It's no good getting in a spin about the end of the millennium
For people of a certain age it is impossible to relate the term 'fin du siecle' to the dying months of this year. Difficult to relate it to any period except the turn of the last century, when the age of Napoleon, Jane Austen and Queen Victoria gave place to the age of Adolf Hitler, Ernest Hemingway and Fergie. That was a turning point in history indeed: one minute the tremendous pageantry of kings, emperors and empires putting the finishing touches to the environment; the next a catalogue of disasters culminating in the shock of an environment preparing to finish off mankind instead.
According to Marshall Mac-Luhan, artists can prefigure this sort of thing. They can transmit messages in their work that predict the downfall of regimes. But no such warnings were received in 1914, only jubilation. Like stock market crashes and earthquakes, collapses of empires are not predicted as a matter of policy. To be sure, until the mid-twentieth century, revisionist historians strove to fudge a provenance for the plain surfaces and empty spaces of Modernism out of the mess of Victoriana, but their efforts now seem specious. Nothing in Europe before 1914 was really modern. Anomalous perhaps, like the Crystal Palace, but not modern. Modernity came from America by way of the cinema - like most of twentieth century life.
On the eve of the twentieth century, the rooms of quite ordinary houses were so full of coal and coke and accumulated bric-a-brac that it required a servant industry to keep them clean. The great contribution of Modernism was to redirect the destructive finality of the Great War into sweeping all that junk away. But by mid-century, when science had made such monstrous wars impossible, the empty rooms of modernity were becoming impossible in their turn. The servant class was becoming extinct; mechanical and electronic appliances of all kinds had multiplied; and the stop-go flow of images from America had become continuous, wired for sound and delivered by television. As a result, empty rooms began to fill up again and the definitive image of domestic space shifted to the dimly lit 'war room', the control centre and the flight deck.
Exteriors no longer mattered, they became disguises. Glass cladding no longer meant transparency. Transparency no longer meant access. Like birds flying into glass doors, humans could no longer enter where they could see, but only where they could be seen. Toss in a hundred thousand cctv cameras and that will guarantee that 1999 will not presage the kind of global disturbances that began in 1914. For beyond our millennium lies not another great clearing-out and another empty room, but a multiplication of uninhabited rather than empty spaces. Robotised spaces that already exist, containers of such vastness that the miniaturised electronics required to deal with their daily business will be lost within them.
The idea that we are living through a fin de siecle whose outcome can be compared to the great changes that took place at the end of the Victorian age is a fantasy. The past has never been more securely modernised than it is today. The future never more tightly programmed. Only the present remains at liberty like a criminal, armed and dangerous. For while the modern pioneers of the twentieth century, artists and architects, dealt fiercely with the issues of their time, the architects of the twentieth century have difficulty in keeping pace with the here and now. For them it is as though design had decided to seek refuge in science fiction in order to escape from science fact.
For the beginning of such a portentous century, the biggest ferris wheel in the world, rotating but going nowhere, is an appropriate symbol.