Of Boots and Buildings: Musings on Modernity

In three weeks I will be speaking at Modernism Week in Palm Springs; my last post “What Is Modern” got a ton of hits; and I have just finished a draft of the Barry Byrne book following my JSAH article (still free during February 2011 online) “Barry Byrne: Expressing the Modern in 1920s Europe” so I have been thinking about Modernism a lot. Barry Byrne wrote a letter to Lionel Feininger at the Bauhaus in the mid-1920s disparaging the term, and he was right: What does “Modern” mean, especially now that it is overwith and reborn as a nostalgic style courtesy of Mad Men and Dwell magazine?

a Barry Byrne church in Pierre, SD Photo by Katherine Shaughnessy

So I have been trying to figure our another term for it, like “20th Century” or “Late Industrial” but none are adequate and we do have to recall that Barry Byrne and all of his friends like Mies and Oud and Corbu were actively proselytizing “modern” whatever the heck it was. It was a movement. It certainly lasted two-thirds of the 20th century and it had some formal consistencies like machined finishes and ornamental abstraction or negation, but as my article noted, there were lots of different modernisms from the revolutionary asceticism of Loos to the painterly formalism of Corbu, the expressive romanticism of Mendelsohn, and the reborn classicism of Mies.

or Dudok’s EuroPrairie

So Felicity has been thinking about boots and last night I looked at the latest pair of boots and they looked a little Emma Peel and a little English riding but mostly they were just a combination of very deft lines and contours. And they lacked ornament, unlike the ones with stitching along the sole or the various ones with buckles near the upper calf and it occurred to me that there is an attempt in many times and places to achieve aesthetic beauty without ornament, simply by skillful disposition of lines and forms and scale and proportion.

In ancient architectural terms I am leaving commoditas and utilitas aside here to focus on venustas and it seems a big piece of the modernist project was finding the simplest, sharpest lines between creation and venustas. Now we know from Mies that simplicity often took a hell of a lot of work, like the effort to polish away the ship welds that keep the Farnsworth House afloat.


Mies’ aesthetic was classicizing and quite different from his onetime student Bertrand Goldberg, who joined Felix Candela and other 1960s expressionists to find beauty in the potential of curving concrete structural systems. His Prentice Women’s Hospital – the current preservation cause in Chicago – is a brilliant example of beauty united with parabolic concrete vaults that grant a 45-foot (15m) cantilever.

Preservation Chicago

Now, normally we consider Mies to be of one modernist tradition and Goldberg of another, but it doesn’t matter whether the line is curving or straight – both are seeking expression through an economy of form, without applied ornament, not unlike that pair of boots, which is seductive without being explicit about it. No neon needed.

Einsteinturm, Photograph by Rolf Achilles

But what about the ornamental modernists, like Barry Byrne? In my book I note that he used ornament as an extension of the wall plane. At St. Thomas Apostle the exterior brick wall serrates and folds at the corners, expressing itself in the material alone, a la Mies, but at the top Alfonso Iannelli’s ornament creates a dramatic and perhaps slightly precious fringe at the skyline, but it reads I think as an extension of the wall.

Photograph copyright Felicity Rich, 2006

But Loos actually threw us off when he said ornament was crime. When I tour downtown Chicago, I always note the 1889 Monadnock Building, the first sculpturally modern building without ornament. And across the street is Mies’ Federal Center, which is covered in ornament.


Huh? you say – Mies doesn’t use ornament! Of course he does, but it isn’t eggs and darts and guilloches and dentils, it’s I-beams. Loads of ‘em. They don’t support the structure and each is only two stories high, so they might help hold the windows a tad but mostly they make the building look a heck of a lot better. Venustas. Just because an ornament doesn’t look like a basket overgrown with acanthus leaves doesn’t mean it isn’t ornament.

another copyright Felicity Rich photo of a Barry Byrne building

another copyright Felicity Rich photo of a Barry Byrne building.

There is an attempt at clarity and unity that we identify with modernism, but I would argue that striving for economy of formal expression existed in many times and places, from Italy 2000 years ago to Ireland 1000 years ago to India 300 years ago to India 50 years ago, and that is only thinking about countries that start with “I.”

100 AD

900 AD

1700 AD

1960 AD
If you look at the career of a modernist who moved from Expressionism to Rationalism, like Oud or even Piet Mondrian, you see that one key to this movement or style or what have you is not simply simplicity or even simply an attempt to find venustas through an economy of form and material. It is also continuity, the most often overlooked aspect of Modernism.




Oh, heck, time to throw in Rietveld as long as we are being formalist….

But focus for a second on this Mondrian, which falls in between the evolution described visually above, and see the sense of continuity and connection. It is also there in Dulles airport, and this lovely Saarinen detail that lets a brick wall go through a glass wall without breaking continuity.



Continuity is the limited-access highway in planning and the fenetre en longeur and the machined surface and the streamlined railroad engine and continuity is there in Barry Byrne’s wall because even if there is fringe on the end, his goal was “clarity” and “unity” and that terra cotta is trying to express the wall, not add to it.

Photograph copyright Felicity Rich

Continuity was opposed by complexity and contradiction as High Modernism began its decline in the 1960s, but if we look closely at movements and forms that stress continuity and economy of line we find that they existed long before Mad Men. I was always stunned by the stuff of Biedermaier and Christopher Dresser in the first half of the 19th century because it was so…modern – but it was a century before modern.

So we need a word for modern (and so does Dwell) and we have needed it certainly since Byrne and Feininger commisserated about it back in 1925 but maybe if we look past the time period toward the impulse – economy of form, continuity and clarity – we might get there.

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2 Responses to “Of Boots and Buildings: Musings on Modernity”

  1. Palm Springs Modernism Week « Time Tells Says:

    […] can see my several recent posts on Modernism, like this one, this one and this one to get more details about my talk on Preserving Modernism in Chicago, which was […]

  2. Sabra Smith Says:

    Some renegades met here in Philadelphia to discuss starting a new organization that would pick up in Philadelphia where, it seemed, Docomomo was not. The biggest stumbling block of the evening was figuring out what word or words would describe the period — like you, our group just didn’t feel that “modern” sufficiently captured the breadth of the portfolio we wanted to cover.

    Thanks for this wonderful post and the terrific images. I am now craving another trip to Chicago. I miss it.

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