- Parameters and Images: Architecture In a Crowded World by Lionel Brett, Widenfild and Nicholson, London, 1970.
- Modern Movements in Architecture by Charles Jencks, Allen Lank London, 1973.
- Le Corbusier and the Trajic View of Architecture By Charles Jencks, Allen Lane London, 1973.
Definitely, modern architecture has gone wrong somewhere. That dream which the European architecture pioneers promised the world in the early thirties has faded away. The modern metropolis is unreal, depressing and divorced from nature which once gave us all our energies and inspirations. This is a point of view of course. Others maintain, equally well, that modern architecture has changed our lives for the better, and that the metropolis is a throbbing, live cultural centre where man’s inventiveness has reached new dimensions. What seems beyond dispute however is that the twentieth century has ushered in a new era of architecture and urban life which is both dynamic and static and that one’s assessment of the achievements of this era depends entirely on one’s political standpoint. The slums have increased and remain static pools of human degradation while commercial buildings have sprouted like mushrooms taking the mechanics of architecture to even greater heights.
Both view points are expressed in these three books. Lionel Brett, older to Charles Jencks by twenty six years, outlines the pessimistic view of modern architecture while Jencks, the hip American historian, takes us deep into its pleasures and contradictions. Brett is not a historian. He is a practicing architect who has a thriving practice which is creating the very cities and buildings that he condemns in his book. He writes ‘most of us spend our lives in a totally man-made environment which we totally repudiate’. It is a luxurious view of the city which assumes that most city dwellers have a choice and are unwillingly living in the city. Brett of course has known choice and is able to commute between his country house and his London residence.
For most city dwellers, the city is a place they migrate to voluntarily to realise their hopes and ambitions. Inevitably, they stay on, not repudiating the city but accepting it as a new way of life. It is not architecture that determine the quality of life in a city but the social, economic and political conditions. If there are people who live in the city and repudiate it, it is not because of the physical environment but because of the oppression (both social and economic) that the cities of the developed and underdeveloped world create. Brett claims that modern architecture has failed because it has abandoned the provision of human needs. But can architecture satisfy urban discontent? He views the past through a rosy lens as being desirable. He talks about the ideal Greek and Gothic days completely overlooking the untold human misery caused by epidemics and starvation in the cities of those times.
The book gives a rambling account of the architectural scene of the urban West and tries to rationalize the cause of the failure of modern architecture. It is not an important book and like Max Fry’s Art in a Machine Age, it reflects the thoughts and ideas of a person who has been totally by passed the dynamics of the twentieth century urban phenomena. It looks to the past rather than to the future for our solutions.
Both Jencks’ books are a refreshing contrast to Parameters and Images. American by nationality, Jencks is a professional architectural historian who views the history of modern architecture in a completely novel way. He discards the notion that there is such a thing as The Modern Movement which has provided the main stream of architectural ideas. On the contrary, he writes that the history of modern architecture unfolds in a series of ‘discontinuous movements’ that amount to a conglomeration of styles working in different directions. Modern Movements is profusely illustrated with buildings which are both famous and unknown.
It opens with a chapter entitled ‘The plurality of approaches’ in which Jencks defines his complex analysis of architectural history. For instance, he maintains that there are two types of historically relevant materials: the influential and the perfected. Whereas he regards the influential works as being those significant in the link of history ‘such is the development of the communal house in Russia, or the pop movement is England,’ he considers the perfected as being the ‘kind of event or building best analyzed critically for its internal relations. For instance the multivalent work of Le Corbusier, James Sterling and Aldo van Eyck is so significant in itself that historical narrative has to stop and analysis of internal relations take over, Jencks then continues to define six traditions which have developed during the last fifty years and these traditions (idealist, self-conscious, intuitive, logical, unselfconscious, and activist) are governed by subjective attitudes and not by their objective impact on architecture as a whole.
As one continues to read the book, it becomes apparent that Jencks considers this complex approach as the only realistic approach to contemporary architecture. The work of Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright is reassessed in the light of their late work which has avoided any real analysis before. For instance, he takes the Maven County Civic Centre which Wright built in 1964 and shows how the work of a one time genius deteriorates into a dreary cake style. We see the London building of the one time pioneer Walter Gropius. Modern Movements is an important book and the only one which takes a comprehensive look at the complete range of modern architecture in the developed world.
Le Corbusier is a flashy book which is grotesquely expensive for the Indian market. All books on Corbusier since his death have been flashy and expensive. Nevertheless, Jencks has contributed considerably to the already vast literature on the colossus of modern architecture.
It is no wonder that so much has been written of the man: ‘Because of Le Corbusier's’s undeniable creative potency, he left us a mass of technical-aesthetic inventions which have had a widespread influence on the would of architecture probably comparable only to Palladio ’s influence in the past. He changed, or was instrumental in changing the aesthetic direction of modern architecture, twice; once in the twenties with his philosophy of ‘‘purism’’ and once in the fifties with his sculptural form of Brutalism’.
Jencks has for the first time brought out these two turning points in Corbusier ’s work. He considers Corbusier as a creator of perfected buildings which must be assessed for their intent thus remains in the background while the ideas of the man and how they influenced his buildings are brought to the fore. It was his sense of failure that made him try and try again to invent new forms and languages of architecture. It is this torment that Jencks brings out vividly. ‘.... he brought about in his life the very bitter-sweet, tragic struggle he was looking for from the start. Judged by worldly standards his life was anything but a failure, even including the rejected schemes as failures, but judged in larger terms it was not a success. He did not realize one city plan, even Chandigarh, that brought harmony to modern life for which he was struggling. Hence his life was ultimately a failure and judging by many bitter comments he knew it to be one’.
The style of writing is good and with this fourth book Jencks has achieved the unrivaled position of the most sought after contemporary historian of architecture.
Meanwhile, back in India, these books only emphasize more than before that the great architecture of forms is created in the developed countries only and that our own architects in India are borrowing bits and pieces from there and sticking them together on to their ‘mini-masterpieces’ which can neither afford Le Corbusier’s lavish concrete sculptures nor the slick sky scrapers coming out of the SOM offices. Our own new directions in architecture lie totally away from the dream forms of the West with their slick detailing and sophisticated building industry. We have bricks, a little cement and steel, some expensive glass, exorbitant airconditioning; and significantly, a vast working population that doesn't have shelter to live in. Shall we still compete with the West in discovering new forms or does our choice lie elsewhere?