Makers and breakers

The above assertion is contentious, but the ground for it was laid by Jurgen Habermas, probably modernism's best-known apologist. Habermas does not accept that 'purposive rationality' has become 'overblown into a totality, [abolishing] the distinction between what claims validity and what is useful for self-preservation' (Habermas, 1987a: 119). Modernism has been characterized as encouraging a systematically exploitative relation between nature and culture. It could be argued, however, that human development has always involved the exploitation of the environment. Civilizations have risen by extracting what they wanted from nature with increasing efficiency, and fallen because they over-extracted. The main reason modernism, rather than 'human nature', stands accused is because technology since the eighteenth century has become so much more powerful than its earlier versions, and with an increase in power has come an increase in destructiveness. Had we had the means earlier to transform the given as widely and swiftly as we can now, this 'destructiveness' would have made itself felt earlier. In other words, the drive to control the physical environment, to use it as a means to our ends, is as old and fundamental a cultural phenomenon as the necessity, so far at least, of living within its limits.

These two positions, of domination and co-operation, informed modernism as they informed the social attitudes that preceded its emergence, but in inverse proportion. Within modernism, instrumentality grew and grew, a monstrous child that now threatens the existence of its parents, though at its inception it was perceived as vital to that existence, and indeed was. In classical Greece, 'techne' was interpreted as a form of benign, rather than malign, systematization. Techne means literally craft, art or science - 'technique', since what you cannot conquer you have to find a way around. Ingenuity within the limited means at one's disposal thus became associated with techne, but that is to reduce its complexity as a term.

It is certainly associated with a grappling with limits, and in its widest interpretation, could be viewed as 'culture', the sum total of our efforts to protect ourselves from the contingencies of nature, standing in opposition to 'tuche', luck. Techne encompasses everything from crafts such as house or boat building, to arts such as dancing or music playing, to sciences such as mathematics or astronomy. In The Fragility of Goodness, Martha Nussbaum (1989) cites four features common to all these forms of techne: universality, teachability, precision and concern with explanation. Such criteria, however, do not lead to consensus, in ancient Greece or now. Nussbaum describes two versions of techne found in Plato's Protagoras: that of Protagoras himself, and that of Socrates. Socrates' definition favours the sciences, the more practical and effective kinds, those that can measure and be measured: '[W]hat is measurable or commensurable is graspable, knowable, in order, good; what is without measure is boundless, elusive, chaotic, threatening, bad' (Nussbaum, 1989: 107). Socrates was, in fact, pushing techne towards a fraction of itself: technology. Heidegger describes it as well as anyone:

One says: Technology is a means to an end. The other says: Technology is a human activity. The two definitions of technology belong together...The manufacture and utilization of equipment, tools and machines, the manufactured and used things themselves, and the needs and ends they serve, all belong to what technology is...Technology itself is a contrivance, or, in Latin, an instrumentum. The current conception of technology, according to which it is a means and a human activity, can therefore be called the instrumental and anthropological definition of technology (Heidegger, 1977: 4-5).

The Socratic techne increases our control over the contingencies of the physical environment and thus excludes the arts. These too concern measurement - rhythm, proportion, harmonics - but as an end in itself, not as a means to some practical end.

Protagoras, on the other hand, defends techne's original complexity. This is what Nussbaum refers to as a 'bona fide techne': 'qualitative, plural in its ends, and in which the art activities themselves constitute the end' (Nussbaum, 1989: 99). It is less 'effective' than instrumental techne (technology). That is, it has less effect on the physical environment, and as such may be exactly what we require at this point in our species' history. Socratic techne won out justifiably over Protagoras' version in ancient Greece: life was unremittingly harsh and dangerous. Today, we can see the ethical and environmental price we paid for that crucial turn towards a directed rationality. Perhaps it's time to return to a techne that contains the possibility of an 'internal end' (Nussbaum,

1989: 98) after centuries of 'external ends'. We have become too expert in using the environment as raw material.

Is there any other way for modern technology to operate, however, given that its project is to ceaselessly overcome limitations - of knowledge, of praxis, of the flesh? Architecturally, could a more Protagoran technology become the norm, and what would it be like? It could be argued that architecture is already Protagoran, containing both applied science and art, a means to an end (shelter) and an end in itself (form). A certain level of technology is required to construct it, but it need not be one powerful enough to over-consume resources or pollute. With pre-industrial building we were forced to observe the physical limits of the 'natural materials' being used. There were not at our disposal the synthetic materials that now enable us to defy almost any constructional limit. A modernist would ask what possible virtue there could be in accepting limits, and what possible rationality in accepting limits one can break. The answer lies in the price one is prepared to pay for breaking them. For instance, most nineteenth-century industrialists were quite happy to pay the price of a maimed and diseased workforce in the interests of the new mass production. When this direct human cost became less acceptable, the environmental cost was, and still is, discounted, and with it, the indirect human cost.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the idea that the physical environment merited as much respect as human society was not even entertained. Use was never viewed as abuse. Le Corbusier, for example, is full of the infectious Hegelian euphoria of the 1920s: 'The fruits of civilization only ripen when all its technical resources are evolved...[M]an is capable of perfection' (Le Corbusier, 1987: 30, 48). This triumph of culture was conceivable as a result of the scientific revolution in seventeenth-century England, and the philosophical revolution in seventeenth-century France. Between the materialism of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and the idealism of René Descartes (1596-1650), not much of an animate nature was left standing. Bacon saw it as raw material, and Descartes as something that existed only insofar as the human mind existed to perceive it, its reality impossible to prove without God's guarantee. By the seventeenth century, therefore, nature was something irretrievably 'other' in the West. We were separated from it twice over: materially and conceptually.

The acceleration away from nature increased geometrically during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (as did nostalgia about it) and produced as much anxiety as optimism. During this time, the word 'alienation' is used as often as 'progress'. Baudelaire, in his cycle of poems about nineteenth-century Paris, Les Fleurs du Mal, was the archetypal voice of the new alienated 'modern man', a counterpoint to the optimists who saw it as 'the best of times'. The argument between utopians and dystopians filled the arts and literature, a variation on the eternal battle between conservatives and progressives: those who believe change can only make things worse, and those who believe it is the only way to make things better. For the purposes of this discussion, I have borrowed William McClung's terminology in his book The Architecture of Paradise, and call the former 'arcadians' and the latter 'utopians', as it has a semantic connection with the present discussion on nature and culture.

Within architectural modernism, classification is not quite so simple as arcadian/anti-modernist, utopian/modernist, though certainly such a division could be found. The Modern Movement wrestled with nature in a number of ways. Wright, for example, for all his reliance on modernity in the form of the car for the success of his ideal city (Fig. 3.2), was an arcadian at heart. For him, the good man was the one 'amply able to off-set the big city of today': the one who would live in, if not build himself, what he calls the 'organic building', an echo of the primitive hut in conception: '[I]t is in the nature of an organic building to grow from its site, come out of the ground into the light...A building dignified as a tree in the midst of nature' (Wright, 1971: 49-50). Modernity was merely the means by which the Usonian citizen could return to nature. Sant'Elia and his fellow Futurists, on the other hand, pursued a form of urban supremacism, with not even a blade of grass appearing in any of Sant'Elia's drawings of the Citta Nuova (Fig. 3.3). Le Corbusier is too complex and contradictory to pigeon-hole. The success of his urban visions depended heavily on an integration of nature with his Cartesian forms. Arcadia and utopia were drawn together, their imagery more potent combined than separated.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Boating Secrets Uncovered

Boating Secrets Uncovered

If you're wanting to learn about boating. Then this may be the most important letter you'll ever read! You Are Going To Get An In-Depth Look At One Of The Most Remarkable Boating Guides There Is Available On The Market Today. It doesn't matter if you are just for the first time looking into going boating, this boating guide will get you on the right track to a fun filled experience.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment