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Thursday31 July 2014

Modernism has lost a sense of purpose

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Modern architecture needs to rediscover its original ideas about social context

Owen Hatherley

Owen Hatherley

Many exhibitions and books give the impression that two aspects of modern architecture are fairly unimportant: one, what happens to the building after it is designed, except perhaps how it influences other architects; the other, the area into which the building is dropped.

A book as insightful and intelligent as Kenneth Frampton’s Modern Architecture can present the entire history of 20th-century architecture without mentioning these two things. One might ask, why should it? The history of, say, neoclassicism is seldom written with much interest in the sociology of the occupants of Georgian terraces, or the urban context into which Bedford Square was inserted. But modern architecture always claimed to be about something more than architecture, with new social ideas about the city and its buildings.

The further modern architecture gets away from these ideas, the less it becomes interested in where it is, who it is for and whether it works. If we want to find the source of the recent practice of plonking down icons without an interest in any extraneous factors other than the architect’s genius, we have a possible culprit.

If actually visited, the Kiefhoek estate ceases to be elegant

When you visit an exceptionally famous modernist building or, even more so, an exceptionally famous modernist housing estate, it’s easy to be struck most of all by the things that aren’t in the architectural history books. Recently I had the pleasure of visiting the Kiefhoek estate in Rotterdam, designed by JJP Oud in the late 1920s. Its smooth white surfaces earned it a prominent place in Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock’s 1932 book The International Style, which helped create, perhaps better than any other, a modernism purged of the social, and purged of any interest in the immediate surroundings of a given building. Competing modernisms — the Amsterdam School, Erich Mendelsohn, Russian constructivism — were ruthlessly purged in favour of a series of white boxes placed in indeterminate spaces. Reductive as it might have been, and irrespective of Johnson’s fascist political allegiance, this had an obvious appeal in the 1930s, when nationalism was raging everywhere.

That appeal is obvious in Kiefhoek today. You enter it through a dense, multiracial area of the inner city, built up in the interwar years in the red-brick style of middling Dutch semi-modernism, and find yourself in an area of tiny, white-walled buildings, overshadowed on all sides — a neo-Gothic church here, skyscrapers there, brick tenements hard up against the gardens. The place is weird, to put it mildly, especially with its hysterical church, a white block with chimney that could easily pass for the boiler house, amusingly facing the aforementioned 1920s Gothic spire. If actually visited rather than viewed through the original photos, the estate — still a functioning area of social housing, not perceptibly affected by gentrification — ceases to be an elegant, Platonic series of volumes in space, but becomes a polemic — not just against the disorder (and historical continuity) of the area around it, but today, perhaps, a retroactive polemic against the hyperdriven, steroidal new architecture of much of contemporary Rotterdam. The reality captures more of the original idea than the representation.

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Readers' comments (8)

  • Mike Duriez

    Modernism is a style of the past.

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  • Nah you're wrong Mike Duriez, Modernism was and is a totally revolutionary and political and social movement; the architecture meant something and emerged from the means of production and was absolutely NOT a style. Yes in many situations it has been reduced to a trope; a great shame.
    Emma Dent Coad

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  • Sebastian Cuff

    I fancy a spot of late-modern revival myself. What?

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  • Some tried (and failed) to assert that modernity (as a social condition) had somehow been "overcome" by what they called "post-modernity". But they have been proven wrong. Modernity is the complex, contradictory condition in which we have been living since the Enlightenment. It has a long history behind it, and a long future ahead of it. But this needs to be distinguished from modernISM.

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  • "Not having a sense of purpose" alternates with "having a sense of purpose". This dichotomy is part of the condition of modernity.

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  • clichy

    "Not having a sense of purpose" alternates with "having a sense of purpose". This dichotomy is part of the condition of modernity.

    Absolute nonsense - a typical meaningless defence of a short lived architectural fashion.

    And from the main article ' irrespective of Johnson’s fascist political allegiance'. Irrespective, I think not - modernism was fascist to the core, imposing an alien style on the populace because of the arrogance of the architects. Just look at Corb's puritan stance.

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  • Was?

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  • tesserae

    Possibly too a connection between the hard sharp strictures of much modern form and every increasing freedom of society - the two together achieving some kind of balance of their own - the effects of environment being just as strong on the architect as anyone else and it has little to do with a given commentary.

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