Claims to have discovered, or invented, the neomodern, neomodernity, or neomodernism have been announced in fields as varied as the fine arts, political and moral philosophy, theology, economics, memetics, chess, and apparently bathroom design. In sociology, Ulrich Beck’s “second modernity” is a close equivalent.
As with modernism and postmodernism, it is architecture that is central to the enduring public definition of neomodernity. Philosophers have only ever interpreted the world, but architects get to build it. Although still inchoate, a neomodern architectural landscape is quite unmistakably under construction. This is especially evident in Shanghai.
When guided by actual architectural construction, the thread leading to Shanghai neomodernity begins in Turin, with Renzo Piano’s 1989 ‘restoration’ of the Fiat Lingotto Factory. This work was exemplary in a number of respects. It balanced creation with renovation, radically upgrading and re-purposing an existing, large-scale structure, whilst venerating the original. The factory was already an iconic modernist edifice, immortalized in Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture (1923). Piano’s multi-use design mixed functional revolution with structural conservation. Hyper-contemporary features (including a rooftop bubble and new window system) employed light, transparent materials, in order to minimize structural (whilst maximizing functional) impact. In this way, an industrial plant was transformed into a hotel, leisure, exhibition and conference space, through aesthetic recapitulation of industrial heritage. The neomodern template had been laid.
It might reasonably be argued that the modern is always and inherently neomodern, that relentless, self-surpassing upgrades are hard-wired into it, from the beginning. Yet the complicating prefix is important and informative, as Piano’s demonstrates. Rather than expressing smooth, continuous improvement, neomodern construction manifests, and celebrates, discontinuity. Modernity is split and becomes, in part, past. The semi-paradoxical notion of ‘modernist heritage’ becomes an animating, or re-animating, inspiration.
Modernity dates awkwardly, and intriguingly, because it positions itself upon the leading edge of time, expressing an infusion from the future. In its vital, colloquial sense, the ‘modern’ is an indexical term that describes what is happening now, or recently. It is in this sense that modernization remains irrepressibly up-to-date, anchored, indexically, to the contemporary. To slip unanchored from the ‘now’ into the dead waters of history is thus to forsake the claim to modernity. What is distinctively past cannot be modern, and the modern cannot be simply past.
Whilst ‘vulgar’ by the standards of intellectual and technical usage, it is this popular sense of the ‘modern’ that generates its intense, agitational force. Even amongst the intelligentsia, postmodernism drew its powers of incitement from the implicit, incomprehensible claim to inhabit a moment beyond now. Whilst it is no great stretch to make the dilation or contraction of ‘now’ compatible with intuition, to float a contemporary state on the far side of now invites stimulating perplexity. (The Chinese ‘now’ is telling in this regard, with xianzai literally indicating the ‘place’ we are ‘first at’, where we always start, beginning arithmetically.)
In the fine arts, the consensual distinction between the ‘modern’ and the ‘contemporary’ resolves this tension, but only by draining the word ‘modern’ of its colloquial and provocative sense, leaving only a husk of historical reference. To care about these words and movements, however, is to insist that modernity, even primordial modernity, resists absorption into accomplished history, because it relates to an absolute future. The dynamized now of modernity is irreducible to a period or moment in time. What modernity discovered, and perpetually recalls, was not just the next thing up the road, but the road ahead in general, and perhaps even the road.
Shanghai reached escape velocity into neomodernity comparatively recently. The turn-of-the-millennium Xintiandi development, for instance, was a mile-stone in urban restoration, but was only embryonically, and perhaps also retrospectively, neomodern. A far clearer example of the architectural trends represented by Piano is found at the Red Town development, which dates back to 2004.
The archetypal neomodern project is a ‘creative cluster’, and Red Town is no exception. It consists of a radically renovated industrial site, re-animated as an arts and leisure hub. At its geographical edge, and conceptual center, sits the huge shell of the Shanghai Steel Company’s old No.10 Steel Plant, now home to the Shanghai Sculpture Space (SSS). In definitive neomodern style, the monumental relics of heavy industry have been embraced and re-vitalized: not merely restored, but aesthetically transfigured.
In the first years of the SSS, huge pieces of rusted machinery, extracted from the re-purposed buildings, lay scattered amongst and alongside the outdoor sculptures, as if deliberately scrambling the boundaries of art and scrap. Some of this detritus, most notably a jumble of massive gutters that once served as conduits for molten metal, have been reborn as postindustrial artworks.
At the heart of the neomodern lies something akin to a field of ruins, yet there is nothing remotely Ozymandian about these remains. They attest more strongly to resilient (if interrupted) survival, than to disappearance and oblivion. Their message is renaissance.
Above all, perhaps, the neomodern is manifested indirectly, through display spaces. It points away from itself, and towards what it revives, in the manner of contemporary museum design, with its ideal of invisible mediation. Its pride is adapted to an information age, in which subtlety trumps assertion, inventive perception supplants self-expression, and flexible anticipation outperforms stubborn purpose.
“We want to demolish museums and libraries” Marinetti declared, in his futurist manifesto, raging against the dead hand of the past. Yet, to make a museum exhibit of modernity is not to mortify, but rather the opposite. The tenacious vitality of the modern is conspicuously demonstrated by the fact that it has not remained what it was. The death of the shell is the life of the chick.
The Shanghai neomodern style is at once jarringly crude and hyper-refined, orchestrating a hard (or hard/soft) juxtaposition of heavy metal remnants and intangible design. It exults in the most cyclopean, stressed, and time-tortured structures: scorched and rusted girders, massive chains, vast slabs of semi-crumbled brickwork, pitted concrete, splintered masonry, the cavernous, eroded shells of warehouses and machine shops. Its preferred heritage components are characterized by relentlessly prosaic, brutal, industrial functionalism, expressed on a mind-crushing scale.
Around and amongst these paleo-modernist dinosaur skeletons, it weaves an exquisite web of maximally-dematerialized and near-transparent structures, emphasizing lightness, subtlety, openness, and innovation. High-bandwidth digital communications, intelligent environmental control systems, hydroponically-nourished creeping plants, hyper-designed furnishings, tastefully understated interior decoration and sophisticated artworks complete the metamorphosis.
Neomodernity is at once more modernity, and modernity again. By synthesizing (accelerating) progressive change with cyclic recurrence, it produces a distinctive schema or figure: the time spiral. But that is to get a little beyond ourselves…
With peculiar synchronicity, half an hour after posting this, a copy of Wonsuk Chang’s essay ‘Reflections on Time and Related Ideas in the Yijing’ arrived in my inbox. The article ends:
“Time in the Yijing may serve a conservative purpose – namely, restoring the past. But it also serves the creative purpose of producing novelty. These two aspects of time do not contradict each other. Many passages in the Yijing, if not all, express that what restores the past simultaneously involves some element of novel creation. The process begins from its incipient movement and finally reaches the point where creative novelty emerges. This evolutionary process is that of an advancing spiral, which ever produces novelty while simultaneously returning again and again to the nascent sources.”