Utopia: The Enduring Allure of Mid-Century Modernism
Design and architecture are tangible and material relics of culture at any given moment. Whether it’s the domineering grandiosity of fascist built structures, the ostentatious glamour of Art Deco towers or the intricate and haunting delicacy of Gothic spires, the ethos of an architectural period speaks to the cultural milieu in which it came about.
Oftentimes a movement or architectural trend is fueled by a reactionary aesthetic impulse that immediately seems to date itself once the next trend emerges. Other times the characteristics of a particular period seem to adopt a certain timelessness, recurring over and over, ultimately acquiring an almost cultlike status.
Such is the case of mid-century modernism, a movement that has enjoyed consistent relevancy in popular culture over the years. Since it’s inception in the late-1940s the cult of midcentury architecture has been pervasive. So much so, that its aesthetic is practically indistinguishable from contemporary design. White walls, floor-to-ceiling glass windows, and minimalist interiors are not exactly antiquated design concepts.
So why is this 50-year-old movement so resilient and relevant, especially in an age where materials and influences are as varied as ever? The answer lies in the ideologies instilled in the fundaments of its design. Mid-century modernist architecture and design, were, like anything in the modern era, founded on the principles of adaptability and flexibility. Favoring clean lines, sleek surfaces, symmetry, bright colours, and geometrically appealing shapes and forms, mid-century modernism was a vision of the future. The movement in many ways was and still is a token of a slick utopian way of living; an unfettered vision of progress prior to the skepticism of post-modernity that came to characterize the second half of the twentieth century. Mid-century modernism reflected a way forward, a movement steeped in post-war prosperity that envisioned a society bolstered by technological innovation and economic growth.
In its wake at the end of the 1960s, Modernism gave way to something entirely different. Postmodernism emerged as a response to the perceived failed Utopianism of the Modern era. Universalist notions of objective reality, morality, and truth were questioned and the broad ideas of progress and prosperity that modernity championed suddenly seemed rather naive. As a culture, we began to reject rigid genre distinctions, instead, emphasizing pastiche, irony, and playfulness. Suddenly modernity seemed antiquated and its austere minimalist a-symmetry no longer evoked the hope of a bright future. Society in many ways became overtly reflexive and critical, and for better or worse we became disillusioned.
In the contemporary age, not much has changed. As a collective culture, we are some would say, more disillusioned than ever. But the nostalgic tendency toward the modern era that we find in contemporary design and architecture might offer us a glimmer of hope, and sign that post-modernity has withered. The dejected irony and nihilism of the post-modern era have been transmuted into a sort of ‘metamodernism’ that finds a collective cultural longing for the simplicity and unbridled utopianism of the modern era. If our nostalgia for mid-century modernism says anything it is that we are nostalgic for hope.
Contemporary or meta-modern culture, to be sure, does not in any way, propose a kind of utopian vision for the future in the same way that modernism did when it first emerged. Experiencing something the second time around is, never quite the same. But in our nostalgic longing for the ideals that accompanied the modern era, we continue to conjure the angular details and minimalist interiors of this long lost era of hope, and in doing so we do express a sort of utopian yearning nonetheless. We have become disillusioned, but if the continued relevance of mid-century modernism says anything, it is that we still envision a way forward, even if it means having to look back.
Cody Rooney is a Glossi Mag contributor.
He is a photography aficionado, masters candidate, fashion enthusiast, avid Ariana Grande fan and lover of all things aesthetically pleasing.