Ólafur Gíslason
Space in Modernism

It is no coincidence that modernism in European art can be traced back to the time when the steam engine changed the whole basis of travel by sea and land, and mechanisation began in earnest in European industry. The railway influenced the spatial awareness of the time, having emerged in the heyday of colonialism, which was also influential, no less than the great land discoveries around 1500.

The functionalism of modernism began to have a real influence upon the European urban environment in the years after World War I, when the organic web which had been woven from the classical city centre, with a mixture of residential buildings, small industry, ateliers and services, was disrupted. Not only did functionalism aim to build houses that were ‘machines for living in,’ it also aimed to break up the city pattern, creating separate islands for the workers, dormitory towns for the middle class, and separate industrial areas, shopping centres and service centres, which could no longer be accommodated in the old town centre.

In due course, the private car spelled the end of the organic web of a classical centralised town as it isolated the ‘islands’ of the city, demarcated by multiple roads and highways. Few things have affected our perception of the urban environment as much as this four-wheeled form of transport and communication. Yet in spite of ever-improving communications, this new and modernist urban environment led to ever-greater isolation of the inhabitants, from each other and from the greater space of the modern city. The city ceased to be anthropomorphic, in the sense that man could perceive it as he does his own body, where he knew the location of everything. Instead, it became a monster with endless tentacles, which grew apparently unchecked. The modernist city led, above all, to a feeling of alienation and isolation, as the concept of the city space as a single organic whole was gradually and irretrievably lost. This was the same alienation which had been defined by Karl Marx in the mid-nineteenth century as a consequence of the division of labour upon which capitalism was based. In the fine arts, this new social space of functionalism was reflected either in the form of romantic rebellion (Surrealism, Dada, Expressionism, Art Informel), or in the glorification of pure space (Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, Suprematism, Bauhaus, De Stijl, geometric abstraction, color-field painting, etc.)

Fall of Utopia

The modernist utopia of perfect planning based upon functionalism and reason may be regarded as having met its end with World War II, which also marked the beginning of the end of colonialism. We see the defeat of colonialism in the Vietnam war, and in the African colonial wars of the 1960s and 70s. The arms race which followed then pushed this period to its final conclusion, with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the dissolution of the colonial system which had been built up in eastern Europe under Soviet rule.

At about the same time, a new technological revolution began, which is now transforming our perceptions of the world and of space. Although it is less than a decade since the world seemed to teeter on the brink of destruction in a wild arms race between east and west, it is now clear to all that capitalism no longer needs to defend its colonies and conquests. On the contrary, capitalism overrides all national borders, and wipes them out. Hence wars of conquest on grounds of nationality, race, ideology or a demand for ‘lebensraum’ have become anachronistic, and we see them as spectres of the distant past. (Localised exceptions to this rule may, however, still be found in the form of systematic oppression on the basis of belief or race, e.g. in Israel/Palestine, former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Turkey/Kurdistan etc., but these localised phenomena do not affect the overall tendency.) Capitalism no longer appears to have any tangible enemy, and wherever opposition appears, for instance in the form of class struggle, it is immediately absorbed by a system which not only treats labour as a market commodity, but produces and markets labour, employment and unemployment as required, anywhere, any time. The same applies to opposition on religious principles, whether Catholicism or Islamic fundamentalism. No matter how a religion defends itself and cuts itself off from the world wide web of the international market and the communications system of latter-day capitalism, messages fly back and forth via satellites from one end of the world to the other, so that, in the end, no national border, and no fortifications, can withstand this universal intimacy.

The world has become a single marketplace, which respects no borders of nation, race or ideology, and a new global division of labour has already begun, with rising unemployment in industrial countries, and corresponding exportation of work to the developing areas of Asia and South America. At the same time as the market for goods, services and labour has become international, methods of communication have led to new perceptions of distance, time and space in our consciousness. The capitalist economic system has reached a new level, which Karl Marx never conceived of. This is demonstrated particularly in the broadening of the actual concept of the market, which no longer applies only to necessities and tangible objects, but also to images, ideas and the consciousness industry as such, while nature itself, and our whole environment, have become market-oriented in some sense. Man has marketed himself in a way which makes it ever more difficult to discern the reality behind the image.

One of the main conditions for this radical change was technical development in communications and the media, through satellites, TV, computer technology and electronic multimedia, which is now forcing its way into every home, braking down its walls and sanctuaries. Thus it is not only the boundaries of nations and of power blocs which have been broken down by technical advance; the walls of the home, private life and our own self-awareness have also been broken down.

The world has been transformed, as the changes of the past decades in methods of production technology and communications have created a new space and a new awareness of space and time, which seems at first glance to be light-years away from the time when the world was composed of the spheres of influence of the great powers, armed to the teeth, who struggled for more ‘lebensraum’ on an ideological basis. The present disputes between the Icelanders and their Norwegian cousins over fishing rights in the northern seas are like faint echo of the Cold War days. They are also the exception that proves the rule.

The Postmodern Space

Under these circumstances, the city-cape has also changed. Our conception of the city space, or the common social space, is no longer necessarily tied to a physical space of concrete and glass. The city environment has become a complex web of multimedia and consumer society semiotics, where we cease to differentiate between material space and lines of communication: motor highways and traffic systems on the on hand, the electronic channels of the information superhighway on the other.

We no longer distinguish between interior and exterior space, private space and public space, because communications move so fast from one are to another, from one system to another, that it is quite impossible to acquire any kind of overview. The urban environment has lost its geographical distinctness; not only does it stretch out along the highways with their petrol stations and service centres, it also combines with communications technology, and hence we can travel all over the world, communicating actively in all directions, while sitting at home in front of the TV or computer screen. The information superhighway has become part of the urban space of today, and the city walls of the past have finally fallen.

Nature is no longer a threatening enemy outside the walls, but has been linked into the market and its semiotics, just like labour, working hours, leisure, emotions, sex, self-consciousness or whatever one cares to mention. On the international market of latter-day capitalism, not only has exchange value taken control, it has also taken on the mystic form of a sign language, where one sign substitutes another, and there is no way of reaching a solid basis of reality, where we might stand aside as spectators or judges, and analyse the basis of the sign system. The market and its semiotics have swallowed Man whole, defeating his attempts at protest, and equating previously qualitatively different values, so that all values become relative.

This is a brief description of the so-called postmodern world, or, preferably, the postmodern space. This space has taken on a tangible form in architecture. We perceive this world in the supranational space of glass and steel which is to be seen in shopping centres, hotel space, airports, banks places of entertainment and the gathering places of the Jet Set, all over the world. This architecture, always intimately linked to the centres of financial power, is characterised by the attempt to dissolve the division between interior and exterior space, creating a flow and speed that deprive the individual of a personal sanctuary and viewpoint, which enables us to stand outside the system and analyse what lies behind the façade. These buildings also characteristically create an autonomous world, a city within the city, or a replica of the greater supranational space. The buildings are high-roofed and spacious, predominantly of glass and steel, with palm trees and other vegetation, fountains, escalators and lifts that shoot up and down and in all directions. Frederic Jameson has described this space in his book Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, where he takes the example of the Westin Bonaventure hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Jameson points out that people found this huge hotel building so perplexing that it proved difficult for business people to run their small shops located on various levels and corridors. They had no choice but to provide a plan and guidance for potential shoppers. Jameson says: ‘... that this latest mutation in space -- postmodern hyperspace -- has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organise its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world. It may now be suggested that this alarming disjunction point between the body and its built environment -- which is to the initial bewilderment of the older modernism as the velocities of spacecraft to those of the automobile -- can itself stand as the symbol and analogon of that even sharper dilemma which is the incapacity of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global multinational and descentered communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects.’ (Frederic Jameson: Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press, 1991, p.44.)