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Towards Critical Modernity

Liisa Kaljula (1/2013)

Liisa Kaljula contextualizes the travelling exhibition "Modernization. Baltic art, architecture and design in the 1960s and 1970s".

9. XII 2011–12. II 2012
National Gallery of Art, Vilnius

30. VI–4. XI 2012
Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design

Curators: Lolita JablonskienÄ— (Lithuanian National Gallery of Art), Kai Lobjakas (Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design), Iliana Veinberga (Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art).

Last year the rising tide of studies of Cold War culture has unmistakeably reached Estonia, as evidenced by two large survey exhibitions – "Fashion and the Cold War" at Kumu Art Museum and "Modernization" at the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design – in addition to the autumn conference at Kumu "Art and Political Reality" dedicated to the same issues. That the battlefronts of the Cold War are legibly written into the culture of the period, and therefore, provide useful source material for a wide spectrum of historians should surely be clear by now. However, "Modernization. Baltic art, architecture and design in the 1960s and 1970s", a joint project by three Baltic curators, which recently closed at the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design, provides a good reason to return for a moment to some central concepts of the 20th century and take a look at the shifts in meaning which have taken place. The statement that in the 1960s and 1970s art, architecture and design in the three small westernmost republics of the Soviet Union was first and foremost about modernisation is intriguing enough because for a long time modernisation has been regarded as synonymous with westernisation, and it has been habitual for the West to reserve the concept for itself. But it is also intriguing because due to decades of work by sociologists and cultural theorists the whole conceptual framework related to modernity has acquired critical layers of meaning, reference, or non-reference, which may prove revealing in itself.


Modernisation and westernisation

Hearing the word "modern" in everyday speech probably does not conjure up any specific ideological associations, and if it does, it might just be a case of paranoia; in scientific discourse, however, it is really difficult to take "modernisation" as something neutral. A critical concept of modernity has been inculcated in the social sciences from the founding fathers of sociology, Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, to the influential Frankfurt School and the followers of their thinking. So, for more than a century now social scientists have been suggesting that it is the post-Enlightenment western rationality that instils in us the belief that through secularisation, industrialisation and free market economy we will arrive at a better society. According to the sociologist, Shmuel Eisenstadt, the understanding of modernisation under Marx, Durkheim and partly also Weber is centred on western hegemony, representing the expansive cultural programme of the West, which will ultimately conquer the entire world.1 If you do a little test and search Google Books for all books with the word "modernity" in their titles, with every page more and more books on post-war modernisation in Japan, modernisation of China, modernisation of Islamic society and modernisation of Jewish or Amish communities come up. What is at play here is a non-critical concept of modernity, according to which "modern" stands for the opposite of "archaic" or "traditional", but also implies western modernity to which all societies are destined to open sooner or later.

Several theorists of the second half of the 20th century have thought that the post-World War II developments did not justify the western-centredness of the early theory of critical modernity. According to Eisenstadt, modernity recognisably revealed itself in many non-western societies during that period, but it was largely influenced by the specific cultural environments, traditions and historical experiences for which western modernity was a crucial but ambivalent source; therefore, we should speak about modernities, rather than modernity.2 In the humanities, this view was shared in several disciplines which had associated themselves with the post-colonial paradigm. On the basis of Eisenstadt’s model, the plurality of modernities developed in a certain evaluative relationship with western modernity, among other places also in the US, which saw itself as the new stronghold of modernity after the war and where modernity was shaped in opposition to Europe, particularly England and France.3 Although Eisenstadt does not discuss the Soviet Union at any length, it can be said, relying on several studies of the Cold War, that here too a contradictory relationship with the West, and the US in particular, combining admiration with envy, and friendship with rivalry, played an important role in the development of modernity.


The Soviet West and hybrid modernity

The press release for the "Modernization" exhibition says that "the Baltics were seen in the Soviet context as a reminiscence or part of something Western, an internal Western Europe. The design and architecture of cafes and restaurants, seaside spas, new residential communities and public buildings in the Baltics was clearly distinct from that of the bloc, and thus became legendary." What distinguishes the Baltic States from the rest of the Soviet Union here is its similarity to the West, and the aim of the exhibition seems to be to show that the three westernmost Soviet republics succeeded in modernising themselves faster than the other Soviet republics precisely by embracing western phenomena. So the exhibition begins with an experimental plan of Tallinn centre by Malle Meelak and Mart Port (1968), where we see a modern vision of Tõnismäe with a set of skyscrapers in the International style. But things are not as simple as that. As the curators point out, in reality modernisation in Baltic urban design was brought about by the strict design regulations put into force across the Soviet Union from the mid-1950s, requiring mass construction according to standard plans developed in the central planning offices and resulting in the rapid urbanisation of the Baltic States.4

Thus, the post-war urbanisation in the Baltic States largely occurred by way of standardised planning, which resolved the housing shortage on a mass scale – adding to this the programme of resettlement from Russian-speaking regions of the Soviet Union supported by the central power, it is hard to avoid the concept of colonisation. Mart Kalm describes the ambivalence of the situation, pointing out that a local site-specific plan based on a Soviet standard plan could yield "a rather Scandinavian-looking, cultivated result, although this rarely happened".5 According to the curators, the modernist architecture specific to the Baltic States rather manifests itself in the construction of the public buildings of the period, "which with its human dimension, simplicity of architectural form, democracy and use of natural materials is comparable to that of the Nordic countries".6 These public buildings, intermingled with plans of varying flexibility for pre-cast panelled buildings, take up a significant part of the first half of the exhibition: the Exhibition Palace in Vilnius (1964–1965), the Janis Rainis State Theatre of the Latvian SSR in Riga (1960s) and the Flower Pavilion in Tallinn (1960) to name just a few. The other half of the exhibition is mainly devoted to applied art and industrial design. Starting from the 1960s, the curators tell us, the Soviet Union began to take interest in improving the quality of its industrial production. Thanks to this, industrial design departments were set up in the Baltic capitals, and industrial design as such was given a right to life.7 Here there is quite a revealing gap between the modern demands characteristic of the period and the actual means available: a large proportion of the experimental designs and prototypes displayed at the exhibition never made it to production, being just too complicated for the available technology and the asceticism of the planned economy.


Towards critical modernity

Image courtesy of Riga Autobus Factory (RAF).


Modernity as a Cold War obsession

For most of the 20th century, the West had positive connotations in the Baltic States. Supported by the political history of the region, the word has inconspicuously taken on a far richer meaning besides being a geographical signifier. Talking about "the West" implies "freedom", "modernity", "welfare" and such an influx, or outflux, of meaning must be taken into account when studying the Soviet period. However, aspirations for a modern way of life in the Soviet Union was nothing unique to the Baltic States. The claim that the Cold War was about two super powers struggling and competing for modernity in particular – with artists, designers and architects playing a perhaps even more important role in it than politicians – is a central thesis in the rising Cold War scholarship,8 a thesis which also underlies the Victoria and Albert Museum’s major exhibition "Cold War Modern: Design 1945–1970" curated by David Crowley and Jane Pavitt. Nikita Khrushchev, whom historians credit with initiating a political thaw and de-stalinisation, was also important as a moderniser of the Soviet Union, reopening it to the western world. Compared to the preceding decades, the cultural exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States in the late 1950s was extensive and its contribution to the broadening of the world-view of Soviet citizens should not be underestimated. But looming behind the newly established friendship there was a rivalry between the two super powers on the question of which social formation would prevail, and for this reason the Kitchen Debate between Nixon and Khrushchev could equally be regarded as a battle front of the Cold War alongside the Berlin blockade or the Cuban crisis. Therefore, the myth of the "Soviet West", or the successful modernisation of the Baltic States, that began to spread across the Soviet Union in the 1960s should be seen as involving not only anti-Soviet elements but also elements of Soviet modernity in the period of the Thaw, that is, a rather complex hybrid where impulses which are externally similar but of different origins are combined. Tiina Kirss has found that "hybridity" and other generative concepts of post-colonialism are a fairly good description of the textual processes in a colonial cultural situation.9

For these reasons, the central concepts of the history of the 20th century – like "modernness", "modernity" or "modernisation" – cannot be taken to have self-evident or somehow neutral meaning. Furthermore, Hilde Heynen has shown in her work how the critical account of modernity developed by philosophers, sociologists and cultural theorists and the account of modernity which has developed, fairly independently of the former, in the theory and history of architecture, may have quite a bit to offer each other.10


1 Shmuel Eisenstadt, Multiple Modernities. Daedalus, Winter 2000, p 1.

2 Ibid., p 2.

3 Ibid., p 13.

4 "Linn" (The City), exhibition text.

5 Mart Kalm, Eesti 20. sajandi arhitektuur. Tallinn: Prisma Print, 2001, p 331.

6 "Linn" (The City), exhibition text.

7 "Tööstuskunst" (Industrial design), exhibition text.

8 See e.g.: Style and Socialism. Modernity and Material Culture in Post-War Eastern Europe. Ed. Susan E. Reid, David Crowley. Oxford: Berg, 2000.

Tiina Kirss, Rändavad piirid: postkolonialismi võimalused – Keel ja Kirjandus 2001, No 10, p 675.

10 Hilde Heynen, Architecture and Modernity: A Critique. Cambridge, London: MIT Press, 1999.


Liisa Kaljula is a doctoral student in the Studies of Cultures programme at the Estonian Institute of Humanities and works in the Painting Collection at the Art Museum of Estonia.

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