Architecture and Modernity

What makes architecture modern? How does it help to define modern life?

Etymologically speaking, one can identify three basic levels of meaning accorded to the word modern. In the first and oldest sense it means present, or current, implying as it sopposite the notion of earlier, of what is past. It is in this sense, for instance, that the term is used in the expression modernus pontifex, referring to the man who at present occupies the throne of St. Peter. The term modern was employed in this sense as long ago as the Middle Ages. A second meaning of the word is the new, as opposed to the old. Here the term modern is used to describe a present time that is experienced as a period, and which possesses certain specific features that distinguish it from previous periods. It was this sense of the term that began to prevail in the seventeenth century. During the course of the nineteenth century yet a third level of meaning became important. The notion of modern then acquired the connotation of what is momentary, of the transient, with its opposite notion no longer being a clearly defined past but rather an indeterminate entity. (9-10)

Modernity, Octavio Paz says, is an exclusively Western concept that has no equivalent in other civilizations...Critical reason, by its very rigor, accentuates temporality. Nothing is permanent; reason becomes identified with change and otherness. We are ruled not by identity, with its enormous and momentous tautologies, but by otherness and contradiction, the dizzying manifestations of criticism. In the past the goal of criticism was truth; in the modern age truth is criticism. Not an eternal truth, but the truth of change (10)

Modernity provokes on all levels an aesthetics of rupture, of individual creativity and of innovation that is everywhere marked by the sociological phenomenon of the avante-garde...and by the increasingly more outspoken destruction of traditional forms...Modernity is radicalized into momentaneous change, into a continuous traveling, and thus its meaning changes. It gradually loses each substantial value, each ethical and philosophical ideology of progress that sustained it at the outset, and it becomes an aesthetics of change for the sake of change...In the end, modernity purely and simply coincides with fashion, which at the same time means the end of modernity.

Jean Baudrillard


See Hilde Heynen, Architecture and Modernity: A Critique MIT Press 1999.