Comparative Strategies and the Elusiveness of Modernism

Agata and Elidor offer a series of very insightful reflections on my book, and I am grateful to both of them for their careful and generous reading of the manuscript. I would also like to thank Steve and Daria for including my book together with the excellent new books that have been discussed in this forum so far.

Let me start with Agata’s remark that my selection of cases explored in the book resembles the work of a curator because I think this idea also helps to address Daria and Steve’s introductory note about the methodological tools available for the study of socialist and postsocialist urbanity. I find this analogy indeed quite appealing. Being a sociologist, and thus operating under constant methodological anxiety over having to justify my case selection (i.e., sampling) strategy by strict disciplinary standards, the work of a curator has always appeared to me not only a lot classier but also more autonomous. A curator also tries to construct a larger narrative through carefully assembled fragments but is often allowed to have more of an individual voice. Yet, this does not mean that curators can make arbitrary decisions about what to include or exclude in an exhibition. They do need a strong conceptual agenda that clearly and effectively frames the individual pieces.

I am actually not stretching this metaphor to cleverly evade Agata’s more specific questions about how the book’s overarching narrative would change if I had opted for a different combination of case studies for the various historical phases. Indeed, I believe that the overall story would still hold up because although the specific building projects might differ, the central themes that organized architectural discourse and practice as well as the larger political logics that shaped them would remain nearly identical. For instance, if I had decided to focus on Hungary instead of East Germany in the 1950s, I would still find that architecture was primarily instrumentalized for political propaganda to inscribe a new political system in space through representative projects, and Hungarian architects were also searching for an architectural vocabulary that was “national in form and socialist in content” as demanded by Soviet-style socialist realism. Similarly, the “European city” motif and references to “Europe” as the ultimate benchmark featured prominently in the post-1989 reimagining of Budapest even if obviously, the scale of building activity never even approximated that of Berlin (as Budapest did not embark on a Stalinallee-like extravaganza in the 1950s either).

But the shape of the story is also in part a level of analysis issue. Comparative studies of several countries adopt more of a bird’s eye view where the main contours of the landscape dominate over fine-grained details.  Yet, as one zooms in on individual countries the nuances of the local context come into sharper focus.  In the book I tried to mix these two angles: using a broad comparative logic for selecting my cases and then zooming in on them, putting them under the microscope.  Now, this mix-and-match strategy may not be entirely convincing to everyone, but I think it was still worth experimenting with.

Existing comparative strategies feel somewhat stale and formulaic even though there is increasing need for sophisticated comparisons that capture transnational and global exchanges and are supported by a bolder and more diverse methodological imagination.  I think edited volumes that bring together experts on individual countries around a loosely defined set of themes do not always do the trick; they can be informative but often fall short of their theoretical ambitions. They also strongly reinforce a broader trend that still considers individual countries or cities as the legitimate and nearly exclusive units (and lenses) of analysis. There are sporadic attempts to move beyond this methodological status quo, for instance, by focusing on what the cultural geographer Jane M. Jacobs calls “instances of repetition” that often crop up in vastly different political, geographical and cultural contexts. They are repeated urban forms  that can include building types (e.g., residential high-rise, prefabricated public housing project, shopping mall, gated community) but also travelling urban policies or urban planning and development paradigms (e.g., new urbanism) and can offer entry points into comparative research. Jane M. Jacobs’ own project on the residential high-rise or Florian Urban’s recent book, Tower and Slab, which looks at the contested history of the modernist mass housing block in Chicago, Paris, Berlin, Brasilia, Mumbai, Shanghai, and Moscow, illustrate the potential of this analytical strategy.

Let me now quickly turn to Elidor’s very important points about modernism and the role of the “vernacular”. I agree with both Elidor and Juliana that modernism now risks becoming a catch-all phrase that obfuscates rather than clarifies our understanding of postwar developments. Nevertheless, I am afraid that it is also a term that we cannot do without. But the concept of modernism needs to be deepened both theoretically and empirically. Theoretically, it is important to highlight the distinctions as well as the linkages between aesthetic modernisms, social modernization, and modernity as a historical project.  In addition, to me modernism has always been primarily an empirical question. I tried to show in the book how the meanings of modernism were multiple and changed over time even in the same country. Moreover, modernism also proved to be a relational concept, usually defined vis-à-vis real and imagined geopolitical units (“Europe”, “the West”, the USSR, etc.), historical legacies, and the “vernacular”. In the case of Hungary, and I would say in Germany as well, modernism was often explicitly or implicitly defined in opposition to the “vernacular” as the chapter on the Tulip debate shows. But Elidor is right in pointing out that in many other Second World countries the vernacular was not antithetical to modernism but became incorporated into it; though in my view the vernacular still remained an important reference point. Thus, one possible research scenario is to try to map the range and changing configurations of the meanings of modernism to discover patterns of similarities and differences while trying to better understand the political, social and cultural reasons for the apparent variation.

Virág Molnár, The New School for Social Research

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