Then begins the inevitable decline. Initially the people who drive the great movements of reform are idealists and visionaries, but once their private utopias begin to gain traction the bureaucrats and businessmen step in and the movement becomes first a fashion and then, typically, a brand. This formula applies pretty well to social movements, political movements, and weight-loss movements, so it should not be surprising that it refers to movements of architecture and design as well.
The past century was marked by an ongoing sequence of movements of architectural renewal and design reform. Just as the romantic revolutionaries of the 19th century devolved into the political apparatchiks of the 20th, each of them burst forth like a volcanic eruption, spewing molten manifestos and covering the landscape with houses, furniture, typography, kitchen gadgets, and office buildings, the likes of which the world had never seen—only to harden into the next orthodoxy. Every social scientist has a different name for it, but the pattern is always the same. But what, exactly, is a movement? Where do they come from, and what drives them forward?
A new design movement erupts when the energies of the prevailing one start to show signs of exhaustion, when new ideas cannot gain a hearing and new talent cannot find a place to breathe. Alternatively, events may overtake the old order: the arrival of the automobile, with its demands upon the city; the Depression, and with it the necessity of innovation to inspire a new breed of industrial designers; the World Wars, with their unprecedented logistical requirements, and the World’s Fairs, with their vision of possible futures. Old ideas simply may not be adequate to the new realities and these are the circumstances that favor the prophet of reform who descends from the mountaintop, armed with a flaming manifesto under one arm and a prototype under the other.
The manifesto has been the weapon of choice for architecture and design movements for a hundred years, and its verbal pyrotechnics and passionate prose have lent an air of drama to what might otherwise read like a mere procession of styles. Despite the occasional resort to nihilism or hysteria, however, rarely have they left the streets littered with barricades and corpses. Although Valerie Solanas did pump a couple of slugs into Andy Warhol shortly after publishing her SCUM Manifesto in 1968, the general decision to fire bullet points rather than bullets testifies to a belief in the possibility of positive change. Whether mimeographed, scrawled, broadcasted, or blogged, the manifesto is the first portent of a new movement.
Movements and manifestos of modern design are rarely just about design; they are sweeping demands, as the futurist Giacomo Balla put it in the aftermath of the Great War, to "decompose and recompose the universe." The proximate target may be a flaccid use of ornament or a timid way of building, but these are but symptoms of a deeper cultural malaise that cannot be cured except by the transformation of civilization as we know it. The most dramatic of the century’s manifestos, even more than the movements to which they gave birth, launched a frontal attack on the complacent institutions of bourgeois society.
Movements and manifestos are the drivers of modern architecture and design, the fuse and the dynamite, the windup and the pitch.
Barry Katz–Dwell's beloved Father Time figure, who price-checked modernist icons in our March 2007 issue–returns with a century long laundry list of sustainability flashpoints. He makes every hour count as a consulting professor at Stanford University, a fellow at Ideo, and a prolific writer and author, most recently of The Tennessee Valley Authority: Design and Persuasion from Princeton Architectural Press.