The Vivacity and Complexity of Everyday Life

The Vivacity and Complexity of Everyday Life
Review of the book ‘Scenes of the World to Come,’
London Quarterly 7

The Vivacity and Complexity of Everyday Life

‘Scenes of the World to Come’ brings together two themes. The first is the tracing of American architecture’s influence over European architecture in the twentieth century (or rather between 1893 and 1960, as the book’s subtitle tells us). The other theme is the picturing of the future: the ‘scenes of the world to come’. The book implies, rather than asserts, that an iconography of the future was an instrumental component in the gaining of American hegemony over Europe.

Perhaps this form of expression is already to give the story more of a political spin than the author does. Cohen is careful to keep to his architectural ground in a thorough, scholarly account, which is very accessible. But the logic of the book, in the mingling of these two themes, encourages the reader to make connections outside of the scope of its historical account. This is to say one wonders things such as whose future these images represent or to what degree did the American state promote itself as an image of the future? 

What the book does highlight is the power of the image and forms of image making in architecture, which are not just pictures of buildings. Indeed, the book is a companion piece to an exhibition and the number and variety of illustrations are an important part of the argument. Despite some seminal stuff (the obligatory Le Corbusier grain silos, for example), this approach gets away from the dominant canon of architectural history, which tends to privilege and fetishize built buildings. They help show how important forms of representation can be in disseminating ideas and influence.

Cohen uses the term “Americanism” to mean the appeal of the perceived values of America. Whilst such slippery projected qualities are always hard to pin down, the emphasis was obviously on newness. This was of both the kinds of buildings and the kind of city envisioned, and the new forms of life and culture these would entail. Mixed up with this ideological vision, was what Cohen calls “Americanization”, by which he means the adoption of American production methods, especially Taylorism and Fordism. This idea was applied to everything and anything, so it seems, notably including organizing the housewife in the kitchen. These two terms show that the idea of newness in culture was and is not separable from the economic, that is capitalist, need for the new.

The theme of newness is itself not new. There is little controversy about the idea of American cultural influence, or even dominance, over Europe growing throughout the twentieth century. What this book offers is the thought that this dominance cannot be reduced to an economic account of hegemony, nor a crude account of cultural imperialism. In contrast, it traces how Europeans were positively attracted to America: sometimes this was because they had been there; but more often, and this is the point, they were attracted by the idea (and the image) of America. And one of the strongest things it offered was not being Europe: the new is a chance to start again and forget the failures and tragedies of the past. The weight of dead generations is not so easily forgotten, though, and the future is never what it seems or how it is pictured. The failure of modernism to live up to its billing is thus instructive but only if, as with this book, the aspirations and ideas of its protagonists are not reduced to cliché. It is a lesson that putative postmodernists might heed in their dealings with history.

From the cynical 1990’s it is, perhaps, all to easy to mock the naiveté and utopianism of the hopes of newness and progress documented in this book. Nothing dates like visions of the future, of course. But this study makes the demise of utopianism feel like a loss. This is not a nostalgia for a simple, uncomplicated modernism; rather it is to think that visions of a better world may be both useful and desirable.

It is surely an urgent task of anyone who wishes to transcend the self-serving apathy and cynicism so pervasive in current cultural theory of all hues, to recover some sense of the future. A bit of utopianism might be no bad thing. The task is to unpack the ideological use of the idea of newness and progress, which serve as justification for an existing regime, from the urge to make a better world. The future is somewhere to be fought over. Such ideas are no longer popular, no doubt because of the failures of claiming too much for the future. The problem is to claim neither too much nor too little for images of the future.