Imaginary encounters Architecture and Modernity:
Theodor Adorno, the great critical theorist of modernity, and Ernst May, the architect of the first large-scale Modernist mass-housing programme, both worked in Frankfurt in the late 1920s. Did they ever meet? Did they ever get together to discuss common problems - the rupture of tradition, the impossibility of authentic dwelling in the modern world, the essential ambiguity of Enlightenment rationality?
Unfortunately, they did not. Hilde Heynen can't get over this disappointing omission, so she has written a book which, in a roundabout way, tries to reconstruct the discussion that never took place. Other thinkers are invited to take part, such as May's friend Siegfried Giedion and Adorno's friend Walter Benjamin. And of course an imaginary symposium on architecture and modernity is not bound by historical logic, so theorists and architects from different periods, like Adolph Loos, Manfredo Tafuri, even Daniel Libeskind are included too.
Heynen's thesis is that the Modern Movement's concept of modernity was philosophically inadequate. 'I was puzzled,' she says, 'by the gap between the discourse of the Modern Movement on the one hand and cultural theories of modernity such as those of the Frankfurt School on the other.' The book is an attempt to bridge the gap using a variety of theoretical constructions, in particular the concept of 'mimesis'.
This is illus-trated in the book by Daniel Libeskind's Jew-ish Museum in Berlin - it is a building which consciously gives form to the fundamental con-
tradictions at the very heart of modernity. The linear void that pierces the building is read as corresponding mimetically to the Holocaust. Adorno had been dead for 20 years when the Jewish Museum was designed, but the relevance to his philosophy is clear. It was Adorno, after all, who perceived the void at the heart of modernity and posed the question: is philosophy possible after Auschwitz?
But the Jewish Museum is a building whose 'function' is to comment on a cultural condition. It is a polemical work, a piece of built philosophy. How well it works as a museum - a device for displaying objects - is relatively unimportant. This means that it is already on the philosophical rather than the architectural side of the gap and cannot serve as any kind of bridge.
The same can be said of one of Heynen's other main examples, an obscure paper project called New Babylon by the artist Constant, who was for a time a member of the Situationist group. New Babylon is utopian in the extreme, an attempt to visualise the architecture of a paradise on earth in which all conventional social and cultural restraints have been removed and people live in a kind of eternal present of impulsive play. As Heynen admits, the vision conjured up by the drawings, paintings and models looks more like hell than heaven.
Not all of Heynen's architectural examples are theoretical projects. At the beginning of the book, she devotes a long section to a detailed analysis of Ernst May's housing programme and the magazine that publicised it, Das Neue Frankfurt. It is hard to see these as representing anything more critical or philosophically challenging than what Heynen herself describes as 'a pastoral and programmatic concept of modernity'. In other words, they display an unquestioning faith in the utopian potential of modernity, without any understanding of its dark side, its tendency to lose sight of its goals and to lapse into an amoral utility.
So the gap remains unbridged and we are forced to the depressing conclusion that the critical potential of ordinary, everyday architecture is severely limited. Perhaps, after all, May and Adorno would not have found much to talk about. Which doesn't mean that Heynen's effort has been wasted. If nothing else, this book serves as a readable introduction to the thought of some difficult theorists, though its usefulness is somewhat hampered by the absence of a proper bibliography.
Colin Davies teaches at the University of North London