Interrogating the Modernist revival
By Kenn Taylor
With the recent campaigns to save Preston’s Bus Station, Birmingham’s Central Library and Portsmouth’s Tricorn Shopping Centre. Not to mention the emergence of Manchester’s The Modernist magazine, books like Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism and critic Jonathan Glancey’s numerous broadsheet eulogies, it seems that we are now going through a period of revisionism in relationship to the Modernist architecture of the 1960s and 70s. That which was reviled by so many for so long is now being venerated.
It many respects this is inevitable. In the cycles of something changing from ‘old fashioned’ to ‘classic’ in the public consciousness, 30 or 40 years usually about does it. It’s also about time. This period of architecture produced many fine buildings of international importance in Britain’s towns and cities, and too many of these have already been lost to indifference. We must protect the best examples of buildings from whatever era from the mere whims of fashion. How much great Art Deco architecture was destroyed, like the Firestone factory in West London, before we realised its value?
Yet, despite the need to acknowledge the importance and value of such buildings, I don’t think we can truly celebrate the best architecture and design of the post-war Modern era without simultaneously acknowledging the failures.
This was starkly highlighted to me when I visited an exhibition held at the Liverpool School of Art in 2011 – Design Research Unit 1942-72. You may never have heard of the Design Research Unit (DRU) but you will know its work. Their 1965 British Rail logo is still used on every station in Britain, now no longer the brand of the long defunct British Railways Board, instead a generic symbol for railways, and probably DRU’s most prominent legacy.
Their other work was as many and varied as it was influential, as the exhibition displayed. Ranging from the interior of the P&O ocean liner Oriana and sections of the 1951 Festival of Britain, to the ICI logo and the 1968 City of Westminster street signs, which have become as an integral part of London’s streetscape as red buses and black taxis.
The DRU was formed in 1943 by the poet and art critic Herbert Read, architect Misha Black and the graphic designer Milner Gray. It was arguably the first multidisciplinary design agency in the UK, working across architecture, products and graphic design. The DRU was a product of the Modernist belief in the power of the new and optimism for the possibilities of the post-war era. Founded to help build a new Britain after the horrors of war and depression, when everyone, designers included, was desperate to break with the past.
For me though, the most telling part of the exhibition was that which looked at Milner Gray’s work for London’s Watney Mann brewery in the 1950s and 60s. Watneys commissioned DRU to provide a coherent look for its huge range of premises. In response, Gray developed a new identity with five different types of lettering and decoration to be used, depending on the architectural style of each public house. Watneys new signage used a ‘slab serif’ font made in pressure-formed plastic, a style which soon became a high-street craze.
Yet, despite its pioneering nature, to me the Watneys project highlights the negative aspect of not only DRU’s work, but the wider failures of Modernist design. After it, many other breweries adopted similar makeover schemes in a period which saw many pubs have their individual characteristics, developed over decades, ripped out in favour of a plasticised standardisation. Designs imposed from on high that reflected little of the culture or history of where they were being dropped in. Looking only modern and fresh for a brief time, before ageing poorly due to changes in fashion and the low quality of the materials they were made of.
Watneys thrusting attitude towards modernisation even spread to their beer, with the revulsion against the mass-produced blandness of its Red Barrel ‘modern’ keg beer helping to spark the foundation of the Campaign for Real Ale and its fight for traditional, quality, regional brews.
Even looking at the simple brilliance of DRU’s British Rail logo, the over-arching brand identity they developed for the railway often took no account of the great diversity of historic architecture that it was being pasted on. It also reflected the wider ‘modernisation’ of Britain’s railways that saw the destruction in the 1960s of many historic stations, including London Euston, which was replaced with the Modernist mediocrity that greets me on every trip to the capital. Euston’s uninspiring shopping arcade descending into dank concrete platforms stands in negative contrast to the still stunning Victorian glass barrel roofs of Liverpool Lime Street which I meet at the other end of the line.
As well as being its strength, Modernist architecture and design’s ubiquity, utopianism, universalism and uniformity were also its undoing. In trying to re-make everything and escape the horrors of recent history, it destroyed not only what was bad of the past, but what was good as well. With a missionary zeal that also saw a huge chunk of Britain’s Victorian and Georgian architecture demolished, one of the reasons that 60s Modernism is still so despised by so many today.
Many of the arguments around supporting such Modernist architecture seem to hang on the idealism and optimism that surrounded such buildings. In contrast to the cynical vapidness and blandness of so much contemporary ‘lassiez-faire’ architecture that is in many cases replacing Brutalist post-war structures.
Yet such bland homogenisation is just as resplendent in much of the worst of mediocre Modernism as it is in any contemporary neo-liberal urban development. Neither does such thinking acknowledge the dark arrogance that underpinned the philosophies of Modernist design; that educated elites could engineer the world into a utopia through planning and design. The idea that an internationalist aesthetic could be imposed on a specific culture and that it would ‘improve’ the people living amongst it.
Interestingly, this resurgence in the support for Modernist architecture is almost the same as in the 1960s, when civic worthies first really began to fight to save Georgian and Victorian heritage from redevelopment. This was inevitably led by middle class outsiders, whilst many living in such areas were glad to see the back of such buildings, even if they disliked being moved from old neighbourhoods to new estates. So now, while many are now striving to protect Modernist buildings, they are rarely are the ones who have to shop in Portsmouth, get a bus in Preston or borrow a library book in Birmingham. It is precisely this placing of aesthetics and ideas over people and function that caused so much Modernist architecture to fail.
I saw this illustrated glaringly in a Guardian article by curator and writer Stephen Bayley, about the attempt to preserve from demolition the Brutalist concrete housing complex, Robin Hood Gardens, in a deprived part of East London: “the unintelligent housing policies of Tower Hamlets populated Robin Hood Gardens with the tenants least likely to be able to make sensible use of the accommodation. We have to whisper it, but the Unité d’Habitation [Famous Modernist housing block in Marseilles] works because it is populated by teachers, psychologists, doctors, graphic designers, not by single mothers struggling with buggies.” This is a striking example of an aesthete criticising a deprived population for not being appreciative of what they have been ‘given’. Whilst forgetting the very reason such buildings were constructed was to improve living conditions for poor families, something which they have so often resolutely failed to do.
Meanwhile, fellow Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins pointed out that nearly 80% of Robin Hood’s residents wanted the estate demolished and rebuilt so they could stay in the neighbourhood and, even more tellingly, that no one on the preservation campaign actually lives there. Its brash, Brutalist structures may look impressive, yet apparently remain not great to live in.
We should acknowledge the positives of the Modern era. It pioneered techniques and materials we now take for granted and saw many important buildings and designs produced in what was a high point of British construction and production. Yet we cannot view it through rose-tinted spectacles.
The people behind such designs may have truly believed they were making places better for ordinary people, but their bold visions were in many ways also arrogant, and have so often failed. You cannot celebrate the visual power and utopianism of post-war Modernist design without acknowledging how quickly all that decayed and how much that negatively affected many people’s lives. Just as preservationists of the Victorian era who emphasise its pioneering, graceful designs should also acknowledge the poverty, repression and exploitation that marked that era also.
Looking back at that Design Research Unit exhibition, its final section was about how the DRU’s headquarters, a standard-looking brick office building in London’s Aybrook Street, were given a radical, brightly coloured, rooftop extension by the then young architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers in 1972. Piano and Rogers of course went on to design the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, one of the most influential buildings of the late 20th century and a pioneer of Post-Modern architecture.
Today, that dramatic extension of Aybrook Street has been re-covered in something bland and grey, more in keeping with the style of the older building, its Modernist zeal hidden as if in embarrassment. This is a shame, we should not just cover up or destroy this era of architecture, if it is still of use, but when we look at it, not only remember the power and vision of its designs, but also the danger, as ever, of rapid, destructive change, of putting ideas above people, or of believing in grand solutions, imposed from on high, to any problem. We should preserve these buildings to remind us of our past, not just the good, but the bad as well.
This piece appeared on cities@manchester, a blog of the University of Manchester, in May 2012.