The tragedy of modernism's failure is a recurrent theme in the Wellcome Collection's new show – but are things really that simple?

The most interesting parts of Living with Buildings are the social and architectural histories of slums and brave new buildings, all illustrated by diverting documents. But the question of the hospital itself is not shirked. The artist Giles Round, inspired by Aalto’s multicoloured Paimio Sanitorium where the architect construed the entire building to be a medical instrument, has looked at colour as therapy. By contrast, there is the cottage hospital where folksy notions of domesticity were held to be healthful, as they probably are. That’s the principle used by Maggie’s Centres, where the not-normally-folksy Frank Gehry, Norman Foster and Richard Rogers have made careful and thoughtful contributions to the wellbeing of cancer patients by designing humane, amiable spaces. And Rogers’s successors at Rogers Stirk Harbour have created a potentially mass-produced air-portable clinic that’s ‘simple and economic to build’. The 1:1 model upstairs will be sent to a real-world location when the exhibition closes.

© Wellcome Collection


All of this is at the Wellcome, but so, too, is an agenda. While faint praise is offered to Berthold Lubetkin’s Finsbury Health Centre of 1938, a modernist masterpiece, Living with Buildings is on the whole anti-modern in sentiment. The tragedy of modernism’s failure is a recurrent theme. But as Reyner Banham explained in his 1969 book, The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, it was technological innovations in making things more habitable — developments in air-conditioning, lifts, waste disposal — that made the modernist experiment possible in the first place.

Some resistance might remain to these experiments, but we can agree that those rearguard architects still using classical orders are like the Japanese soldiers who still occasionally turn up in the Philippines. In any case, if we are discussing health, car usage, and therefore pollution, in anti-modern Poundbury it has increased.

Inevitably, Grenfell. Here, Potemkin cladding led to catastrophe. A good corrective would be to leave it as a charred stump, rather as, on Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm, the Gedächtniskirche remains a ruin as a reminder of Bomber Harris’s unhealthy destructive urges,: the hohle Zahn (hollow tooth), they call it. Who knows? Such a shocking sight in London might be inspirational.

Churchill said that we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us. And at the Wellcome Collection there is a fine 1942 poster by Abram Games, last master of the drawn lithograph, that shows a disgraceful slum giving way to a shiny, optimistic new modernist building. Churchill objected to it. But then Churchill objected to the Festival of Britain because he thought it Soviet.

As I was saying, blame the politicians.