It is easy to criticise modernism because there are so many awful modern buildings. And the pioneer modernists did little to endear themselves to an indifferent public.
Tom Wolfe lampooned modernism masterfully and mischievously in his 1981 squib From Bauhaus to Our House. Because of the modernist imperatie to spurn decoration and gain inspiration from engineering: “Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating machine replacement parts wholesale distribution warehouse.”
But it’s a bit more complicated than that.
It was the poet Arthur Rimbaud who said: “Il faut être absolument moderne.” For the first time in history, from about 1870 there was a compulsion to make poetry, art and architecture which owed nothing to tradition, but were, instead, uniquely expressive of contemporary sensibility. But concrete poetry made a less lasting impression than concrete architecture.
Modernist architects were infatuated by industrial materials and processes. This led to some craziness. Le Corbusier insisted a house should be a machine-for-living-in, but his trophy designs were, in fact, all hand-made. It is elegiac to see photographs of work-in-progress on Le Corbusier designs with labourers painstakingly using medieval tools to ape factory effects. The absurdities continued. The architect Denys Lasdun explained that the super-fine finish achieved on the hated concrete of London’s National Theatre was actually more expensive than Carrara marble.
When the critic Reyner Banham coined the influential term “brutalism”, the reference here was not to feral aggression, but to “béton brut” which is French for raw concrete. In the modernist playbook, rawness was considered evidence of honesty. And since for modernists, architecture had a moral character, honesty was a good thing. But a house inspired by an aeroplane was as much a poetic fantasy as columnar flutes in masonry inspired by woodworking.
Of course, certain daft inconsistencies in the modernist homilies were overlooked by its apologists. Truth to materials? What does that mean? What truth does PVC beg to express? Form follows function? It was Ruskin who pointed out that the most beautiful things in the world—lilies and peacocks were his examples—were also useless. Meanwhile, some very unlovely things, North Sea oil rigs, for example, are very useful indeed.
But modernism represented a thrilling return to order after the aesthetic chaos of the 19th century when competing styles from architectural history brawled for attention. The ur-modernist Mies van der Rohe, the last director of the Bauhaus, in fact based many of his designs on the neo-classical architecture of Karl Friedrich Schinkel. The Seagram Building on Park Avenue is, in every respect save its want of volutes, a classical building.
Modernist boosters, Nikolaus Pevsner for example, liked to present the new architecture with its insistence on functionalism as a Hegelian progress towards the inevitable. But this was soon exposed as a fiction. There is nothing inherently functional about right-angled metal. In some cases an overstuffed sofa is more ”functional” than a galvanised stool.
But the white box and angle-iron chair were a passing phase. Le Corbusier, the machine romantic, soon devised a proportional system he called Modulor and this was based on the human body. He also very soon passed out of formal austerity to the complex romantic designs of Ronchamp and La Tourette. And he wrote, unforgettably, the best ever definition of building design: “Architecture is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in light.”
And Frank Lloyd Wright agreed. Modernism is a state of mind, not a style. It is, Wright said, making the most of contemporary possibilities. Rather than imitating what has happened in the past.
In fact, modernism is the most complete expression of the will to design, a definition of what it is to be human, of making buildings which are appropriate, efficient, comfortable and, if at all possible, beautiful too. To be a modernist is to believe that tomorrow just might, possibly, be better than today. And that today is certainly better than yesterday. Looking always to the past is no more sensible than driving a car using the rear-view mirror alone.
The glory of the modernist mentality is that it is optimistic. It revels in the beauty and the opportunity of the here and now and the tomorrow. The Prince of Wales might want to live in a neo-classical house, but he would not want to fly in a neo-classical helicopter. Nor, I imagine, would he much enjoy Palladian-era healthcare. Someone once said what is the one word that neutralises nostalgia, that defeatist yearning to live in the past? Anaesthetics.
Modernism certainly got itself a bad name. But terrible buildings—Grenfell, the French banlieues, American housing projects—are terrible not because they are modern but because they are terrible. Stupid too. It’s a savage category error to condemn a civilised sensibility because of the errors at the margins. It is like condemning football because there are football thugs.
And here is survival bias again. The foetid stews and slums of classical Georgian England do not exist to impair a vision of a dreamworld of fine proportions and enchanting vistas. Only edited versions of the past remain. And not so much merely edited as exposed to Darwinian principles of survival. We only have evidence of the best, not the worst.
So. Modernism underrated? It is not so much underrated as misunderstood. Those pioneer modernists were a peculiar lot: Bolsheviks, sun-worshippers, vegetarians and free-lovers. One of them believed in the “hygiene of the optical”. But actually, it was hygiene of the soul. Modernism simply acknowledges that the compulsion to make new and better is a defining characteristic of civilisation.
This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.