The high regard for modern architecture and design today is arguably the work of Pioneers of Modern Design. Originally published in 1936 as Pioneers of the Modern Movement, this book by the late art historian Nikolaus Pevsner laid the foundation for the recognition of “modern design” by lining up a progressive historical narrative to explain the state of design after World War I. The German scholar attributed the history of modern design to individual architects, designers and their works, starting from William Morris of the Arts and Crafts movement to the “machine aesthetic” of Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus. Modern architecture and design, as Pevsner saw it, was the inevitable product of the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Noveau, and the emergence of steel as a building material.
As Pevsner noted in the foreword of the book’s inaugural edition, his book was the “first to be published” on the subject. Close to eight decades later, Pioneers of Modern Design has been reprinted countless times, and in 2005, Yale University Press even saw fit to revise and expand what it called “one of the most widely read books on modern design.”
Pevsner’s book would not have become so significant a book had a second edition not been published in 1949 thanks to the support of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. It was here that the title of the book was changed to Pioneers of Modern Design. This framed Pevsner’s narrative of design history as “more ongoing, more fluid” and ultimately aided the museum’s own efforts to “cultivate an American breed of modernism” notes academic Irene Sunwoo in her paper Whose Design? MoMA and Pevsner’s Pioneers (2010). Retracing the history of the book’s second edition, Sunwoo explains that MoMA found Pevsner’s interdisciplinary approach to architecture and design aligned with what it was doing, and the museum’s then curators Philip Johnson and Edgar Kaufmann Jr. worked closely with Pevsner on revising and updating the text.
When this second edition of Pioneers sold more copies in its first six months than the first edition had over a five-year period, the idea of “modern architecture and design” was born in the public’s mind and they could visit its temple in MoMA. Design history’s preoccupation with emplacing and refusing modernism is all due to Pevsner’s book notes design critic Guy Julier. “The representation of design has been dominated by the achievements of individuals in the first place; second, by the aesthetics and ideology of modernism; and third, via specific objects of a certain type,” he wrote in The Culture of Design (2007).This sums up the narrative and structure of Pevsner’s book, which has become the archetype of libraries of monographs and historical tomes on the zeitgeist of “modern architecture and design” today.
———– Written for Karen Stein’s The Design Book class at D-Crit.
The city is often portrayed as a playground for the rich and powerful: the real estate developer, the urban planner, the starchitect. From their point-of-view (often high up in skyscrapers), ordinary city inhabitants look nothing more than specks amidst the glitzy urban skyline.
Two recent books from Asia take us down to the streets of the city instead. Both publications are fascinating collections of hyper-local vernacular designs that demonstrate how two Asian cities are built from the ground-up.
Borrowed City (2013) is a tour through Seoul by MOTOElastico. The architecture studio has been documenting how private citizens use public space for their personal benefit in the capital since 2009. Turning sidewalks into stores with just a few baskets of goods, planting vegetables along public staircases, or ‘parking’ on the roadside to have a picnic lunch — these are just some of the book’s examples of how citizens have built their own spaces in the city; each intervention is photographed and enhanced with 3-D models. By reading such acts as “borrowing” as opposed to “buying” the city, the studio (headed by Italians Marco Bruno and Simone Carena) makes a case for how the considerate use of public spaces by citizens can help build a more participatory and inclusive city.
Siu King-chung’s lesser designs (2013) showcases similar projects from Hong Kong. Inspired by 19th century English designer and critic William Morris’s idea of the “Lesser Arts”, Siu created a book that celebrates the design wisdom of ordinary citizens. Beginning with a typical Hong Kong home and ending out on the city’s colourful neon-lit streets, the associate professor at the city’s PolyU Design points out the variety of anonymous designs in everyday life through photographs. The simple Chinese and English captions prove how design and creativity are not exclusively for professionals — “Lesser designs” for Siu are not lousier, just less obvious.
What makes both books particularly precious is that they offer another view of city life — one that is often transient and threatened by rapid urban development. Whether it is in Seoul, Hong Kong or any of the growing cities in Asia, “modern” solutions are increasingly introduced with the promise of order, efficiency, and a better living environment. But by re-framing seemingly chaotic street life through smart citizen interventions, both books offer a more humanistic reading of city living that begs a closer look.
———– Written for Elizabeth Spiers and Chappell Elison’s Online Publishing class at D-Crit.