Modernism – or should that be Modernwasm?

Modernism, as anyone who knows architecture and design will testify, is regarded by its sometimes fanatical adherents as being very much more than a matter of style. Indeed, to the true believer Modernism (always with that upper-case M) is a super-rational approach which does away with any need for such antediluvian notions as style at all. Plenty of others disagree, not least because it is devilishly difficult to pin down exactly what Modernism is, or was. But now we have a chance to revisit this troubled ground. The Spring blockbuster exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum is devoted to just this subject. “Designing a New World” is the subtitle. And yes, that is exactly what Modernism set out to do.

This is not a contemporary show in the least. It covers the period broadly from 1914 to 1939. That is a very long time ago. The introduction to the catalogue makes it even clearer that the museum’s curators regard this as a safely pigeonholed historical movement. “What was Modernism?” it rhetorically asks. Was, not is.

So we must define our terms here, starting with the absolute basics. Modernist does not mean the same as modern. Modern means anything that is happening now. If you took your reference point as the mid 1980s, say, then “now” would mean you were in the thick of the post-modernist or PoMo era. An era in which Modernism had been declared dead, and the prevailing style in architecture was one of simplified or mutated historical accoutrements – done always with a dash of what at the time was regarded as wit. Thus in London PoMo was signalled by architect Terry Farrrell placing big colourful plastic egg-cups on the top of his TV-AM building. The egg-cups took the place of traditional ornamental devices such as finials, while the fact that they were egg-cups, so acting as a signifier for the breakfast TV station beneath, was the element of wit. Similarly in the United States the architect Michael Graves used giant swans or even, for Disney, the Seven Dwarfs as architectural devices. That was modern, at the time. But it was not Modernist. Except in the eyes of the diehard traditionalists, who correctly detected that most postmodernist buildings were just big ordinary late-Modernist buildings wearing funny clothes.

As for real Modernism, going back a century or more – well, let’s take the idea, by no means universally held, of a clean break with the past. It was most true in Europe – particularly in the aftermath of the Great War, when even many war memorials were built with little or no religious imagery, and Lutyens – no modernist he – devised the idea of the Cenotaph, or empty tomb, as a truer act of remembrance. The 19th century had been a rag-bag of historical styles: industrialisation had had the effect of making people constantly ransack and rearrange the past. So much, from gothic revival church architecture to the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, had been a rejection of modernity, though the Victorians could always crank out something stupendously advanced like the Crystal Palace (later much admired by Le Corbusier) when the need arose.

In contrast, Modernism was all about scraping away the traces of ornament, history, and of course style. Ah yes: this was not meant to be a style, and many disliked that curatorial phrase “International Style”, coined by Henry Russell Hitchcock in 1932 for an exhibition at the new Museum of Modern Art. Many preferred “Modern Movement”. Walter Gropius, most influential director of the Bauhaus school of design, summed it up in 1919 in the words: “”Today’s artist lives in an era of dissolution without guidance. He stands alone. The old forms are in ruins, the benumbed world is shaken up, the old human spirit is invalidated and in flux towards a new form. We float in space and cannot perceive the new order.”

Small wonder that Modernism was seen as hostile to the Church. As the V&A’s curator Christopher Wilk tells us, as early as 1907 Pope Pius X issued a Vatican Encyclical condemning Modernism as heretical because it encouraged atheism and “the annihilation of all religion”. He was right to be alarmed. When you start from scratch, with the idea of creating a better and more rational world, you are inclined to be left-leaning, with little love for trappings of the past such as religion. Though Modernism seldom shouted its non-religious nature from the rooftops, that was usually the implication. It did not, however, develop into a battle with the church: as we shall see, even the church eventually embraced modernism. It could certainly find itself at odds with the state, particularly if the state itself had trappings of religion. The Nazi regime did not like the Leftist Bauhaus, which was very much a product of Weimar Germany, and closed in 1933. But then, the Nazis saw most forms of non-industrial modernism as decadent, as did Stalin (Mussolini was an exception, despite his annexation of the symbols of Ancient Rome). So the Bauhaus members, many of them Jewish, dispersed throughout the world, particularly to America, and the International Style became the style of postwar corporate America.

Modernism was partly a dream of industrialised building, partly a synthesis of all the arts. It is often forgotten that the Bauhaus (key teachers being Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Hannes Meyer and many others) was as much about avant-garde theatre productions as it was about bent-steel chairs. Meanwhile in France Le Corbusier adored aeroplanes, cars and ocean liners, and compared them to the Parthenon in what he saw as their purity of construction. He was also an artist, and co-designed much furniture. This multi-tasking was commonplace: even Ludwig Wittgenstein had a short early career as a Modernist architect. Above all it was a matter of a rational response to contemporary needs, using the most advanced techniques and materials available. Housing was a particular concern: Modernists believed in the health and social benefits of clearing and rebuilding entire cities on rational lines and this attitude persisted right through to the 1970s. And of course it did become a very recognisable style by the 1930s: white-walled, flat-roofed, strip-windowed, often erupting into elements of curving, steel-framed glazing. But don’t confuse it with moderne, which is more Art Deco, more Odeon.

The V&A sticks to its convenient if conservative period of 1914-1939 because this was the time when people were inventing this stuff rather than reacting against it or reinterpreting it. It is often described as the “Heroic Period” of Modernism, by which is meant that its practitioners were designing and building, painting and writing and drawing, against the grain, against traditions. Not all to the same extent, mind. In America Frank Lloyd Wright and the composer Gershwin, say, were evolutionists rather than revolutionists. Scandinavian modernists such as Alvar Aalto tended to be less hard-line than their southern European colleagues. And although Wright’s long evolution out of the Arts and Crafts movement apparently reached its Modernist zenith in the white spiral of New York’s 1959 Guggenheim Museum, that building endearingly still contains vestigial ornamental aspects of a kind that the diehard modernist, remembering Adolf Loos’s 1908 dictum “Ornament is Crime”, must eye askance.

Modernism did not so much die as break into many different sub-movements, post-war. Just as the romantic tradition in literature had reasserted itself after the early to mid century experiments of Joyce, Pound, Eliot, Woolf et al, just as people were starting to tire of atonalism in music and abstraction in art, so it seemed that architecture and design, in its broadest sense, had moved on to other movements, other concerns. There is, of course, never a clean break between any one such cultural movement and the next, though it is always fun to try to concoct one.

The British-based American academic Charles Jencks had a big hit with successive editions of his book “The language of post-modern architecture”, first published in 1977. In it, Jencks made his epochal pronouncement that Modernism had died in a certain place at a certain time. The date was 1972, and it concerned the dynamiting of a failed 1958 American social housing scheme designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki, more famous as the creator of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. In Britain we might date architecture’s period of doubt and reappraisal from the earlier part-collapse of the Ronan Point tower block in East London, which happened in 1968. But what happened between 1939 and then?

Even Jencks acknowledged that architects had been in the business of rejecting mainstream Modernism for some time. There was the matter of Robert Venturi, for instance, the American architect of the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing, who had been designing buildings with a postmodern ethos as long ago as the start of the 1960s. Then there was the matter of the architectural power grouping known as Team X, which in 1956 stormed the Modernist ideological citadel of the organisation known as CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne) originally set up by Le Corbusier (known as Corb or Corbu) and others in 1928. Team X was a group of young radicals charged by CIAM – by then little more than a Corb fan club – with the task of organising the 1956 congress. Their response – to crudely paraphrase what was a complex and nuanced position – was to effectively destroy the idea of an anonymous “International Style” which Corb himself had swung well away from in his later, highly sculptural, work.

The preceding year, Corb’s extraordinary, organic, uncategorisable pilgrimage chapel in Ronchamp, north-east France, had been dedicated. No way was that ever International Style. It was and is unique, and uniquely influential. And it was built not from a position of faith – as was the case with Coventry Cathedral from roughly the same period, the design of which came to its architect Basil Spence, he claimed, as a heavenly vision while he was under gas in the dentist’s chair. Spence was in the monumental romantic tradition. Corb was not. When Corb accepted the commission for the chapel from the local bishop in 1950, he made his impeccably Modernist position clear. “I don’t care about your church, I didn’t ask you to do it. And, if I do it, I’ll do it my way. It interests me because it’s a plastic work. It’s difficult.”

Team X reasserted the primacy of the individual creator. Some of its members, such as Aldo van Eyck from the Netherlands and Peter and Alison Smithson from the UK, plus friends such as James Stirling, went on to become some of the “signature architects” of their day. They were for a time associated with Pop artists of the same generation, who themselves tended to take an anti-Modernist position – think of Richard Hamilton or Peter Blake. The 1960s in Britain were Janus-faced when it came to Modernism. That was the time when Victoriana was rediscovered, when great conservationist battles were fought, when the Beatles, along with Blake, redefined Yesterday.

All this mightily troubled the great architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner. He discussed what for him was an unwelcome development in a 1966 BBC Third Programme radio talk, The Anti-Pioneers. There was a new spirit abroad, said Pevsner; “…a new style, successor to my International Modern of the 1930s, a post-modern style I would be tempted to call it, but the legitimate style of the 1950s and 1960s.” Pevsner thus regarded personality architecture such as Stirling’s as post-modern, in effect a new outbreak of Expressionism. In fact, he had used the term even earlier, in the unlikely context of his “Buildings of England” volume on Norfolk, published in 1962. There he described the traditional-with-a-twist rural housing of architects Tayler and Green as “…post-modern, if by modern one still understands what is now familiar as the International Style of the 1930s.”

Note that Pevsner used the loose “modern” rather than more specific “Modernist”. That is because, for him as for so many others, Modernism had been the end of history so far as architecture was concerned, and so therefore was destined to be perpetually fresh, always modern. Surely nothing could replace it? However he accepted with good grace, even humour, that it had indeed been replaced. He had called his talk The Anti-Pioneers in reference to the fact that it was 30 years since he had published one of Modernism’s key texts, “Pioneers of Modern Design”, in which he had set out to show the great lead-in to architecture’s glorious final chapter, from William Morris in the mid 19th century to Walter Gropius in 1914. “Simplicity, honesty, service” were the key modern-movement ingredients for Pevsner. In contrast the megalomania of Antonio Sant’Elia’s Città Nuova project, also of 1914, proposed an alternative, more fanciful, Futurist future.

Pevsner stuck to the Gropius world-view. “What I thought I described was the coming of the Millennium,” confided Pevsner to his Third Programme audience. “To me what had been achieved in 1914 was the style of the century. It never occurred to me to look beyond. Here was the one and only style which fitted all those aspects which mattered, aspects of economics and sociology, of materials and function. It seems folly to think that anybody would wish to abandon it. But human feelings are inscrutable and what we are experiencing now is a new style completely, an anti-Pioneers style…alarmingly harking back in many different, even contradictory ways to Art Nouveau and to Expressionism”.

In so succinctly describing what he saw as the post-modern situation in the mid-1960s, Pevsner thus anticipated Jencks by over a decade – which means Jencks is effectively the chronicler of the second, more obvious, wave of postmodernism. But to Pevsner, to Russell Hitchcock, to CIAM, to Mondrian, to Schoenberg, Modernism was meant to be the culmination of everything. This is why, when discussing it, almost Messianic religious phraseology is often deployed: odd, when you consider the essentially secular nature of the movement. The true believers did not go away: they were merely eclipsed for a while, and then shone again on a new generation. But having been successfully challenged twice since the Second World War, it makes no difference that architectural Modernism had returned with a vengeance by the mid 1990s, kicking Phase Two post-modernism into touch. That just meant the start of Phase Three.

We are all post-modernists now. Our conceptual artists look to Dada, not to Picasso or Matisse. All our globe-trotting “signature” architects are revival Expressionists as Pevsner rightly foresaw: Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, Foreign Office Architects, Stephen Holl, Peter Eisenman, Herzog and de Meuron. Since the new international style for landmark buildings is this now familiar expressionism of swooping curves and jagged angles and blurring of the distinction between levels, that means that the old, upper-case International Style is indeed something out of the history books. The mere fact that many other architects have gone back to the mother lode to build buildings that are very much in the tradition of the original International Style – that “simplicity, honesty, service” are the watchwords of many – means only that they are another species of revivalist. Modernism is old enough to have developed its own complex history, which has become a resource to draw on like any other. But for some, particularly in architecture, it is still more than that. Still a manifesto for a better, healthier, fairer, more rational world.

Text and Ronchamp photo © Hugh Pearman. La Città Nuova apartment building drawing, 1914 by Antonio Sant’Elia. Original pre-edit version of the article published in New Humanist magazine, March/April 2006 issue as “Design for Living”.

“Modernism: designing a new world” at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum:

New Humanist magazine: