11 January 2018

The Annual Post: Modern vs. Modernist. And: why should you care?

(If you feel like you saw this piece before: because of the significance in terminology and confusion about these terms, I publish this post once a year).

Many years ago when I was to start my blog “The Modernist Angle”, my wife and I discussed those two terms at length. What seems like an inconsequential First World Problem is actually a bit like cooking: if you’re sloppy in the details, it comes back to bite you later.

And even though sometimes folks frown upon me, a native German, throwing around words I barely understand and can hardly pronounce in my native language, not to mention English, there is a reason we prefer “Modernist” over “Modern”.

We found an interesting discussion where the pros differentiate between those two rather carefully, the former referring to a style or aesthetic, while the latter – modern – meaning something “current”:

“Takeaway lesson: There's an important difference between 'modern' and 'modernist'. Modern means nothing more than 'current' or 'recent'. Modernist means... the ideology of modernism... an aesthetic movement that emerged in Europe during the interwar period”. (Ray Sawhill, on the Visual Resources Association Forum)

Even more to the point:

“Modernist is ultimately a more valuable and specific term for us than the more generic Modern. Modernist is our stylistic term of choice, whereas Modern seems more like a state of mind.” (– Dane A. Johnson, Visual Resource Coordinator, College of Architecture and Design, Lawrence Technological University, Southfield, MI, on the Visual Resources Association Forum)

Thus, a mid-century design by Breuer or Mies as an example should really be referred to as Mid-Century Modernist. Though nobody does that, as a client reminded me when he snubbed all homes older than five years, regardless of their modernist style.

Florida Modern Homes, by www.modernsouthflorida.com
Two homes newly built in 2017. Both are Modern (or “recently built”), but only one is Modernist.

With my own firm’s mission being “Brokering, Promoting and Preserving [...insert the M-word here] Homes and Architecture”, an important step was to check the use of the two terms on the web. “Modern” was the clear favourite, especially from a business perspective.

So we use “Modern” in the website name and mission statement, but on social media as well as in a verbal context where we can discuss, explain and elaborate, we prefer “Modernist” as the correct and more precise term.

Good question to ask your favourite architect, isn’t it? And: what are your thoughts?