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Utopian Modernism In London
June 28, 2006 3:47 AM   Subscribe

Utopian Modernism In London: A Series Of Drifts... is a tour of modernist landmarks, tying architectural practice to politics and movements in art. Author Owen Hatherley also keeps a weblog chiefly concerned with art and utopianism in Weimar Germany and the early Soviet Union. Photographer Ludwig Abache's site contains more architectural imagery, from London and beyond. (via newthings)
posted by jack_mo (13 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thanks for this. I hate these things, and putting all of these buildings together on one page makes them look slightly less hideous than they actually are in real life. A bit like the way the South Bank is tolerable because everything around it also so concrete and ugly. I might appreciate them more now, rather than just scowl at them.

These days, the amazing thing is how much a flat in one of these things costs.
posted by randomination at 5:01 AM on June 28, 2006


These links, while not FPP worthy, seem apropos: 1,2,3.
posted by signal at 5:56 AM on June 28, 2006


Thank you for the great post, jack_mo.

Walter Benjamin once remarked that what drove men and women to revolt was not dreams of liberated grandchildren but memories of oppressed ancestors. Visions of future happiness are all very well; but happiness is a feeble, holiday-camp kind of word, resonant of manic grins and multicoloured jackets, not least when compared with the kind of past which, as Marx commented, weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. Benjamin was not wholly sceptical of the future, as Fredric Jameson points out in this monumental study. On the contrary, he discerned in it a messianic power to disrupt the present. Even so, he treats it with a certain Judaic wariness: you are forbidden to carve graven images of the future because to do so is to use it as a fetish or totem to manipulate the present. Just as you cannot name God, so you cannot put a face on his future kingdom. Speculating in futures is the opposite of Abrahamic faith. Benjamin reminded us that not even the dead are safe from Fascism, which will simply erase them from the historical record; and one might equally claim that not even the future is safe from those who envisage it as no more than the present stretching all the way to infinity. Or, as one caustic commentator put it, the present plus more options. On this view, the future has already arrived, and its name is the present.

Terry Eagleton on Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions by Fredric Jameson
posted by xod at 7:18 AM on June 28, 2006 [1 favorite]


I hate these things, and putting all of these buildings together on one page makes them look slightly less hideous than they actually are in real life.

While I've never seen these particular buildings in real life, we have similar structures here, and I'm glad you made this point because I was thinking the same thing.

I don't know much about architectural history at all, so I'd love to see some stuff about why architects drifted away from the beautiful buildings of the late 19th/early 20th century toward this kind of architecture.

For instance, why is it that we rarely see new neoclassical or beaux arts structures, but some guy comes up with something that looks like a cube with windows and he's hailed as a genius? To be kind of crude about it, why do so many modern buildings look so...gross?

Is it really just a matter of taste? Are those old neoclassical style buildings just considered tacky nowadays? Is it a matter of laziness? Is there a lack of skilled tradesmen needed to do the detail work necessary for some of the older styles?

I realize apartment buildings aren't going to be designed as palaces, but even here in New York, the difference in styles between the older apartment buildings and the newer ones is striking.

This is probably not the place to go into all this stuff, but it's something I've often thought about from a layman's point of view.
posted by Alexandros at 7:40 AM on June 28, 2006


Alexandros, In short, I would say it was about the transformation of the means of production and transportation in the 19c, the simultaneous revolutions in scientific thought and the wholesale destruction and housing crises created by two world wars. Here is a brief history of modernism that, in the spirit of this fpp, centers around Great Britain: From Here to Modernity.
posted by xod at 8:39 AM on June 28, 2006


An interesting post Jack_Mo. Never liked the projects in London, here in NYC or anywhere. Although Utopian Modernism makes sense in attempting to get away from the suffocating clutter of Victorianism. The modernist projects unfortunately all seemed plug ugly to me, soulless concrete dumps. The people I've known who lived in projects suffered too: elevators stinking of piss, filthy public hallways, ratty landscaping. I asked a NY cop what his scariest job was, he said, working in any project because people there simply took pot shots at cops. Something in the modular appearance causes the residents of most project housing not to feel like it's really home, so they trash the place; an institutional look about them incites resentment.

In India there is an entire project city, Chandigarh, which used to have that tired, modular concrete look. It's come a long way. It was designed by Le Corbusier, who was otherwise quirky and fun in his architectural vision but Chandigarh has that inhuman boxiness projects are known for. However, the inhabitants have humanised Chandigarh over the years.

Thanks to your post I can now study how the whole project mindset happened as a cultural phenomenon. There's a great page about Vorticism on one of the links you posted with FAQs, which explains a lot, brings loose threads together for me.

Ironic Eliot was one of the Vorticists, him with his Wasteland and nightmares of bleak dystopia.

Interesting too that Ezra Pound coined the name Vorticist.

"It was a manifesto and a call to arms for the artists of Britain to shake off its Victorian attitudes. He [Wyndham Lewis ] was continually recruiting both artists and wealthy patrons (usually women) who would supply the budget for his next venture. They met in Great Ormond Street (where the entrance to the Children's Hospital now is) and ran lectures, art classes and presentations.

why did they call themselves Vorticists?

The term Vorticism was invented by Ezra Pound, the American poet. Lewis had befriended him whilst in London. The term represented the contradiction of a swirling, headyprogress and a still reflective centre which was a characterisation of the group's collective psyche."

posted by nickyskye at 9:43 AM on June 28, 2006


To be kind of crude about it, why do so many modern buildings look so...gross?

Thorstein Veblen wrote about the elements of society that try to conserve archaic traits.

James Laver came up with a nostalgia timeline.

Is it really just a matter of taste? Are those old neoclassical style buildings just considered tacky nowadays?

To some people, yes. Modernist architects embraced the principles of economy and efficiency that allowed our culture to flourish. We have an industrial culture. Why should we pretend that we're living in another century? Dressing up can be fun, but do you really want to live in a Halloween costume?

Is there a lack of skilled tradesmen needed to do the detail work necessary for some of the older styles?

It's not that it's too hard; on the contrary, it's all too easy to add detail. Ornament has lost its value.

Before the industrial revolution, ornament served as a record of human labor. If a product was fluted or gilded, it was because someone took the time to carve an indentation or apply a gold plating to it. The people who created these objects could show that they had free time by adding non-essential decoration to their works. The people who owned these objects demonstrated that they had the power and resources to acquire these ornate objects through trade or threat of force. In this way, an estate was not just a collection of material goods; it was a symbolic mass of human-hours. Larger collections would have to be protected from the covetous hands of peasants and rival warlords — and thus further validated a property owner's power. In this way, wasteful (i.e. non-vital) expenditures of time and material goods may act as a surplus indicator.

The machine age disturbed old-world values. The machine has long since usurped the power of human muscle tissue, and thus art that venerates technology is viewed as dehumanizing.
posted by Human Flesh at 2:28 PM on June 28, 2006


xod, Human Flesh: Thanks. I am admittedly ignorant on much of this stuff and I appreciate you guys taking my questions seriously and taking the time to explain some of the background.

I thought the "Laws on the Timeline of Style" was really interesting, although I wonder how much that's been accelerated since it was created in the 1970s, and I have to admit I don't understand or agree with the "Conservation of Archaic Traits" link and its argument for how ethnicity plays into tastes and preferences.

The housing crisis stuff and post-war need for efficiency makes perfect sense, and I think that's something we can see here in New York as well as in Europe.

As for the concept of ornament serving as a record of human labor: I never really thought about it that way, and I guess it may sound sort of naive, but from the perspective of a young person who looks at these buildings and just appreciates their aesthetic value, I always assumed they were built because the people who commissioned them also liked the way they looked. If people really stopped building them that way because technological advancements supposedly cheapened the achievement from a human labor perspective...wow. It just shows how much differently people think about these things, and it's kind of funny how you can view the buildings without any of that context and not even consider that.

Human Flesh, you wrote that this applies before the industrial evolution, so why would architects continue those styles in cities like New York into the early 20th century? And I guess the other thing that comes to mind is -- doesn't the inspiration for a lot of the detail come from religious structures? It seems to be it's one thing to project "power" in a religious sense when you're trying to communicate awe, and another when you're just trying to tell visitors you have so much money you can afford to have skilled tradesmen carve out cartouches above your doors for years.

Thanks again for the answers and for tolerating my ignorance in this thread. Posts like this are why I love MeFi.
posted by Alexandros at 3:30 PM on June 28, 2006


Plattenbau (“paneled, or slab building”)—the dreary architectural legacy of communism. The fringes of countless cities in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are still marked by rows and more looming rows of the prefabricated concrete housing estate. To the Communists, they were a cost-effective solution to severe housing shortages during the Cold War. To many western architects and planners, they were inhumane and undemocratic. When some called for the wholesale demolition of these blocks after the Wall came down, almost a third of all East Berliners lived in plattenbau apartments. But unlike the Wall, they were not simply an unsavory reminder of dictatorship to be eradicated as soon as possible.

Cut and Paste: Cold War housing for the masses is dismantled and reformed
posted by xod at 7:23 AM on June 29, 2006


...doesn't the inspiration for a lot of the detail come from religious structures? It seems to be it's one thing to project "power" in a religious sense when you're trying to communicate awe, and another when you're just trying to tell visitors you have so much money you can afford to have skilled tradesmen carve out cartouches above your doors for years.

Absolutely. With deco you get a kind of machine age ebullience, new, yet familiar and able to retain its ability to symbolize power and wealth. The latter is the one of the primary reasons it was so abhorrent to the European avant garde. Morality and Architecture. Utopianism is profoundly connected to the Arts and Crafts Movement and, Luddites included, there are profound relations between the A & C movement, the Bauhaus and other modernisms.
posted by xod at 8:28 AM on June 29, 2006


As for the concept of ornament serving as a record of human labor: I never really thought about it that way, and I guess it may sound sort of naive, but from the perspective of a young person who looks at these buildings and just appreciates their aesthetic value, I always assumed they were built because the people who commissioned them also liked the way they looked.

Yes, and people eat and have sex because they like those things too. Someone who's not satisfied with those explanations may ask: "why do we crave certain foods? Why is sex fun? How did we develop our aesthetic preferences?" People might not understand their own preferences any better than they understand how the food that they eat is metabolized.

Human Flesh, you wrote that this applies before the industrial evolution, so why would architects continue those styles in cities like New York into the early 20th century?

Some memes stick around long after their utility has expired. You can still run into people who follow traditions from holy books that were meant for bronze age goat herders. Progress in architecture and structural engineering can be slow. The First World War, however, rattled orthodox notions of art, design, and philosophy. People can lose faith in their gods, politicians, and traditions when those in positions of authority are sending them off to rot in the trenches.

After WWI, Walter Gropius founded the influential Bauhaus School. American modernist design gained traction as Bauhaus architects like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe fled Nazi Germany and moved to the US.

And I guess the other thing that comes to mind is -- doesn't the inspiration for a lot of the detail come from religious structures? It seems to be it's one thing to project "power" in a religious sense when you're trying to communicate awe, and another when you're just trying to tell visitors you have so much money you can afford to have skilled tradesmen carve out cartouches above your doors for years.

A church can use architecture to assert its authority and prowess just like any other social institution or business.

Veblen wrote about this subject in his Theory of the Leisure Class as well:
Obviously, the canon of conspicuous waste is accountable for a great portion of what may be called devout consumption; as, e.g., the consumption of sacred edifices, vestments, and other goods of the same class. Even in those modern cults to whose divinities is imputed a predilection for temples not built with hands, the sacred buildings and the other properties of the cult are constructed and decorated with some view to a reputable degree of wasteful expenditure. And it needs but little either of observation or introspection -- and either will serve the turn -- to assure us that the expensive splendor of the house of worship has an appreciable uplifting and mellowing effect upon the worshipper's frame of mind. It will serve to enforce the same fact if we reflect upon the sense of abject shamefulness with which any evidence of indigence or squalor about the sacred place affects all beholders. The accessories of any devout observance should be pecuniarily above reproach. This requirement is imperative, whatever latitude may be allowed with regard to these accessories in point of aesthetic or other serviceability.

Veblen may sound old-fashioned (The Theory of the Leisure Class was written in 1899), but some of his ideas about how various social classes seek to distinguish themselves were very influential. He popularized the term conspicuous consumption and wrote the following about taste:
The canon of beauty requires expression of the generic. The "novelty" due to the demands of conspicuous waste traverses this canon of beauty, in that it results in making the physiognomy of our objects of taste a congeries of idiosyncrasies; and the idiosyncrasies are, moreover, under the selective surveillance of the canon of expensiveness.

This process of selective adaptation of designs to the end of conspicuous waste, and the substitution of pecuniary beauty for aesthetic beauty, has been especially effective in the development of architecture. It would be extremely difficult to find a modern civilized residence or public building which can claim anything better than relative inoffensiveness in the eyes of anyone who will dissociate the elements of beauty from those of honorific waste. The endless variety of fronts presented by the better class of tenements and apartment houses in our cities is an endless variety of architectural distress and of suggestions of expensive discomfort. Considered as objects of beauty, the dead walls of the sides and back of these structures, left untouched by the hands of the artist, are commonly the best feature of the building.

What has been said of the influence of the law of conspicuous waste upon the canons of taste will hold true, with but a slight change of terms, of its influence upon our notions of the serviceability of goods for other ends than the aesthetic one. Goods are produced and consumed as a means to the fuller unfolding of human life; and their utility consists, in the first instance, in their efficiency as means to this end. The end is, in the first instance, the fullness of life of the individual, taken in absolute terms. But the human proclivity to emulation has seized upon the consumption of goods as a means to an invidious comparison, and has thereby invested constable goods with a secondary utility as evidence of relative ability to pay. This indirect or secondary use of consumable goods lends an honorific character to consumption and presently also to the goods which best serve the emulative end of consumption. The consumption of expensive goods is meritorious, and the goods which contain an appreciable element of cost in excess of what goes to give them serviceability for their ostensible mechanical purpose are honorific. The marks of superfluous costliness in the goods are therefore marks of worth -- of high efficency for the indirect, invidious end to be served by their consumption; and conversely. goods are humilific, and therefore unattractive, if they show too thrifty an adaptation to the mechanical end sought and do not include a margin of expensiveness on which to rest a complacent invidious comparison. This indirect utility gives much of their value to the "better" grades of goods. In order to appeal to the cultivated sense of utility, an article must contain a modicum of this indirect utility.

While men may have set out with disapproving an inexpensive manner of living because it indicated inability to spend much, and so indicated a lack of pecuniary success, they end by falling into the habit of disapproving cheap things as being intrinsically dishonorable or unworthy because they are cheap. As time has gone on, each succeeding generation has received this tradition of meritorious expenditure from the generation before it, and has in its turn further elaborated and fortified the traditional canon of pecuniary reputability in goods consumed; until we have finally reached such a degree of conviction as to the unworthiness of all inexpensive things, that we have no longer any misgivings in formulating the maxim, "Cheap and nasty." So thoroughly has the habit of approving the expensive and disapproving the inexpensive been ingrained into our thinking that we instinctively insist upon at least some measure of wasteful expensiveness in all our consumption, even in the case of goods which are consumed in strict privacy and without the slightest thought of display. We all feel, sincerely and without misgiving, that we are the more lifted up in spirit for having, even in the privacy of our own household, eaten our daily meal by the help of hand-wrought silver utensils, from hand-painted china (often of dubious artistic value) laid on high-priced table linen. Any retrogression from the standard of living which we are accustomed to regard as worthy in this respect is felt to be a grievous violation of our human dignity. So, also, for the last dozen years candles have been a more pleasing source of light at dinner than any other. Candlelight is now softer, less distressing to well-bred eyes, than oil, gas, or electric light. The same could not have been said thirty years ago, when candles were, or recently had been, the cheapest available light for domestic use. Nor are candles even now found to give an acceptable or effective light for any other than a ceremonial illumination.
posted by Human Flesh at 6:04 PM on June 29, 2006


I am getting a couple of new tattoos this month. I am working them out right now. One Phrase. One Image. The image is going on my left bicep, but I am not sure where the phrase is going, other than that it must be on the left side of my body.

I almost got a variation of this tattoo last year, but it looked a little too hammer-and-sickle-y. I have redrawn it and abstracted it from the original drawn/built versions. It's Corbusier's Open Hand monument from several essays/sketches and a built monument in Chandigarh.


Ornament and Crime: or Fuck You Adolf Loos
posted by xod at 9:45 AM on June 30, 2006


"The modern man who tattoos himself is a criminal or a degenerate. There are prisons where eighty percent of the inmates bear tattoos. Those who are tattooed but are not imprisoned are latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If a tattooed person dies at liberty, it is only that he died a few years before he committed a murder."

Adolf Loos, "Ornament and Crime" 1908
posted by xod at 11:22 AM on June 30, 2006


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