Contested Modernity: The Heritage of Twentieth Century Architecture Between Imagined Tradition, Populism, and the New Conservatives

The world of politics changed abruptly in 2016, and the world of architecture changed no less. In 2016 the “Take Back Control!’ campaign won at the referendum for Britain’s exit from the EU not least because it succeeded in influencing people’s primal emotions. At the same time, another neoconservative wave washed over architecture, on the back of the political populism’s momentum. A number of architectural organizations, initiatives, and social media groups demanded that architecture return to its “roots”, to “tradition,” and to the “true beauty of the past”.
The architectural heritage of the twentieth century is the victim of that situation, the buildings and urban interventions from a period of utopian faith in progress, when (especially post-war) modernism put architecture at the service of all people. Of course, like all utopias, the modernist one failed. But today’s attack is directed not only against the aesthetic shortcomings of architectural modernism, but also against its globalism, universalism, and social charge. Meanwhile, purposeless wars over style and pseudo-traditionalism often mask a dark nationalism, a market populism, and a lack of any vision for the future. They also prevent us from standing up for architecture and all its possible languages.
In 2017, shortly after the hotly debated and nationalist rhetoric motivated demolition of the abstract late socialist monument 1300 Years of Bulgaria, the anthropologist Ivaylo Dichev wrote that urban monuments have a closer relationship to emotions than to the past. What matters to us is not so much the facts that we remember from the past, but the feelings we experience together about them. Today, the fate of the monuments is only the most visible part of a more global phenomenon – that the heritage surrounding us is more and more resolutely contradictory, in many different ways.