The central fact of architecture in our time is the collapse of the modern movement. One by one, the central planks of architectural modernism—moral urgency, an agenda of social reform, and a strong sense of historical mission—have fallen away, leaving only the forms to live on. Without modernism’s social program to underpin it, architecture has become a species of commercial art, adjusting its façades and spaces with no more ideological consideration than goes into the updating of a hemline. Paradoxically, this development has made the major modern architects far more interesting figures than they were a generation ago. In the 1960’s, modernism’s luminaries had come to be ridiculed for their humorlessness, their authoritarian disposition, and their utter obliviousness to the complex reality of life as it is actually lived. In particular, their stance of moral seriousness seemed preposterous. Today, however, things look rather different. Perhaps because an age of anarchy always looks yearningly toward rule-givers, there is considerable nostalgia for and curiosity about the heroes of modernism. This may explain the recent spate of major books and exhibitions on such mid-20th-century masters as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (2001), Marcel Breuer (2007), and Eero Saarinen (2008).
Michael J. Lewis teaches American art and architecture at Williams College.