engaging modernism.doc - 1 CODA ENGAGING MODERNISM Hilde...

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CODA: ENGAGING MODERNISMHilde HeynenMan loves to create and build roads, that is beyond dispute.But … may it not be that … he is instinctively afraid ofattaining his goal and completing the edifice he isconstructing? How do you know, perhaps he only likes thatedifice from a distance and not at close range, perhaps he onlylikes to build it, and does not want to live in it.Feodor Dostoevsky, 18641Conceptualising the modernTo many it seems that modernity is located in the West. For Dostoevsky modernity was tobe found in the London Crystal Palace, which he saw (and denounced) as the symbol of arationalist, materialist and purely mechanical view of the world. For him this modernity needed to be fought against, since it implied the negation of all uncertainty and mystery, the defeat of adventure and romance. At the same time, however, as Marshall Berman points out, he very radically put forward the primacy of engineering as the actual symbol of human creativity. In that sense he was doubtlessly of modernist conviction, prefiguringthe credo of his constructivist countrymen half a century later. It is this very ambivalence that distinguishes Dostoevsky’s attitude from later generations. Being very critical of modernity while at the same time embracing its promises, was the hallmark of many 19thcentury intellectuals dealing with the contradictions and paradoxes that modern life implied. This ambivalence allowed Dostoevsky to capture the truth formulated in the motto quoted above: it is one thing to love building and dreaming a new world, it is quite another thing to have to live in it. A similar dialectic between East and West informs Rem Koolhaas’s ‘Story of the Pool’.2According to this parable the floating swimming pool was designed by a Moscow architectural student one day in 1923. Struck by the strength of the idea, his fellow students decided to build it. Shortly after its construction, they discovered that by swimming in unison, in regular synchronized laps from one end of the pool to the other, the pool would start to move very slowly in the opposite direction. When communism turned into Stalinism, the pool’s architects planned to make use of this mechanism in order to force their way to freedom. By swimming in the general direction of the country they left, they slowly guided their raft across the Atlantic. Their logical destiny was New York, which they reached after four decades. Their arrival was disappointing, to say the 1Quoted in Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. The Experience of Modernity, Verso, London, 1985, p. 2422Rem Koolhaas, ‘The Story of the Pool / 1976’, in Architectural Design, 5/1977, p. 356.1
least, even if the New York architects decided to grant their colleagues a collective medal.

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