Thomas Sutcliffe: Why Modernism is not for all

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Somebody has just built a Modernist house near where I live - about 90 years too late if they were looking to be in the architectural vanguard, but right on the button when it comes to a tie-in with the V&A's new exhibition on the most consequential aesthetic movement of the last century. And, if the libel laws weren't what they are, I'd happily tell you where the house is, since I can't think of a more vivid expression of the central problem with Modernism, as it was conceived by some of its practitioners. The V&A could usefully run coach trips past it as a standing rebuke to the early Modernists' more fanciful notions of what the new architecture might achieve.

What I mean by Modernism here is a kind of hand-me-down minimalism - a geometrical façade composed out of big rectangular blocks, big plate-glass windows and a lot of white stucco. I'm not sure what inspired the developers to adopt this style rather than the late-Edwardian vernacular of the rest of the street - but practicality was probably one reason, as the site is too narrow to absorb a more conventional design. Perhaps they hankered after the high-net-worth associations of the style - its implicit connection with disposable income - or perhaps they simply fancied themselves as suburban Mies van der Rohes.

Whatever the case, they have produced an object lesson in the ruthlessness of Modernist aesthetics when it comes to finish. The stucco has been applied in a manner more suitable to wattle-and-daub construction, the window trims appear to have been adapted from budget shower-cabinets, and the notionally knife-edged transitions from space to volume are jagged and slapdash. What's even worse is that a naked air-conditioning unit appears to have been bolted on to the side of the building - as if the purity of the external envelope didn't really matter at all. The result is not so much International Style as Calcutta Ad Hoc.

At which point I should say that I would love to live in a Modernist house. It's just that I'm nowhere near rich or fastidious enough to do so. If that sounds mildly paradoxical given the centrality of social housing in most Modernist programmes, it's a paradox that is apparent everywhere in the V&A show. One of the things that's fascinating about Modernism - apart from the spectacle of longstanding and instinctive human tastes being rewired by a heroic act of will - is the way in which a movement so dedicated to universal utility should end up as a luxury good.

An essay in the V&A catalogue points out that the early movement was nothing like as homogeneous as we may now assume, riven by all kinds of theological debate about formalism (boo) and functionalism (mixed boos and cheers) and isms of any kind at all (very loud boos). Some practitioners thought they were social revolutionaries with a T-square, others that they were simply elaborating their own form of continuity with great architecture of the past. Some despised rich clients and dreamt of receding perspectives of worker housing. Others happily used rich aesthetes' bank balances to conduct practical experiments in interior design and composition.

But if there was any kind of consensus, it was that the new architecture should not just generate one-offs for the privileged. Modernism without mass production would be a contradiction in terms.

In practice, though, most of the surviving masterpieces of Modernism are bespoke luxuries - commissioned either by very rich corporations or very rich individuals, and preserved by their deep pockets. That's partly because - for all the rhetoric of emancipation and universal access you find in early Modernist manifestos - Modernism is among the most dictatorial of styles. It doesn't take well to adulteration and it demands of its inhabitants a lifestyle that most of us can't sustain.

It also doesn't weather well, since the substitution of pristine finish for applied decoration makes it impossible for Modernist buildings to acquire patina in the way other styles permit. A really good Modernist building should look as if it was finished yesterday - or it risks looking dowdy and neglected. It has always been the asceticism of the affluent.

One day, perhaps, I'll be able to afford the less that is more - when I don't have to take into account the human stonewashing of small children. I can save up to buy the luxury reproductions of chairs that were originally designed for workers' canteens and build up the bank balance for the maintenance work. In the meantime, I'll have to settle for the only mass-market object I can think of that offers an uncompromised Modernism - monochrome, severely geometrical and pared back to its functional essence. Modernist architecture at its best may be beyond my means - but I can stretch to an iPod.

Comments