Modern Architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3:32 pm (or thereabouts) when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite.
-Charles Jencks, The new paradigm in architecture: the language of post-modernism

One of the implications of Jencks famous pronouncement on the death of modern architecture is that of what might be termed architectural determinism. The growing problem of substandard public housing in the 1960s—underfunded, caught in political wrangling at the highest levels, and rife with mismanagement—could be boiled down to a simple problem of poor design. Jencks critique of arid landscaping and crime ridden hallways was linked to CIAM and Le Corbusier. "Good form was to lead to good content, or at least good conduct; the intelligent planning of abstract space was to promote healthy behavior".[1] While ostensibly denying the power of architecture to accomplish such feats, he later cites Oscar Newman's Defensible Space, which is conversely a claim that architecture is capable of promoting unhealthy behaviors.[2] Not mentioned were the deep budget cuts and political pressure the architects had to contend with while they eschewed ideological views ascribed to them.

Jencks aside, there is a larger problem within and outside of architecture in attributing certain powers to architectural space. In the case of Pruitt-Igoe, the notion that a style of architecture had graver effects on the people of St. Louis than deindustrialization, poverty, and racism, obscured these real problems and deflected criticism away from the political and economic institutions that were to blame.[3] In accepting the blame architects were free to offer new architectural solutions to solve these architectural problems, thus the problem of architectural determinism remained unresolved.

This issue is not unique to the US as Jeremy Till notes in a critique of "community architecture" in the UK. The example of bad design held up by these proponents of community architecture is of course a public housing project (notice a theme?), the Broadwater Farm Estate, the site of a violent riot in 1985. The conflation of architects with the state in this case, was contrasted with community and the needs of those who use architecture. The architect is thus made subservient to these needs as a facilitator of the community. However, as Till points out, this misses the problem entirely in addressing issues of community within the frame of design rather than considering the greater political and economic forces. Furthermore is subsumes the power of knowledge held by architects, placing both community and architects at the mercies of institutional power. [4]

The obvious questions are thus: Does architecture have the power to change people's behaviors? Is this a problem in modernity that is solved by negation? I believe the first is answered flatly no, and a challenge to the more autocratic impulses of a handful of architects is warranted, however the second question has more interesting implications. Jencks' critique is concerned with the idea of Modernism, as a movement in architecture, and also in a greater context as the rational ordering of society.[5] Faced with new yearning for traditional values and dissatisfaction with increasingly expansive risks and dangers faced in modern life, modernity must give way to a new heterogeneous conception of society.

In The Consequences of Modernity, Anthony Giddens deems these challenges to be a form of "radicalized modernity". In a world that is increasingly defined by a time-space distanciation, the disembedding of social activity, and the reflexive appropriation of knowledge[6]—essentially a detraditionalized, globalized society—and with little in the way of questionable tradition to transform, the condition of modernity itself becomes an area of disturbance and transformation. Thus he proposes the image of the juggernaut as a metaphor for society, one that is increasingly difficult to steer as it charges forward.[7] However, he points out that attempts to steer it must not be abandoned. To address the challenges we face as society it is necessary to maintain a vision towards which our activities are directed.  A 'utopian realism' becomes the work of social movements to set guidelines for an alternative future.[8]

In this, architecture becomes a form of advocacy. Rather than retreating from the challenges that face the broader society (and slumping in to "Tafurian despair"!)[9] architects still have the potential to press for change. They do so by accepting the tension that exists in being accountable to both institutional power and user. Giddens: "The outlook of utopian realism recognises the inevitability of power and does not see its use as inherently noxious. Power, in its broadest sense, is a means of getting things done." and later: "…power is not always used for sectional gains or as a medium of oppression, and the element of realism retains its centrality."[10] Contrary to the few contemporary practitioners who see no use for architecture outside of aesthetic concerns,[11] and remaining aware of the pitfall of architectural determinsim, there is a place for architecture to add to the collective conception of a better future.


1. Charles Jencks, The New Paradigm in Architecture: The Language of Post-Modernism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 9.

2. Ibid, 18.

3. Katharine G. Bristol, "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth," Journal of Architectural Education (1984-), Vol. 44, No. 3 (May, 1991), 163-171.

4. Jeremy Till, "Architecture of the Impure Community," in Occupying Architecture: Between the Architect and the User, ed. Jonathan Hill (New York: Routledge, 2005), 34-42.

5. Charles Jencks, The New Paradigm in Architecture: The Language of Post-Modernism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 9.

6. Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990), 53.
"The separation of time and space. This is the condition of time-space distanciation of indefinite scope; it provides means of precise temporal and spatial zoning."
"The development of disembedding mechanisms. These 'lift out' social activity from localised contexts, reorganising social relations across large time-space distances."
"The reflexive appropriation of knowledge. The production of systematic knowledge about social life becomes integral to system reproduction, rolling social life away from the fixities of tradition."

7. Ibid, 139. Gidden's conception of the Juggernaut bears quoting at length:
" For these images I suggest we should substitute that of the juggernaut*-a runaway engine of enormous power which, collectively as human beings, we can drive to some extent but which also threatens to rush out of our control and which could rend itself asunder. The juggernaut crushes those who resist it, and while it sometimes seems to have a steady path, there are times when it veers away erratically in directions we cannot foresee. The ride is by no means wholly unpleasant or unrewarding; it can often be exhilarating and charged with hopeful anticipation. But, so long as the institutions of modernity endure, we shall never be able to control completely either the path or the pace of the journey. In turn, we shall never be able to feel entirely secure, because the terrain across which it runs is fraught with risks of high consequence. Feelings of ontological security and existential anxiety will coexist in ambivalence.
" The juggernaut of modernity is not all of one piece, and here the imagery lapses, as does any talk of a single path which it runs. It is not an engine made up of integrated machinery, but one in which there is a tensionful, contradictory, push-and-pull of different influences."
"*The term comes from the Hindi Jagannāth, "lord of the world," and is a title of Krishna; an idol of this deity was taken each year through the streets on a huge car, which followers are said to have thrown themselves under, to be crushed beneath the wheels."

8. Ibid, 158. Also worth quoting Gidden's framework for 'utopian realism' as it differs from the modernist utopianism that Jencks condemns:
"What should a critical theory without guarantees look like in the late twentieth century? It must be sociologically sensitive-alert to the immanent institutional transformations which modernity constantly opens out to the future; it must be politically, indeed, geopolitically, tactical, in the sense of recognising that moral commitments and "good faith" can themselves be potentially dangerous in a world of high-consequence risks; it must create models of the good society which are limited neither to the sphere of the nation-state nor to only one of the institutional dimensions of modernity; and it must recognise that emancipatory politics needs to be linked with life politics, or a politics of self-actualisation."
Furthermore he provides a diagram:

9. Jeremy Till, "Architecture of the Impure Community," in Occupying Architecture: Between the Architect and the User, ed. Jonathan Hill (New York: Routledge, 2005), 41.

10. Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990), 162-163.

11. Basulto , David . "AD Interviews: Peter Eisenman" 22 Sep 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed 22 Sep 2011. <http://www.archdaily.com/170767>

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