Hope in the first machine age

Reader, welcome. Relieve your roaming eyes in semi-stasis for a while; roll them over my column. I will be writing (presently and – subsequently – bi-weekly) on various important moments, figures and concerns of the Modern Movement in Architecture. My article will be ideal for the uniniated, the unsure – perhaps not the uninterested, though one endeavours to be accommodating.

The origins and history of architectural modernism should be of at least glancing interest to anyone currently doing time in the great white-walled educational fortress of the West Midlands. Warwick is a temple to modernism; all those gracing its cloisters, whether with vague curiosity, somnambulant indifference of – more unlikely – ceaseless aesthetic ecstacy, might find some value in a short history of some of the ideas that were important in the Modern Movement (1925-70).

This is precisely what is offered by Rayner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, a book contemporaneous with the design of Warwick University.

Banham’s book is a history of the Modern Movement; it is also an important moment in that history. Banham was himself a member of the Modern Movement (an important theorist of the Team 10 school of design of the 1960s): his ideas are doubly interesting for being written ‘from the inside’, thus elucidating how late modernism conceived of its origins.

Banham offers a history of ideas – whereas later historians (of modernism in all forms), writing outside of the movement, have been more concerned to describe the socio-political origins of such ideas than to really engage them. A comparison with the modern philosopher David Harvey is instructive. Both Banham and Harvey are concerned with modernist conceptions of space and time: Banham in trying “to re-experience … the revolution in sensibility”; Harvey in the phase of capitalist production that gave rise to such thinking.

Banham’s primary sources are the journals (often of a very short life-span) circulated by various different groups within the Modern Movement. His drive to offer a comprehensive survey of the particular theoretical addition offered by each new group makes the book occasionally rather dense. This is in the nature of Banham’s project: it suffers from the dryness of the documentary impulse (his Age of the Masters, is a sexy monograph of few words, many pictures and much style).

Two aspects of the book are particularly worthy of note. Firstly, Banham is readily willing to point out the failings and limitations of the Modern Movement. In his discussion of the early influence of Futurism, he points out a subtlety of spatial conception in Cubo-Futurist thought that was lost on subsequent architectural theorists: “that the straight line would be symbolic of, and not inherent in, mechanical design”. This line of thought was later lost amidst Functionalist arguments of the necessity of modernism: the modernist use of the line, Banham points out, was an aesthetic choice, not an unaesthetic practice.

Secondly, Banham shows himself excellent in the analysis of different forms of modernist prose, yet he fails ever to remark on the extraordinary optimism displayed on questions of social reform. He even points out the “Hegelian terms” employed by early De Stijl theorists in their exposition of “the spirituality of abstract art”, while he quotes, without comment, such a passage as this: “The proper tendency of the machine (in the sense of cultural development) is as the unique medium of … social liberation.”

I can only see this as evidence of a continuing belief in the social possibilities of architecture, a belief shared by Van Doesburg writing in the 1910s, and Banham in the 1960s. Banham does not register the optimism because he shares it. Such a belief holds significantly less credence today. And one is right to be sceptical in the wake of ill-funded council housing projects and oppressive concrete structures suffocating the city sky-line.

But it is important to separate the energetic and optimistic thought of the Modern Movement itself from the arguments of its unhappy imitators. Shoddy and unimaginative modern design is often accompanied by a zealously held dogma about its own necessity. It is much to Banham’s merit that he considers the Modern Movement as a series of stylistic choices, not the necessary form of design in the modern age.


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