Modernism: the idea that just won't go away
The British reviled modernism at first, now it's part of the fabric of
our nation. The largest ever survey of the movement suggests the
defining aesthetic of the 20th century may be just as influential in the
Sunday January 29, 2006
Just 50 years after modernism first emerged as the style to end all
styles, the design philosophy that tried to abolish history and reduced
every shape to its supposedly timeless geometric elements was itself
declared dead. I can still remember the day I picked up a copy of The
Language of Post Modern Architecture to find myself transfixed by its
traffic-stopping first sentence. 'Modern Architecture died in St Louis,
Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3.32pm or thereabouts when the infamous
Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the
final coup de grace by dynamite.'
Charles Jencks, the American critic, went on to claim that the fact that
'many so-called modern architects still go around practising a trade as
if it were alive can be taken as one of the great curiosities of our
age, like the monarchy giving life-prolonging drugs to the Royal Company
of Archers'. Who knows what still more overheated conclusion he would
have come to if he could only have known that another huge complex
designed by the same architect was one day also going to come to an
equally premature but far more violent end. Like Pruitt-Igoe, the World
Trade Centre was designed by Minoru Yamasaki.
Attacks against modernism's inhumanity, and, at their most extreme,
anything that can be tarred with the epithet of modern have the absurd
conclusion that no beauty can be found in modernism, and nothing of
worth ascribed to its ideas,' says Wilk, who at heart still believes in
the moral mission of the early modernists. 'Le Corbusier is thus found
guilty of the crime of inspiring poorly designed, badly built concrete
towers that actually had little to do with his work. Unless we
understand modernism, we cannot evaluate it.'
The violence of Jencks's attacks has abated, and even the Prince of
Wales keeps a lower profile these days, but modernism is in another kind
of trouble now. It has been embraced by Wallpaper, smothered in inverted
commas, and has started to appear on Antiques Roadshow, killing it with
kindness, rather than dynamite. For Wilk, as for a new generation of
designers including Apple's Jonathan Ive and Jasper Morrison who are
following in the footsteps of Mies van der Rohe and Charles Eames,
modernism is too important to abandon. Wilk attempts to rescue it from
both these fates, to demonstrate that it is neither cute nor monstrous,
but a vital, enormously energetic and wide-ranging cultural movement
that is as relevant today as it has always been. Modernism has defined
our tastes to a remarkable degree. Without it, there would be no
built-in kitchens, and no loft living. The massive school and hospital
building programme would look very different. Without modernism,
Britain's contemporary domestic landscape would be an entirely different
· Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939, sponsored by Habitat, is
at the V&A, London SW7 from 6 April. The Observer is media partner.
| and a charming biography of Bauhaus to now- (no Koolhouse)!
Bauhaus to our house
Sunday January 29, 2006
1919 Walther Gropius opens the Bauhaus in Weimar and for almost 15 years
under the successive leadership of Mies van der Rohe and Mart Stam it
provides a torrent of ideas about design in the modern world.
1924 The young Marcel Breuer experiences a eureka moment; riding his
bicycle he suddenly sees the tubular steel handlebars of his bike as the
perfect material for a cantilevered chair. In furniture terms it's the
equivalent of splitting the atom.
1929 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe completes the Barcelona Pavilion, the
German exhibit for a Spanish expo.
1931 Le Corbusier builds the Villa Savoye, the exemplar of his belief
that a house could be seen as a machine for living in.
1933 Nazis close the Bauhaus, by now based in a Berlin factory, saying
it is a cathedral of Bolshevism.
1947 Work starts on building the Unite D'Habitation in Marseille, Le
Corbusier's raw concrete version of high rise living.
1957 Mies van der Rohe builds the Seagram Tower in New York, prototype
for thousands of glass high-rises.
1972 The massive Pruitt-Igoe high-rise housing estate in St Louis is
1976 Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers open the Pompidou Centre, apotheosis
of high tech.
Today's top three modernists
Rei Kawakubo The woman behind the Commes des Garçons fashion label,who
decided we need more than two sleeves to a sweater.
Ian Schrager The hotelier who introduced design to the world's hotels.
Jonathan Ive Apple's designer, who brought simplicity back to design.