‘It looks like a concrete spaceship from the planet Crap.” This quip from a member of the public in the Channel 4 programme Demolition, about Cumbernauld town centre, is our typical reaction to the naive utopianism of British modern architecture.
Nowadays we supposedly know better than to try to create new architectural forms. So we let the destruction of our cities hide behind pitched roofs and redbrick facades, in endless shopping centres and interminable Barratt Homes suburbia.
Modernism in architecture is often dismissed by the left as much as by the right. In these pages last year, Stirling Howieson argued that the theories of the notorious modernist architect Le Corbusier were akin to those of Baron Haussmann, who famously redesigned Paris to prevent insurrection.
Haussman’s plans were a failure, as proved by May 1968 or the rising of the banlieues last November. But are the slab blocks that characterise Paris’s suburbs or Britain’s estates really nothing more than a way of keeping the rabble in line?
In fact the roots of modernist architecture lie in the post?revolutionary moment of the early 20th century. In Germany, architects such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Erich Mendelsohn joined the November Group, named after the insurrection of 1918-9 that briefly put Berlin in the control of workers’ councils.
The Bauhaus art school was set up at the same time as an attempt to adapt the design theories of William Morris to mass production, encapsulated by Lenin’s dictum “socialism equals soviet power plus electrification”.
Their architecture would reject ornament and Victorian prissiness as a dishonest attempt to hide labour and technology behind the styles of the past. Instead it would serve a purpose – “form follows function”, as Mies put it.
Similar movements were afoot in Russia. Vladimir Tatlin’s Third International Tower, a spiralling construction in perpetual motion, exemplified the possibilities of socialism. Konstantin Melnikov built workers’ clubs that housed facilities for everyday life within startlingly abstract forms, while Moisei Ginzburg built streamlined apartment blocks with special collective areas.
But as the revolutions in Germany and Russia curdled, so reaction clamped down on new styles. Constructivist architecture was denounced as “leftism in art” – as dangerous as leftism in politics.
Le Corbusier’s design for the “palace of the soviets” was replaced with an opulent classicist tower that proved too expensive to build. The grandeur of the Stalin era “workers’ palaces” masked the fact that workers had lost any meaningful control over “their” state. And in Germany the Bauhaus was closed down by Hitler, who accused the school of “cultural Bolshevism”.
British modernism was directly inspired by what had happened in Moscow and Berlin. This started in the 1930s, but the big take-up of these ideas took place after the Second World War. Nye Bevan, Labour’s first housing minister after 1945, had no time for the “marzipan school” of British suburbia and its “obsessive” fenced off gardens. Nothing was to be too good for the working man.
This was a spirit of utopianism informed by socialism, in which the jerry built slums of laissez faire industrialists would be replaced with avant garde structures. These included the “streets in the sky” of Alison and Peter Smithson, architects who coined the term “brutalism” for an urban, rough and British architecture that used concrete to create startling new shapes.
But the techniques of modernism – mass produced materials and a lack of ornamentation – also lent themselves to cheap building by corrupt city councils. By the late 1970s the utopia in the sky had become a dystopia. The social problems caused by Thatcherism were conveniently blamed on architecture – as if people could stop being poor by being moved from one building to another.
The class nature of this can be seen in the differing fates of two 1960s blocks in London by Erno Goldfinger, both with the same vertiginously dynamic design – Trellick Tower in Notting Hill, west London, and Balfron Tower in Tower Hamlets, east London.
Trellick now has concierges, piss?free lifts and is mostly privately owned. Balfron is left to rot by a council that only pays attention when it wants the residents to sell up to private developers. Since 1979 the very idea of “social housing” has become obsolete.
Modernist movements in architecture were always essentially utopian, and as such suffered a fate common to all attempts at utopia under capitalism. But rather than dismiss them and abandon our cities to speculators and their twee Victoriana, we could build on the foundations of the utopians, much as Marxism took its moral force from experimenters like Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. Then, as Ernst Bloch put it, “the island utopia rises out of the sea of the possible”.
Owen Hatherley is preparing a PhD on art and utopianism in the 1920s. He writes on political aesthetics at themeasurestaken.blogspot.com