Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Why Green is the Real Postmodernism
Jeremy Faludi, 26 Oct 04

[ a design-theory rant ]

In the design world, Postmodernism is still just Modernism. Look at the design of the last hundred years. It's all the same, compared to previous eras of history. Sure, you can spot differences between 30's and 60's and 90's styles if you want, but they're no bigger than differences between different simultaneous movements (for instance, Constructivism vs. Dadaism, or Italian Futurism vs. Harlem Renaissance). The human psyche doesn't turn on a dime, and anything that can be switched to in a moment's notice will be forgotten equally quickly. Anything that has resonance will take generations to grow, flower and die. And even a dead tree will not go away until new life has broken it down to use as fertilizer.

This is why green design is the real post-modern movement: because it is the first movement after modernism that has something new to say (rather than trying to declare itself different from modernism without having anything new to rally around) and yet is still a kind of modernism, a fulfillment of some of modernism's central goals: functionalism and future-fetishism.

If "a house is a machine for living in", don't you want that machine to function well? Don't you want a machine that keeps you healthy and comfortable and doesn't need much money or maintenance or raw materials to keep running? You don't want a machine that makes you sick and which you need to keep pouring expensive oil and electricity into to keep it running. When Corbusier coined that phrase, it was just rhetoric describing an uncluttered aesthetic; in fact, many modernist buildings, including those by Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, were known for functioning poorly--plagued by leaky roofs, structural problems, and premature aging/wear. Nowadays, without the rhetoric, green architects talk about indoor air quality, energy efficiency, comfort zones, and the like; what they're really talking about is making good machines for living in.

Modernism's future-fetishism was all aflutter about how technology was changing the world--speeding us up, shrinking the distances between us, bringing comfort and convenience to the masses. That was great fun, but after a hundred years of it we've become technology-saturated enough to be jaded about it. The Jetsons are not the goal anymore. Green design is equally fetishistic of the future, but on a new, more mature level, where we have gone beyond exploring what is possible--basically anything we can imagine is possible--and exploring what we want the future to be. The world wars and the cold war taught us that the power of modern technology and industry can take us as far or farther than we would ever want to go, so we have to be careful about picking the direction. Green design is the first design movement to think it through on the grand scale.

Oh, and for those ardent fans of Postmodern social theory, have no fear, I'm not criticizing it here, it is another story. It's definitely different from the that of the Modernist age, but it is what Modernist social theory should have been in the first place, it merely took a while for the academics in literary criticism and social theory to catch up to the art/architecture/design world. In a show of great give-and-take, though, Postmodernism's decentralized (and multicultural) relativist values have come back to lead the design world into the more socially-conscious realms it is now exploring. Perhaps this is another reason why green design is the real Postmodern design movement.

Bookmark and Share


Jeremy, you've almost discovered the Viridian Design Movement.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 26 Oct 04

Yeah, except it's not a design movement.

It wants to be, but Sterling doesn't have buy-in from the real design community, and never really will because of his demagoguery. It's a great set of ideas, very much on the right track, but look at the actual design competition entries on the site. Last time I looked (admittedly, a couple years ago, so maybe things are different now) they were high-school-hobbyist caliber.

Posted by: Jer on 26 Oct 04

eh, not to nitpick but I feel that Green Design is actually much more 'modern' (and politically neo-Marxist) than post-modern (and its corollary of political agnosticism), both in its history and as embodied in its practitioners. it's just a new, 'Green' articulation of the idea that our homes should be dictated not by tradition, aesthetics, or other 'silly' cultural superstructures, but by abstract rules of economics and space. sure, the economics are Green, but we're still talking about a metanarrative that demotes individual choice and cultural context in favor of a quasi-scientific, economic rationale, 'freely chosen' or not (modernism was also freely chosen, despite the teleological illusions of its practitioners). this hostility to culture and tradition was one of the reasons modernism was so unpopular outside the academy, as I'm sure you know.

this isn't to say that green design, modernism, and neo-Marxism are Bad, and certainly not to say that wasteful design and postmodernism are Good - just clarifying the aesthetic/philosophical debate. Green = metanarrative = modernism. I guess you could say that it's a kind of POST-postmodernism, but, for the reasons above, I think that's a bit misleading. maybe 'neomodernism' would be more appropriate if you want to distinguish it from paleo-modernism.

A. Pedant

Posted by: John Atkinson on 26 Oct 04

In my youth, I was an artist - painting, drawing, sculpture, pottery. What art historians and critcs say about how art is made, and how art actually is made, are very different. I've worked the last 20 years in what's now called "Green Design." Theories about how it's done, compared to how it's actually done, are almost hilariously off the mark. Please, less Talk, and more Do. Thanks.

Posted by: David Foley on 26 Oct 04

Hey, hire me! I'll do it!

Posted by: Jacqui on 27 Oct 04

Very few buildings can be regarded as true architecture. Most are mere buildings however artsy fartsy or stuffed with professed esoteric undecipherable meanings.

Worst still, the true definition of architecture is wanting from yet a reliable source. One dictionary defines it as "art or science", another, "art and science".

Given that I would most certainly choose the latter definition, I would still have a hard time defining the word Art in architecture. A tiny classic, no longer in print, "Art and the Nature of Architecture" by Bruce Allsop, comes close.

Meanwhile schizophrenic discourses of the modern movement and all its fashionable -ISMS go on, most are even worthy of the coffee table.

Posted by: peterkou on 29 Oct 04

True, Bruce Sterling doesn't have massive buy-in for Viridian Design (although he might any day now), but back in 1998 he saw the possibility for an explosive movement that could cause that buy-in to happen, and took it. When that explosive movement finally arrives, he can take a texas-sized passel of cred.

Ewen and Brody's "Design Insurgency', a design manifesto from 1989, tried the same thing, and basically described what Jer describes above, before the nineties even began:

"... Design is shackled by historical amnesia. The sense of social vision that once inspired it is but a dim memory. Obedient to the orders of corporate clients, designers are cogs in the wheels of commerce. They serve as pastry chefs in glorified soup kitchens, doling out mass-produced visual gruel. ..."

There's only one thing 'wrong' with Jer's argument: the space between where Green Design is in his and a few thousand other heads, and where it is for everyone else. For some of us, the whole framing of modern meaning in the arts and sciences has already changed, and nothing in history looks the same. For the rest of us, it will be a while yet.

For those in the middle: Faludi's right. Big Meaning is back in the biggest way. Postmodern social theory was not an end in itself, but a transition, and we're arriving ... arriving where we started: at Life.

"And at the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know it for the first time."

Posted by: myles byrne on 30 Oct 04



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg