In the news!

Bringing Architectural Modernity Home

Pedro Gadanho

Vacation Getaway'

Nobody doubts that, in large measures, 20th century modernity has been brought to one’s living room by the media. Sure, toasters and mass-produced carpets have offered a sense of domestic modernity fostered by ever-more accessible technologies. But newspapers, the radio, and TV sets have delivered the sense that one was immersed in the long revolution happening outside. Drawing from popular media, Martha Rosler’s “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home” series (1967-1972) gave this idea a poignant visual expression. If newspapers carried home modernity’s many conflicts and tensions, life-style magazines completed the picture with alluring visions of how to make yourself and your environment become “modern.”

Amongst this domestic dialectic, architecture has permeated the news whenever and wherever modernity and media allied with a particular sense of progress. In sophisticated modern metropolises, such as early 20th century Berlin and Vienna, architecture was part of the cultural discussion. With little distinction between specialist media and daily newspapers, reflections on architecture by Siegfried Krakauer or Adolf Loos entered the domestic realm with unexpected ease. In Paris, Le Corbusier would soon discover that it paid to be a polemicist, if not also a publicist. In America, building cities equalled building nation, and, echoing anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, architects were as much heroes of production as any others. Architects and buildings were often in the news, if not in the covers of home friendly publications such as Time magazine.

In countries where modernity arrived late, architecture too had a belated media reception. Even if architects were active in their circles, they reached beyond an enlightened clientele only at much later stages. In Portugal, it took a revolution for architecture to really hit the news. But when it did, it did so in style. While a 40-year long fascist regime endured, modern architecture was remitted with other cultural expressions to the fringes of cultural and political resistance. After the 1974 revolution and the European Union, however, the country rejoiced with the idea of modernization, and so architecture and its internationally acknowledged heroes entered the realm of everyday media. Be it through ideals of production or consumption, architecture has come home to a much wider audience by way of newspapers such as Expresso, during the 1980s, and Público, from the 1990s onwards.

The celebrity of architects such as Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura has certainly contributed to Portuguese architecture’s increasing presence in the local press. Nonetheless, this was only the tip of the iceberg of an evolution that allowed newspapers to finally assume their modern mission, and play a relevant role in both disseminating and discussing architecture. Media presence undoubtedly echoed the rapid growth of a suddenly fashionable profession – as, after being stable for nearly a century, the number of registered architects multiplied from 5.000 in 1990 to 25.000 in 2014. Yet, the appearance of architecture in newspapers also reiterated the field’s association to notions of economical growth, progress and the agitated reconstruction of a national or cosmopolitan identity. Architecture was brought home in manifold expressions fit to typical media topicality: from the architect involved in local polemics to buildings in the context of social conflicts, from cultural achievements to educational issues, from the well-known protagonists to the new, nameless producers of market-driven real-estate.

In 2005, shortly after I finished a study on the presence of architecture in a major Portuguese newspaper, I concluded that a pedagogical and celebratory moment had reached its peak. Even if in a deferred way, architecture’s contribution to the urge of modernization had been duly absorbed. With the 2008 crisis, however, things were about to change. Soon, architecture would make the news because of arrested development, frozen projects and mounting unemployment. Perhaps it was time for architects to approach the media in novel ways. As I hinted at the end of my research, architects should now make the news with the ability to expand their field of action, and the willingness to engage with the power of opinion making.

Today, ‘absorbing modernity’ sounds too much like modern, progressive ideals are being made to disappear into some homogenizing reality. As the rise of the modern middle classes is declared dead, a new Dark Age seems to dawn. Like other professionals in the new intellectual proletariat, architects should rely on their practical knowledge to bring forth ideas on how to sustain or rebuild a crumbling society. And, as pointed by Jürgen Habermas, probably there is still no better place to contribute to the public sphere than newspapers. Particularly now, architects should make the news and the public sphere with more than empty forms. Paraphrasing Picasso, pure form-making is intrinsically stupid; any cad-monkey can do it. But to mediate form with political meaning, that’s what makes man a modern animal.

 Photo: Vacation Getaway, from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home –  MARTHA ROSLER, 1967-72