Modernity, Promise or Menace

The 14th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice explored the fate of the basic foundations of architecture through modernity, in its concrete manifestations, as well as its theoretical dimensions. It proposed to focus on several contradictions that marked the invention of modern architecture and its deployment in response to society’s expectations.
The commissionership of the French Pavilion was entrusted to architect and architecture historian Jean-Louis Cohen. Under the title ‘Modernity: Promise or Menace?’ he has proposed a critical reading of the path followed by French architecture through this “modernity,” with a recurring focus on key moments highlighting its utopian impulses, and sometimes its contradictions.

The ultimate question that arises when looking at this retrospective in the pre-war and post-war architectural period of France is whether precisely that modernity can be assessed from the perspective of the present and portrayed appropriately. The following text is intended to explain how this was achieved using the example of the exhibition' Modernity, Promise or Menace?' and where the challenges lie in confronting this omnipresent concept with an exhibition on modern pre- and post-war residential architecture.

How does the term modernity actually behave today? If the concept of modernity means not only the period of a historical paradigm shift in the first half of the 20th century and the resulting behavioural patterns in architecture and art, but also a specific sensibility that is difficult to describe, but which is necessary for the proximity of a work to current living conditions, then we still use it today.
In the sense of Jean-Louis Cohen, the concept of modernity in architectural and residential history, presented in the exhibition, refers to a time of upheaval - a revolution of traditions and restraint. The concept in ‘Modernity, Promise or Menace?’ is thus encountered by various means (film, models, book) and in addition to the depiction of iconic moments the question is posed on how the exhibition can express the promises of architecture to enable the construction of the world of tomorrow?

The historical background is the basis of this exhibition, which deals with new structures, materialities and ways of living in France before and after the war. A significant number of structural and spatial inventions that contributed to the language of modernity were developed on France’s soil, including Auguste Perret’s and Eugène Freyssinet’s reinforced concrete, and its subsequent interpretation by Le Corbusier, as well as Marcel Lod’s and Jean Prouvé’s use of metal. At the same time, the first “International” Modern style is still to be found in compositions that came out of the École des Beaux-Arts, within which many of the programs of modernization were formed as best as they could be. This model, which was “absorbed” throughout the world, would maintain its hegemony until the World War II, despite the worldwide dissemination of Perret’s and Le Corbusier’s ideas.
Modernity started out as a promise: for rational and affordable dwellings and healthy cities, and through exhilarating experiments such as Jean Prouvé’s lightweight structures. The combination of massive public intervention and fertile technical invention was specific to France, and it led to the formulation of experimental solutions beginning in the 1930’s. But after 1950, this same configuration led to the mass production of segregated and monotonous complexes, whose defects were accentuated by the crisis. As a result, modern architecture was also able to incarnate the menace of an existence.
The pioneering phase between the two wars witnessed the emergence of new methods and forms, raising expectations for a better world that mass production during the “Thirty Glorious Years” spanning 1946 to 1975 seemed to satisfy for a time, and culminated in both brilliant successes and patent failures. The expectations generated by a series of remarkable experiments were often disappointed: autonomy and freedom from the unhealthy major cities turned into being trapped in worlds of monotony. Technical invention was stifled by the dominant mode of production, and the individual dwelling remained impregnable to the imagination. Each gallery of the French Pavilion, erected in 1911 in a conservative vocabulary by the Venetian engineer Fausto Finzi, features one of these contradictions, which a cinematographic montage reintegrates into the discourses of propaganda and critical fiction.

The sequence of the exhibition in the French Pavilion starts in the Giardini, with a large V-shaped wall inviting the visitors into the building, where a double narrative unfolds, documenting some of the major contradictions that have characterized French architecture throughout the 20th century, with particular emphasis on the phase of the strong economic and urban growth that lasted from the 1950’s through the 1970’s. The two components intertwined in the galleries of the pavilion are a 20-minute-long film, projected simultaneously in each gallery on wall-wide screens, and a series of large-scale objects, inscribed in space according to the design of the Paris-based firm Projectiles. The visitor will be able to re-enter in one room the narrative of the movie he or she would have dropped in another one.

On the background of a journey through contemporary landscapes in the Paris region, the film ‚Modernity, Promise or Menace?‘, directed by Teri Wehn Damisch assembles sequences from documentaries celebrating the virtues of prefabrication and large-scale collective housing programs; these propaganda clips are assembled with fragments of the most vibrant feature-length films dealing with the question of architecture and housing: Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958 ), and Jean-Luc Godard’s Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (1967 ). In the rather subdued atmosphere in which the film is projected, a more intense light is thrown on four displays, in which a limited number of large-scale tridimensional objects condense the attention, with additional textual or visual materials featured on the walls. Its role is to provide both a backdrop to the three-dimensional presentations and a visual narrative conveying the principal hypotheses of the French Pavilion, and a register that combines the poetic and the political.

The three side galleries are visible from the central one that also represents a rhetorical embodiment of the exhibition’s subject of the Villa Arpel, displayed in the main gallery, in which visitors enter at first. The square plan of the gallery has a high wall, echoing the one built outdoors, delineates a space set according to the diagonals of the existing box. The 1:10 scale model of the Villa Arpel, the main protagonist of Mon Oncle and which is designed in a way, that everything and everybody can always be seen from every point in the plan – similar to the plan od the French Pavilion. Original drawings by Jacques Lagrange, the designer of the house, are exhibited.
The room located in the axis of the entrance is devoted to the design imagination of Jean Prouvé, materialized in eight original curtain-wall panels, displayed in two groups of four. The wall narrative documents the memorable lectures given by Prouvé in Paris from 1958 to 1971, thanks to reproductions of his preparatory sketches of cars, airplanes and buildings. In contrast to the lightweight models imagined by Prouvé, the right-side gallery shows the triumph of the alternative strategy – prefabricated heavy concrete panels, on the example of the system conceived by the engineer Raymond Camus. Two full-size mockup panels are suspended from the ceiling, as if they were being delivered to the building site.
On the opposite side of the main hall, the fourth gallery is focused on a large-scale model of the housing project built in 1935 in Drancy, a northern suburb of Paris, by Eugène Beaudouin and Marcel Lods, with Prouvé, which was then celebrated as a path-breaking experiment, only to become a Nazi camp in 1942, because of its remoteness and seclusion. This tragic metamorphosis reflects the danger of building heterotopic housing around the cities, a frequent policy of French modernization until 1970.
The film responds to the four sections of the exhibition, ordered in chronological sequence, starting with the most distant in time – Drancy – and ending with the most recent – the large complexes of the 1960s.

The question arises as to what this exhibition reveals, since it is in a way about historical events (brought into context), about which material that is accessible to the public certainly exists. Iconic images are presented that exemplify an epoch, movement and development of a cultural movement. So how is the view of modernity influenced, what new conclusions can the visitor draw and how is modernity evaluated in the exhibition?

It becomes clear that modernity is treated as a value here; not being modern is, according to the featured film, a reproach. Every present was always modern and those who prefer modernity say nothing else: Yesterday is bad because it was yesterday. In the post-war period in particular, it was an unavoidable process that has become independent in many parts of Europe. Destruction has led to innovation. Forms were redefined and life was redesigned.

The exhibition shows clearly defined "milestones" of this modernity and thus a single construction element such as Prouvé's panels can serve as an example of an entire movement. the visitor concludes from details on a large entity. The exhibition ‚Modernity, Promise or Menace?‘ advances an answer to this problematic that is not limited to architecture, but extends to multiple aspects of our contemporary societies, ones that France cannot avoid being aware of. The contributions of this modernity, at once fascinating and promising, are often viewed from the vantage point of identity and alterity, a set of reflections that remains of fundamental importance to our country and to a “globalized” world as well. How, in fact, can one remain oneself and all the while become the other?
Modernity is a constantly changing concept, constituted by cultural, social and political trends and developments. The experiments on display in the French Pavilion open up new perspectives on the role of architecture today, when new conditions are being established for cities and metropolises out of an on-going concern for improving the living conditions of their inhabitants, reducing territorial inequalities, and developing a sustainable urban, social and economic model. In this regard, the French Pavilion expresses the promises of architecture to enable the construction of the world of tomorrow.

However, when we talk about the beginning of a movement, we must also talk about the end. And it is necessary to ask again for the beginning hidden in that end. The perspective of reflexive modernization combines both problems: The question of what dissolves is countered by the question of what emerges - the question of the contours, principles and opportunities of a second, non-linear, global modernity in "cosmopolitan intent". However, asking this question does not mean that we can answer it. In contrast to the heroic phase of modernism in the 1920s, the new adventures of post-war modernity are based on the fundamentally changed starting point of a practically completed modernization. Today, therefore, it is no longer necessary to propaganda the action through the project in order to change social conditions. For today these are so extensively re-circulated by the industrial dynamics of capitalism itself, so extensively revolutionized that the question of modernity arises in a different and new way: almost every ideological demand for social change, almost every overload of architecture with social utopias. Instead, today we are talking about a modernity sans phrase, the modernity of the European dream: to revolutionize society without revolutions.

It is therefore the task of an exhibition that retrospectively examines the concept of modernity, to portray the development up to the present day in order to examine the full dimensions of the concept, or rather our relationship with it. To use the words of Nobert Bolz: "What we call modernity - that is, the time between the European Enlightenment and the First World War - has overloaded us with idealistic unreasonable demands and lured us with humanistic ideals. That is why today we have an ambivalent attitude towards modernity: it is utopia and nightmare at the same time. That is why it is so difficult for us to enter a new era with confidence. We have a weaning trauma of the finished modern age."

Modernity, Promise or Menace?' reflects surely overlapping movements within architectural modernity in France, but the concept of self-discovery is largely dispensed with and left to the visitors themselves. All portrayal must begin with the work on the term - with its emphasis on industry, nation-state, classes, roles of men and women, family, belief in technology, scientific monopoly of truth, etc. - in the first place. The contours of a modern age must be juxtaposed, for which we first have to become conceptually sensitive, i. e. concepts and controversies. The exhibition has to be organized through a schematic of industrial society, structures and institutions, for which, in order to be able to perceive and take them seriously at all, it is often simply the case that the conceptual glasses are missing.