SEAARC Symposium Abstract 9: “Modernity and modernities. Emerging challenges for the historiography of modern architecture”

by keynote speaker Prof. Hilde Heynen, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

Since Marshall Berman first theorized modernity as the experience of all that is solid melting into air, we have come a long way in discussing modernity as a fundamental category for the writing of the history of architecture in the 20th century. Whereas the mainstream histories of modern architecture (Frampton, Curtis) firmly located their topic in a geographically confined area (dominantly Europe and North-America) and focused on a limited series of actors (the ‘masters’ of modern architecture), without thoroughly reflecting upon the meaning of terms such as modernity, a younger generation of historians is busy revising these narratives. Not only Berman’s account of how the experience of modernity has been processed in literature, but also geo-political changes such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and  the rise of new economic power centers have been influential factors in inspiring new outlooks.  By now we are trying to cope with the idea that the modernity of the first world had some kind of twin in the second world. We are struggling as well to understand how colonial and postcolonial conditions provoked versions of these modernities to emerge in (what used to be called) the third world, and how they affected the built environment as well as the lives of the people. Postcolonial theories have played a role in this process by somehow ‘provincializing Europe’ (Chakrabarty) and urging us to overcome the Eurocentric viewpoint that structures so many historiographic narratives.

These changing geo-political conditions and cultural understandings pose challenges for the writing of architectural histories. I will be discussing at least the following three:

–          In discussing (post)colonial conditions, we have come to understand how architecture is playing a role in the construction of national identities on many different levels – not just by building iconic monuments, but also by structuring cities, determining housing arrangements or framing public space. Hence we are urged to use our competences as architectural historians to do much more than just interpret the most prominent works of the most prominent architects.

–          Likewise the most promising work in recent architectural history takes into account many other agencies apart from architects. It looks at clients, users or institutions, asking how architecture at large plays a role in bringing about political, social or cultural changes.

–          Lastly it seems that these new focuses necessitate us to develop new conceptual tools for understanding these realities. We should question whether categories such as ‘avant-garde’, ‘postmodernism’ or ‘critical regionalism’ are relevant for understanding especially the most recent developments in architecture.  And if they are not, what other categories could we suggest in order to lucidly discuss the role of architecture in upcoming economies?


Hilde Heynen is Full Professor and Chair of the Department of Architecture at the University of Leuven. Her research focuses on issues of modernity, modernism and gender in architecture. She is the author of Architecture and Modernity. A Critique (MIT Press, 1999) and the co-editor of Back from Utopia. The Challenge of the Modern Movement (with Hubert-Jan Henket, 010, 2001), Negotiating Domesticity. Spatial productions of gender in modern architecture (with Gülsüm Baydar, Routledge, 2005) and The SAGE Handbook Architectural Theory (with Greig Crysler and Stephen Cairns, Sage, 2012). She regularly publishes in journals such as The Journal of Architecture and Home Cultures.

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