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What defines ‘modern’?


September 25, 2014


What is ‘modern’?

The conceptual idea of modernism, which many architectural and design schools all over the world have convinced their students for decades, whether it is right or wrong of the idea, isn’t much different from the Mies van der Rohe’s ‘Less is More’ which successfully influences the world through his building designs.

What most people already understand is the beginning of the phase; the ‘Less’, of course, means the reduction of the complexity which results to the simplicity in designs. But what modern designs gain ‘More’ from being ‘Less’ is still unclear. By understanding only one part of the phase, then lavish ornaments of our ancients’ decorations seem to become old-fashioned to modernists. Detail-less and plain walls, which are so-called ‘modern’, are replaced as more impressive, even though classical music, opera and ballet are still able to find their audiences in this modern era. Irony, it seems like what modern designers try to achieve as quickly as possible is that who first gets to the point that ‘Less’ finally becomes ‘Least’ are so-called ‘great designer’. Here is an important point: if the designers don’t really understand the concept of modernism but only bias their designs toward the ‘Less’, at some points should the ‘Less’ lead the modern Arts to ‘Nothing’? Then what’s next, or the modernism just comes to close the timeline of Art history?

Does the simplicity define ‘modern’?

Look—by comparing the two buildings: ancient Egyptian pyramid and I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre, both are built of simple triangle forms. However, the ancient Egyptian pyramid isn’t considered a modern design but I.M. Pei’s pyramid is. If the simplicity, in this example, can’t be used to define ‘modern’, what does the simplicity give to modern?

Laying stones on top of each other is considered time consuming and lagging behind. This ancient Egyptian’s construction technique is no longer practiced in our time. The lavish ornaments of the ancient decorations always give people of all eras the impression and tell us of their civilizations, like classical music and ballet how they can be considered old-fashioned but the ancient Egyptian’s construction technique is impracticable for modern architecture. Modern designs can be very complicated. Computer, robot and spacecraft are more complicated in design than any ancient design. So, the simplicity does not give the concept of modernism as much as the facility of the construction / production processes.

Moreover, the purposes of the designs between the two pyramids are different. To build the tallest building in the world such the ancient pyramid just to be a tomb for one Royal family, or to spend almost the entire country’s budget to serve divine is impractical idea in this modern generation. Today’s designs intend to attract businessmen and investors who look for a lower budget design with great functions.

If modern designers see the concept of Mies van der Rohe’s ‘Less is More’ for only minimizing their designs, in the same time ignoring the cultural designs which our ancients have developed for centuries, ‘Less is still Less’. It has no point to keep it for our future generations to follow as an iconic concept of modernism, except the ‘Less’ may be used once desperately for only responding to the modern’s bad economy!

It doesn’t mean that the simplicity doesn’t fit to the idea of modernism but too-minimizing in design can be lack of taste. The ornaments and decorations give a scent of a particular culture wrapping around its building structure. To install such the idea that the simplicity dominates the entire concept of modernism to our young generation, can lead into inequality in development between ancient ornaments / decorations and engineering structure. Ancient decorations and lavish ornaments, which can’t extend their line of Art history into modernism, will be left underdevelopment in the long run and will be destroyed in the end. People will fully seize only technology which is better and more powerful everyday, in the same time throwing away Arts when they see that plain walls don’t give any new interesting idea anymore. Arts then become less excitement and plainer everyday.

Now, what does the ‘Less is More’ mean?

Imagine—if all countries around the world make no connection to each other, Chinese Arts today, for instance, would still look similar to the ancient Chinese Arts we have already seen for centuries, as well as African Arts, South America Arts, European Arts, etc. No matter how long do they keep developing their artworks, they never go very far from their original ideas. New categories and new conceptual idea of Arts are difficult to branch out. Each country’s the conceptual ideas for art creations are like strong colors because they have been taken hundreds of years to develop. They are full inside each person’s spirits.

The ‘Less is More’ should have good reasons for being less. Imagine, if each country reduces some parts of the complexity of their ideas, or strong colors of their cultures are toned down a bit, it will give rooms for other cultures to join in. Then the colors (ideas) of the two (or more) different cultures will be blended together harmoniously to create a new interesting concept into a new category of Arts, different from their originals. This is how the modernists gain more ideas from being less. This should be the right meaning of ‘Less is More’. This blending technique isn’t just happening in our modernization but it has been practiced for thousands of years ago through the hunt for colonies. However, combining two nations’ Arts and cultures through warfare isn’t an acceptable way to achieve today’s modernization.

Today, there are many peaceful ways to achieve the ‘Less is More’ such as through the migration. America, for instance, is the most diversity country in the world. People from all over the world who have different backgrounds are blended together in a modern conceptual idea of the America’s melting pot. At least once in their lives, these immigrants visit their home countries, or decide to move back home some times during America’s bad economy. They also bring with them what they have gained more from the melting pot: new ideas, lifestyles, cultures, educations, etc. They still don’t throw away all parts of their original background: Chinese still looks Chinese, Mexican still looks Mexican, African still looks African, etc. However, while living in America, with the best of their knowledge, they have perceived if they give up some parts of their background / culture in the same time they replace with new better ideas they have learned from other cultures into the empty spaces, their lives would be better off. These immigrants will be the first who make selections of what need to be changed for people in their home country to follow. As people who have the same background have the same senses of which new ideas they can (or can’t) absorb, the change in their home countries can go fast. Now, countries all over the world begin to have strong movement in such as politics, lifestyles and educations. Moreover, like the migration, the development of technology also helps in the blending process. People, who have no opportunity to experience living with other cultures, can learn new ideas through such as internet social networks.

Some countries that have strong cultures / religions try to maintain their conservative ideas so they become anti-Western cultures. Do the Western cultures cause the change? It should be the demand for change of people in those countries. However, the change into modernism is considered the progressiveness. It is not to destroy any conservative culture.

Conservative countries use punishments to control their people to maintain their conservative cultures. The punishment need to be increased higher everyday to such as capital punishment based upon the higher demand for change of the people in the countries. How long they can control their people. By comparing to modern countries, when time goes by, young generations in conservative countries will see their unchanged cultures have less value and outdated. Then young generations will completely throw away their conservative cultures and fully seize a new modern culture. If they allow the conservative ideas to change little by little with time, their young generations still carry on their conservative cultures. Even though, some parts of their cultures have to be blended with other cultures, they still see parts of their cultures in a new modern culture. People should accept the fact that all things have to be changed / adjusted themselves over time. Western cultures don’t destroy any culture but to bar young generations to change / develop their cultures / ideas is definitely the way to destroy their own cultures.

Now, back to the first question—what is ‘modern’?

Before we get into the point of ‘what is modern’, let me explain first of ‘what is not modern’. Imagine—if I hire an American architect to design a Thai traditional house which I want to build it in Boston. American architect must have a hard time to understand all parts of the traditional house, just like I don’t understand African Arts as much as people who are born and live in Africa. This ancient knowledge has been practiced for a long period of time by the people who live in that particular area. The Egyptian pyramid is another example. Even today, architects and engineers still can’t figure out how ancient Egyptians build their pyramids. Next, I also have to worry that my Thai traditional house may not survive from New England’s climate because the house is designed to fit into one environment. Moreover, materials are also difficult to find. Ancient designers use materials they can easily find in their local areas; some are built of mud bricks, stones, woods, bamboos, grasses etc.

Today, there are common materials used in building constructions which are seen through out the world such as concrete, reinforcing concrete and glass. These types of materials are designed to fit into all environments. Yet, architects and engineers from two different countries, no matter of which country do they earn their knowledge, can work together in such I.M. Pei’s pyramid project. Moreover, small townhouse, apartment and condominium for single family are seen everywhere, even in some countries that have a long culture of having a big family. You see people in most countries play guitar. They also wear jean everywhere in the world. They drive a car. They use computer. They watch Hollywood movies. You can call your family from your cell phone everywhere you are in the world. You can find friends from other countries through internet social networks. If you love traveling around the world, you may find that today it is easier than the past to find someone who can speak English. Credit cards are also accepted in many hotels around the world.

‘Modern’ is that all of the circumstances in our lives: architectural and engineering knowledge, education, lifestyle of people, music, fashion, technology, etc. have been developed to come into the same point. Then people all over the world will perceive Arts in the same language.

The America’s melting pot is like a mechanical tool of modernism. The ‘Less is More’ can be one in many concepts of modernism. Simplicity tells us ‘how’ the melting process can be. However, people must understand that simplicity is not one way to achieve modernism but it is one in many ways. Ancient ornaments and decorations can be laid out in different patterns and compositions, or combining them with other cultures can create a unique pattern. Hand-crafted stones of the ancient decorations which are taken years to complete can be done in months by the power of modern technologies. These can also be called ‘modern’.

Do we now reach the high point of modernization?

Still, there are two areas, which are not yet well-melted in the melting pot, are: politics and religions.



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