“Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor- all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked- who is good? Not that men are ignorant-what is truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men”

W.E.B Du Bois (The Souls of Black Folk- 1903)

Du Bois was referring to the ignorance for the fellow men as the tragedy of the age in chapter 12 of his book The Souls of Black Folk titled ‘of Alexander Crummel’. The then political and theological ideologies allowed for the discrimination of the black American sanctioned by the State, and unfortunately Institutionalized racism had been allowed to take root due and progress even after the advancement of modernism.

The experimentation in the creation of the Utopian dream was inflicted on people who were on the lowest rung on the socio-economic scale- the minorities. Carried out under the auspices of modernism, societal displacement of minorities into multi storyed brutalist buildings in urban landscapes became synonymous with the welfare state and social decay. As Du Bois had stated, men still had not understood their fellow men even with the intellectual explosion that modernism had heralded in.

So, what is modernism? Modernism is not an era or a period, but an intellectual movement which rejected the rule of the church and monarchy on the basis that European culture had become corrupt and a change was needed. Discontentment with class divisions occurred in Europe in the early 17th century and culminated in widespread violence and reformation of the church in 1517 by Martin Luther. He became disenfranchised over the sale of indulgences which he claimed was a disguise for raising funds for the completion of the St Basilica Cathedral in Rome (Bishop; n.d).

This age of enlightenment found its way into arts, philosophy, politics and science and laid the platforms for a paradigm shift from the divine right of God and Kings to the ‘consent of the governed’ philosophy. The existing hierarchical social order was challenged on the basis that knowledge was classless because we can either 1) all experience the world directly 2) because all human beings can reason (Benton & Craib; 2001, p107).

In architecture, modernism translated to brutalist, minimalist structures made up of reinforced steel and glass. Le Corbusier was influential, and his vision was for housing that were minimally adorned, made up of repetitive units which were high rises, separately zoned and brutally geometric. His theory was that regular, unadorned surfaces and straight lines would promote a sense of democracy and equality among people (Birmingham; 1999, p.296).

His designs and writings became widely adopted in the USA and Europe. The public housing schemes in the USA in the 1950’s combined modernist designs and environmental determinism, and this saw the vast clearance of slums in the belief that better designed building will improve the inhabitant’s conditions.

His vision, however noble, was fundamentally flawed.

Less than a century later, these buildings were found to be faulty in design and difficult to maintain. So, why did the modernism vision fail? Modernist concepts failed because it attempted to apply a universal solution to the whole of humanity.

Lyotard had earlier warned that the rule of scientific knowledge limited resolutions to a single answer which could only be articulated by an ‘elite’ or privileged few. This ‘elitist’ approach which was taken up by Housing Associations in Europe and USA through the form of slum clearance programs. Elitist in the manner that they assumed that one solution would fit all, for not consulting the eventual occupants on the type of dwelling they would like to live in and by new forcing an order disrupted the residents previously existing social structures. They failed to understand the needs of their fellow men.

The vision of Le Corbusier and colleagues were well intentioned, they were sociologists who wanted democracy and equality to be translated through their designs, but the failings of modernism as a concept and the manipulation of its application outweighs the most well intended notion the implications of which are still prevalent.

Pruitt-Igoe and Ronan Point disasters were the visible indications of the failings of modernism in housing, however, there are other unquantifiable socio-economic impacts that are harder to ascertain.

For instance, the rise of ‘turf wars’ can be linked back to modernism. Harvey states that lower income earners are constricted by space since they don’t have the ability to command new space (reproduction) so their main way of dominating space is through continuous appropriation and the result of this is the intense attachment to place and ‘turf’ because it is their only means that domination over space is assured (Harvey; 1990, p.260-261). As many black communities in the USA occupied the lowest income brackets, they were forced to move into the high-rise buildings (estates, projects), disrupting their existing socio-economic structures and accelerating territorial wars.  Harvey contrasts this with affluent communities that can command more space through the accumulation of more assets (buildings, cars).

The increased class polarisation symbolized by increasing urban poverty surrounding areas of conspicuous wealth further contributes to racial, ethnic, religious and neighborhood tensions and the architectural systems put in place by the state only reinforced structural racism (Birmingham; 1999, p.291).

What was meant as a design for human utopia turned out to be a failed experiment on social engineering and this was the tragedy of modernism- that the intellectual had failed to understand their fellow men.



BENTON, T. AND CRAIB, I. (2001). Philosophy of Social Science: The Philosophical Foundations of Social Thought, Basingstoke, Palgrave.

BISHOP, P. (n.d). Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation [online] available from: https://www.hccfl.edu/media/173616/ee2luther.pdf (accessed on 13.03.2018)

BIRMINGHAM, E. (1999). Refraining the ruins: Pruitt-Igoe, Structural Racism, and African American Rhetoric as a Space for Cultural Critique. Western Journal of Communication, 63 (3), 291-309.

GIDDENS,A. (1990) The Consequences of Modernity, Cambridge,Polity.

HARVEY, D. (1990). Flexible Accumulation through Urbanization Reflections on “Post-Modernism” in the American City, Perspecta, Vol. 26, Theater, Theatricality, and Architecture, MIT Press, pp. 251-272.

SEABROOK, R AND WYATT-NICHOL, H. (2016) “The Ugly Side of America: Institutional Oppression and Race,” Journal of Public Management & Social Policy: Vol. 23: No. 1, Article 3. Available at: http://digitalscholarship.tsu.edu/jpmsp/vol23/iss1/3

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