The White and Black of Modernism

Thank you to all those who were kind enough to mention my article with the soft cooing of vague interest. I gather most of you read until the once opalescent glamour of my name, dragged through the rough plains of howling boredom, proved too dull and tarnished a beacon to merit further reading.

Well, who can blame you? Last week, I wrote on a thick tome of documentary history, and I perhaps didn’t stress quite enough how dry the thing really was.

{{ quote It would be hard to overestimate the importance of blank or open space in the Modern Movement }}

This week, I will be looking at a very different book, though also by Reyner Banham. The Age of the Masters (1962), subtitled “A Personal View of Modern Architecture”, reads more like a family photo album than a piece of architectural history; and in a strange way, that is what it is.

Banham’s close connection with the leading figures of the Modern Movement (Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier), all of them at least a generation older than him, allows him speak of them with a respect, though tempered with a little criticism.

“Now that they are all dead, it is difficult not to feel liberation as well as loss. While they lived they tyrannised the Modern Movement, monopolising attention and preventing the recognition of other (not always lesser) talents.”

The Age of the Masters is a catalogue of Banham’s personal thoughts on and memories of the history of the Modern Movement. It is also a celebration of them: the book itself (designed by Banham) is a beautifully crafted object.

One of the most notable aspects of the Modern Movement was that it very seldom restricted itself to architecture alone, as its vision of space could so easily be extended to other aspects of life: starting perhaps with G. T. Rietveld, many major modernists turned their hand to furniture design; the Futurists even made a cookery book (well worth looking at).

Banham, continuing this tradition, endows his book with the grace and elegance he celebrates in architecture: the book not only contains his ideas about design, it embodies them.

All of these features are of the utmost simplicity. The book is square, but it is closer in size to an ordinary novel than one of the large tomes whose never being read will be jusitified by the title ‘coffee-table books’ (whose dusty lives are spent straining the stout legs of a gross mahogany quadraped whose picture they very probably contain). It is extraordinary how one’s expectations are changed by such a simple formal change: the book feels more personal; closer perhaps to the children’s books of one’s youth, or the photo albums mentioned above.

The book is printed mostly in monochrome, but amidst the three-note symphony of black, white and grey the author’s name sings a strident shade of gold.

The real essence of the book’s good looks is blank space. It would be hard to overestimate the importance of blank or open space in the Modern Movement.

The two are really the same thing: blankness is a property of two-dimensional objects (books, paintings, music scores); openness one of three-dimensional objects (architecture, sculpture).

In the arts, performance takes place over time (the diachronic arts: music, spoken poetry, drama) blankness reveals itself as silence. Have we not just given a history of modernism across the board, from the open blank scores of John Cage to the empty stage of Samuel Beckett?

Now, is blank space an aspect of functionalist design, i.e. design which aims at complete utility? I think fundamentally not. If you were aiming at complete utility in printing a book, you would reduce blank space down to the barest minimum, using only as much paper as was absolutely necessary to contain the required words.

The inclusion of blank space can only be justified in terms of the pleasure of the reader: large white margins make the eye relax and allow the reader to turn the page more often (arguably the best bit of reading).

Blank space, as Banham approaches it, is not necessitated by certain design requirements, it is chosen as one of the building blocks of modernist design because of its pleasurable effect on the viewer.

It seems to me that Banham is drawn to the buildings of Giuseppe Terragni (the successor to Satn-Elia, whose Citta Nuova was printed last week), whose buildings on Lake Como he describes as “the education of an architect in five structures”, precisely because of a shared taste for the use of open space that arises from a fundamentally human concern.

Banham praises Terragni’s infant school, the Asilo Sant’Elia, with its “open frames and courtyard plans”, as being “the most god-fatherly compliment ever paid to the young by a modern architect.”

In the next issue, I will turn to the work and designs of Charles Holden, a figure who sadly spent much of his time on the periphery of the Modern Movement, whose work more than any other architect of the twentieth century embodied this concern for the human spectator as the first rule of design.


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