Being Beta

Exercises in the higher banter with One of 26. Elsewhere called 'poet of adland'. By a whipple-squeezer. Find out why being beta is the new alpha: betarish at googlemail dot com

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Snapshot: Modernism

On an almost parodically old-skool Oakshott conservatism post by Peter Franklin at CiF, I contributed a brief review of Modernism, currently on at the V&A. The thread descended quickly into an ugly buildings sub-plot, but there we go.

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I suspect Peter hasn't yet been to the modernism retrospective that's currently on at the V&A museum in London (btw, go if you get the chance - it's usefully enlightening).

While Peter couches most of his critique in aesthetic terms ("but that the buildings seem to hate one other, fighting it out on a jagged, chaotic skyline.") that it is to pre-suppose that the movement was just strictly concerned with appearances.

Far from it. There are roots in Russian constructivism, and wider theories of 'utopia': out of the general tumult of the early 20th century, and the concern as to how to provide a better life for all, a group of designers turned their attention as to how the made/designed world could be approached in a similar way.

Infuse with that the seductions/attractions of the Fordist/machine age, and you start to get a hint about where the loss of scale in modernism started to come in. But for many modernist designers and architects, the very object was to bring the disicipline of manufacturing to home-building: Le Corbusier's quote about the home as a machine for living - efficiency, labour saving and elegance were all thought of as important. Practically, this meant looking at rooms, and what was performed in them, and then redesigning the room and appliances so as less effort could be expended to get done what needed to be done. The 'Frankfurt Kitchen' was the best example of this.

Yes, at some point the concern that Bauhaus had with human, incidental details in objects did get lost, and modernism got reduced to an aesthetic style caricaturing Mies van der Rohe's 'less is more': seemingly dominated by glass, steel and straight lines. But to suppose that it doesn't work at the larger, citywide level is yes, to deny Manhattan, Chicago, Brasilla: their impact, their grandeur, their beauty.

The real question is: why, despite Britain proving safe havens and commissions for a number of key figures from Bauhaus and modernism in the 1920s and 1930s (the Nazis weren't too keen, as the theoretical underpinnings and the Jewish and communist backgrounds of a number of key modernist thinkers didn't fit into their revival of Germanic volk culture), did we never take to it in the same way? It was only until Conran's work in the 1960s did modernist currents find their way into a wider, mass market.

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