modernism was still fresh and the backlash against corporate sterility had yet to hit.”

    In Sunday’s episode, we hear the protagonist, Don Draper, say: “New York City is in decay. But Madison Square Garden — it’s the beginning of a new city on a hill.” As Don’s precipitous decision to re-marry with his young secretary shows us, he is charging ahead in a new direction, believing all the while that new will be better. That Madison Square Garden will become a beacon of progress for the rest of the world.

    But the reality is that that just didn’t happen. As blogger for the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Hawthorne, points out: “the Garden actually helped produce not a city on a hill but the seeds of a powerful preservation movement, in Manhattan and elsewhere. Almost immediately, New York realized it had made an enormous blunder by knocking down one of its most remarkable pieces of architecture.”

    In fact, you could say the same mentality exists in New York today. When we think of cutting-edge architecture, we look not to our own soils but (as Hawthorne notes) to China and Dubai. Our own architecture has become more subdued, preservationist, quiet: nostalgic for a time when confidence was taken for granted.

    A Sign of the (New York) Times

    In The New York Times’ 2007 Review of its new office by Renzo Piano, “Pride and Nostalgia Mix in the Times’s New Home,” critic Nicolai Ouroussoff has this to say:
    “The New York Times Building owes its greatest debt to postwar landmarks like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Lever House or Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building — designs that came to embody the progressive values and industrial power of a triumphant America. Their streamlined glass-and-steel forms proclaimed a faith in machine-age efficiency and an open, honest, democratic society.”

    As you read the article, you can practically feel the author’s discomfort ooze off the page. Because we no longer live in that era. Even as workers were moving into this new “triumphant” building, stock prices in The New York Times were plummeting (forcing the company to lease it out), advertising was shrinking, digital media was threatening to make the publication obsolete.

    Where there was once faith, there is doubt. Post-9/11, post-Internet, post-Recession, the New York Times Building is the physical manifestation of our longing for an earlier time, one that is impossible to recreate.

    Mad Men speaks to that impossible longing. It presents the past, both its shiny exterior and its darker underbelly, but always suggests the change that we know is coming.

    When the opening credits start, we are in a 1960s interior, following our protagonists’ footsteps. The interior falls apart first, advertisements slide down the wall, and we fly with the falling man out the building itself. Mies-ian structures, colorful advertisements, images of beautiful women fly by until – suddenly – our man isn’t falling, but sitting. With a cigarette in hand. The episode begins.

    Unlike, say, the exact recreation of a ’60s animation in the opening credits of Catch Me If You Can, the “falling man” sequence is referential, but not a replica. The music, the font, the computer generation all frame the show from a 21st century perspective.

    Because despite the smooth, confident exteriors of our Mad Men, we know that they’re falling apart on the inside. The Modernist promise of Mies‘ structures cannot last for ever, progress cannot be sustained, power is not eternal. But the illusion of it is still sexy, the longing still holds sway.

    Our man may be falling, but we’re with him all the way.

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