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Back from the dead: Interwar Modernism

In the duel between Modernism and its alternatives where did many styles end?

As a gang of estate residents dressed in frock coats and ratty wigs stared severely at us from the screen − looking like an acrimonious reunion of the Adam Ant fan club − I felt a pang of recognition. It’s not often that an academic paper has such a visceral effect, but David Roberts’ research into the demise of social housing hit close to home, literally; Roberts and his collaborators have been investigating the demolition of a 1930s neo-Georgian housing estate in East London, and its replacement by mixed-occupancy faux-modern flats − one of which I inhabit (perhaps that frisson was something more like guilt).

Presented at the conference Stylistic Dead Ends? Fresh Perspectives on British Architecture Between the Wars (St John’s, Oxford, 20-21 June), the film showed residents discussing their condemned estate while dressed as characters from Samuel Richardson’s 18th-century novels, after whom the neo-Georgian blocks had been named. These invocations of Richardson’s moralising tone − once naively, by idealistic planners, and now questioningly by the inhabitants of the homes those planners built − remind us that the query in this event’s title is not just a matter of academic interest (démodé buildings are more easily demolished, after all). That the battle between Modernism and its alternatives continues, and continues to have a real impact on people’s lives, was the abiding impression left by this thematically rich conference (put together by Neal Shasore and David Lewis).

Setting out the case for a more panoramic view of 20th-century architecture, in his keynote lecture Alan Powers argued for the inclusion of what he called Otherism: a neglected tradition of ‘good-mannered Modernism’ descended from stripped classicism, refracted through Goldfinger’s 2 Willow Rd, and ending in the subtle vernacular of Tayler and Green − before being killed off by the Brutalists.

As Powers and Tim Benton discussed, the time seems right for this project: the autos-da-fé of the ’20s and ’30s have dimmed, and the bad-tempered tone of the postwar reappraisal of Modernism’s legacy has mellowed.In the ’70s, when Benton helped curate the Thirties exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, knickers were still very much in a twist. The tantrums of the antis corresponded to the triumph of Modernism in architectural history − and to the end of its dominance in architectural practice. But despite the collapse of Ronan Point, the narrative related by Pevsner and co had become a new orthodoxy.

Though this narrative has been amended in recent years by people such as Powers and Elizabeth Darling, it has not − Powers argued − been fundamentally challenged (although as Jessica Kelly’s paper on the AR’s former editor JM Richards showed, some had been challenging it since the ’50s). This event set out to conquer those dark regions of interwar architecture that once lay beyond the historian’s pale: neo-Georgian housing estates and neo-Gothic crematoria, Islamicising petrol stations for the Anglo-Persion Oil Company, the Neoclassical coda of Charles Holden’s career, Herbert Baker’s blowsy imperial bombast, Tudorbethan shopping parades, and the Art Deco mansions of monkey-loving nudist Oliver Hill. Were these all stylistic dead ends? (And, I wondered, did this tradition ever really die − doesn’t it keep coming back, zombie-like, in speculative suburban housing, the palaces of Chelsea oligarchs, and Sainsbury’s superstores?)

One of the biggest challenges presented by this macaronic buffet of oddballs, losers and the terminally infra dig (as Andrew Ballantyne argued in his paper on Tudorbethan housing) is weaving these various strands into a narrative using the current methods of architectural history. Despite recent decades of Poststructuralism, the discipline still often sets out with the assumption that cultural productions reflect the zeitgeist − but Ballantyne thought that the wild variety of interwar architecture voided any chance of identifying a unified spirit of the period.

There is certainly a need to incorporate what he calls ‘Tudoresque’ suburbia into the history of interwar architecture. It is, as Ballantyne pointed out, where many of us live − and his work of historical recovery is for this reason vitally important. But instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we could ask if a more nuanced Hegelianism than this slightly straw-mannish version could be deployed to explore the conflicting forces coexisting in one historical moment.

One dialectic that did emerge quite clearly in the course of the conference was between two architectural languages, the symbolic and the spatial. The latter, popularised by Giedion, thrives today − especially in phenomenologically inclined criticism − but the symbolic potential of architecture (so the argument goes) was largely suppressed along with ornament by the Modernists.

In light of this, several speakers reexamined architectural sculpture, and indigenous theories of architectural symbol were unearthed (most notably in a paper by Neal Shasore on facades and the public in the writings of Arthur Trystan Edwards). You might ask how new this revisionism is: wasn’t interest in the symbolic potential of architecture rekindled some time ago, in the ’70s? Preempting this criticism, Alan Powers dismissed the Postmodern moment as ‘a carnivalesque re-enactment of Otherism played by Modernists’. While there’s something in that, I don’t think we can question the sincerity of some current architects working in the Postmodern tradition: practices such as FAT, who are critically engaging with architecture’s ‘stylistic dead ends’.

Perhaps this activity reflects the same spirit of conciliation that animated the conference itself. Reflecting on the tone of the discussions, Powers related a remark made to him by Andrew Saint: ‘this is an incredible event, Alan: no one is angry!’ But there is still plenty in the legacy of interwar architecture worth fighting for − not least the ethos of public housing.

Image: The demise of social housing was highlighted by residents dressed in Richardsonian garb

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