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modernism 2

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 24-Mar-2001

Edition: Late

Section: Spectrum


Page: 1

Wordcount: 2000

The avant guardians

Elizabeth Farrelly * Elizabeth Farrelly is an urban consultant and writer.

Like youth, architectural modernism never had to deal with the question of its own old age. Until now. Can a movement built on the erasure of history claim protection as heritage, asks Elizabeth Farrelly

O n the face of it, modern architecture and the heritage movement seem unlikely to share a tent, much less hop into the sack. And yet here they are, snuggled up at dawn like the real thing. Or is this still just an arrangement of convenience? How did it happen, and who gets the green card?

The interaction between time and architecture has always been iffy, racked through the ages by controversy, ideology and plain old humbug. How should we build: old style or new, classical, gothic or modern? Is embracing tradition a failure of nerve? Is abandoning it reckless? Can old and new be combined some way, or is that worse still? Once built, what are architecture’s rights of tenure? If it stays, is mothballing or recycling the way to go? Who decides? And, hardest of all, just what should we as a society keep?

And then, just when we’re getting comfortable with the idea that even a one-time penal colony has buildings worth keeping (despite the squabbles over exactly which), along comes a wackier notion still: modern heritage. Whoah! Day for night here. How did we wind up holding an idea as blindingly oxymoronic as modern heritage?

It’s not just a question of honouring stuff that’s barely had time for the paint to dry, although that’s part of it because there’s still no substitute for the test of time. There’s more. Modernism, remember, was described as doing more damage to London than the Luftwaffe. Modern heritage is like deathbed conversion I’m an atheist but, well, it is getting late, and maybe, just maybe …

Recent beneficiaries of explicitly heritage-type, stay-of-sentence arguments include Harry Seidler’s 1949 Waks house in Northbridge and the truly horrible mid-’70s Masonic Centre in Goulburn Street. This is the trickle. Trust me, there’s a lot more coming.

Say we start with time. Most of us envisage time as a one-directional line, an arrow, if you like. Scholars have made much of the symbolic maleness of this arrow compared with the circular view of time that prevails in eastern cultures. The arrow see it psychologically, biologically or anatomically is focused, energetic, aggressive, unreflective. The circle is centred, omni-directional, receptive and, well, curvy.

But it’s the arrow that underpins Western thought. The present is a privileged if transient point on that arrow, dividing now from then in much the same way that the idea of self distinguishes “me” from “them”. And because it’s an arrow, not a circle, the past is seen as being qualitatively and categorically different from the future.

So far, so good. Easy enough to accept that past and future are different, being on the one hand familiar and on the other unknown and potentially scary. But is the past in some way “better” than the future, or is it the other way round? Is history essentially progressive, onwards and upwards like a high-school motto? Or is human life a permanent climb-down from some rosy-cheeked eden to a sad-and-sadder future? Is it the ascent or the fall of man?

The answer, of course, varies with mood, age and politics of an individual or an era. Because civilisations, too, look more gladly backwards as their “now-point” glides to conclusion, if conclusion there be, revivalism is seen to belie societal decadence as well as political conservatism. How does this apply, though, when (in this increasingly going-going-gone age) the style under revival is vehemently anti-history and, for that matter, anti-style.

Harry Seidler, as an archetypal modern (and after his Bauhaus mentor, Walter Gropius), has always insisted that modern architecture, especially his modern architecture, has nothing to do with anything so fatuous as style. Seidler argues rather that his work derives from an “attitude which is unbiased, original and elastic” in response to the changing visual language and available technologies. This is not about Seidler, though. It happens that he is here and is still, after 50 years, the most fearlessly articulate of his generation. His statement captures the essence of the modern faith.

A pedant might wonder what visual language is, if not style, but we shall pass over the nits in favour of more significant presumptions. First, the idea that an attitude, anyone’s attitude, in a creative pursuit like architecture can ever be unbiased. Second, the emphasis on originality. And third, the overarching dominance of the unique “time” or era as a determinant of form. Each is typical of modern architectural discourse, and each rewards unpicking.

Modern architecture, like the rest of modernity, placed great weight on the idea of objectivity. Centuries earlier, philosophers such as Rene Descartes (whose method of universal doubt reduced knowledge to the cogito, proffering the self as the only verifiable entity) and David Hume (who prefigured postmodern linguistic analysis in arguing persuasively that all we can know are the ideas and impressions within our own minds) had between them demonstrated the impossibility of escaping your own head. It’s a familiar enough conundrum now but one that modernism chose to ignore in its commitment to a swept-clean world ruled by a single, demonstrable truth system.

This desire for some universal standard against which the tangle and fuss of human life can be measured is probably inherent. For many ages and cultures it is a role filled by god(s); a secular movement like modernism needed another source. Positivism came along in the nick of time.

The term “positivism” was developed in the 19th century by the French intellectual Auguste Comte, whose work was appropriated and transformed into “logical positivism” by the so-called Vienna Circle (including philosopher Rudolf Carnap and mathematician Kurt Godel) in the 1920s. Its central tenet is that if it can’t be measured or deduced, it’s meaningless. Sounds quaint, but these people were serious and they changed the world. Positivism gave rise to a world view in which science was elevated to god-status: formula was preferable to breast-milk (discredited); conditioned air was preferable to natural (still with us); speed and convenience were the primary design principles

for our settlements (motorways we’re still building them); and everything valuable could be counted and rendered in dollar terms (you tell me).

In architecture, positivism created a climate where design values had to be measured in quantifiable units and verifiable propositions, or be rejected as meaningless. The engineer and the bean counter ran the show: architects, dispensable as poets, learned to justify everything in terms of economic or structural exigency. Post-rationalisation became so deeply embedded in architectural culture and bedside manner that, to this day, much of it is unconscious. Ask the fly on the wall.

You can see why it caught on, though. God knows, it’s hard enough briefing an architect on the design of your two-room beach house. Crucial decisions about sun and the play of light, about proportion and ceiling height, about form and material all have to be made, built and paid for before you know whether you were right. And such decisions depend on personal, even spiritual, values. With bigger buildings, with clients who increasingly were corporate, and corporations increasingly bound by the unforgiving shareholder, it was probably inevitable that “value” came to mean only the necessities of technology or the dollar.

The trouble is, architecture is principally symbolic. Remove the unquantifiables and you’ve lost the lot. When, even now, attempts are made to put a dollar value on the Opera House’s contribution to Sydney, the futility of the exercise is soon obvious. Structurally intrepid, economically reckless, extravagantly beautiful, the building adds value that cannot be translated into economic units.

As Herbert Muschamp, The New York Times architecture critic, argued recently: “The symbolic level is where architecture itself kicks in. When it does, land use rises above the level of real estate speculation. Buildings earn the space they occupy on other than economic terms. Defining those terms is what a critic does. More important, his job is to insist that those terms, while not quantifiable, are as substantial as the materials from which the buildings are made and the money it costs to build them. My job is to say: architecture is real.”

So for Seidler, or any modern architect, to count himself a neutral conduit for the technological and aesthetic advances of the time, adding no spiritual, emotional or aesthetic values of his own, reveals more about his formative orthodoxies than about his actual design process. One of Seidler’s conspicuous strengths, indeed, is the degree to which his opus has remained consistent over 50 years, while both aesthetics and technologies have been profoundly transformed.

And how, in any case, to reconcile this value-free stance with the second hallowed notion, that of originality?

The pre-eminence of originality in architecture was a fundamental modern precept, apparent contradictions notwithstanding. It was based on the notion that architecture was an art, both requiring and permitting expression of the architect’s inner soul. So familiar is this proposition as to appear at times self-evident. But it has not always been so.

Some of the greatest architectural minds of the past (take Brunelleschi, Wren, even the idiosyncratic Hawksmoor) would have taken a dim view of the modern emphasis on originality. Throughout European history, architecture was a craft, designed within a long and intricate tradition and taught through a system of articled pupilage more like apprenticeship than the kind of hands-off education we offer architects-to-be. It was a humbler view of architecture than the modern one, although the results were correspondingly grander, nourished as they were by centuries millenniums of cumulative enterprise.

It was precisely this “pattern-book” approach to design that modernism despised, arguing passionately against “slavish imitation” and “hidebound tradition”. In liberating architecture from traditional mass-on-mass construction systems, steel (and steel-reinforced concrete) had also blown away architecture’s minutely honed system of proportion. Architects, always eager to test the limits, designed accordingly: suddenly columns looked too slender, arches too squat, openings too wide for comfort.

Still, if the client required, you could always fake it. Most of Sydney’s “sandstone” buildings including the Martin Place banks and the controversial Museum of Contemporary Art are in fact stone veneer on steel structure. In modern terms, well-disguised, well-loved fakes.

Modernism took a dim and derisive view, levelling both moral and aesthetic fire against these buildings. Tradition was rejected wholesale and, notwithstanding Mies van der Rohe’s famous grumble that you shouldn’t have to “invent a new architecture every Monday morning”, that is exactly what architects were expected to do. In many ways, this is still the case.

Of course, art enthrones originality as a ruling value and curtsies deeply to the idea of genius. Thus arises the idea not that there should be no rules, but that certain individuals are rightfully exempt. Seidler, to my knowledge, does not employ the g-word, but his approach has always been that his work is so special so Seidler that normal limits on height, floorspace, heritage or urban design need not apply.

This emphasis of the self as a special case, again typical of modernism, eliminates any need for interpersonal consistency and validates the apparent clash between a preparedness to erase the whole of Blues Point or The Rocks in the ’60s, or his description of 1990s Ultimo-Pyrmont as a “slum”, and Seidler’s fierce defence of his own buildings as protection-worthy heritage monuments.

In this way the Rose Seidler house, both suffragette and cheerleader for the brave new world, has lately become an official Historic House, heavily sought after as an elegant ’50s-style backdrop for parties and photo shoots. Similarly, Seidler’s Waks house became the subject of heated debate as soon as the owner wanted to make alterations. Seidler eventually agreed to allow alterations to proceed, but only according to his design. Does this make sense? If the architect were a neutral carrier of the era’s values, wouldn’t a 50-year time lapse render such intervention inimical, regardless of its author?

Seidler’s win in this instance was supported by the new Federal copyright legislation which treats architecture as capital-a Art with authorial rights just like painting or songwriting. Seidler himself, however, is just as likely to base his argument on dry technics. His so-called “igloo house” in Mosman, also the subject of recent Seidler-council stoushes, was significant, he said, not for its formal distinctiveness (though distinctive it certainly is) but because it was “the first house in Australia to be built on slabs of reinforced concrete without the need for deep foundations”.

See? It’s personal. One person’s dreary concrete is another’s avant garde slab. That’s why the heritage thing is so hard.

The Copyright Amendment (Moral Rights) Act became law in December. Regarding architecture, which it doesn’t define, the act requires notification and consultation “in good faith” regarding any proposed change, but stops short of requiring authorial consent for alteration or demolition of an architectural work. You might be forgiven for wondering what sort of society bothers to legislate authorial rights for buildings but happily sends untreated sewage billowing into its own coastal waters. But there’s a category error here. Buildings are not analogous to books or any other artworks. Books can be microfiched and shrink-wrapped and sent to the basement of the National Library. They can even be saved electronically. Paintings can be stored. Buildings are different. Buildings occupy real space and real time. They suck up energy and money. They define people’s worlds. They are owned and used and relied upon by other than architects. Requiring architecture to be kept is more like requiring books to be kept in print and on sale. Now that’d concentrate the mind.

So, if we can’t keep all, how do we, as a society, choose? First, a brief history of heritage. In 1971 the Sydney City Council produced two plans for Sydney: the 1971 Statutory Plan and the 1971 Strategic Plan enshrined diametrically opposed world views which marked, respectively, the death throes of one era and the birth of the next.

The Statutory Plan was the outcome of the 1945 Town and Country Planning Act. It showed swathes of inner Sydney most of Paddington, Darlinghurst, Surry Hills, Redfern, Chippendale, Darlington and Glebe as motorway reserve. (What would have happened to the middle classes?) But it was old-fashioned by the time it was published: Blues Point Tower was 10 years old and the first Green Ban was moments away. The heritage era had begun.

The 1971 City of Sydney Strategic Plan, carefully distancing itself from the Statutory Plan, marked the city’s first official move into warm-and-fuzzy people-friendly planning rhetoric the “places for people” thing. It contained scores of 4B pencil sketches showing tree-lined streets in which humans wearing jeans and miniskirts sat at cafes or strolled happily between one fringe terrace-house gallery and another.

Since then, we’ve produced and revised the Burra Charter, Australia’s heritage treatise; we’ve created thickets of legislation establishing heritage committees and sub-committees at every level of government and then some; we require the in-triplicate consumption of entire forests for just about every development application lodged, let alone built. Thousands of well-meaning public servants do nothing else. Lobby groups vociferate. Politicians go to war and back. And still there is no clear formulation as to what we should keep or why.

Commonsense suggests the turtle rule. Once the baby turtles make it to the sea, Darwin rules: before that, blind chance (eagles, humans, dessication) rubs out 90 per cent. So with buildings. Traditionally, only those that withstood the depredations of the first hundred years or so were even in the running for conservation; then you began to select.

And what of the criteria? Architects usually argue for architectural excellence. It’s subjective and controversial, but at least it’s a graspable idea. The official heritage framework, however, now enshrines much broader notions of “cultural significance”, which are capable of including anything from “oldest house in the colony” to Banjo-Paterson-once-stopped-here-for-a-beer-on-his-way-to-Woop-Woop as reasons for enforced conservation.

It is one of the sad legacies of postmodern pluralism that judgment of any kind has become elitist and therefore politically incorrect: with both excellence and age out of the way, virtually anything can be heritage, regardless of its material qualities. Hence arises the absurd situation, for example, where we are asked to feel protective towards one of the least endearing buildings on Earth, the Masonic Centre, despite the fact that no-one has ever loved it, nor ever will.

This brings us to the third of Seidler’s tacit assumptions, and modern architecture’s favourite premise: that architecture should embody the zeitgeist. Seidler habitually quotes the motto inscribed on the pediment of Otto Wagner’s (decadent, neo-classical) Sezession building in Vienna: “Der Zeit ihre Kunst, der Kunst ihre Freiheit”. (To each time its art, to art its freedom.) It also presumed, of course, that cultural history marks itself off, like loo paper, into clearly delineated “times”, that each time breathes some distinctive spirit with an “essence” far more profound than mere look or style.

The moderns, carried away by the sheer spring-cleaning joy of just oops! losing history down the chute (this in the aftermath of first one and then a second world war) allowed the zeitgeist idea to pass unexamined. They then justified the wholesale rejection of tradition, blithely ignoring the cost of that as well as the obvious fact that most buildings endure and must operate well beyond their own era.

Like youth, architectural modernism presumed synchronicity. No past, no future: existence was just one ever-changing present. So it never had to deal with the question of its own old age, never had to ask the crucial question can architecture that is built on the erasure of history legitimately claim protection as heritage? Until now.

Docomomo, the body for the Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement, was founded in Eindhoven in 1990, about the time when modernism started to be fashionable again as a style (see the regulation hard-and-cool Sydney-restaurant look). Docomomo’s mission is to raise the profile of the modern movement, recording and conserving its works, opposing their destruction and disfigurement. Its credo states: “The architectural heritage of the modern movement is today more at risk than that of any other period, its often innovative technology, the functions it was designed to perform and the present cultural climate.”

Obvious rejoinders leap to mind. Like the fact that technological innovation, while earning points for bravery, has been one of modernism’s little indulgences. If you experiment boldly, disdaining traditional materials, techniques, forms and principles, you have to expect a degree of failure. If, after 50 years, modern buildings are falling apart, modernism has itself to blame. Is this a reason for their conservation? And at whose expense?

Clearly modernism had some sublime moments, which richly merit protection. Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion (1929), for one; Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in Poissy (1930); Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre in Paris (1932), and Giuseppe Terragni’s Casa del Fascio in Como (1936). And Utzon’s Opera House, for that matter. Beautiful buildings, seminal works; and, on the whole, they’re loved and protected already.

But modernism’s list of failures is long and growing. The Masonic Centre is just one of millions. So broadly speaking it may be better to keep the very best, then learn the lessons and move on. What goes around comes around: Darwin understood that time really is circular. I say look to the turtles.


THREE ILLUS: Illustration: Greg Bakes

Heritage headaches …

Harry Seidler’s ”igloo house” in Mosman has been the subject of a stoush between the architect and the local council.


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