Saturday, November 6, 2010

Cubism: From Moderation to Excess

         The Progressive Era (aka the Third Awakening, ca. 1890-1920) was a great quest for order after decades of romanticism.  Modernism would sweep in behind it and dominate most of the twentieth century.  Let’s take a look at some of the key designs, ideas, and values of Modernism.  They basically include linearity, geometry, squares, and rectangles. Balance and equilibrium are also important ideas. 

      At the turn of the 20th century artist Pablo Picasso began a new art form called Cubism where “artworks, objects are broken up, analyzed, and re-assembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context. Often the surfaces intersect at seemingly random angles, removing a coherent sense of depth. The background and object planes interpenetrate one another to create the shallow ambiguous space, one of cubism's distinct characteristics” [1].  As typical in an Awakening, cubism was a hybrid style--Apollo abstracting Dionysus.  This gets inverted 75 years later.
                                                                       Picasso 1910
     Cubism was just one trend that was signaling that another Apollonian era was emerging.  That trend was Modernism with its love of straight lines and angles.  In Architecture the German Bauhaus school would soon put its stamp of order on the world.  Many of its practitioners would move to the US in the 1930s and influence designs here. See the design below. 

                        Johannes Itten, 'House of the White Man - Architectural Study' (1921) [2]

     After World War II, as the middle class began expanding, there was a need to build small inexpensive homes all across the nation.  Architects and urban planners began building planned suburbs such as Levittown, PA and the many Capehart and Wherry housing tracts on military installations.  The ranch style became one of the more popular home styles in the US.   These small, modest homes are all variations on cubes and rectangles. 

                                        Wherry style home, Elgin Air Force Base, CA. [3]

     During those years plaid clothing was common.  People also used phrases such as “he’s square,” “he’s straight,” and “He’s a straight shooter” to complement someone. (A straight person is honest and has integrity; a crooked person doesn't).  Later, during the Fourth Awakening and after, people who had once been complemented in such a manner would be criticized for being “uptight” because they were viewed as being overly controlled and “emotionally repressed.”  Loosen up man.

                                                                              Plaid shirt

     The closing years of Modernism saw a great deal of beautiful architecture that offered simple and elegant designs.  The glass office building with its repetition of cubes and rectangles was the high watershed of Modern architecture.  In every day puzzles, the Rubik’s Cube (aka Rubix cube) was the ultimate game.  Below we see some nice lines and geometry.

                                            Towers of Bella Terra, Orange County CA [4]

     Even before Postmodernism got moving in the 1980s there were some early examples of Dionysian excess.  One art style is called Op Art that uses simple Apollonian lines and geometry to create eye dazzlers.  Here is one piece by American artist Richard Anuszkiewicz.  The Op Art movement is typically viewed as being an outgrowth of the Bauhaus school.

                                                           Richard Anuszkiewicz 1961

     Currently much new Romantic architecture is basically about embellishing the Modernistic standard.  If glass buildings were elegant then they also need to become opulent with more detail and materials, and they need to be contextualized (mimicking feng shui) to their environment.  Here is the MacAllen Building & Condominiums in Boston MA, built circa 1999.  It is described in this way:

                                      MacAllen Building & Condominiums, Boston MA,1999

“On the western end, the building responds to the highway with a curtain wall yielding panoramic views for the residents inside the building. On the eastern end, brickwork mirrors that of the residential building fabric, extending the logic of the storefront and pedestrian scale elements on that facade. On the north and south facades, bronzed aluminum panels reflect the industrial neighborhood component and express the structural system organization.”[5]  I think it has a nice mild eye dazzler effect.

     “Often post-modern architecture is referred to as neo-eclectic, essentially representing a revival of period styles for houses, and an unending variety of forms and sleek, asymmetrical designs for commercial buildings. Post-modernism is based on several reactions: a rejection of modernist thought; a return to traditional, historical precedents; and a re-awakened interest in history and heritage.” [6]. 

     And often it is just unpleasant to look at—not because they are eye dazzlers, but because they are ugly cubicles and rectangles.  Eventually, our new Dionysian era will stop anchoring itself to Modernism.  When it does hopefully we will be inspired by new forms of beauty.  Meanwhile all I can do is try not to cringe at the sight of such crap as below. And this crap is being built all over the west coast. Please stop. 

                                                       Neo Eclectic Hotel, Fullerton, CA

This essay is now fairly popular.  Please also see:


6. Quote and photo from Not all post modernism rejects Modernism; as I've been saying, it often embellishes it.

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