Launch Slideshow

Modernism Marches On, Even at Apple

Modernism Marches On, Even at Apple

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The Modernists have won and the imitators of past styles are destined for oblivion. No, that is not a quote from Le Corbusier or a comment of the seeming disappearance of New Urbanism as a force, but the apparent outcome of a power struggle at Apple, the company that has already done more to bring the notion of clean lines, abstraction, white, and every other surface attribute of Modernism to the masses than any architect or architectural theoretician. Last week, Scott Forstall was ousted, and Jonathan “Round-Edged Slab” Ives will now take charge of both the physical and the projected appearance of all Apple projects.

I am glad that skeuomorphism—the imitation of leather, wood, and other attempts to make your screen gain familiar textures—will disappear. Though Steve Jobs apparently favored such abominations, I always thought they were completely out of context with Apple’s slick and sleek objects. Making a calendar look as if it is bound in leather or books look like they are on a wooden bookcase does not reassure me, nor does it make me feel more kindly too such useful apparitions. I want my information to be clean, clear, and simple, thank you very much.

On the other hand, I see nothing wrong in cladding my iPad and iPhone with materials that have texture, ranging from leather (OK, as a vegetarian I do feel guilty about that) to the kind of rubber that is easy to grip and pleasant to handle. I do not necessarily want any decoration on them and certainly no logos, but something that I touch should respond in a manner that guides and encourages me. It should also embed itself within my existing reality. If someday they can simulate those effects, I will be all for it. What I do not need is the image of a sensation.

The same is true in the various imitations of geography that populate our devices. As far as I am concerned, the organization of information should be as simple and clear as possible, and mimicking road or building textures confuses rather than helps. If I want to know what the site really looks like, I will switch to a satellite view. Whether I will still feel that way when the software reaches a point, which in some cases, as with the latest Audi displays, it appears to be approaching, that it can create a complete movie of the scene through which I am driving, I do not know. I suspect that I will still find it a stellar instance of TMI.

I am, of course, biased. I was trained as a Modernist designer and my preferences remain there despite the best efforts of my postmodern professors and friends. I have never understood the logic of paper-thin face brick or concrete made to look like stone. I do not feel reassured by steel-framed houses that architects try to make look like the neighborhood rose collectively out of wood. 

What I do like is the playful reuse of existing materials, or the making of form that awakens memories. Isomorphism and collage, rather than skeuomorphism, holds my interest and affection. Are architects, as usual, running behind our society, and will the Forstall forces be ousted from the discipline before too long? I certainly hope so.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.