Opinion | Our Devaluation for That which is Modern

| October 30, 2014

Nichols HouseNick Rudnik, Valdosta Today Opinion Contributor:

Americans often exhibit a lack of appreciation for modernism. Whether it’s typified in the beautiful simplicity of New York’s Time-Life Building, the futurism of Herman Miller furniture, the Jet Age chic of chrome tailfins on automobiles, the confusion of a Stravinsky musical score, or the complex-impressionism of a Pollack, modernism is an artistic and social movement coinciding with the great technological, scientific, and attitudinal changes of, principally, the twentieth century.

We frequently discard and disregard these forms of expression as less significant than their predecessors simply because we are, in fact, moderns. We are modern people. We have come of age in a time where technologies such as global telecommunications, internal combustion engines, nuclear medicine, and even space travel are commonplace. For this, modernism is not seen as historically significant, not an integral part of our social fabric, but garish, haughty, and pedestrian.

At 400 Baytree Road in Valdosta, we have our own example of modernist architecture. According to architectural scholar, Dr. Alfred Willis, Valdosta’s own Nichols House “is a replete instance of the diffusion of Californian design ideals of the postwar decade, the work that brought [Valdosta] architect Lloyd Greer’s career to its culmination, and the starting point for the careers of several leading Valdosta architects of the next generation.” To Willis, the Nichols House, on the corner of Baytree Road and Azalea Drive, typifies the postwar, binuclear ultramodern home. The Nichols House is Valdosta’s only documented example of midcentury modern architecture.

And to others, it is a decrepit, former frat house being used as a guise by neighborhood residents to stymie the development of new a student housing complex. That may be the case. It may be true that the Nichols House is the last, best hope for local Valdosta residents to prevent more corporate development in their neighborhood—but that doesn’t make the Nichols House any less culturally significant.

Indeed, if the house is designated a historic landmark, development on the land must cease. But the battle of the Nichols House signals a much deeper theme than development versus preservation. It represents the devaluation our collective society places on modernist art and architecture. Certainly, if the Nichols House was an example, par excellence, of Neoclassical, Beaux-Arts, or Art Deco form, we’d likely be up in arms about its almost certain demise. In laymen’s terms, if the Nichols House appeared as though it wasn’t a dilapidated, gaudy “monstrosity,” but a holdover from some other time, as to give it an air of respectability, we may actually feign interest in its future.

Too often, we see our shared treasures condemned for the sake of development. God only knows, Valdosta needs another apartment complex.

Modernism is marked by its innovative use of geometric forms, unique materials, and often combining elements of the natural world with man-made (synthetic) components. Think of among the most ubiquitous of twentieth century architects, Frank Lloyd Wright. Arguably, Wright’s most consequential work, “Fallingwater,” in southwestern Pennsylvania, built partially over a waterfall, typifies the modernist architectural form. Water appears as though it runs under the residence. Terraces protrude over the water and beyond the structure-proper. Fallingwater is confusing, it’s unique, it’s futuristic—in a word, it’s modern. Modernism is much deeper than complex geometry; it represents man’s rather audacious and foolhardy attempt to tame even nature itself. In short, to will nature to our own devices.

While the great thinkers of our time have resolved that the conceit of modernism is that humankind will never completely remedy all the world’s infirmities; modern art and architecture, in part, represents a dogmatic worldview predicated on a notion of progress toward a perfect, utopian ideal.

The Nichols House is Valdosta’s small contribution to this past. Once it is destroyed, posterity will never be able to appreciate the structure, and the broad social and cultural movement it stands for. Americans are often devoid a sense of obligation to this type of art. Perhaps the Nichols House is a rather ironic victim of its own underpinning school: modernism. For modernism is dedicated to continual progress, perpetual change, and more development.

Though, as twentieth century and, yes, modern novelist, Robert Heinlein, reminds us. (Heinlein is famed for his pivotal tomes, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and Starship Troopers (1959).) “A generation which ignores history has no past—and no future.” One should mull over Heinlein’s proclamation before so readily casting aside the ramshackle relics of yore, for the oft-invoked cause of development. We should all enjoy our own, local example of ultramodern architecture while we still can—for it is, like possibly our own future, almost certainly ephemeral. A society which so readily discards our high cultural symbols cannot rightly be called a culture at all. But simply, a shell of one. A culture devoid a past, and desolate a future.

rudnik-thumbnailNicholas A. Rudnik is currently pursuing a degree in political science with a concentration in American politics at Valdosta State University. Previously, he’s served as a congressional page in the U.S. House of Representatives during the 111th Congress and in the Office of U.S. Congressman Sanford Bishop. Further, Nick has served on staff at an institutional interest group, the Association of American Law Schools, in Washington and has worked in the private sector. He has presented his research, focused primarily on congressional parties and elections, at regional academic conferences and hopes to pursue a graduate degree in political science. Nick is currently completing two manuscripts relating to southern congressional elections and judicial decision-making in the area of campaign finance; he can be contacted via e-mail at narudnik@valdosta.edu. Follow Nick on Twitter: @NickRudnik.

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2 Comments on "Opinion | Our Devaluation for That which is Modern"

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  1. YES! says:

    This was a marvelous article! Save the NICHOLS HOUSE! this man knows how to put it!!!

  2. Russ Edmonds says:

    Our neighborhoods have become overrun with this College. Im tired of it. I know it is good for Local Business but it gets real tiring after awhile.