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June 13, 2006

Christie Davies curses Modernist design, the enemy of freedom, and Post-Modernist thinking, the enemy of reason: Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939 at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Posted by Christie Davies

Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
6th April – 23rd July 2006
Daily 10am - 5.45pm (Wednesdays until 10pm)

The V and A and the exhibition's curators are to be congratulated on their current exhibition and series of lectures which show with exemplary clarity what that strange phenomenon "Modernism" was about. It also casts a curious light on its successor, post-Modernism.

Modernism was, indeed is, a mixture, a fusion of style, ideology and supposedly practical solutions to the everyday problems of life – what the pretentious call a Weltanshauung to the point where we have no other word for it. The ideology is absurd, utopian, healthist and authoritarian, the 1920s designers' dreams of Weimar progressives in Germany and that Soviet avant-garde which disappeared during Stalin's Cultural Revolution. They all believed in salvation through design, the awakening chord of clean lines, a brave new world and the fetish of planning. They dotted the world with plain, unornamented concrete and glass oblongs that only look good at the balsa wood model stage when being peered at by myopic Gullivers.

That is so the problem with designers; they confuse blueprint with reality. It is a fault they share with their kissing cousins in social policy. Perhaps more than cousins, for the modernists believed that their designs would shape and improve social life and produce a new designed man and woman. Mondrian even thought that abstract art could save the world. All that was new, planned, designed, purposive, controlled, zwecked was good and the old, ornamented, idiosyncratic, irregular, seemingly disordered was bad, indeed wasteful and corrupting.

They seem to have been inspired by two things. First, the leftist nonsense of the new Soviet "civilisation" and its hand me down the left wing of German Social Democracy. Second, the power, beauty and efficiency of machines seen in their highest form in capitalist America, Aldous Huxley's 1920s years of Our Ford.

Machines are indeed all these things and undoubted sources of sheer aesthetic pleasure. I can still remember the impact of stepping out in the interval onto the patio of a theatre where I was acting near Newark Notts. on an about-to-thunder-evening and being surrounded by cooling towers, tall against the black sky yet lit from the side by the setting sun. The entire Nottinghamshire plain was dotted with clusters of them. You can wander in happy loneliness in the Mond nickel works in Clydach, a plant so automated and computerised that it had no production workers at all. I have peered from a safe distance at the new sewage processing plant in Reading to which I have contributed so much. The new shapes, frames, activities of modern industry are both a triumph of abstract shape and made for precision and efficiency. Unselfconscious modernity is ecstasy.

Yet what is good for a machine, that paradigm of designed order, is not good for human beings who need and desire to create their own spontaneous order in which they pick and mix the modern and the traditional, the new and the familiar, the designed and the disordered, the private and the public, the clean-lined elegant and the rough and tumble. People make their own spontaneous social order, it is not a product of intelligent design but of evolution. Only fundamentalists believe in God the bureaucrat and only modernists in the bureaucrat as God. Apart from occasional bursts of revelation, God lets us get on with it, which is more than can be said for bureaucrats. The free market, the common law, science, conversation, jokes are all forms of spontaneous order that work without design. Within them there are small areas of design – the machine, the flow-chart, the accounting procedure, the tax loop-hole, the experiment, the rehearsed rhetorical trick or witticism, but so what?

As I write I can see through a window in another room the modernist white squares and rectangles of the fridge-freezer, the tumble-dryer set on top of the washing machine, the big dishwasher in motion and the little one that needs fixing. They are like that because they have a job to do and all have to be fitted into a small space. Yet they are no longer "modernist" because I have decorated them with souvenir fridge magnets – a set of Andy Warhol cats from Pittsburgh, the face of Kafka from Prague (modernism undermining modernism), a red dragon from Pembrokeshire, the emblem of Britain's Jewish Police Association, given to me at the Thames Valley Limmud, a polar bear crossing the road traffic sign from Svalhard. Decorations and personal memory have been fastened to their cold geometry and destroyed the designers' monochrome symmetry and clean lines. A house is not Le Corbusier's machine for living, it is a personal space some of which contains machines, most of which are as ugly as the computer, monitor, key-board, mouse, modem, printer, scanner, photo-copier, surge-protector held together by a Laocoon-tangle of writhing cables in front of me. Modernity without modernism; that's the way we live now.

No doubt a modernist would condemn my cables as disordered and my fridge magnets as ornaments and even as unhygienic, two key words of condemnation in their ideology. Yet why should I be efficient in my own time? Ironically the leftist modernists of the 1920s admired what they called "Fordism" and "Taylorism", "Fordist" rigidly planned assembly-line production and "Taylorist" control of the worker's every movement in the interests of productivity. It is obvious to us that they were both fads and not "isms", ways of doing things derived from one sector of industry responding to one particular set of market and production circumstances. Fordism never existed as a general system, merely as a set of local practices and as a set of ideas in the brains of that gifted but inflexible and at times barmy man in Dearborn, the modernists who were in favour and the Trotskyite wreckers who were against. There is no such thing as post-Fordism because most people never lived Fordist.

Taylorism is a technique for imposing uniformity in working practices that on the whole does not succeed. Factory workers do not like it, so you get passive resistance, absenteeism, high labour turnover and bolshie shop stewards. Today Taylorism is only applied to professional people and is called "best practice", a bureaucratic manual of detailed instructions is substituted for the practices of the experienced. Morale and quality of work then collapse. Ask a teacher, a lecturer, a dentist or a legal aid lawyer. We have seen the future and it doesn't work. So much for modernist ideology.

Modernism caught on in the 1980s in Germany and Austria in part because it promised a rational, efficient and aesthetically satisfying solution to an acute problem – that of quickly and cheaply providing housing for those who had moved to the cities to work during World War I, when there was very little building of new dwellings. The new Social Democrat municipal governments put up mass "social housing" and Progressives from all over Europe flocked to Dessau, Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Vienna to wonder at these workers' paradises with their communal gardens and laundries and flat roofs for socialist eurythmics.

In Stuttgart they were so proud of some of their modernist prefabricated buildings from the time of the Die Wohnung (The Dwelling) "work federation" exhibition of 1927 that they rebuilt an identical version of it in the 1950s, the original having been thoughtfully destroyed by Bomber Harris, which is why his statue stands next to the LSE. Today the complex is owned by the German federal government and civil servants have their dwellings there; each is now Max Weber's single cog in an ever-moving mechanism which prescribes to him (or her) an essentially fixed route of march, not just at work but at home. What ideal tenants they must be.

Why should rationality, efficiency, comfort and fine appearance go together? All designers and architects live by selling this lie to their customers. Modernism is simply the "big lie" version of this, a denial that beyond a certain and not necessarily distant point there have to be trade offs between cost, comfort and appearance. "Rational" planning is simply a way of evading the crunch by making things fit on paper that will never work in practice.

Even Le Corbusier, the man who wanted mass produced houses "as efficient as a car" or "machines for living in" saw the contradictions inherent in modernism. He broke with the left-functionalists who wanted to maximise the number of new dwellings and refused to sacrifice aesthetics to social principles. In any case the number of dwellings you can build for a given sum of money depends on how much space and comfort you are prepared to buy and bestow, how much rent you can get the tenants to pay. There is no such thing as a free lunch room. The amount of land is fixed, the cost of housing and transportation does not fall over time the way it does for manufactured goods and there are only 24 hours in a day. You can not design your way out of the immutable and eternal truths of the economics of allocation.

In Vienna, the social democrats went for quality. The workers' flats of Karl Marx Stadt built by the Social Democrats in the 1920s were so luxurious that when the Soviet army invaded the estate in 1945 their soldiers looted and destroyed them thinking they were the homes of their class enemies, the bourgeoisie. How many other people in Austria remained homeless because the social housing was so luxurious we shall never know. Likewise the attempt to impose Parker Morris (from "Parker" Knowles and William "Morris") standards on British council housing may well have meant that less was built. Yet when they did build cheap British modernist flats in the 1950s and 1960s, families were unwilling to live in them. Most British industrial cities have council blocks known locally as the "Fairy Tower" because they are full of middle class male homosexuals living in flats designed for two child families. Families preferred to stay on the waiting list and in the nineteenth century terrace houses the councils wanted to demolish. Design is strictly for Gays.

I once sat on a committee supervising the planning of a new office block for a public body; I was the only person on the committee who would have to work in the new edifice. The modernist architect had been chosen because his previous pre-fabricated building for the same institution had won a prestigious international prize. Coach loads of architectural students used to come to gawp at it and even fed buns to those sitting on its balconies behind wire-mesh at lunch-time. Knowing we would all to have to live in something similar, I went round and interviewed those who worked in the handsome building. They told me that it was always either too hot or too cold, that the roof leaked, and that to speak to a colleague in the next room but one all you needed to do was to raise your voice. But it had won a prize and that was what counted.

I spoke about the "secret" plans of the new building to a colleague now in the University of London who had a computer programme that would predict the noise and temperature levels at all points in the building and for a modest sum he agreed to run the plans through it. When I suggested doing so at the next committee meeting , the architect went gorilla-chimpanzee-bonobo-orangutan-shit and asked whether I was questioning his truthfulness and professional judgement. I said "yes, of course I am". He walked out and could not be coaxed back. Everyone blamed me. Next day we learned that there wasn't any money anyway. The moral is that fine appearances have to be paid for, either by deliberately or carelessly skimping on essentials or by grossly exceeding the original estimated cost. Senedd i'r Alban! It is better to stick something up that works and then add a bit of ornament such as a functionless end-stopped gargoyle, a fun mural, logos, dados and mottos, and some paint-on-advertising.

The progressivist Modernist furniture designers of the 1920s were also swindlers. They designed simple, exquisite, impractical items for which the demand was so small that there were no economies of scale. Their work became bleak ornaments for the homes of the rich; you can see it satirised by W. Heath Robinson in his book How to Live in a Flat, 1936. Most people prefer robust schlock, the comfortable stuff that is handed down from their grandparents and cherished regardless of the rings left by generations of mugs of hot tea on wooden surfaces or the places where long dead cats sharpened their claws. Who wants an expensive Swedish fork that looks as if it used to belong to Uri Geller or a Norse runcible? No wonder the Danes pick up chickens and eat with their fingers. It is easier to eat with chopsticks than with a blunt vodka proof Finnish knife. Scandinavian design?

Yet the oddest aspect of Modernism is its strange child Post-Modernism. If you should ever happen to be in Gary or Milwaukee, it is worth making time for a side trip to the windy little city of Chicago (Illinois) to do a walking tour of the sky-scrapers. Prior to modernism they were handsome buildings rich in ornament and symbol. These were followed by plain and boring modernist glass rectangles, the worst ones those designed by the arrogant Mies van der Rohe. He would not even permit the name of the company or the building to break up the line of his ugly three-dimensional matrices, so you can never find out where you are except by pestering a series of icy receptionists who tell you "You're welcome" when you obviously aren't. So much for functionality. But finally you come to the joys of Chicago's post-modern skyscrapers with all their delights of shape and colour, decoration and reference. They tell you just how bad modernism was and how important history, ornament and play are.

As a style post-modernism is a delight but as an ideology it is a nonsense. Modernism is the lie that design is the road to truth. Modernism is the lie that we can plan society. Modernism is part of an even bigger lie called social progress. Most of us never believed in any of it. Experience teaches us otherwise. We want modern science and technology and medicine but certainly not modernism.

But for disillusioned modernists such agnosticism is not enough. There has to be a "post", as if what had gone before was significant enough to have a "post" to it. So the post-modernist not only denies planning but denies logical thought, not only denies the "scientific" shaping of society but denies science, not only denies design-truth but denies truth altogether.

Behind it all lies a confusion between modernism, a style and an ideology and "the modern", the fact that in a material sense we know and can do more than our ancestors. To deny the latter is plain stupid. There can be no such thing as Post-Modern, only more modern, mature modern, advanced modern. Today's chemistry, genetics, electrical and electronic engineering are far superior to those of 1906 or 1927.

Post-modernists who deny this, saying that we can not be certain that we have advanced because all knowledge is the product of an agreement between groups of individuals miss the point. We do not need to be 100% certain, merely overwhelmingly certain, more certain than we are about most things, certain enough for the most risk-averse among us to bet on it being so. In consequence we can "design" better molecules, pharmaceuticals, pest-resistant cotton plants, calculators. But our tables, cutlery and closets are no better because they were long ago understood perfectly well. We owe nothing to capital D designers, nothing to modernism. Knowledge is objective, style merely a matter of taste. Some like modernist chairs and some like trad. Some like plain and some like ornament. Some like wood and some like plastic. Some like IKEA and some like UKAEA. Some like Habitat and some like habitus. Within the category you can see who is competent and who is not but there is no way of saying one style is better than the other.

The fallacy of modernism was to think that the superiority of modern science could be turned into a superior aesthetic and worse still a superior human being who would tailor and Taylorize his or her "needs" to what the designer thought was good for them. The concept of need is totalitarian which is why the old Soviet planners explicitly preferred to speak of potrebnost (need) to the economist's term poleznost (utility). The saddest items in the V and A are the futuristic plans of Russian 1920s designers and architects for Soviet housing. Soviet housing in practice meant over-crowding, squalor and abortion. It is not about design. It is about who decides what is produced, stupid.

Modernism at the V and A illustrates modernism through a wonderful assemblage of objects from aero-engines to arse-boggling furniture, photographs, films and designs. Best of all are the posters, for that is what modernism is really good for, a set of simple visual proclamations. Like General Kitchener, modernism was no use to anyone but it made a wonderful poster.

The poster for the 1927 exhibition in Stuttgart selling us the modern dwelling is perfect as a poster, even though the exhibition was nonsense. Hard, bright, red letters on black tell us DIE WOHNUNG WERKBUND AUSSTELLUNG JULI-SEPT 1927 STUTTGART. In the corner is an old photo of an Edwardian interior, rather like the one in which I am working. It is vividly cancelled with a bright red cross, a vigorous red kiss of death that deletes it from consideration. Scrawled across the photo in a cursive hand, again in red is the question wie wohnung? The crossing out is an angry emotional rejection, the type face that of confident authority. I am unrepentant.

Right now I sit in a room with my word-processor that is just like the one they have crossed out. Above me hang the pictures of my two grand-fathers, one a deacon of Hope Chapel Pontarddulais with his fellow deacons, the other the chairman of the governors of the local grammar school with his fellow governors, a coal-miner in his Sunday suit with weskit, high collar and umbrella. My embourgeoised ancestors are watching over me, keeping me safe from modernism and bare walls, contributing to my identity. The room is as cluttered as the one crossed out in Stuttgart. I refuse to be cancelled. They can sod off. I will subvert them by adding a mini-version of the Stuttgart poster to the wall of the stairway alongside the poster for the Rubens exhibition, the politically incorrect advert for Banania, le petit dejeuner familial and the huge notice telling visitors not to smoke. There is nothing like irony, nothing like making an idea undermine itself.

Likewise I have headed this piece Victoria and Albert Museum to tie the museum to its founders the great queen and her revered consort, pillars of history, lovers of ornament, symbols of the cluttered bourgeois interior. V and A could mean anything – Vulgar and Appetising, Volk und Arbeit, Vaterloo et Azincourt , V-signs to Art, Vaginas and Ar******* (that's enough V and As – Ed.)

Designers are mere stage designers. Their efforts work in two dimensions but not in three for the same reason that abstract art works in three dimensions but not in two, namely the way human beings experience the everyday world. The modernist designers at the V and A had about as much sense of reality as luvvies. Go to the V and A and enjoy their theatre. I have told you all you need to know but you can only feel it by going there, being there, seeing it. Where style is concerned feeling's the thing.

Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, Transaction, 2004 about moral decline through social progress and of academic articles on modernism, post-modernism, and beliefs about the after-life and on the sociology of science.

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Funny thing that – I was watching a BBC2 programme on modernism in architecture recently, and it referred to Ernő Goldfinger, a Hungarian Marxist who started building the first skyscraper flats in Britain, as a sort of Soviet-style social housing. It seems that Harold Wilson had a lot of artistic admiration for things Soviet but could not completely separate in his mind the theatre from the reality.

I digress a bit, but didn’t he seem to be easily taken in by Hungarians? I remember how, at his election victory of 1964, he brought in again as economic advisors Balogh Tamás and Káldor Miklós. Maybe he had in view the triumphs of the previous Labour government such as the Tanganyika groundnut scheme.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 13, 2006 08:25 PM
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