Modernism: Blueprints for Change?

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Modernism: Designing a New World is the latest Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition. Chris Nineham reflects on the history of modernism and its legacy for today.

More than half a century after its heyday, modernism still riles the right. Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins finds the new exhibition of modernism at the Victoria and Albert Museum "the most terrifying show I have ever seen". He claims that the work of two of the founders of modern architecture, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, "must have caused more misery than any other in history".

Calmer commentators are prepared to admire the work of individual modernist artists, but most distrust modernism's wider agendas. Art writer Robert Hughes complains of the elitism and utopianism of the modernists, claiming the movement's decline proved that "what ordinary people wanted was culture they could relax into, the middle class comfort of the upholstered armchair, not the bracing, challenging austerities of chrome tubes".

Modernism's spokespeople sometimes sound like crackpots. Adolf Loos in Vienna in the 1920s wrote an essay called "Ornament and Crime" in which he argued that all decoration was degenerate. But among the modernists' many eccentricities and excesses, there were groundbreaking attempts to put art and design at the service of social change.

Rather than describing a style, modernism is a catch-all term for a wide variety of experiment in literature, art and architecture that started to appear at the end of the 19th century. The early European modernists were responding to a world that was changing at a bewildering rate. Electricity, railways and new building methods were transforming cities and homes, and the market was penetrating every area of life. The misery and upheaval caused by rapid industrialisation made a mockery of the idea of art as passive reflection of an ordered reality. Even the Romantics' escape from the city was being closed off as railways and canals criss-crossed the countryside, bringing factories and mines in their wake.

The first great period of modernism expressed anxiety in the face of a world in permanent flux. The Impressionists gave up painting solids and tried to capture the momentary effects of the play of light. Early in the 20th century Picasso and the Cubists turned solid form into a series of snapshots taken from different points of view. The Futurists in Russia and Italy tried to transfer the speed and power of the new machines to canvas.

The First World War and the revolutionary movements that followed politicised many of the modernists. Artists began to see links between their attempts to change art and the revolutionary movements to remake society. In the words of Walter Gropius, one of the founders of the Bauhaus design centre in Germany, "The old forms are in ruins, the benumbed world is shaken up, the old human spirit is invalidated and in flux towards a new form."

Politicised artists

Modernists were never politically unified. Most of the Italian Futurists supported the right, and many became apologists for fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Groundbreaking Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier was a social engineer who wanted to spiritualise architecture in order to stave off revolution. But one of the reasons this phase in art history is awkward for the experts is that so many of its leading figures tried to put their work at the service of the left.

In Russia after the 1917 October Revolution there was an explosion of radical experiment in the arts. Well known painters and poets joined Communist poster collectives. The Constructivists painted fantasy blueprints for a new society. Sergei Eisenstein made a series of experimental but very popular films of the history of the revolution. In Germany George Grosz and John Heartfield, who had been leaders of the anarchistic Dada anti-art movement, joined the Communist Party. In France even the leading Surrealists joined the Communists in 1927.

This second period of modernism positively glowed with optimism. A manifesto issued at the International Congress of Progressive Artists in 1922 solemnly declared, "Art is a universal and real expression of creative energy which can be used to organise the progress of mankind - it is the tool of universal progress." This mood was a response to the revolutionary movements, but it also reflected enthusiasm for the potential of new technologies.

It was the Russians, least able to get their hands on any real technology, who led the way to what they called "machine art". Vladimir Tatlin built a wooden model of a high-tech 400-metre monument to the Third International. But others followed close behind. The German Bauhaus centre was based around the idea of bringing art into mainstream production. The Bauhaus ideal was high quality design for living. Its leading designers wanted to strip away anything unnecessary or decorative from their designs. Houses were to become "machines for living in". They wanted design to play a role in helping to shape a new world: "Creative activities are useful only if they produce new, so far unknown relations."

Many of the great works from this period were fanciful. The artists' vision was often way ahead of what was feasible. Russian Constructivists designed proletarian cities in the air at a time when the Soviet railway system was paralysed by civil war and blockade. Trotsky and other Russian revolutionary leaders criticised some of the modernists for rejecting everything that wasn't modern, and for ignoring immediate popular cultural needs. Nevertheless the modernists' plans, paintings and designs continue to communicate a deeply affecting confidence in human beings' ability to shape the world anew.

The reason many of their ideas didn't get beyond the drawing board wasn't necessarily because they were unpopular. The Soviet republic was too impoverished to embark on many design or building projects before the Stalinist counter-revolution imposed an artistic return to tradition. Economic crisis in Europe meant that by the time the avant garde in Europe had a chance to practise what it preached, the revolutionary moment had passed. But the modernists' experiments had a big impact on the mainstream. By the mid-1920s many European social democratic governments were employing leading modernist architects to tackle their housing crises. There was strong grassroots demand for slum clearance, and modernist techniques provided cheap solutions to the challenge of mass housing. The German Social Democratic Party launched a housing programme during the boom years of 1924-25 employing Bauhaus architects.

At the end of the First World War Vienna was highly unstable. The Socialist city council embarked on a massive housing programme, building cheap and basic flats with a high level of communal social services including creches, community centres and laundries. The results were mixed, but mostly the new projects seem to have been welcomed by workers. At least one of the new estates in Vienna, the Karl-Marx-Hof, became a centre of working class organisation and opposition to the Nazis in the 1930s.

The minimalist aesthetic of the modernists began to spread round the world, and was transformed as it travelled. Chrome-plated Art Deco became the fashionable backdrop to the Roaring Twenties in New York. By the mid-1930s identifiably modernist buildings had appeared in South America, the Middle East and Japan. Modernism had a strong appeal to post-colonial governments that wanted to show they were taking their place in the modern world.

The rise of Nazism further dispersed modernist artists and architects around the world, particularly to the US. Hitler persecuted the modernists and personally supervised a modern art exhibition he called "The Exhibition of Degenerate Art". During the post-war boom in the US the original utopian impulse of modernism was diluted in what became known as the "International Style". This became the house style of the great corporations, the style of the new skyscrapers - technically impressive, but anonymous and inhuman. The utopian fantasies of the Russian Constructivists became the introspective colour washes of the American abstracts adorning the foyers of the big corporate headquarters.

After the Second World War, modernist housing methods were taken up around the world. There was a struggle over the outcome. Radical architects like Le Corbusier in France, London-based refugees Erno Goldfinger and Berthold Lubetkin, and the Brazilian Otto Niemeyer did their best to design and implement attractive, good quality housing with decent collective provision. Mostly the city planners' need for cheap solutions overrode any utopian intentions. Many of the new housing estates became unpopular due to a lack of any democratic planning, cheapskate standardisation and zero maintenance.

More recently modernist styles have become fashionable again - this time for chic gated housing schemes for urban professionals, particularly around the financial districts that are hollowing out so many of the world's city centres. But we shouldn't allow the right to trash modernism because its innovations have been hijacked or have fallen into disrepute. The modernists exaggerated the possibilities of design. Their worship of new production techniques laid their ideas open to plunder by urban planners with a lot less idealism.

The real reason the history of modernism still makes the right uncomfortable is that it carries with it the idea that architects, artists and designers might once again conspire with mass movements to try to remake the world.