City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

In both senses. Anyway, Modernism special in The Guardian today, linked to the new V&A exhibition, ‘Modernism: Designing a new world, 1914-1939’. The articles lose images of Penguin Donkeys, Aalto chairs and a couple from Corb in the translation from newspaper to web, but there’s me lapsing into longing already. There are some great articles though.

For instance, the majestic Robert Hughes skewers the modernist movement’s “mission statement” perfectly, in just a paragraph:

“Or else, we say that Europe, dire as its condition is, can actually be improved. So we must invent a new environment of buildings, cities, images and tools, whose end will be to create new societies of men and women. This engineering will get a name: modernism. It will be buoyed up by an immense and irrational hope shared, as cultural movements tend to be, by a small number of like-minded people who only have the haziest notion of, and generally rather despise, what the majorities around them want.”

In fact, he skewers it even better over the course of his great article, ‘Paradise Now’, detailing both senses of ambition and failure around modernism (and its various ‘-ism’ cousins).

A second heavy-hitter steps up, albeit with a slightly more ambivalent stance. JG Ballard suggests he’s had a few mildly despairing, empty affairs with modernism, yet ultimately he too finds little of value remaining, save pricey nostalgia and a fine line in austere cemeteries and deserted gun emplacements.

“Modernism was never popular in Britain – a little too frank for its repressed natives, except at lidos and the seaside, where people take their clothes off. The few modernist houses and apartments look genuinely odd. Why?”

“I have always admired modernism and wish the whole of London could be rebuilt in the style of Michael Manser’s brilliant Heathrow Hilton. But I know that most people, myself included, find it difficult to be clear-eyed at all times and rise to the demands of a pure and unadorned geometry. Architecture supplies us with camouflage, and I regret that no one could fall in love inside the Heathrow Hilton. By contrast, people are forever falling in love inside the Louvre and the National Gallery.”

“All of us have our dreams to reassure us. Architecture is a stage set where we need to be at ease in order to perform. Fearing ourselves, we need our illusions to protect us, even if the protection takes the form of finials and cartouches, corinthian columns and acanthus leaves. Modernism lacked mystery and emotion, was a little too frank about the limits of human nature and never prepared us for our eventual end.”

Again ‘A Handful of Dust’ is a great piece. Elsewhere, Jonathan Jones covers modernist cinema and Fiona MacCarthy picks ten classics of modernist architecture. (Now that’s the kind of ‘list-based TV format’ I’d like to see on Saturday night telly: “Jimmy Carr, Iain Lee and Kate Thornton present the Unité d’Habitation on TV’s Top 100 Modernist Architecture Classics Uncut“.)

As good as you’d expect the Hughes and Ballard articles to be, they don’t really address of the enduring allure of modernism for designers and architects (in the broadest sense of both disciplines). That wasn’t their brief. Also, the V&A show is book-ended by the world wars, perhaps colouring their writing with a bloody stains that are hard to ignore. But despite the allusions to modernism being best exemplified by either dirty, deserted housing estates or unobtainable backdrops for Wallpaper* fashion shoots, you can still hear its chatter running through design discourse. Perhaps that indicates the insularity of our industry, but I don’t think it’s that simple. It’s present in the midst of squabbles about the post-Katrina New Orleans reconstruction. It’s at the 9/11 site. In fact, it’s at the heart of most urban planning debates. It still exists in graphic design, but now as easily adopted style in addition to its original impetus. It’s audible in critiques of the iPod, or visible in the deserved adulation of characters like Dieter Rams … and in some senses, its contemporary resonance will have been figured carefully into the business plan for the V&A’s new shop, which launches with suspicious proximity.

Personally, I know I’m still a confusion of conflicting instincts and desires, caught between that revolutionary zeal, belief in progress and sheer facile attraction to the textures and shapes output by modernist production, yet allied to an increasingly flinty pragmatism worn by experience, and a tentative understanding that essentially design is a social process that happens outside the traditional domain of the designer. I don’t expect the V&A exhibition will at all help to resolve this tension. Actually, I hope it doesn’t. I’m happy holding these apparently contradictory notions simultaneously (as before, suggesting Archigram and Cedric Price seem closest to an interesting synthesis).

Enough about me. Where do you stand?

The Guardian: Modernism special
V&A exhibition, ‘Modernism: Designing a new world, 1914-1939’
Hugh Pearman on Modernism


4 responses to “Modernism is abroad, generally”

  1. Andrew Avatar

    “…a small number of like-minded people who only have the haziest notion of, and generally rather despise, what the majorities around them want.”
    Funnily enough, the same could be said of the nominal “Web 2.0” world. In the face of half a dozen Ajaxified web calendaring applications, folksonomies, and acres of RSS, MySpace draws millions of users.


  2. Tim Abrahams Avatar

    Hughes hints at something important in his piece but doesn’t really bring it out. We continually judge Modernism as if it were occuring in a social context similar to todays. As a result we find its programme overblown and grandiose. The fact is that in inter-war Europe was a rapidly polarising social and artisctic environment. Whereas Modernism is seen as dehumanised and dehumanising by todays standards – by interwar standards it was the opposite; a re-affirmation of the Enlightenment and a balance to nationalist excess.


  3. marty Avatar

    I guess you saw that this thread was namechecked in the Guardian this Saturday. Respect! I’m looking forward to the V&A show.
    Re Modernism I think that it is a shame that we seem to have lost the lofty social ideals of design that the Modernists felt so strongly, that it can somehow transform peoples lives for the better.
    Without them I feel that we are engaged in a fairly pointless act of form-making. Have we thrown out the baby of experimentation with the bathwater of determinism?


  4. Phil Avatar

    Archigram? Reactionary recuperationist ripoff merchants. Especially Cook.
    Interesting, though. It’s certainly arguable that something was lost when the Situationists abandoned their engagement with the urban environment – and that groups (like Archigram) which picked up the Sits’ leavings did some useful work with them. Possibly.


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