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Pillars of the 20th Century

An exhaustive study curated by Museum of Contemporary Art director Richard Koshalek examines the legacy of architecture's grand experiments in shaping the urban landscape and defining domestic life.

July 19, 1998|Nicolai Ouroussoff | Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

TOKYO — It's fair to say that 20th century architecture--and the Modernist ideology that dominated it--never achieved its stated aim of creating a better society. But few moments in history have produced such an array of splendid failures.

What Modernism has left us is a collection of fragmentary visions, incomplete experiments and isolated monuments to an idealized world. Nonetheless, many of those experiments retain a remarkable freshness. In seeking to challenge prevailing notions about our social and cultural structures, these designs offered a lens through which we could gaze at the future. And if they failed to transform society, they remain--at their best--idealized moments in a flawed world.

Culture, of course, grows by asking questions. The notion of a radical avant-garde capable of building a smoothly functioning new society may be dead, but the social fabric of modern life continues to shift uneasily forward. How, for example, do we define the relationships that make up contemporary domestic life? How do we shape the postindustrial urban landscape? The world of architecture today is once again sifting through the wreckage of the past to find ways of expressing a new set of values. The idea that architecture can continue to test those values in the real world is still a valid one. The task now is to locate where that sort of experimentation is still possible.

Los Angeles Times Sunday August 2, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Russian tower--Vladimir Tatlin's "Monument to the Third International" was planned for St. Petersburg, not Moscow, as a July 19 article reported.

The aim of "At the End of the Century: One Hundred Years of Architecture," an exhibition that opened last week at this city's Museum of Contemporary Art, is to sum up what was without doubt the most volatile century in the history of architecture in one big, sprawling show. It is a wildly ambitious undertaking--never before has such a wide representation of 20th century architecture been collected together in one place. Curated by Richard Koshalek, director of Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art, with L.A. MOCA curator Elizabeth Smith, the exhibition includes more than 1,200 photographs, models, films and original drawings. From here, the exhibition will travel to Mexico City; Cologne, Germany; Sa~o Paolo, Brazil; and arrive at L.A.'s Geffen Contemporary in April 2000, before closing at New York's Guggenheim Museum in 2001.

The exhibition's greatest achievement, in fact, is that it covers so many of the major themes of 20th century architecture, from vast master-planning schemes to utopian visions of mass housing and aestheticized modern villas. Visionary works by the radical avant-garde as well as government-sponsored public works and large commercial developments all can be seen here in the much broader context of the century's myriad achievements.

In this light, Modernism, it turns out, doesn't look so bad after all.


There is so much here, in fact, that it's difficult to weave your way through it. And that's where the exhibition falters. Many of Modernism's central themes--particularly its penchant for heroic urban plans and for smaller domestic experiments--are scattered throughout the show. Nor is the exhibition able to sustain a strong narrative voice that leads us into the present. The result is that those who are unfamiliar with the shifting trends of Modernist history may find it difficult to follow the debate. More important, there is little sense of how that legacy continues to resonate today. So here's a guide.

The exhibition begins with a blow-up of a 1909 rendering of Otto Wagner's proposed urban scheme for Karlsplatz, Vienna, a monument of abstracted classicism. From here, it moves quickly to various projects of the avant-garde: the machine-obsessed aesthetics of the Italian Futurists, the social experiments of the Soviet Constructivists, the more rational German Bauhaus and various housing schemes. These early visions were united by a delirious faith in the birth of a new age that would be dominated by speeding cars and roaring airplanes. Architecture, it was thought, would liberate us from the squalor of the 19th century city. And what better antidote to urban blight could there be than light, air and order? Technology and the machine would save us all.

But despite moments of confluence, Modernism was never a cohesive movement. Scattered throughout this representation are projects that display a range of architectural values, often even within the context of a single career. One such case can be seen in the muscular works of Soviet avant-gardist Konstantin Melnikov. A precious small model of Melnikov's 1930 design for his own house--one of the show's highlights--displays a single-family home made up of two interlocking concrete cylinders, its surface pierced by rows of hexagonal windows. The structure's aura of tranquillity evokes a monastic solitude, echoing a theme that recurs in many of the works of the great Swiss Modernist Le Corbusier.

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