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Modernity, Negativity and Matter

Part 1 Dissertation 2006
Paolo Scianna
Kingston University Kingston-Upon-Thames UK
This dissertation proposes a reappraisal of the modernist design ideology of the early to mid 20th examining the problems of architectural modernism with respect to Walter Benjamin’s notions of atrophied experience. Applied to architecture, the notions of atrophy are translated into an “architectural atrophy of experience” which forms the basis of the problem this dissertation is trying to address. The dissertation will offer the idea of the introduction of a negative element into a developing functional/ rationalist system of thought. The negative effectively constitutes the things we cannot know or that are difficult to predict with respect to material and human behaviour. By offering a critical position vis-à-vis modernity and its subsequent translation within architectural practice, and through a negative dialectic of sorts inspired by Theodor Adorno, I will attempt to address the highlighted problem of an “architectural atrophy of experience”. Through the search for this elusive negative within the work and writings of Adolf Loos and Alison and Peter Smithson the dissertation attempts to restore a measure of meaning back into an increasingly alienating design methodology. Attributed in part to the developing Marxist labour ideology and further compounded by a shift towards an ever increasing consumer society, the dissertation represents a search for an architecture that whilst remaining true to a modern economy of means also attempts to retain a connection with the fundamental conditions of life. Humbly speaking, whilst these claims may seem overly ambitious within the size, scope and level of this dissertation I feel it important to note that it is by no means an answer to the problems of modernity. The dissertation in this respect represents a personal ambition to understand the nature of our modern condition and where architecture stands in relation to this. As such I am aware of the complexity and problems associated with such a project and that it represents only a small strand within a massive debate, however as a research piece it has been an exciting and enlightening quest for understanding.
Paolo Scianna

Our understanding of Architectural Modernism and its relation to the broader project of modernity is the subject of ongoing debate. Seen within that context, Scianna’s dissertation is a rigorously argued, philosophical examination of three central figures (Loos, Adorno and the Smithsons), whose work helped to shape both the period itself and sustain the reactions of subsequent generations. It central aim being to expose materiality as a key underlying theme of both the Modern Movement and its detractors, this tightly argued and lucid piece of writing offers a fresh perspective on how the material consciousness provided a common discursive ground between avant garde and architectural theory. Its bold and original claim is that the critical strategies of Architectural Modernism were founded on the deep structure and processes of matter.

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