Moving Past Modernism

As modernist architects broke free from vernacular architectural languages and developed a homogenised international style, many created sterile spaces and places out of touch with the decorative warmth of historical forms of human inhabitation. Negative reactions to the brutality of Modernist spaces encouraged architectural movements such as post-modernism and deconstructivism, but these never managed to usurp the rational modernist box as a dominant archi-ideological paradigm.

Keating Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology was built by Myron Goldsmith (a student of Mies van der Rohe) in 1967. Glass panels have been replaced over the years, leading to an unintentional pixelated effect. (Photo by Curtis Locke)
In a world swept by change from manual labour to large-scale industry and the aftermath of WWII, architects were working within a new cultural environment- with an updated material palette and construction techniques to match. Iconic figures such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe were influenced by industrial processes and new materials such as steel and reinforced concrete to create a modern architectural style (Modernism), eschewing the tradition of buildings with applied ornamentation for structures expressive of these new materials and construction methods.

The intended machine-like precision of these buildings have often become unintentionally humanised over time, through the addition of curtains, colouring, or even through accidental breakage and imperfect repairs or alterations. One of the notorious products of Modernism, large-scale public housing projects such as Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis and similar projects throughout North America and Europe, are an often cited failure of the stylistic period- the large, bleak developments often created unpleasant (and even dangerous) enviroments due to a sense of alienation that the large homogeneous developments caused. When many of these failed projects were demolished, the resident's personalisation within pidgeon-hole units was exposed- the physical manifestation of the human need to differentiate themselves. 
The colorful alterations made by the residents of Rabot towers in Belgium during demolition (photo by Pieter Lozie) 
However, none of these attempts at stylistic reform ever really managed to succeed modernism as a dominant aesthetic movement in architecture, with mutated offspring of modernism continuing to subtly permeate the field to this very day. Many advantages of modernism, such as efficiency and structural purity (form follows function), are still convincing in a contemporary architectural context. But architects had to find a way to anthromorphise these rational structures in order to avoid the alienation that Modernism had often caused in the past.
Parkroyal on Pickering by WOHA (photo by Jonathan Choe)
I believe that this sequence of phenomenons building on the successes and failures of modernism has spawned a new and previously unclassified architectural style, Pixelism. The current generation of architects is obsessed with difference, albeit within a largely modernist underlying framework.
Maciachini Office building in Milan by Sauerbruch Hutton, photos by Jonathan Choe
Silodam by MVRDV (photo by pnwbot from Flickr)
The contemporary architectural paradigm expands on the basic concepts of modernist theory as a mutational, rather than a reactionary style. Architects have begun to harness the power of these seemingly random, yet curated abstractions as a way to convey information, identity, and individuality.
Floor plan, Crown Hall by Mies van der Rohe at the IIT Campus in Chicago
Within a similar rectilinear structural framework, the uninterrupted masses and gridded oppression of modernist structures becomes a celebration of difference, texture, and homogeneity. Deviances suddenly become integrated without showing subjugation.
Pinnacle @ Duxton, the largest public housing development in the world. The pixelated facade is made up of varied precast facade panels, residents can pick from balconies, full-height glass, or punctured window openings. (Photo by Sukianto Hamzah)
The monotony of idealistic - but ultimately charmless - urban plans of Le Corbusier and Hillberseimer are distorted to promote difference, although the underlying constitution remains similar. 

Culturally, we have not truly moved past Modernism. Our current architecture (refered to in this article as Pixelism), is a contemporary mutational architectural typology- based on modernism, yet embracing heterogeneity, rather than pasturising the contents of a diverse urban civilization behind staid and homogeneous facades and plans.
These observations make me curious about an impending architectural paradigm shift parallel to the vast change between vernacular building types and the industrial forms of Modernism. Our civilisation is undergoing a radical change of similar proportions to the industrial revolution that created a new cultural ecosystem in which Modernist architecture was created, currently, into a digital world with exponentially developing technology. What will an architecture (or a city) look like if we, as architects, really start to move past the modernist status-quo?
- Jonathan Choe Webiste (
*Jonathan Choe is an architectural designer at WOHA, an artist, urbanist, blogger, & high-rise gardener in paradise (AKA Singapore).
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