modernism

   Modernism, or the modern movement, in architecture is usually defined as a mode deriving from the work of the early Le Corbusier and of Walter Gropius and his colleagues at the Bauhaus in 1930s Germany, culminating in the work of Mies Van der Rohe in the 1950s and 1960s. Its formal characteristics could be described as the absence of decoration, the absence of façade, asymmetrical composition and the use of severe geometrical forms, often repeated over a large area. Entrances and exits tended to be left unemphasized, in favour of the sense that the building could be penetrated in multiple ways. Modernist construction favoured the concrete or steel frame over load-bearing masonry, and through the use of curtain-walling glass tended to become a structural element in its own right. The early conception of modernism was associated with certain utopian values, specifically that the provision of a planned architectural environment would lead to a better society. Neither Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus architects, nor Mies ever built in Britain. Few examples of modern movement buildings exist in the country, and the majority date from the 1930s. The bestknown are perhaps Berthold Lubetkin’s Highpoint 1 apartments at Highgate, London, and Owen Williams’s buildings for the Daily Express at London, Glasgow and Manchester. At the time, the modern movement was vigorously promoted by the Architectural Review, its photography of Williams’s Daily Express building in Fleet Street being a fine example of its proselytizing tone. But the impact of the modern movement is arguably much stronger in terms of the indigenous responses to it, whether outright rejection or forms of adjustment. The first widespread application of modern architecture in Britain came with the establishment of the welfare state in the period immediately after the Second World War. A style based on contemporary Swedish public architecture was adopted by London County Council architects, and spread to become the dominant mode for educational buildings until the late 1970s. Known as the ‘contemporary style’, or sometimes ‘people’s detailing’, it employed a vernacular of gently pitched roofs, brick walls, exposed wood and picture windows. It was in other words a much softened version of the modern movement. For architects such as James Stirling, who admired Le Corbusier, the adoption of the Swedish model seemed to indicate a failure of nerve, as in its human scale and use of natural materials it seemed to evoke a pre-industrial time: Stirling once remarked, famously: ‘Let’s face it, William Morris was a Swede.’
   If the architecture of the British welfare state adjusted modernism, British commercial architecture was also less modern than elsewhere; Mies Van der Rohe, prolific in the United States, was conspicuously absent in Britain. There was little commercial building until the late 1950s, when a vogue for high-rise office towers (along with other elements of urban design imported from the United States) became visible. If some of these, such as the Vickers Tower on the Embankment in London (1962) or the CIS Building at Manchester (1959), derived explicitly from the modern movement, many subjected the modern to considerable variation. Richard Siefert, for some time the most successful British commercial architect, designed Centre Point (1967), a thirty-five-storey tower at the junction of Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street, London; the arbitrary and decorative form of the windows alone identifies this structure as a far more frivolous piece of building than anything erected by Mies. Similarly, the vast Piccadilly Plaza (1965) complex in Manchester, comprising office towers, a hotel and a shopping centre, is an extraordinarily decorative structure incorporating stained glass, decorative tiling and coloured glass. In this aspect, and in the picturesque displacement of the various components of the structure, the complex in same ways better resembles the Victorian Gothic structures nearby than orthodox modern movement architecture.
   In British public architecture, the dominant mode throughout the 1960s and 1970s was the socalled ‘new brutalism’, conceived of in opposition to all forms of the modern movement. Many of the major structures of this period, such as the Hayward Gallery (1968), the National Theatre (1972) and the Barbican Centre (1980), with their picturesque, informal composition, are best described in terms of new brutalism, not modernism. The modern movement was all but abandoned during this time. Richard Rogers and Norman Foster (see Foster Associates), two architects who had in many respects kept the faith, built most of their early work abroad. However, towards the end of the 1980s a reassessment of the modern began to emerge, and by the mid-1990s it was possible, for example, to describe a modernist group of architects working in the north of England. One indicator of this was the increasing visibility of the work of late modern architecture in Britain, a process perhaps begun with the completion of Rogers’s Lloyds Building in the City of London in 1984, and continued with such structures as Foster’s Stansted Airport (1992). These buildings, though far less restrained than early modernist works, nevertheless embodied modernist structural principles. At the same time, modernist details such as glass bricks and sunscreens began to reappear in commercial architecture. However, it was not until the early 1990s that a revival of interest in modernism resulted in some new buildings, and this tendency has been particularly evident outside London. The work of the Manchester-based architects Stephen Hodder, Mills Beaumont Leavey Channon, Roger Stephenson and Ian Simpson is, in terms of composition, materials, placement and stylistic restraint, probably closer to the original principles of modernism than anything built in Britain since the 1930s. Hodder’s uncompromising Centenary Building for Salford University (1996) received national recognition by winning the first James Stirling Prize for an educational building. The fact that it won suggests that modernism was finally acceptable as an architectural style; at the same time, the fact that such buildings look fresh is an indicator of the long isolation of British architecture from its European counterparts.
   Further reading
    Frampton, K. (1992) Modern Architecture: A Critical History, London: Thames & Hudson.
    Lyall, S. (1980) The State of British Architecture, London: Architectural Press.
   RICHARD J. WILLIAMS

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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