Karl Sharro







Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939
Victoria and Albert Museum, London


You leave the Modernism exhibition with a sense that the curators felt the need to close that chapter of the twentieth century and deliver the judgement of history once and for all. Unless you are entirely devoid of imagination, you also leave with the sense that this endeavour is premature. As long as there are souls that yearn for change, it will be very hard to consign modernist aspirations to change the world to the dustbin of history.

The exhibition invites you to wonder at the naivety with which modernists undertook the historic task of transforming the world. The word collusion comes to mind, the viewer is asked to conspire with the curators in delivering this hasty judgement of history with a wink and nudge. Perhaps I should use a more fashionable phrase: the curators seem to employ a tactic of ironic detachment that facilitates the delivery of their judgement.

Consider the tone of the texts that accompany every section of the exhibition: the curators opt for a definitive one-line assessment of Modernism, constantly refusing to raise any questions about the pertinence to our own time of the issues that Modernists were dealing with. Furthermore, by employing the 'objective' language of elementary school history textbooks, the curators hope to establish the required distance between the viewers and the objects on display. Modernists are treated with the same sense of detachment usually reserved for ancient civilisations and obscure cults, people who inhabited their own universe and followed a line of reasoning that is alien to our contemporary sensibility.

There is more than a hint of an anthropological stance to the whole exercise that reinforces the sense of unease at this crass attempt at rendering Modernism inconsequential. Truth be told, the curators are aided in this by the quality of the images and objects on display: these are objects and images that bear the traces of time and consequently cannot compete with the images we produce today. In a sense, they are suspended in time, refusing to be admitted to the museum yet incapable of addressing our contemporary imagination. In fact, the predominant aesthetic of the exhibition is that of a garage sale or a charity shop: artefacts that retain the traces of use and previous ownership.

This is by no means a reflection on the quality and integrity of modernist paraphernalia and artworks, but more about our changing attitudes. These are images and objects that speak of ideas and intentions, they themselves are transient and ephemeral, but the ideas were meant to be constantly revisited and revolutionised. Curiously, the curators stumble upon this notion in their introduction to a page of Bruno Taut's 'Alpine Architektur', but choose to ignore its relevance to the exhibition: 'The handwritten text is integrated into the drawings, emphasising the unity of idea and image, while creating an aesthetic whole'. It is precisely the separation of idea and image that renders the artifacts on display shabby, they were not meant to stand alone but to engage the imagination and address aspirations.

The Modernist image embodied a vision and spoke of a society on the move. In the section 'Searching for Utopia' there is a sketch that Le Corbusier did for his visionary 'Contemporary City for Three Million Inhabitants'. What is distinctive about the drawing is that it seems to be devoid of humans, yet it is clearly privileging a human observer and engaging the imagination. The only people to be seen appear as little specks in the distance; the foreground is occupied by two vacant tables and a few chairs. The rest of picture is made up of trees and towers that dominate the landscape, with a few aeroplanes flying dangerously close to the ground. The drawing succeeds in conjuring an image not only of the physical city but also of a desired mode of living. It partly achieves that through leaving something for the imagination, leaving the mind to fill in the blanks. Furthermore, and when the image is seen in conjunction with other drawings that Le Corbusier did for the project, there is an unmistakable sense of confidence in the Modernist capacity to transform the city. In a sense, the title 'Searching for Utopia' is misleading: Le Corbusier's idea was not utopian but visionary. His ideas were eventually reproduced in concrete in many cities around the world, though not always successfully. (One could of course point out that this is precisely the nature of experimentation, but that's another story.)

Le Corbusier's attitude to the old city could be described as irreverent: he allowed himself to replace large parts of it with his own designs. That sense of irreverence that Modernists had towards the old city emanated from their belief in building a far better city, one that not only overcomes the problems of the old city but offers much more to its inhabitants as well. There was the increased mobility offered by the private car, which we came to take for granted and nowadays, it seems, to resent. There were increasing choices in employment and leisure opportunities that prior to Modernism were generally denied to the masses. Even something as basic as a toilet inside the house was introduced by modern architecture. The Modernist attitude to the old city was also coloured by its injustices and its enslavement of the individual; the emancipatory potential of the rebuilding of the city was a primary aim.

That attitude has been replaced by a deep sense of respect for the past and, more problematically, a lack of conviction in our ability to produce an architecture of an equal value. Today, conservation has become the main aim of cities, particularly in Europe and large parts of America. The nature of architectural imagery has changed in parallel to accommodate this prevailing sentiment. Architectural illustrations are now used to establish that the proposed designs will not have too disruptive an impact on their surroundings, thus requiring a very high level of accuracy and detail in execution, realism driving the process. The Modernist images on display at the V&A are at a serious disadvantage, they cannot compete with these contemporary images that leave nothing to the imagination in their pornographic clarity. This is not a question of changing techniques, Modernist images were as much about the intentions and the ideas as they were about the physical design, qualities that are hard to come across today. What we value more today is certainty about the end product.

The attitude to the old city had a parallel in the Modernist attitude towards nature, an aspect that was not properly explored in the exhibition. Along with the didactic bent of the text, the curators indulge in an exercise of 'correcting history.' In the section titled 'Modernism and nature', the curators, conscious no doubt of the modern sensitivity towards nature, attempt to make Modernism more acceptable to the contemporary viewer. Without any previous explanation of the Modernist attitude towards nature, they identify a period in the 1930s in which some Modernists 'shifted their attention to Nature.' This trend, they claim, manifested itself in organic and curvilinear forms and a 'more satisfying outlet for their emotional and psychological needs.' Quite what the connection is between curvilinear forms and psychological needs is not explained, but there's an obvious resonance of the 1970s feminist critique of architecture, that orthogonal shapes are rational and male while curvilinear forms are sensual and more 'female' in nature.

What this section misses completely is that the architects and designers who experimented with curvilinear forms shared their Modernist colleagues' attitude towards nature: this was not an attitude of pagan reverence as the exhibition makes it sounds, but one of understanding and mastering the principles of nature and harnessing them for the benefit of mankind. This central principle of Modernism completely escaped the attention of the curators, not even Le Corbusier's Villa Savoie, elevated as it is over the surrounding 'nature,' prompted a comment.

Ultimately, the organisers missed a serious opportunity for revisiting Modernism and discussing its relevance to the world we live in today. The message that they leave us with, something like 'the dreams and visions came to nothing, but the chairs are still here,' is hardly the ultimate judgment of history. It is important to bear in mind that the Modernists were not an obscure tribe living on the banks of the Amazon or an ancient civilisation about which we can only speculate using whatever artifacts they left us. The main failure of the V&A exhibition is that the curators seemed to have set out with this attitude as a starting point. We can only discuss Modernism by discussing its ideas, and that's precisely what is missing from this exhibition.

Karl Sharro 2006

First published on Culture Wars: http://www.culturewars.org.uk/2006-01/vamodernism.htm