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Wednesday, 09 November 2011 08:59

The Mad Square

This is a precis of the talk given at AGNSW on the 2nd of November 2011

MODERN ARCHITECTURE - The Seductive Paradox


This wonderful show, the MAD SQUARE, has many strengths. One of them is to remind me, by its very shape, exactly why modernism is so complicated.

The show has a clear, unavoidable shape; a swayback, a dip. I've been back three times to check, and each time it has confirmed my initial impression. The show has a distinct dip, right where abstraction blooms.

The show, which is roughly chronological, begins just before the first war, with Ludwig Meidner's prophetic, blown apart Apocalyptic Landscape of 1913.


Figure 1: Meidner's Apocalyptic Landscape 1913

Then it moves into this staggering room full of that wonderful, ruthless trio - Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckmann, all back from the front.


Figure 2: Max Beckmann The Night 1919


Figure 3: Otto Dix Prostitute and War Wounded 1923

In the Dada room we have the amazing and lovely Hannah Hoch, making hilarity from her own despair.


Figure 4: Hannah Hoch, The Coquette 1923-35

It was an amazing moment in art – savage, clear-eyed, heartbroken, despairing and funny. Then suddenly....whammo. The elevator hits the deck. The Bauhaus is here.

And we have chairs, tables, tea sets – all without decoration, emotion or expression.


Figure 5: Martcel Breuer Wassily Chair (Model B3) 1925-6 was as if they decided ENOUGH! Of all that emotion. New world order, men are machines, to feel nothing is to risk nothing.

After that the show recovers a bit, but out in the real world – in architecture - the damage was already done.

Abstraction was out there, stalking us, and its grip was ferocious. In architecture especially, abstraction was charmless, relentless and – worst of all – humourless.


Figure 6: Laszlo Moholy-Nagy Bauhaus Balconies, 1926

Many people think that Corbusier destroyed the world. And I have stood on the roof of the Unite in Marseille and fumed at the sheer arrogance of the thing.

But I still understand the SEDUCTION  of modernism – in general: freedoms, openness, fairness, impartiality, suffrage. The Enlightenment realized.

In medieval times, I have no doubt, I would have been first to ducking stool.

Yet I was brought up a modernist. Intellectually, theoretically, aesthetically, politically. By the time I got to architecture school, it was all Venturi and Jencks, Post-modernism was in full flight.

But still I think the Barcelona pavilion is one of the loveliest buildings ever built.


Figure 7: Barcelona Pavilion, Mies van der Rohe, Barcelona

Of course such interiors are impossible to live in.

I suspect in fact that this is why we love them. Because they are so demanding, they insist that we shift into a higher moral gear. That we become our better selves.

Or maybe it's the simple serenity.

Architecture that is about something – especially about saving the world - is thrilling. Exhilarating. And these heroic spaces were matched by heroic rhetoric.

Gropius: "Ideas die as soon as they become compromises"1 (1919)

Bruno Taut: "there will be one single art, and this art will shine into every nook and cranny... the architect bears within him a presentiment of this sun."2

But it's not just the aesthetics of modernism. It's also the rhetoric. I was as a student - and am still - entranced by the rhetoric.

Corbusier: "there exists a new spirit:" etc "generations are being born that will learn to live in my radiant city" – heroic but also poetic. Full of soft hand drawings of Stamboul, Peking, Marrakesh.

Even Adolf Loos unforgettable essay from 1908, 'Ornament and Crime,'

"I have made the following discovery and I pass it on to the world: The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects."

And of course the thrilling idea that impelled Lubetkin and others that the grid symbolized equality, mass-housing meant socialism in action, streets in the sky were going to be filled with playing children under their mothers' watchful eye.

The first thing I ever wrote about architecture was an undergraduate essay on Auckland's radical Group Architects. Manifesto subtitled: "Planning is everybody's business."

Even in my own house, I yearn for the clean white light of modernism. So you see I understand where modernism is coming from.

And yet I am often accused, with some justification, of being a medievalist.

This particular charge emerged from a conversation with a number of intellectual theologians, which was a lot of fun, and in which I found myself urging the highest of high-churchiness in the design of both church and liturgy.

As a non-christian non-church goer, I can claim nothing more than an aesthetic point of view here. But I do believe strongly that churches should feel like the house of god, and that for hits to happen, they need to rediscover the sense of mystery – of depth and darkness, of veiled truths and barely perceptible meanings – that inhered so strongly in the gothic and pregothic but has largely disappeared today.

I think in the end it comes down to the difference between rhetoric and reality. Modernism was revolutionary and subversive, it was going to save the world, end suffering and inequality, generate a new socialist paradise.

Ivor Smith, Park Hill architect (and a personal friend) wrote in the AR just the other day:

"On the inside, in response to the light, the space between the buildings becomes bigger as the building increases in height down the hill. Secondly, the 'streets in the air', the decks as they became known, have worked well, designed as they were for children's play, for neighbourly chat, and for deliveries."3

But reality was this:


If the promise hadn't been so immense, our disappointment might not have been so extreme.

Modernism promised socialism, but delivered us all up to capitalism (with humanity redesigned to fit.)

Of course, just seeing Modernism as history is slightly weird. Modernism was the Peter Pan moment in art history - the movement that was never going to grow old.

Modernism was all future and no past; like the old penny rockets we used to fire at the moon night on Guy Fawkes – modernism was all trajectory.

It was, as Gropius used to say, "starting from scratch." Yet, now, a hundred years old, it is history.

Or is it?

The question for historians of the future will be, was modernism – as it liked to think - a permanent shift to a totally new paradigm?

Or was it merely a blip, a hiccup between dark ages?

A crack, as Leonard Cohen might say, where for a moment the light got in.


Figure 8: Tadao Ando, Church of Light Osaka 1989

Was it really, as post-modernism believed, just a brief flare upon the void?

Pretty clear now that modernism is everywhere – it's post-modernism that now seems a brave failure.

But the modernism we have is a reduced and traduced version. And this is what I find hard to forgive.

As you can probably see, I am still entranced by the narrative of modernism and still disappointed by its failures.

Modernism was – is - lovable for its pursuit of lofty ideals – openness, equality, simplicity, truth.

And it is despicable for letting these ideals be traduced. WHY DID THIS HAPPEN?

Because of the NEAT FIT with TAYLORISM on the one hand and CAPITALISM on the other.

* Openness became the excuse for exposure

* 'Less is more' devolved into meanness

* Authenticity became threadbare quality

It is impossible not to sympathise with the Prince of Wales' view that modernism destroyed more of London than the Luftwaffe.

Because it refused to understand the history that was its substrate. Refused to understand the complex organism - humanity - that was its guest.

Why was it ever reasonable to make a school indistinguishable from a factory? Or to regard the industrial esthetic as a good model for domesticity?

Or to think eight foot ceilings were tolerable? Or to house poor people in narrow, lightless, bare concrete corridors?

Venturi accused modernism of seeming to solve the problem by reducing the problem to something that was easy.

Something that was not true.

Modernism had a strong aesthetic but a false and reductivist view of both history and the human heart.

Humans are not machines. They are complicated, irrational, needy, unpredictable, contradictory and seducible.

Abstraction – the idea and presumption of abstraction – betrayed us. Why? Because we are NOT ABSTRACT CREATURES.

1 Conrads p.46

2 Conrads p.47

3 Ivor Smith AR 13 10 11





emf / agnsw talk / modern architecture: the seductive paradox / 02 november 2011



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