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Post Moderne World

By the early twentieth century Modernist architecture and design had revolutionized homes and workplaces with a wholesale rejection of the ornamental aesthetic of the nineteenth century. The Bauhaus school of functionalism was all pervasive. But after the war a relaxation of the ideological strictures of Modernism and its basic puritanism asserted itself. The new 'Contemporary' style saw a revived expressiveness of colour, shape and mood. A variety of textures and patterns signaled a new dynamism in design. Decorative art once again came to the fore - albeit in a stripped down and primary manner - as new plastic, softer-edged shapes and textures held reign...

The all-white uniformity of Modernist styling was being superseded... "the theory-laden modern movement blossomed into popular 'Contemporary' design... [incorporating] concrete, stone, brick, and other materials for texture and color; the melding of interior and exterior space; the fun colors of prototypical Marimekko fabrics; the early idealism of designing for 'the masses'; and the now almost quaint social optimism from which the pervasive culture of materialism emerged..."

Everything became bolder and bolstered by a general sense of liberation. Harlequin colour schemes became popular - and can still often be seen on the exteriors of municipal buildings of the period.

The same tendency would also translate to new vinyl, linoleum and PVC floor coverings as abstract, linear, stylized designs surfaced.

Storage units and kitchens became design focused as never before. The 50s saw the rise of the fitted kitchen, streamlined with flush finishes and new vibrant laminated surface materials.

Soft furnishings, light fittings and tableware were also caught up in the new look. Lightweight chairs and tables and slender light-steel legs became design features. New types of light fittings and lampshades abounded. Colourful ceramics became de rigeur.

But the moment passed.

On a larger social scale, the design of the UK New Towns ushered contemporary styling onto a municipal public stage. Stevenage, Harlow and large estate developments in the centre and East End of London would be the last colourful experiments in mass architecture before the dead hand of 60s brutalism laid waste to British high streets and town planning for nearly two horrific decades.

From Here To Modernity

The From Here To Modernity website complemented the BBC2/Open University TV series of the same name. From Here To Modernity traces the history of a set of ideas, showing how public attitudes to modern architecture changed dramatically between 1929 and the present day. Visit the Faculty's Art History Website on

"... The Modern Movement in Britain was less visible in the decade or so after the First World War than in other western European countries.

Whereas Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe and others were already established architects on the continent, by the start of the 1930s, Britain could boast few modernist projects of its own.

The early modernist achievements in this country were often the work of émigré architects (for example, Germany's Erich Mendelsohn and the Russian born Serge Chermayeff, who collaborated on the De La Warr Pavilion (1933-1935) in Bexhill).

This perhaps explains British suspicions that the Modern Movement was a foreign invention, and therefore not to be entirely trusted. However, the founding of CIAM in 1928 not only gave modernists across Europe confidence that their brave new world could be realised, it also coincided with the arrival of modernist buildings in Britain.

High and Over, a luxurious private house by New Zealander Amyas Connell, was completed in 1931, and, in 1933 the Canadian Wells Coates and others established the Modern Architectural Research Group (MARS).

MARS became was the British wing of CIAM, and Coates was determined to bring to Britain the same missionary zeal which was driving Modernism on the continent.

In 1933 he wrote; "As young men, we are concerned with a Future which must be planned rather than a Past which must be patched up, at all costs As architects of the ultimate human and material scenes of the new order, we are not so much concerned with the formal problems of style as with an architectural solution of the social and economic problems of today."

Wells Coates himself tried to put his ideas into practice with his famous Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead, London.

Also known as the "Isokon" Building (after the furniture-making firm of Jack and Molly Pritchard, two modernist enthusiasts who commissioned its construction), the Lawn Road Flats were a bold experiment in communal living.

Opened in 1934, each flat was fitted out with basic cooking and washing facilities, and a restaurant (the Isobar) was designed to be a focal point for the tenants.

The idea was that these modern flats would cater for the new breed of modern man who liked to live and travel light.

Lawn Road was superseded as the epitome of modern living by Highpoint One, completed in 1935.

Designed by Russian émigré Berthold Lubetkin, whose Tecton group of architects (which included Denys Lasdun) became famous for their advocacy of modern architecture and design throughout the 1930s, Highpoint One offered luxury living as well as providing tenants with spectacular views across London from the residential rooftop garden.


But these projects catered for the middle classes. It took a progressive aristocrat, the ninth Earl De La Warr, to introduce the benefits of Modern architecture to the wider community. He held a competition to build a 'modern' pavilion in the south coast resort of Bexhill-on-Sea.

The competition was won by the German Erich Mendelsohn and Russian Serge Chermayeff, whose De La Warr Pavilion opened in 1935.

Shortly afterwards, in 1937, Maxwell Fry's Kensal House- the first modernist social housing project in Britain- opened its doors for the first time.

And in 1938, Berthold Lubetkin designed the Finsbury Health Centre. His famous words "Nothing is too good for ordinary people" betrayed his communist sympathies and emphasised the growing acceptance of Modernist architecture in Britain.

Sited in one of the country's poorest boroughs, the Health Centre was at the forefront of advances in the delivery of public health services.

Opened only one year before the outbreak of World War Two, Finsbury Health Centre hinted not just at the coming post-war consensus on social policy, but also confirmed the arrival of Modernist architecture in Britain.

Britain emerged from World War Two a different country to that which had entered the conflict six long years previously. Financially ruined, physically exhausted, and facing a massive housing crisis, the British people did not have their problems to seek in 1945.

But the end of the war also engendered a tremendous sense of optimism in the country, a feeling that the need to rebuild Britain was also an opportunity to build a new nation, and to rectify the worst mistakes of the past.

For Modernist architects, this was the opportunity they had been waiting for.

Whereas during the 1930s they had struggled to convince the authorities and the general public that their theories on building and town planning could solve Britain's divisive social problems, suddenly they found themselves in a nation desperately searching for ambitious solutions to chronic problems and eager to embrace modern life and modern ideas.

This enthusiasm for the future could be seen in the 1951 Festival of Britain, a populist attempt to lift the spirits of the nation in the difficult post-war years.

Originally scheduled to mark the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851 the Festival became instead a giant paean to a better, modern world.

Only the Royal Festival Hall remains from the original site.

It remains one of the most popular modernist buildings in Britain to this day and is still the centrepiece of the arts complex which has grown up along the South Bank since the Festival ended.

As well as the success of the Festival, two Parliamentary Acts facilitated the post-war embrace of Modernism: the Education Act of 1944 and the New Towns Act of 1946. By the mid-1950s, 2,500 schools had been built and ten entirely new towns were either under construction or were on the drawing board.

Town planning and the requirements of constructing a large number of functional buildings in as short as period of time as possible opened the door for Modernists to begin reshaping the appearance of British towns and cities.

But it was the attempt to create, by government act, entirely new communities which gave modern architects their best chance to realise their utopian vision, in which their rational, planned architecture would deliver British city dwellers from the dark failures of Victorian housing to a bright new world of clean, functional towns.

In 1955, the designation order was signed for Britain's last New Town- Cumbernauld in Lanarkshire. Cumbernauld was a utopian attempt to build a New Town that was genuinely new.

Strict zoning, acres of motorway, and a town centre encased within an heroic Corbusian megastructure, ensured that the architects who worked on the town felt like genuine pioneers. At last, the opportunity to build a new country was within their grasp.

Modern Architecture has frequently been blamed for a catalogue of social ills, and images of rundown housing estates and tower blocks have become synonymous with social decay and breakdown...


The legacy of the Modern Movement is obvious in every British town or city today. The thoughts of Le Corbusier and the influence of Mies Van Der Rohe can be seen in High Streets and suburbs the length and breadth of the country.

Public reaction to the great Modernist experiment remains ambivalent at best, and hostile at worst... Robert Venturi's gripes that Modernism's legacy is soulless and predictable, and Jane Jacob's warnings of isolation and social breakdown, are now all commonly accepted criticisms of the Modern Movement by the public at large.

And yet the last decade of the twentieth century saw the beginnings of a revival in the standing of Modernist Architecture.

Buildings which were once almost universally scorned have become popular, and architects once lambasted as agents of social collapse have seen their reputations restored.


One of the first to benefit from this reappraisal was Trellick Tower, Erno Goldfinger's 31 storey tall Brutalist slab in west London.

Once dubbed the "Tower of Terror" by the tabloids, Trellick had become a byword for urban squalor and was widely viewed as a spectacular example of architectural megalomania.

Now, thanks largely to a well-organised residents' association, and the installation of basic security measures, including a concierge, apartments in the building are selling for several hundred thousand pounds each.

Also newly respectable is Keeling House, Denys Lasdun's cluster block in east London.

Now a wholly private development, Keeling House's council tenants have been replaced by young professionals keen to find a base near to the City of London, and able to pay in excess of £200,000 for the privilege.

Penthouse apartments have been installed on the roof. Initially conceived as an attempt to mitigate the potentially alienating effects of Modernist design, Keeling House tells us more about the booming economy of the 1990s than the social idealism of the 1950s.

But as well as the gradual gentrification of Modernist icons, there has also been a rediscovery of the social purpose of Modernism, after a decade or more in which the public sector was eclipsed by the private sector as the sponsor of innovative architecture.

This apparent revival comes a full seven decades after the first Modernist buildings were constructed in this country, and three decades after derivative system-built high rises nearly destroyed the Modern Movement for good.

In seventy years, the landscape of Britain has changed beyond recognition, and much of the change can be attributed to Le Corbusier and other pioneers.

Mistakes have been made on the way, and the vision of a utopia sketched out by Le Corbusier many years ago has never been realised. That has been the fate of all of the twentieth century's utopias.

However, what is left is more than just a collection of remarkable buildings, there also remains a conviction that architects can and should constantly strive to improve the quality of life of their fellow citizens through their buildings... "


Recommended Reading

Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History
(Thames and Hudson, 1992, ISBN 0500202575)

William R. Curtis, Modern Architecture Since 1900
(Phaidon, 1996, ISBN 0714833568)

John Allan, Berthold Lubetkin And The Tradition Of Progress
(RIBA Publications, 1992, ISBN 0947877622)

John R. Gold, The Experience Of Modernism: Modern Architects And The Future City 1928-1953
(Routledge, 1998, ISBN 0419207406)

Jules Lubbock, Tyranny of Taste: Politics Of Architecture And Design In Britain 1550-1960
(Yale University Press, 1995, ISBN 0300058896)

Richard Weston, Modernism
(Phaidon, 2001, ISBN 0714840998)

Charles Jencks, What Is Post Modernism?
(John Wiley Academy Editions, 1996, ISBN 1854904280)

Charles Jencks, The Architecture Of The Jumping Universe
(John Wiley Academy Editions, 1997 ISBN 0471977489)


Recommended Links


The Great Buildings Collection

Looking at Buildings

Pevsner Architectural Guides

(Excerpt: From Here To Modernity)

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