Modernity and Crisis

Is it even possible to offer a description of our contemporary moment that is not fundamentally defined by the experience of crisis? Financial crisis, environmental crisis, urban crisis—these are the inescapable markers, the signposts that direct thoughts and speculations about late modernity, its past and its future. The present confluence of crises, both acute and chronic, appears to be so encompassing as to perhaps signal an epochal shift, with the epoch whose demise seems to be presaged that of modernity itself.

At a moment when the experience of crisis is felt to be fully enclosing, when to be modern is to be not just ‘in crisis’ but inside crisis, what is the nature of design practice? What are the obligations and opportunities, the possibilities and impossibilities that confront the architect, the landscape architect, the urban designer, and the planner? What, finally, is the value of aesthetic modes of experience in historical situations that are, like the present, enclosed by crisis?

This course will pursue these questions by surveying the relationship between crisis and modernity at critical points from the 18th century to the present. The concept of crisis has it roots deep in classical history, but its familiar contemporary usage emerged with the Enlightenment as a means of identifying the then unthinkable transition from pre-modern societies into new and unknown configurations. Crisis and modernity, in other words, have been bound together from the start, and the subsequent unfolding of modernity over the past three centuries has revealed that crisis is woven through its fabric.

Course lectures will address several thematic categories of crisis, examining the conceptual dimensions that structure different types of crisis alongside case studies that illuminate the participation of design in the operative modes of crisis. Readings to accompany the lectures will include some of the foundational texts of modernity, as well as more specific accountings of episodes of crisis. Together, the lectures and the readings will be the basis for analytical and speculative discussions on the underlying aesthetic modes of modernity that are produced by crisis.

The course will address issues and ideas across disciplines relevant to students in all the degree programs in architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning and design, as well as students in the advanced studies degree programs.