Why Modernism Failed but Mountain Modern Succeeds

Exterior view of modern, white house with garage decorated with wood

Mountain Modern architecture is all the rage in states like Utah, Montana, Colorado, and Idaho. In fact, it is a big across the West and Pacific Northwest. Ironically, it borrows elements from the original modernist movement birthed in the late 1800s. But while Modernism has since failed, Mounting Modern continues on stronger than ever.

There is nothing to say that Mountain Modern will not fail itself at some point. But there are some distinct differences between it and Modernism that bodes well for its future. Modernism was destined to fail based on established human nature. Mountain Modern doesn’t suffer from the same deficiencies that led to Modernism’s downfall.

Simple, Functional Designs

Modernism started as an architectural movement rooted in late 19th century social progressivism. Architects being trained in the Bauhaus school of thought believed that architecture could usher in a new age of social justice centered around equality for all. The phrase ‘form follows function’ was birthed from this movement.

The thinking was that architecture could foster a stronger sense of community. It could encourage people to live in harmony with one another rather than pursuing their own self interests. To foster such thinking, modernism eschewed luxury, opulence, and ornate decoration.

Modernism called for simple, functional designs. Dwellings were simple shapes like squares and rectangles. In keeping with the socially progressive aspect of the movement, single-family homes were avoided in favor of larger blocks of multi-story apartment buildings. Within these blocks were wide open community spaces intended to foster strong social interaction.

People Are Not Machines

Modernism caught on quickly enough in Europe. It eventually spread to the U.S. in the 1930s and 40s. It really took off in this country after World War II, despite a postwar housing boom that emphasized single-family homes in a sprawling suburbia. Ironically, suburbia spelled the doom of modernism in America.

As fast as modernist buildings went up, they came down. The deconstruction of modernism began in earnest in the 1970s, with the tearing down of a St. Louis, Missouri housing complex that was supposed to be the cornerstone of American modernism when it was erected in 1955.

As it turns out, people did not want to live in the complex because its function over form style made them feel like little more than machines. Modernism may have worked for commercial buildings, but people are not machines. They are individuals who look to maintain their own identities alongside their hopes and dreams.

A Better Use of Form

When Modern Mountain came along, it borrowed some of the basic architectural principles of modernism without the social progressivism. Mountain Modern still stressed clean lines, open spaces, and the lack of unnecessary opulence. Today’s Modern Mountain stresses the same principles, as evidenced by some of the incredible designs developed by Salt Lake City architects Sparano + Moony.

What makes Mountain Modern distinct and separate from modernism is its ability to embrace the individual. Sparano + Mooney exemplifies this, designing single-family homes that make better use of form than Modernism. To them, every project is an individual project built around the needs, preferences, and visions of their respective owners.

The clean lines and open spaces of typical Modernist design are as valid today as they have ever been. Modernism did not fail because of them. It failed because it forced people into little boxes – both literally and figuratively. People naturally want to be free to be who they are. They do not want to be forced into urban housing complexes that are plain, frugal, and unappealing. So Modernism died of its own function over form. Meanwhile, Mountain Modern lives on.

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