Issue 103:2017 05 04:Fading Icons:Modernism (J.R.Thomas)

04 May 2017

Fading Icons: Modernism

Architecture moves on.

by J.R.Thomas

Anyone For Tennis?   Le Corbusier and Villa Savoye

Where once there were Dukes, now there are architects.  Not so long ago your correspondent, lunching in a swanky West End private dining club, witnessed Norman Foster, the Lord Foster of Thames Bank (not to be confused with Richard Rogers, the Lord Rogers of Riverside – a little riverine rivalry there, one might think) arrive, at about 2pm.  Conversation stopped, lunchers turned and admired, and the table of ladies whom Lord Foster joined positively cooed.  After thirty minutes or so, during which he partook only of a glass of water, he left again, no doubt looking forward to an afternoon creating some great glass and steel icon for our planet.  The ladies looked bereft, though most of the rest of the room wondered what they had done to receive such a blessing, be it so brief.  No Victorian Duke would have had a more fawning and admiring reception; certainly no current politician would.

For architects are convinced that they hold all the keys to happiness; only they understand the human condition; only they can resolve the multiple clashes and contradictions that obstruct our way to the paradise on earth that they and their teams can provide.  And somehow they have convinced us, the mere working inhabiting public, of this power.  Politicians are felled by crosses on paper, political parties fade to nothing, and long held philosophies become objects of derision and contempt.  But architects stride on, like their great buildings, heads in the clouds and feet barely on the ground, unconstrained by such vulgarities as popular opinion or indeed the constraints of budgeting and finance.

How has this happened?  The Adam brothers knew that they had refined classical architecture into something that every Georgian gentleman wanted, but they did not pretend that it would make a heaven on earth.  The Wyatt’s adding pinnacles, and the Barrys refining the pinnacles into an interpretation of authentic medieval and Clough Williams Ellis taking the ornamentation off, were all keen proponents of their styles, but they did not think this made them masters of the built universe. (Indeed Sir Charles Barry, one of the most prolific architects of all time, positively disliked and avoided personal publicity.)  For the genius of the built form, who realised that in the manipulation of concrete and steel he could remake the human condition, we have to look overseas – to the remarkable person and mind of Le Corbusier.

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret was a Swiss of French ancestry who felt called to architecture, with a mission to make it reflect a new and more egalitarian world.  Part of that process was remaking himself – adopting the style of Le Corbusier (“The Raven” or “Raven-like”).  After the First World War he rose to pre-eminence in his chosen profession, melding the new factory-made materials of pre-cast and poured concrete with steel frames and metal windows in designs where the formation of the inside spaces dictated the outside appearance of the building.  He had not invented Modernism, but he seized it and made it his own.  The Modern movement had begun in Vienna with the works of Loos and Wagner, and in the US with Frank Lloyd Wright, but Le Corbusier was its greatest proponent.  It is perhaps typical of him that his first sizable work, a house for his parents on a Swiss hillside, ran so much over budget that his parents eventually had to  sell it; but it was elegant and revolutionary – its principal floor an open space with areas for various activities simply defined by columns.  The pattern did not change – this house at least had a sloping roof, but by the time he came to design the Villa Savoye for the Savoye family, a prestigious and well-funded project, Le Corb would only accede to roofs that were flat and interiors that were vast open spaces. The Savoyes strongly objected, fearing leaks, condensation, noise, and mould, but The Raven was not interested in the views of mere clients.  He insisted this would be cheaper, healthier, cooler in the summer and economical to run; even that the flat roof would be suitable for sun bathing and sports.  All the things the clients feared came to pass, including damp-induced pneumonia, but Le Corbusier was remarkably unsympathetic, even when the Savoyes sued him.  He did admit that the flat roof was there for purely aesthetic reasons but, as the house was to be a Modern icon, no other considerations were relevant.

Somehow this approach attracted clients rather than repelling them; and led to a dawning of self-knowledge among many architects that they were giants of taste and style.  This coincided with the cost of two massive wars bringing an end to financial plenty – and the passing of economic power from great personal patrons to corporations and public bodies, entities perhaps less certain in their tastes and more anxious to be seen to do the right thing.  As architects were confident that they knew what the right thing was – and as the simple forms and standardisations of Modernist architecture made it not only the right thing but also the cheap thing – it became the only answer to large projects.

Modernism was not just about buildings, it was about the whole of urbanism.  The projects that came under the hands of architects included great swathes of cities – often opportunities created by war.  In London, Chamberlin, Powell and Don designed Golden Lane and the Barbican, two vast and brutalist concrete housing estates in the City of London.  Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer designed and oversaw a whole new Modern capital city for Brazil, Brasilia.  And Le Corb himself was responsible for Chandigarh, a large chunk of the capital city of the Punjab, including a new set of public buildings.  Modernism ruled a concrete world.

For a while.  Le Corbusier died in 1965, swimming out to the sun, a simile he had employed much in life, though probably of a heart attack.  The cracks were by then appearing in Modernism, literally (along with mould, rust, leaks and delamination), and figuratively.  The world seemed not to have been improved by its new premises and mankind had not yet ascended to an earthly paradise.

And of course, things go out of fashion; brilliant young professionals have to prove their originality and intelligence.  Post-Modernism appeared, a reaction to Modernism it was claimed, led by Robert Venturi, which had regard to the vernacular and used ornament to make buildings more interesting.  In retrospect it was a singularly minor rebellion, sticking bits of tile and bright paint on what were essentially Modern forms.  Then the Classical revival was just that – a scholarly and very expensive continuation of classical Georgian architecture whose greatest exponent was and is Quinlan Terry.  Post-Classicism took classical forms and shapes and used them with modern materials (and modern budgets) to fit into historic street scenes, generally lacking excitement but in the right context proving acceptable to the public staring from the top deck of the Clapham omnibus.

And of course we have those giants of glass and steel, Milords Rogers and Foster, (and their lesser known brothers and sisters such as the late Zaha Hadid, I M Pei, and Renzo Piano) remaking the world in their own image, or at least, what they would like their image to be.  That, one might submit, is still Modernism, using modern materials such as triple layered glass, steel (still), rubber (for joints and roofs), all now capable of being bent and curved and twisted.  But still monolithic, still with function following form, and still towering above humanity who are allowed to scurry in and out but not to criticise or suggest.

But watch what happens next.  The increasing greening of the world may lead to truly new forms of architecture.  Traditional architecture – by which we mean Modern – puts very heavy feet on the earth.  All that glass and concrete is expensive in carbon terms and doubly so when the engineering of putting things together and then heating and cooling those vast glasshouses is costed in.  And then consider the urge cities have to renew so much of their built environments every thirty years or so; concrete and glass are dreadful materials to remove and reprocess.

The latest generation of architects are thinking about buildings which use natural and renewable materials, which can be redeployed to cope with a changing world.  They know the rising cost of carbon and try increasingly to make their buildings less reliant on it – from wind turbines on the roof to ground source hear pumps via natural air movement within.  And most of all, they are conscious of the desires of the building users – who want some colour and fun and sense of participation (Kevin McCloud and his television series Grand Designs have a lot to answer for).  Architects can of course provide colour and, when it comes to fun, they can create catalysts for it – slides from floor to floor, decorations, hanging gardens with space to grow cabbages and roses.  They tend not to think they know all the answers but invite building users to participate in solutions for a better world.  We may just be at the birth of a new architecture, and if you remember that Modernism is more than a century old, that may be quite an event.

If you enjoyed this article please share it using the buttons above.

Please click here if you would like a weekly email on publication of the ShawSheet

Follow the Shaw Sheet on

It's FREE!

Already get the weekly email?  Please tell your friends what you like best. Just click the X at the top right and use the social media buttons found on every page.

New to our News?

Click to help keep Shaw Sheet free by signing up.Large 600x271 stamp prompting the reader to join the subscription list