Lost Idealism: The Strange Legacy of Modernism

Article by Daniel Rowe, Edited by Linley Wareham, Additional Research by Daniel Rowe.

Western Bank Library and the Arts Tower, Sheffield

Being a student in Sheffield, one has the dubious privilege of encountering three of England’s most important twentieth century architectural landmarks on an almost daily basis. I refer of course to the Arts Tower, Western Bank Library and Park Hill flats.  These grade II listed buildings are relics of the architectural movement known as modernism, a now largely reviled architectural style. At its heart, modernism was a movement that captured the imagination of many and transformed much of the post-war urban planning. The history of the modernist movement, however is largely ignored, instead these landmarks tend to be judged purely on aesthetics and draw widespread condemnation, scorn and criticism. Yet while it may be fashionable to deride the Arts Tower and Western Bank Library as relics of the 1960’s bad architectural taste, this judgement loses sight of the true history of the modernist movement and its continued influence on design and architecture. It therefore, only seems prudent to consider the historical developments that led to the construction of these university buildings.

Modernism itself was a movement whose formative years began in the fin de siècle mood present in the visual arts at the beginning of the twentieth century. Initially modernism existed alongside grandiose architectural styles like the Beaux Arts Movement and Art Deco. As a movement however, modernism found identity in denouncing the ornamentation and reverence for the past that characterised these other pre-existing styles. Instead it embraced new technologies and materials including glass, concrete and steel. Where opulence and decadence permeated the existing architectural styles, modernists instead adopted the mantras ‘less is more’ and ‘form follows function’ with an almost cult like fervour. By stripping away irrelevant ornamentation and promoting entirely new technologies, those that subscribed to modernist ideals believed that they could create a new, highly efficient, utopian society free from past associations and failings.

After finding definition in the early twentieth century, modernism began to attract public attention during the interwar years as the idealism and ‘new start’ promised by the movement captured the public’s imagination. Architects, including Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, served as the vanguards of the movement and enjoyed burgeoning reputations in the early 1920s. This recognition came as a result of several high profile commissions, such as the Villa Savoye in France and the Barcelona Pavillon in Spain (today these buildings serve as museums and tourist attractions). Many aspiring designers in this period also flocked to the now infamous Bauhaus school in Germany, where pupils sought instruction from design luminaries that included; Paul Klee, Walter Kandinsky, Marcel Breuer and Eileen Gray. The initial economic prosperity, belief in technology and utopian visions apparent in the interwar years, meant that modernist architects received numerous private commissions from wealthy clients. The early success of modernist architecture would fade, however, as both the Great Depression and rise of Fascist regimes in Europe meant that the political and economic environment was not supportive of costly, experimental, projects which rejected past associations.

School of Bauhaus

Although modernist architects received relatively few commissions in the 1930s and early 1940s, the success of its key figures in the preceding decades meant that they were able to retreat inwards and refine the philosophy underpinning modernism. If anything, in this period architects began to embrace modernism’s utopian ideals with even greater vigour. The Swiss born architect, Le Corbusier, in particular would become increasingly isolated from practical projects and instead fashioned theoretical plans for the remodelling of whole cities.

This period of stagnation would prove to be only temporary though, as the end of the Second World War and the beginnings of America’s age of affluence led to a rejuvenation of the movement. The public mood after the Second World War, at least initially, reflected the same idealistic dreams and hopes that had previously been apparent in the 1920s and early twentieth century. National governments firmly believed in their ability to create a new world, one that was free from the scourge of war and past horrors. As a result, in this period there was a veritable explosion of projects for the ever-expanding group of architects who promoted modernist philosophies. In the immediate post-war environment, modernist architects were responsible for designing landmark projects, like the United Nations Headquarters and the Seagram Building in New York, and entire new cities in Israel, India and Brazil.

Mies Van Der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavillon (Spain)

This boom in projects that adopted modernism as their approved style, continued into the 1950s and 1960s. In particular the international prestige of modernism’s earliest architects and buildings led architects in Sheffield to build the Park Hill flats in 1957 and The Arts Tower in 1961. Elsewhere in Britain the growing up of the baby boomer generation led to the construction of whole new universities in areas such as Bath, Norwich, Essex and York. These projects embraced the mantras and construction materials of modernism. In America, during this period, modernism continued to appeal to an overwhelmingly affluent audience, with Life Magazine and The New Yorker celebrating Mies Van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth House and the Case Study Houses project, in particular.

In many ways the 1960s would prove to be the high water mark for the modernist movement and by the end of the decade modernist buildings would attract increasing criticism and its current reputation would become cemented. The growing pessimism led to a growing sense of disillusionment with utopian visions during the 1970s and 1980s, leading governments and the public to shun modernist projects. High profile critiques of the architectural style, by Jane Jacobs and Tom Wolfe, served only to heighten modernism’s rapid decline. In the 1970s the public at large would increasingly denounce the constructions of modernism as soulless and generic. Somewhat paradoxically it was the success of the modernist philosophy and its constructions, which helped to produce the subsequent wave of criticism. Where once the Seagram Building and Lever House had seemed unique and iconic amongst a Manhattan skyline dominated by neoclassical buildings, the proliferation modernist skyscrapers served to make the original landmark buildings seem ubiquitous and stark. While the well documented criticisms of modernism that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s have analysed specific projects and their accomplishments, they have failed to assess the overall influence that modernism continues to have on our daily lives, or the social environment its success reflected.

Arne Jacobsen’s Egg Chair a 1958 design, which can be found in many commercial and public buildings.

Despite the sheer volume of modernist critiques it is a movement that has exerted a profound impact on our daily life. In furnishings, works by Arne Jacobsen and Eero Saarinen, many of which are designs that are more than sixty years old, continue to find homes in banks, Bond movies, upmarket restaurants and even the Information Commons. Beyond this, the design principles and aesthetics of the movement still find form with our penchant for Scandinavian design showcased by the success of IKEA and, to a lesser extent, Habitat. Modernism’s obsession with the uncluttered form, use of experimental new materials and pushing technological boundaries has also found support from companies including Apple, where Jonathan Ive’s award winning designs continue to draw plaudits. Moreover the trend towards utopian ideals and grand urban designs is not entirely absent from modern urban planning, with Norman Foster currently working on the construction of a purpose built environmentally friendly city in Abu Dhabi.

While it may be easy to condemn buildings such as the Arts Tower and Western Bank Library as naive and inherently flawed constructions, it might be wise, before passing too quick a judgement, to consider the impact of the movement on our current lives. Although recognising the difficulties of engaging in counterfactual history it seems unlikely that the innovations in technology and design enjoyed by contemporary society would have developed had the backwards looking neoclassical styles continued to permeate architecture and design. Before judging the architecture of modernism based on its appearance it might also be worth considering the underlying impulses that drove the movement. For whatever an individual’s personal assessment of the modernist aesthetic, one cannot help but feel a certain admiration for the optimistic image of the future that modernism and its supporters embraced. In light of this idealistic faith in the future, perhaps a resurgence of modernist architecture might not prove to be a bad thing. After all it seems far more attractive and fashionable to wish to recapture the mood of the 1920s and 1960s than it does to return to the atmosphere of the 1930s or 1970s.

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