Transgressionalism*

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"Life is Beautiful" splattered in black paint on concrete block wall at Art Basel 2011 in Miami Beach


   High architecture and the arts have each mutated from Modernism into something dark and disturbing. Metastasizing unchecked, it is Kryptonite to our hopes for a sustainable future. How did we get here?


When Modernism Was Actually Modern

looking up the side of Lake Point Tower in Chicago, which was inspired by a late 1920s sketch by Mies van der Rohe

inspired by Mies

   Early Modernism was born with an underlying necessity of uniqueness. In other words, if you want to be significant, your work must be unique. Previously, architecture was judged first by the standard of "how good is it?" Modernism changed the prime standard to "how new is it?" Because of this new standard, traditional work, no matter how good, had no chance of being considered. Only after passing the standard of newness was architecture then evaluated by the old standard of "how good is it?"

   The necessity of uniqueness clearly fueled a lot of creativity and inventiveness in the early years, but it was largely rational invention. Early Modernists were able to be both modern and sensible. Look at how Wright, Mies, Gropius, Corbu, Loos, and others carried weight down through a building to the ground, for example. Normally, it made perfect sense. Regardless of whether or not you liked the sleek, spare expression, you could understand how the architecture worked, and why. These were the heroic years of Modernism.


The Lost Generation

corner view of Paul Rudolph's Brutalist School of Architecture building at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut

Rudolph's Brutalist masterpiece at Yale

   The Achilles Heel of the necessity of uniqueness became apparent only very slowly in the decades after World War II. The early Modernists had plumbed most of the depths of rational Modernism before the War. Afterward, it became increasingly difficult to develop an architectural expression that was both unique and sensible. Architects slowly and painfully woke up to the gnawing question of "what do we do now?" It must have been something akin to a long hangover, after the decades-long party that was the optimistic and heady early days of Modernism.

   This period, sometimes known as the Dark Ages of Architecture, arguably produced some of the most soulless, sterile, and depressing buildings humanity has ever known. It signature style was Brutalism, which certainly lived up to its name. The larger cultural malaise of the 1970s was hauntingly parallel to the listlessness of Modernism, which had clearly lost its way.


The Rebels

   1980 was a turning point. At the time, there was great boiling discontent with the Lost Generation; it was obvious that change was coming. For a short time in the late 1970s, the rebels had all inhabited the same camp. Stern, Graves, Mayne and Gehry were all mentioned in the same breath. But the divide wasn't long in coming. Half of the rebels went back to the original precept of Modernism (be unique) even though it meant that they had to be irrational. The Irrationalists went on to become most of today's Starchitects. The Rationalists, on the other hand, became either New Urbanists or New Traditionalists, or most likely both.


Transgressing

Brad Pitt Make It Right house in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward built with roof askew

Katrina victim in new house with roof sitting askew like his old

house that was ruined by the storm. How unkind is that?

   There are countless ways of being irrational, many of which are relatively harmless. The Irrationalists, however, chose a particularly poisonous way: To be transgressional is to intentionally transgress common wisdom or practice. This disturbs or appalls many people. So if you want to be really efficient with your transgressions, why not cut right to the chase and simply do work that most find disturbing and shocking?

   Artists today are considered "mere illustrators" if they don't challenge our core beliefs. Planners who design places that feel like home to most are derided as "purveyors of kitsch." Architects that design buildings non-architects can love are scorned as "soppy sentimentalists."

Brad Pitt Make It Right house in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward built with porch roof that appears to have collapsed

No, that porch roof didn't collapse in Katrina…

it was designed that way!

   While Modernism may have startled many a century ago, that was never the point in the early years. Quite the contrary: Read the early masters and it becomes clear that they expected the working class to welcome them with open arms. The fact that most people turned away is beside the point. Modernism never intended to shock, appall, or disgust people. Instead, it intended to save them from their squalid, oppressed settings. Today's work isn't Modernism at all. It's Transgressionalism Transgressionism*.


The Anti-Greens

Brad Pitt Make It Right house in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward designed with roof that appears to have been crushed

Returning residents of the Lower 9th Ward must be asking...

did the levees break AGAIN?

   Transgressionalism Transgressionism* is the complete antithesis to sustainability for several reasons: First, we can only achieve sustainability by engaging everyone because our consumption is increasing faster than the engineers' ability to mitigate with increased efficiency. You don't change most people's hearts about the way they're living by insulting or traumatizing them.

   Next, if we're going to share the wisdom of green building broadly, the worst possible thing we could do is to require the architects to make those buildings unique because when uniqueness is the highest standard, we're not allowed to share wisdom. That would be considered plagiarism.

stage view of Frank Gehry's Millennium Park amphitheater in Chicago

Gehry's Millennium Park amphitheater, now criticized for

resembling his Bilbao Guggenheim museum

   Interestingly, the early Modernists' uniqueness was only a shadow of things to come. Mies had his own personal language of architecture. Corbu had at least two. Wright developed three or four languages during his career, depending on how finely you want to parse his work. It might seem incredible, but the favorite starchitects of the recent past such as Gehry, Calatrava and Libeskind are now ridiculed for "self-plagiarism." In other words, their current buildings look a bit like their last buildings. Unbelievable! Today, the high standard of greatness is apparently held by Zaha Hadid, who is known for inventing a completely new architectural language for each building.

   Another important thing: because Transgressionalism's Transgressionism's* first move is to discard common wisdom, it naturally disposes of everything that has been proven over centuries of building in a region. All out the window. If it's known to work, we can't possibly use it. That would be sappy sentimental plagiarism. Transgressionalists Transgressionists* sometimes try to cloak themselves in science, but any true scientist would be completely appalled at this sorry state of affairs.


The Wall of Terminal Weirdness

freaky view of reflections underneath "the bean" at Millennium Park in Chicago

   Transgressionalism Transgressionism* is facing an impending cataclysm, but most are currently oblivious to the inevitable collapse. Today, if you want to be significant, you have to out-weird Zaha. But to be significant in 5 years, you've got to out-weird the architect that out-weirded Zaha. This death spiral of Transgressionalism will eventually reach the Wall of Terminal Weirdness, where things cannot get any stranger. Let's hope it happens soon, so we can get on with the business of remaking our world in a sustainable way.


   ~Steve Mouzon


*Ann Daigle pointed out in a listserv discussion that the simpler "Transgressionism" was a better term than "Transgressionalism." I agree, and have changed all of the instances except the title of the post, since that might upset the search engines.


Legacy Comments


Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Please have a look at this one... it proposes a provocative new way of looking at Modernism that sheds a lot of light on recent developments. I'd really appreciate hearing everyone's thoughts on this... please comment away!

Dec 6, 2011 5:40pm


John Reagan · Partner at Reagan Purcell Architects

Steve, thanks for the clarity.

Dec 6, 2011 5:58pm


Ann Daigle · Works at CityBuilding Exchange

It will stick: the new modernism is Transgressionalism. I would suggest that architecture lost its way when it began experimenting with the limits of engineering (rather than beauty) and architects stopped stamping their own buildings. Now that anything seems possible physically, what is possible emotionally? Like most of the media culture around it, architecture's goal (for some) is to transgress. Thank you for this brilliant definition, Steve!

Dec 6, 2011 6:17pm


Michael David Rouchell · Architect at Williams Architects

I think the term "Narcisism" best describes the current trend in modern architecture. It's buildings that are all about themselves, and unable to coexist with other buildings in an urban context. Besides uniqueness, modernists were discouraged from designing anythin other than iconic structures.

Dec 6, 2011 6:20pm


Sam Lima · Graduate Architect at Kil Architecture & Planning

Great post Steve! Your explanation of, and nomenclature for, mainstream contemporary architecture is spot on. It is obviously counterproductive to keep chasing both the next unprecedented design innovation while at the same time attempting to refine a sustainable system of architecture.

Dec 6, 2011 6:31pm


David Greusel · Principal Architect at Convergence Design

Vigorous agreement...because architecture lies so near to the Art world, architecture's gatekeepers view transgression as a virtue. Unfortunately, unlike Art, buildings have to stand up and keep the rain out, which isn't a good brief for transgression.

Dec 6, 2011 7:04pm


Hazel Borys · Managing Principal at PlaceMakers

Very interesting ideas, Steve, many of which I agree with. Particularly on the context-sensitive green building and urbanism fronts -- clearly what we've been doing there in the last 50 years is untenable. However, I'm going to have to argue with some key points, including: "Artists today are considered 'mere illustrators' if they don't challenge our core beliefs." While many artists may challenge us to think more broadly, I'd say most are looking to resonate with our deepest beliefs. They're looking for the reverberation that comes with striking a chord. At the extreme end of that spectrum, if you look at perhaps the greatest illustrator of our age, Norman Rockwell, he's being re-embraced as someone who does precisely that: http://www.vanityfair.com/.../2009/11/norman-rockwell-200911 And his traveling shows this year and next are a testament to that. More next weekend in Oberlin! Thanks for writing!

Dec 6, 2011 7:50pm


Scott Botel-Barnard · Works at Scott Botel-Barnard, Architect

Thanks Steve. Sadly this is not a mere style that will go away. It is an "ism", a belief system. Neophytes are taught what is true, rejecting the "old religion". Once they were going to save the world. Giving up on that, you challenge, you question, you provoke, you get weird.

Dec 6, 2011 8:07pm


Benjamin Glunz · CEO at Anguleris Technologies

Thank you for articulating this in such a clear, straight forward way Steve!

Dec 6, 2011 9:55pm


Richard Bono · Owl Valley Studio at Richard J. Bono, Architect

The comment: "That's different.", is considered by many designers to be the goal of design....a virtue. Differentness and originality have been the sine qua non of art and architecture. Romain Gary's "individual masterpiece" becomes the standard.
But think for a minute, how this meshes against, that other imperative of our age. This is the industrial imperative of mass production where everything is expressed in SAMENESS. Like Charlie Chaplin stuck in the machinery of modern culture, humanity loses his individuality, trapped in the require of the large industrial or even post industrial organization. 
It strikes me that the more modern man has felt powerless in the sameness of modern life, the more he or she will demand his of her individuality. This has become the Sisyphean bargain.
To break this pattern, will take a new cultural idea. The miasma of modern life...the growth forever imperative of modern economics.....in my opinion needs to be transformed into a more beneficial paradigm. 
I suggest that the idea stewardship is the most complete answer to the impasse. Yes, beauty many be a part of this, but beauty is a possible and hoped for result, not the underlying conceptual framework. I propose that stewardship will be the central driver of a sustainable urban and rural culture.

Dec 7, 2011 8:33am


Sandy Sorlien · Works at Fairmount Water Works

Steve, good pictures of the New Orleans "displacements". The architects should be jailed for civic abuse.

Dec 7, 2011 9:06am


Nancy Bruning · Author, Founder and CEO at Nancy Bruning's Nancercize

Steve, This is a really interesting observation. It seems to me it crosses over to many fields, including my own. Almost daily there's a new exercise or diet program touting ever more ridiculous equipment--things to pull, lift, toss, etc.; food to eat, or not, to excess. Why are we wasting resources on health clubs and fitness gizmos when we have all we need, for most of the time, right outside our doors?

Dec 11, 2011 11:39am


Geoffrey Jason Hall · Ottawa, Ontario

Steve, I think this is one of your best posts, and provides the kind of clarity to this argument, which I think people like James Kunstler have been trying to articulate for some time. Well done!

Dec 21, 2011 8:10pm


Commodore Bob · Works at Commodore Bob's Yacht Club

http://www.witoldrybczynski.com/architecture/too-many-words/
A similar elaboration of Transgressivism, possibly helpful. What do you think?

May 6, 2014 1:06pm


Duncan McRoberts · Owner at Duncan McRoberts Associates, LLC

steve, I like the sentence about Transgressionists cloaking themselves in science - and for those who are using a high tech pseudo scientific meta language - you're right - true science would gawk at this...since true science would point to the enduringness found in cities of stone

Jan 2, 2015 4:07pm


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