Remembering Marshall Berman

I think it was in 1985. I would have been in my second year of study at University of Waterloo’s architecture school, a co-op program in which terms of study alternate with work terms in other cities, and in 1985 I was on my first work term in Montreal. In the 1980s, that city had a public lecture series on architecture organized by Peter Rose and sponsored by the Aluminum Company of Canada, and it was at one of these lectures that I first learned about Marshall Berman. I went to his lecture not knowing anything about him, other than that he had recently written a book titled All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity, and that he was not an architect but a professor of literature.

Whenever a non-architect would speak at the Alcan Lectures on Architecture, the talk would usually not be as well-attended as one by an architect, and some audience members would inevitably get up and leave after hearing only a few minutes and still not seeing an architectural slide projected onto the screen. I decided to stay, because I found what this non-architect had to say to be interesting. I still remember how he opened his talk by recounting his own personal experience of growing up in the Bronx, and how the urban change that was occurring around him at the time–Robert Moses’s “urban renewal” projects–were what had prompted him to investigate the question of what it means to be “modern”.

For the most part, his talk was essentially a summary of his fascinating book. “To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction. It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organizations that have the power to control and often to destroy all communities, values, lives; and yet to be undeterred in our determination to face these forces, to fight to change their world and make it our own. It is to be both revolutionary and conservative: alive to new possibilities for experience and adventure, frightened by the nihilistic depths to which so many modern adventures lead, longing to create and to hold on to something real [!] even as everything melts. […] To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world–and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.” How refreshing to hear a discussion of modernity as contradictory and paradoxical, I thought to myself.

Professor Berman then ended his talk with a polemical idea that had a few of the remaining architects who stayed to the end visibly squirming in their seats. He spoke about the chasm between the culture of urbanism, isolated in its ivory tower, and the urban culture that was happening at street level, championing the former to redirect its gaze. To prepare us for what we architects might see, he proceeded to screen some crude, home-made film footage of break dancers and rappers in the streets of some of the less glamorous ‘hoods of New York City. This was in 1985, some time before the likes of Public Enemy and Run DMC would catapult rap culture into the mainstream, so it was probably new sound and imagery for most of those in attendance. At this late point in his lecture some more members of the audience got up and left. For me, though, it was an event that motivated me not only to read his book, but to question the way I had until then thought about architecture. Just for that lecture I will probably always remember Marshall Berman.

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