High modernism

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"Machines for living:" for various critics, including Tom Wolfe, the Pruitt–Igoe housing project illustrated both the essential unlivability of Bauhaus-inspired box architecture, and the hubris of central planning.

High modernism (also known as high modernity) is a form of modernity, characterized by an unfaltering confidence in science and technology as means to reorder the social and natural world.[1][2] The high modernist movement was particularly prevalent during the Cold War, especially in the late 1950s and 1960s.


High modernity is distinguished by the following characteristics:[3]

  • Strong confidence in the potential for scientific and technological progress, including a reliance on the expertise of scientists, engineers, bureaucrats and other intellectuals.
  • Attempts to master nature (including human nature) to meet human needs.
  • An emphasis on rendering complex environments or concepts (such as old cities or social dynamics) legible, most often through spatial ordering (for example, city planning on a grid).
  • Disregard for historical, geographical and social context in development.

Relation to modernity[edit]

Modernity relates to the modern era and the aesthetic qualities of modernism; however, modernity refers specifically to the social conditions and relations that arise out of the modern period, usually as a result of capitalism and industrialization. Thus, modernity can be understood as the state of society during and following the process of modernization.

Modernity and high modernity are concerned with human progress and the potential of human intervention to bring about positive change in the structure of society; however, high modernity's visions of societal change rely on the expertise of intellectuals and scientific innovation, making high modernity a more elitist project than its predecessor.[4]

Both concepts operate on an ambiguous understanding of what the final stage of societal progress will entail. While modernity is retrospective in its prescriptions for the future and promotes organic growth, high modernity advocates a complete transformation of existing conditions and the creation of a blank slate.[5] This break from the historical and geographical contexts of places often results in the application of standardized models to a variety of locations, often with socially disruptive consequences (see examples below).

Modernity and modernization are associated with capitalist and industrial development, and emphasize the increased movement of goods, people, capital and information (see Globalization). This emphasis on economic freedom and capitalism is accompanied by the decline of traditional forms of society and the rise of the nation-state.[6] In contrast, high modernism transcends traditional political ideological divisions in its reordering of society towards a utopian ideal as such ideal societies are highly subjective across the political spectrum.[7] Furthermore, projects characteristic of high modernity are best enacted under conditions of authoritarian and technocratic rule, as populations are more easily controlled and changed.[8]

Modernization and development[edit]

Geographer Peter J. Taylor argues that high modernity's false optimism in the transformative power of science and technology contributed to confusion in the modernization process, especially in the case of third world countries striving to develop according to Western principles of modernization.[9]

Following the successes of the Marshall Plan in Europe, economists turned their attention towards development in the Third World in the aftermath of the Second World War.[10] Contemporary development theory stressed the necessity of capital accumulation and modernization in order for underdeveloped countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America to 'catch up' to the developed Western nations.[11] Post-World War II development schemes were problematized by a focus on economy (ignoring the political, social and institutional impediments to growth), as well as its assumption that conditions in developing countries were the same as those in Europe that experienced success under the Marshall Plan.[12] Modernization theory built upon previous ideas of sociocultural evolution from the previous century, constructing a global hierarchy based on economic development.[13] In this worldview, Western countries were the most developed, while the rest of the world (particularly countries that had just experienced decolonization) still possessed traditional, pre-modern economies. In order to advance beyond this traditional state, the third world would therefore need to emulate developed Western countries, through optimistic social engineering endeavours.[14]

The overwhelming enthusiasm for the power of science and technology to manage the human and natural world encouraged regimes to attempt monumental development projects that would rapidly catapult developing countries into Western-style development.[15] High modernism emphasized spatial order as rational design; by standardizing, simplifying and ordering physical space, otherwise complex concepts or entities could be made legible and more easily controlled, including economies.

Despite the strong association of modernization with Western society, high modernism also found purchase in the Soviet Party, under Nikita Khrushchev. Following the death of Joseph Stalin, Khrushchev retooled Soviet policy to include most of the ideas of Western high modernity with socialist undertones, emphasizing the role of science in providing progress without exploitation or social inequity.[16] Both the Soviet Union and the United States viewed the modernization of the developing world as a way to expand their respective spheres of influence and create new economic markets; however, it was the Soviet Union and other autocratic regimes during this period that adopted high modernism as the optimal vision to bring about modernization.


During the first half of the twentieth century, Brazil was a primarily agricultural nation that was economically reliant on the United States. Beginning in the 1950s, Brazilian elites sought to reinvent Brazil's economy through import substitution industrialization. The modernization of the Brazilian economy was also accompanied by grand designs to improve education, culture, health care, transportation systems, community organization, property distribution, and administration in order to spark a new sense of national agency in the population.[17]

Part of this grand vision for Brazil's future was the relocation of the nation's capital from the coastal Rio de Janeiro to a new inland site named Brasília. Essentially located in the wilderness, Brasília was to be a “single-function, strictly administrative capital,” says political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott.[18] Here, long-considered plans for a new capital were finally able to come to fruition thanks to global enthusiasm for the potential of technology. Brasília's massive scale, rational design and cultural offerings, all built from the ground up in the forests of Brazil made it the ultimate manifestation of high modernity.[19] The project's chief architect, Oscar Niemeyer, was strongly influenced by Soviet high modernism in his prescriptions for the new capital as the Soviet Union began to slowly open up to the rest of the world in a new period of internationalism.[20] Despite the cultural and ideological differences of the two countries, both shared common ground in their determination to modernize, strong state authority and a strong belief in the doctrine of high modernity.[21]

The new Brazilian capital was completed in under four years and was presented to the world upon its completion in 1960 as the epitome of urban modernism.[22] The city was planned as a manifestation of Brazil's future as a modern, industrialized power, creating a completely new city that would then create a new society.[23] Based on the master plans of the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), Brasília's urban space was oriented around mobility, uniformity and functionality, achieved through the elimination of corridor streets (seen as the source of disease and criminality) and the creation of indistinguishable residence sectors based on occupation, known as ‘’superquadra’’.[24]

Total state control of development was critical to the creation of utopian high modernist cities by the CIAM, as it prevented conflict between the planned ideal society and the incoherence of imposing this model on existing conditions.[25]

Following the completion of the city, it became apparent that Brasília’s high modernist design had overlooked the complexities of urban space and had overestimated the ability of functional, rational design to improve socio-political order. Planners’ focus on orienting mobility in the city around automobile traffic had eliminated the street as a place for public gathering; the removal of street corners in favour of cul-de-sacs and open space (punctuated by monumental sculptural and architectural forms like the Cathedral of Brasília and the National Congress Building) discouraged pedestrian traffic, traditional social networking and organic growth of public space.[26] The organization of Brasília's settlement similarly restricted social space by collectivizing residents according to their occupation in the ‘’superquadra’’, transforming the private sphere of the home into a space where the individual was ‘symbolically minimized.’ [27] While these ‘’superquadra’’ featured their own educational, entertainment, recreational and retail facilities to meet any perceivable need of the city’s residents, these perceived needs were based on European models from CIAM and architect Le Corbusier. Furthermore, the aesthetic monotony and scale of the city’s built environment created feelings of isolation, forced conformity and disorientation among residents; there also existed a stark contrast between the wealthier residents living in the centre of the city and the poorer residents situated along the city’s margins.[28]

Inuit and the Canadian military[edit]

State reliance on high modernity to control human populations during the Cold War was not limited to the US. In Canada, the construction of the Distant Early Warning Line increased Euro-Canadian activity in the north, disrupting the traditional lifestyle of local Inuit populations and the arctic landscape in the process.[29] Prime Minister John Diefenbaker's promise to build "a nation in the [north] ... patterned on our way of life" resulted in towns and houses patterned on southern Canadian models that ignored the cultural and geographical context of the Arctic.[30]

The newly constructed towns of Frobisher Bay and Inuvik were ambitiously designed by federal officials to overcome the previously 'uninhabitable' arctic environment and rapidly incorporate the Inuit into the modern age;[31] however, the disregard for the local conditions and opinions of northerners resulted in spatial segregation of Inuit and military personnel in the two towns. In pursuit of a modernized, self-sufficient northern settlement, state-led projects to stabilize the nomadic Inuit in towns disrupted native resource-based economies and contributed to spatial segregation, social inequity, health problems and cultural dislocation.[32]

In the arts[edit]

Visual arts and music[edit]

Cultural critic Bram Dijkstra criticizes "high modernism" as an austere, abstract, and anti-humanist vision of modernism:

Much of the post-WWII high modernism in America and the rest of the western world is antihumanist, hostile to notions of community, of any form of humanism. It becomes about the lack of meaning, the need to create our own significance out of nothing. The highest level of significance, that of the elite, becomes abstraction. So the concept of the evolutionary elite arises again, deliberately excluding those who 'haven't evolved.'[33]

High modernism is exemplified in the writings of Clement Greenberg, who described an opposition between "avant-garde" art and "kitsch" in his essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch.[34] Composer Milton Babbitt's well-known essay "Who Cares if You Listen" describes "efficiency", an increase in "the number of functions associated with each component", "a high degree of contextuality and autonomy", and an "extension of the methods of other musics" as being among the traits possessed by contemporary serious music,[35] though the words "modernism" and "modernist" do not occur in the article, and "modern" occurs only in a quotation with reference to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.


The term "high modernism" as used in literary criticism generally lacks the pejorative connotations it has in other contexts. High literary modernism, on the contrary, is generally used to describe a subgenre of literary modernism, and generally encompasses works published between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Second.[36] Regardless of the specific year it was produced, high modernism is characterized primarily by a complete and unambiguous embrace of what Andreas Huyssen calls the "Great Divide".[37] That is, it believes that there is a clear distinction between capital-A Art and mass culture, and it places itself firmly on the side of Art and in opposition to popular or mass culture. (Postmodernism, according to Huyssen, may be defined precisely by its rejection of this distinction.)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 4.
  2. ^ The Best- Laid Plans - The New York Times
  3. ^ Scott, pp. 4-5; Peter J. Taylor, Modernities: A Geohistorical Interpretation (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), pp. 18, 32.
  4. ^ Scott, p. 94-96
  5. ^ Taylor, pp. 14, 40-41.
  6. ^ Volker H. Schmidt, "Multiple Modernities or Varieties of Modernity?" Current Sociology 54, no. 77 (2006): p. 80; Taylor, p. 39.
  7. ^ Tobias Rupprecht, "Socialist High Modernity and Global Stagnation: A Shared History of Brazil and the Soviet Union During the Cold War," Journal of Global History 6, no. 3 (2011): p. 522; Scott, pp. 88-89.
  8. ^ Scott, p. 5, 94.
  9. ^ Taylor, p. 18.
  10. ^ Lwazi Siyabonga Lushaba, Development as Modernity, Modernity As Development (Dakar, Senegal: Counsel for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, 2009), pp. 2-4; Kimber Charles Pearce, ‘’Rostow, Kennedy, and the Rhetoric of Foreign Aid’’ (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2001), p. 29.
  11. ^ Pearce, p. 3.
  12. ^ Zaheer Baber, “Modernization Theory and the Cold War,” ‘’Journal of Contemporary Asia’’ 31, no. 1 (2001): p. 74.
  13. ^ Lushaba, pp. 2-3
  14. ^ Walt Whitman Rostow, “The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (1960),” in ‘’From Modernization to Globalization: Perspectives on Development and Social Change’’, ed. J. Timmons Roberts and Amy Hite (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd., 2000), pp. 100-101.
  15. ^ Schneider notes in his evaluation of James Scott’s analysis of villagization in Tanzania that development failures in this period were not always attributable to ‘’high’’ modernism. In the case of Tanzanian villagization, modernization projects were driven by policy makers acting on their own hubris as creators of a modern state, rather than as proponents of scientific rationality. Schneider, pp. 32-33
  16. ^ Rupprecht, pp. 509, 522.
  17. ^ Anthropologist Tanya Li notes that in addition to the well-known “high modern, state-driven projects of rural and urban planning,” regimes also conducted modernization initiatives through less conspicuous methods of education and technologies of management (including maps, censuses and surnames). James Holston, “The Spirit of Brasília: Modernity as Experiment and Risk,” in ‘’City/Art: The Urban Scene in Latin America,’’ ed. Rebecca E. Biron (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), p. 92; Tanya Li, “Beyond the ‘State’ and Failed Schemes,” ‘’American Anthropologist’’ New Series 107, no. 3 (2005): p. 386; Rupprecht, pp. 507-508
  18. ^ Scott, p. 118
  19. ^ Rupprecht, p. 508
  20. ^ Rupprecht, p. 510
  21. ^ Rupprecht, p. 509
  22. ^ Holston, 86.
  23. ^ Holston, p. 93; Scott, p. 120
  24. ^ Holston, p. 96; Scott, p. 125.
  25. ^ Holston, p. 93.
  26. ^ Holston, pp. 94-95; Scott, pp. 120-121, 126.
  27. ^ Holston, p. 97.
  28. ^ Holston, p. 103; Scott, pp. 127, 130.
  29. ^ Matthew Farish and P. Whitney Lackenbauer, "High Modernism in the Arctic: Planning Frobisher Bay and Inuvik," Journal of Historical Geography 35 (2009): p. 520.
  30. ^ Peter C. Dawson, "Seeing Like an Inuit Family: The Relationship Between House Form and Culture in Northern Canada," Études/Inuit/Studies 30, no. 2 (2006): 120; Farish and Lackenbauer, pp. 518, 535, 538.
  31. ^ Farish and Lackenbauer note that while Canada did not possess an authoritarian government to enforce high modernist planning, the limited political agency of native northerners in the early years of the Cold War allowed the Canadian government and military to administer their plans in a similar manner to authoritarian regimes. Farish and Lackenbauer, pp. 517, 521.
  32. ^ Dawson, p. 117; Farish and Lackenbauer, pp. 537–539.
  33. ^ Interview with Bram Dijkstra, conducted by Ron Hogan, for beatrice.com. (Accessed Aug. 17, 2006)
  34. ^ Clement Greenberg, Avant-Garde and Kitsch
  35. ^ Milton Babbitt, "Who Cares if You Listen" (originally in High Fidelity, Feb. 1958)
  36. ^ High Modernism: Aestheticism and Performativity in Literature of the 1920s on JSTOR
  37. ^ Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, mass culture, Postmodernism, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986)