In the modern age, in the time of the great urban changes involving communicational, hygienic, as well as residential infrastructure all over Europe-from London to Istanbul, the gap of several decades notwithstanding, the cities changed their structure in a radical manner, attempting this way to break with the outlook of the narrow streets, of unaesthetic façades, of the blend of urban functions typical to the Middle Ages (i.e. commercial center fulfilled multiple roles such as political, residential, and those of entertainment).

Consequently, once with the advent of Liberalism, as political and worldview alike, accompanied as it was by the emphasis on the cultivation of the individualistic values, the public mind started to perceive the compounding parts of the city not so much as means of representation of political power or sites of ceremonial practices, but rather as expressions of the human`s aspiration to a more comfortable and creative life. These modern attitudes found the correspondent in a so-called modern architectural style.

Modern style in architecture and interior design received many names and it was employed in various ways in the last one hundred years or so, ranging from realist,  pragmatic, structuralist, neo-rational, to functional, or even extremely utilitarian. All these concepts and derivatives were given a too general label at times, “modernism”. This was conceived as the embodiment of mass society that prefers uniformity and homogenisation on the accounts of the standardised manner in which goods/commodities are produced[1]. Modernism introduced a kindred discourse, which would praise the principle of sameness and invariability in a city`s appearance, including the sectors where the ordinary citizens would perform specific activities.

One of its core values, namely the quality of having a purpose, a function, transformed modernism in a lifestyle, where functionalism became the word of the day for the way people imagined the space around[2], leaving from the assumption that public spaces are the most important channels for the manifestation of public culture[3]. The basic tenet of functionalism states that “a city is defined by its major functions, [such as] working, dwelling, leisure, and transport, and that should take place in spatially separate districts” (AIS, 74). Since the previous epochs exaggerated in the direction of the theatrical role that a city should foremost play, functionalism went a far cry in the opposite, by underscoring the importance of functions like the political or cultural one (AIS, 77); chief proponent of this extreme functionalism was the well known French architect, Le Corbusier.

The case of the metropolises where gardens or swimming pools have been built on top of the houses, either for using the space in a more efficient way, or for rendering a multiple functionality of the premises, shows a principle of functionalism that is sometimes led to its extreme consequences. Ironically enough, these “invaded cities”, whose public spaces are bereft of social and recreational activities in favour of the utilitarian ones, are experiencing nowadays the tendency of returning to the “traditional” type of city in which the center is returned to the pedestrians, and it serves as meeting, market, and traffic place at once, just like in the Middle Ages[4]; in fact, the separation of urban functions lost its appeal by the 1980s[5]. This way, the Dutch interwar debate between “traditionalists” and “modernists” was reissued: the former were of the opinion that architecture should be timeless, hence to reflect the specificity of the place in terms of the construction materials used and the message conveyed, whereas the latter were the proponents of an extreme functionalism, known for the sobriety of detail and exclusive reliance on purpose (AIS, 81).

Traditionally, urban studies make references to these discussions and changes in the great urban settlements as they happened in Western Europe, acknowledging that the story of the birth of modernism should be told by those who invented it, thus neglecting to a certain extent the capacity of modernism to be intricate and “open-ended” (AIS, 73), or, at least, different from a context to the other. There are at play here concepts such as circulation[6] and appropriation[7] of ideas and motives, in relation to the local political and cultural agendas. Indeed, fashions and patterns of architecture can be exported from center to the periphery, just like in the world of economic relations; this process can have a reverse path, where the local negotiates with the central in terms of how a style is adopted. Prague in the Czech lands, important industrial city of Habsburg Empire, is a telling example in this respect, at the turn of the century. A place where multiple ethnicities co-existed[8], of whom German nationals had a leading role due to their presence in state administration, and predominance in the cultural life, which, under Austrian rule, was almost exclusively German, Prague experienced modernism at first as an imposition of the dominating elite. It follows that modernist architecture and style in general had a pronounced German tint[9]. Nevertheless, once with the national emancipation of the thick layer of Slavic population, at the dawn of mass politics in the Empire, modernism was appropriated by the local architects, trained in modernist centers like Berlin or Vienna, who sought to accommodate the  standard tenets of modernism to the local type of Liberalism (e.g. one imbued with Nationalist tendencies) and mass production[10]. This way, walking in the footsteps of Art Nouveau, modernism became a political tool in the hands of a local elite, fact which will recur during Communist time.

Therefore, indeed, there are instances of modernism in less known, spectacular, to the first view instances, such as Central Europe. This region is atypical and mainstream at the same time in relation to the arhitectural and cultural trends at large existing in Western Europe. In Central Europe, the specificity stems from the essentially ideological function that the architecture, the public space had. To a larger extent than in Western Europe, the symbols bestowed upon the representative buildings (e.g. town halls, public administration premises, ministries, banks, etc.), including the way these were disposed in the central parts of the city, were projects undertook exclusively by the political elite, since intermediary bodies or civic associations, or, at large, bodies of critical thinking existent in Western Europe, were absent here. In other words, architecture of the region attempted to represent an intricate interplay of loyalties, identities, and aspirations such were the regional loyalty towards the centers represented by Vienna, Berlin or Sankt Petersburg, the local tradition, and the multiple political agendas (e.g. the national, the regional, the imperial).

Apart from Prague, there are several interesting cases of cities that presented this “center-periphery” dynamics, which found its expression in the main architectural trends of the last two centuries. In a greater measure than Prague, Wrocław, center of Lower Silesia area (in South-Western nowadays Poland), was a negotiated territory between German and Polish political and ethnic loyalties, which were expressed by often competing architectural projects (i.e. in a city with a Polish majority, the public language (be it of the administration or of the publicity) was German, and it, naturally, advertised German values.

In the end, it is worth stressing that modernism presented this feature of being mainstream and specific at the same time. It was mainstream because it illustrated the changes that the region, like the rest of Europe, experienced while undergoing industrialization and the switch to mass politics. Moreover, the Communist regimes installed after 1945 will cultivate their own modernism, highly resembling the one of the dictatorships and totalitarianisms developed in Western Europe, that is in Italy and Germany few years before. One of the characteristics of this modernism rested in providing to the external audiences a glitzy image of the well-being that the aforementioned regimes established inside these countries.

[1] Thomas J. Misa, “Appropriating the International Style: Modernism in East and West” in M. Hård and T.J.Misa (eds.), Urban Machinery. Inside Modern European Cities, Cambridge Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2008, p. 71-95; for the current reference see p. 72. All further references to this article will be indicated by the abbreviation AIS, followed by the page number, in parentheses in the body of the text; all further references to this book will be indicated by the abbreviation UM.

[2] Each “object” in space was ascribed its sole, definite function, the functionalism of modernism being thus  different from the “multiple functionalism” of Middle Ages, where the buildings and public space in general served more purposes at once simply due to either the vagaries of living in cities (e.g. fires), or  the lack of housing options, or coherent urban policies, or, in the end, the absence of clear limits between the city and the villages nearby.

[3] Idea developed in several of her books by Sharon Zukin, the sociologist of modern urban life.

[4] “Current Uses of Public Space”. Rudi.Net: knowledge sharing and networking for professionals & academics in urban development, http://www.rudi.net/books/3731, (visited 10 October 2015).

[5] M. Hård and T.J.Misa, “Modernizing European Cities: Technological Uniformity and Cultural Distinction” in M. Hård and T.J.Misa (eds.), UM.

[6] “Those historical processes and institutions where concepts, practices, artefacts, and systems that appear to change the world are located” (AIS, 94).

[7] “Ways in which supposed universal concepts and practices are taken up, modified, or even rejected” (AIS, 94).

[8] These competing influences marked positively the outlook of these cities, irrespective of the diversity of architecture, or the syncretism employed in designing/arranging the public spaces.

[9] Even the specific architectural styles of the mid and late nineteenth century, such as historicism and Art Nouveau, had a functionalist tint in Prague, a surprising fact if we take into consideration that Prague is perceived as the city of Gothic and Baroque. In reality, Prague`s modernist buildings [see pictures 2, 3, 4] are serious contestants to cities labelled modernist as such, like Brussels or Riga. The most spectacular example perhaps is the one of Koruna Palace, built around 1900s by A. Pfeiffer şi V. Suchard, which hosted the first fast food in Europe.

[10] The industrial relations within the Austrian Monarchy resembled those existing between metropolis and colonies.

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