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Modernity has rapidly transformed our culture to one that is obsessive over consumption and technology. In this process, society has distorted how we see and use the urban realm.

It was in the first lecture of the series, ‘Principles of Urban Design’ by Professor Tim Townsend, which led me to want to discuss the impact of the ‘Modern Movement’ on architecture and the urban environment. Early urban design principles conceived by Camillo Sitte, and later the Beaux Arts movement were dismissed by Le Corbusier, one of the twentieth century’s dominant figures in urban planning. Heralding this new era of urban design, Corbusier viewed the city as a ‘machine for living’, which subsequently changed the priorities, aesthetics, and functions of cities to that of housing, production, and transportation.

With the development of technology since the beginning of the Modern Movement, I wish to discuss how our inseparability to technology has caused us to lose the intangible, emotional and spiritual connection to the built environment, and what some of the root causes may be.

Both Rem Koolhaas and Renier de Graaf assert that architecture was lost in the twentieth century1. If the urban environment manifest from architecture, have we lost society? My position is not so extreme, but I do believe the proliferation of technology in the built environment has become a decisive instrument to the fragmentation of the urban environment.

An analogy I’m working with here is the fragmentation of the word architectonic. Architectonic is the definition of something creative having a ‘clearly defined structure’, with a ‘desirable’ aesthetic composition2.

Technology is the notion of machinery being developed through scientific knowledge3, thus it’s the translation into the architectural and urban environment nods towards the notion ‘functionality’ and codification.

When technology invaded beyond the built environment, into television, telecommunication, refrigerators, air conditioning, mobile phones, and computer consoles, society became intoxicated by it4. Put scientifically, the formula of these devices resulted in a state of invigorated introversion. Technology is the tonic of modern society.

The confluence of the two is architectonic of modern urbanism. A well-constructed web of devices that control our society.

This progressively moved into an oxymoronic culture whereby architecture and interior space is governed by the renowned notion of ‘less is more’, yet with the rise of neoliberal capitalism from the twentieth century promoting a mass consumer culture, “more and more, more is more”5 as articulated by Koolhaas.

With the embedding of modernization and technology into our global culture, I believe there is an argument to suggest urbanism has become progressively interior. A possible result is a dislocation with how we now perceive social space and the relationship between interior and exterior, especially in relation to the public realm.

Conceptually, each monitor, each TV screen is a substitute for a window; real life is inside, while cyberspace has become the great outdoors.6

We are however several generations into modern urbanism, at a point where it is increasingly difficult to change.

Corbusier imagined a rationalized ideology whereby technology would revolutionize the urban fabric of our planet as a ‘machine for living’7 and a blueprint for the prevalence of the automobile. One could suggest it has increasingly become a machine to live. The ideology of Corbusier was fundamentally rooted in the realm of science, exemplified in his adoration of the machine.

Henri Lefebvre, however, sees space from a philosophical perspective, arguing the methods of Le Corbusier to be a ‘fracturing of space’:

[F]reedom of the façade relative to the interior plan, freedom of the bearing structure relative to the exterior, freedom of the disposition of floors and sets of rooms relative to the structural frame.8

Where Corbusier sought a type of liberation from the constraints and ‘heaviness’ of architecture, Lefebvre analyses it as progressive detachment from meaning to the point where this ‘violent’ fragmentation could be argued as rendering our built environment meaningless, without monumentality as he would imply.

Furthermore, the hyperconnectivity of technology paradoxically appears to make people more and less sociable, with the comfort (or addiction) of socializing over screens, physical human activity is reducing, causing the public realm and its inhabitants to become less human9.

Therefore, we can infer the Modern Movement; we have entered an age of widespread repetition in urban environments, specifically in the form of shopping centres. Shopping centres, like technology, can provide a sense of temporary euphoria, one that satisfies us in the comfort of knowing we now once again ‘own’ something, and its proliferation in the twenty-first century, Koolhaas believes ‘is arguably the last remaining form of public activity’10.

I believe as a summary of this short post, technology opens the doors for many possibilities in the urban and architectural environment, but society’s ability to abuse the use of technology – be it developer, architect or consumer – is causing our environments to aesthetically stagnate, become less social, and cause a depreciation for space in our cities. The prevalence of scientific quantification of space as opposed to philosophical engagement of space is affecting society’s ability to connect with the intangible aura of our urban fabric. If as people, we must be functional and emotional, why is our urban fabric not?

Instead of design, there is calculation11


References:

  1. de Graaf, R, ‘Architecture is Now a Tool of Capital, Complicit in a Purpose Antithetical to its Social Mission’ (2015), <https://www.architectural-review.com/essays/viewpoints/architecture-is-now-a-tool-of-capital-complicit-in-a-purpose-antithetical-to-its-social-mission/8681564.article>
  2. Oxford Dictionary, Architectonic, (2018), <https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/architectonic>
  3. Oxford Dictionary, Technology, (2018), <https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/technology>
  4. Oxford Dictionary, Tonic, (2018), <https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/tonic>
  5. Koolhaas, R, Junkspace with Running Room, (Notting Hill Editions, 2013), pg.6
  6. Ibid, pg.37
  7. Le Corbusier, A Contemporary City – The City Reader, (London: Routledge, 2009), pg.328
  8. Lefebvre, H, The Production of Space, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1991), pg.303
  9. Scrimgeor, Heidi, ‘Is Technology Making Us Less Human’, (2018), <https://www.virgin.com/entrepreneur/technology-making-us-less-human>
  10. OMA, ‘Project on the City II: The Harvard Guide to Shopping’ (2001), <http://oma.eu/publications/project-on-the-city-ii-the-harvard-guide-to-shopping>
  11. Koolhaas, R, Junkspace with Running Room, pg.18

Feature Image: Fracturing and Displacement of Forms, Collage Drawing by Daniel Libeskind, Credit to SOCKS (Fosco Lucarelli)

School of Architecture
Planning and Landscape
Newcastle upon Tyne
Tyne and Wear, NE1 7RU

Tel: 0191 208 6509

Email: nicola.rutherford@ncl.ac.uk


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