“It’s like the Vatican,” remarked my well-traveled teenage daughter as we eyed the line stretching down West Fifty-third Street from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, an onslaught of sweaty pilgrims undeterred by the shopping-mall stampede or the $20 admission fee. And it wasn’t just us out-of-towners who were struck by the crush of humanity at modernism’s most sacred shrine. “Have you seen the ticket lines lately?” a New York Times art critic incredulously queried his readers not long after our July visit, marveling at MoMA’s flip-flop-shod “armies” of visitors.
The army of the faithful at MoMA, however, is just one small piece of an entirely unexpected cultural revival—if not revolution—that is going on in places as diverse as Fort Worth, Dubai, and Shanghai. Modernism, the twentieth century’s tradition-flaunting vanguard culture, was widely considered history well before the beginning of this century, a little-lamented victim of its own rarified aesthetics and overweening ambitions. And with the current zeitgeist all about clashing civilizations and the revival of religious fundamentalism in both the West and the Middle East, we couldn’t have a more unlikely moment for the resurrection of modernism’s liberal, secular humanist, one-world vision. But it’s not just that modernism is miraculously back from the dead: Last century’s avant-garde is starting to look like the surprise winner in this century’s culture wars.
The aesthetics that once offended so many are now transcending our growing divisions over politics and class. At the high end, the mushrooming global plutocracy has made modernism the house style, with works by living masters like Jasper Johns and Port Arthur expatriate Robert Rauschenberg now well into eight figures. Deceased moderns can add another zero; last year an iconic 1948 drip painting by American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock was sold for $140 million to an anonymous buyer, rumored to be a London-based Mexican financier.
But these days the Bauhaus is in everybody’s house, with budget retailers like IKEA and Target basing their booming brands on sleek modernity, while less-fashion-forward discounters like Wal-Mart have seen their stock prices struggle. The signature product of this decade, Apple’s iPod, owes more of its cachet to an elegant, less-is-more design than to superior technology. Mid-century modern, the spare, cool interior style typified by Eames chairs and Barcelona loungers, has achieved near ubiquity among this century’s urban hipsters. This summer’s buzz read, Loving Frank, is a fictionalization of pioneer modern architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s scandalous affair with a client’s wife.
Wright’s followers, however, have emerged as the new millennium’s real culture heroes, a band of modernists who roam the globe branding entire cities with their designer labels, remaking the face of a metropolis with all the brio that Picasso brought to a portrait of a mistress. In their wake a whole generation of history-mining postmodern architects, who spent the final quarter of the previous century recycling everything from Gothic cathedrals to the old Las Vegas strip, no longer appear fashionably retro; now they’re just retro. Today, when Kansas City or Kazakhstan wants to be taken seriously, suddenly everything modern is new again.
Texas has been ahead of this trend long enough to boast some of its seminal monuments. Italian master Renzo Piano presaged “revisionist” modernism way back in 1987 with his louver-roofed Menil Collection, in Houston. The Zen-like, cast-concrete minimalism of Japanese superstar Tadao Ando’s effusively praised 2002 Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (the nation’s second-largest modern art museum) has set the bar for this century’s best buildings. But for Texas-scale ambition and sheer urgency, nothing matches the modern makeover currently under way in Dallas—nothing, that is, on this side of the international date line.
Beijing and Dallas could hardly seem less alike: the former a two-thousand-year-old imperial city at the center of the last great communist empire, primping madly for its star turn as host of next year’s Olympics, the latter an entrepreneurial upstart less than two hundred years old, trying to outshine its suburbs. But when it comes to civic cosmetic surgery, this urban odd couple is eerily in sync. Among their shared tastes is Sir Norman Foster, the British architect who has almost single-handedly thrust London’s skyline into the future with a fantastic array of high-tech inventions. Currently updating Beijing’s airport (the vast new terminals look like ultrastealthy alien spacecraft), Foster is scheduled to transform downtown Dallas in 2009, when his science-fictional, drum-shaped red opera house will become the bravura centerpiece of the city’s Arts District. Rem Koolhaas, the Dutchman who has designed Dallas a trendsettingly transparent, cubic theater right next door to Foster’s opera house, is also finishing up Beijing’s seventy-story China Central Television headquarters, a huge complex of glass and steel shaped somewhat like a giant akimbo picture frame.
Then there’s Beijing’s rad new Olympic stadium, an undulating, biomorphic bowl covered with a bird’s nest—like exoskeleton of exposed girders, by the Swiss duo Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, considered by many the hottest architects on the planet. The Dallas Cowboys stadium in suburban Arlington, scheduled to open in 2009, doesn’t boast an architect in Herzog and de Meuron’s league, but its stunningly modern design, with vast glass curtain walls and huge steel truss arches, will be a revelation for the National Football League. And Dallas will further narrow the modernism gap with Beijing when it finishes at least one bridge by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, whose futuristic fractal constructions are as coveted in America’s heartland as they are in Venice, Valencia, or Qatar.
It all adds up to a remarkable if spontaneous architectural duet: the communist bureaucrats in Beijing announcing themselves to the world with exactly the same visual vocabulary as the conservative plutocrats in Dallas. Of course, it’s easy enough to point out that just as our globe is becoming, in economic terms, a “flat earth” (writer Thomas Friedman’s coinage for the increasingly level playing field on which the affluent West and up-and-comers like India and China are now competing), the cultural playing field is also getting noticeably flatter, with architects, artists, and their ideas racing across it at the speed