Everything today is thoroughly modern – or is it?
Town & Country Planning, May 2006
IT IS NOW over a century since Frederick Winslow Taylor rose from his chair at the United States Hotel in Saratoga in 1903 and read his paper on time and motion that came to dominate so much of the 20th century. His message was the lessons of his experiments as the world’s first management consultant in the Bethlehem steel works in Pennsylvania, persuading the workforce to shift to more ‘scientific’ patterns of work, and rooting out those who refused.
Taylor was an inveterate inventor, and one of his inventions, a shovel that carried the maximum amount that could be heaved without the user getting tired, has become an unofficial symbol of the rationalised management he pioneered.
It could also be a symbol of modernism itself, the 20th century creed which gave us high-rise flats, the international style, and much else besides. And, in the massive new ‘Modernism’ exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), Taylor takes his place – alongside the Futurists and the ideologues of Soviet communism – as the father of our predominant design ideology. And to confirm it, there on the wall beside the Taylor display is a replica of Marcel Duchamp’s Manhattan snow shovel from 1915, truly a modern art installation.
Enthroning Taylor as one of the key inspirations of modernism is one of the major achievements of the V&A exhibition, and it is confirmed by the ‘re-discovery’ by curator Christopher Wilk of the importance of performance for the early modernists. Rather robotic performance, in fact – typified in Factory Whistles, Rails and Tower, written by poet Andrei Gastav, Director of Lenin’s Central Institute of Labour, and based on the idea of ‘subordinating people to mechanisms’. Taylorist modernism, in fact.
Modernism has often seemed to divide itself into two apparently unrelated traditions – the white, straight world of the artists and architects, and the rationalised world of the administrators and technocrats. But looking back over a century or so of modernism, we can now see how the two relate to each other, and a little more about why an ideology based on the pursuit of truth should have had such a devastating effect on the places we live – from the heroic glass stumps to the rationalised box systems that now pass for homes.
This debate is worth having again now because London has suddenly gone modernism mad. Not only is there the V&A’s massive exhibition, there is also a major show at the Tate Modern about the modernist giants Josef Albers and László Moholy-Nagy.
The chattering classes have embraced the exhibitions. The Guardian has produced a special supplement. The magazines have been filled with exhibition previews, with background interviews of people who claim to enjoy living in Trellick Towers. Somehow, the attention given to these people rather gives the game away: the buildings they live in have become symbols of alienation and failure; the idea that anyone should actually want to live there is newsworthy.
The V&A exhibition is full of black and white photos of pioneering ‘machines for living in’, in Le Corbusier’s phrase. But putting them in the context of the original ideals of modernism – sweeping away the compromised truths that led to war in 1914, the thrill of speed and machinery, the revelation of the machinery of the human body – does provide some insights into why it all proved so disappointing.
First, modernism misunderstood of humanity. ‘The old human spirit is invalidated and in flux towards a new form,’ said Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, and his words are etched in giant letters over the exhibition.
In practice, most of the pictures of people at the V&A exhibition are idealised, serious, athletic types. The only smiles are in a 1935 film called Housing Problem, on people in crumbling terraced housing somewhere in industrial Britain, with their outside lavatories and taps (houses which have probably long since been taken over by lawyers with vast mortgages).
It makes you wonder, comparing the sad uniformity of the ideal – pictures of solemn modernist types doing mass demonstrations of gymnastics – with the evident enjoyment of the old, whether Gropius threw the baby out with the old human spirit’s bathwater.
Yet between the lines in the Tate Britain exhibition, there is some evidence that the ‘old human spirit’ survives after all – rather inconveniently (as it does) – even for the crowned kings of modernism. Despite shunning decoration and colour on behalf of Bauhaus, Albers remained obsessed with both for the rest of his life. As for Moholy-Nagy, the pictures of his trade-mark balconies – even in his own flat – show them adapted in a very human way for his children, with some pieces of very unmodernist chicken wire. I regard this as a hopeful sign. People are not quite herdable after all.
Then there was the way the modernists came to misunderstand efficiency, which is why they seem to have unceremoniously dumped those aspects of early modernism that sat uneasily with puritanical clean lines: the patterns, the colour, the women and the craft.
Women especially. Looking at the V&A exhibition, I was left wondering why – with the exception of Sonia Delaunay’s knitted swimming costume or Marianne Brandt’s hand-made teapot – there was so little by women. Just things for them, like the famous pioneering Hamburg time-and-motion kitchen on which all the others since have been based. It is time somebody organised an exhibition about the lost women of modernism. There is a story to be told, and not just Bruno Taut’s 1926 remark, picked out in big letters at the V&A, that ‘women must sweep away domestic nostalgia and make a new beginning’.
But the influence of Taylor, among others, provides a clue about why modernism – under either Soviet communism, German fascism or British nothingverymuchism – insists on sweeping away everyone’s domestic nostalgia. From a modernist standpoint, these individual foibles are just inefficient. But the alternative – only making use of those parts of the human being that can be sublimated to the machine, and wasting the rest – that’s not efficient at all.
Then there is the whole business of reality. Take chairs, for example. We know of course, from a century of experience, that some modern chair designs are comfortable and light, while others are like strapping human beings into metal frames. The V&A reminds us of Marcel Breuer’s 1926 prediction about chairs that ‘in the end we will sit on a column of air’. The internet guru Nicholas Negraponte now predicts a future he calls ‘nothing, never, nowhere’. The material world remains an inconvenience for serious modernists.
This is really the nub of the issue. Modernism prefers abstraction to reality, machines to human beings, columns of light to flesh and blood; and therein lies its tragedy. Because the former is impossible without the latter. That contradiction explains the deadening results of nearly a century of modernism in practice, obvious in all our towns and cities. And since that tension was present even in the original ideals, I can’t help feeling it was inevitable.
Cheap, regimented and standardised
So I am suspicious – or curious at least – about why we are being force-fed modernism again by the arts establishment at this critical stage in the new century. The reason, hinted at the end of the V&A exhibition, is this: modernism is now, as the V&A puts it, a ‘symbol of global capitalism’.
Actually, it is worse than that. Whatever its idealistic origins, modernism is now the preferred language of the rich and powerful. It underpins the ethic of technocracy, because it is cheap, regimented, standardised and ubiquitous. It disapproves of awkward individuality. It is no longer really compatible with human beings, and their awkward corners, if indeed it ever was.
So when the establishment decides that modernism needs a few monkey glands to keep it alive a little longer, they organise an exhibition at the V&A and get the chattering classes marvelling once more over the simplicity and cleanliness of it all.
It is time that the establishment realised the game is up. It’s over.
The trouble is, they don’t get it yet. London’s modernist Mayor is still peddling monstrous glass shards across the city, in the international style, without history, culture or humanity – diminishing all those who have to live round them. The Deputy Prime Minister, while also First Secretary of State, along with elements of the architectural lobby, promoted a new generation of system-built hutches for the poor, in miserable high-density suburbs. Public service managers are promoting rationalised systems that provide learning outcomes instead of education, or units of intervention instead of healthcare.
These are all the children of modernism. They share the same gap between appearance and reality, between ‘columns of air’ and awkward human individuality.
I’m not one of those who believe the arts are irrelevant to modern life. Quite the reverse: these misunderstandings matter. We need our cultural institutions to start re-examining the accepted truths of modernism. Does an international style, shorn of its human, cultural and historical roots, really benefit our cities – or does it impoverish them? Was there ever anything to the idea of ‘progress’, the modernist incantation that could justify any abomination in the 1960s and 1970s? Did it mean anything except ‘change’?
It may be that we were intended to ask just these questions at the V&A, but the rather weak affirmation at the end of the show – that modernism ‘remains relevant to the 21st century’ – rather suggests not.
After the blind alley
Another question we ought to examine is this: now modernism has led us up such a blind alley, what is coming next? I don’t mean post-modernism, which is simply a confused child of its parent – giving us irony instead of depth – but rather the fascination with the human spirit that seems dimly to be emerging to take the place of the great machine creed.
So let me make a few predictions about the next decade. We will not see a revival of revitalised modernism, but an increasingly powerful rejection of that kind of standardisation – in politics, planning and architecture.
We will see salons des refusées for artists who dare again to seek out beauty and meaning, when the establishment insists that they produce ironic video performances or sail wooden huts down rivers.
We will see a widespread revival of the authentic – real food, real shops, face-to-face management, medicine and education with real relationships at their heart, and human-scale buildings and diverse shopping streets with the local details the international style has done so much to excise – because that is what people demand.
We will look back on the early years of the 21st century, not for lovingly rediscovering the ethics of modernism that helped render the previous century inhuman, but for the first glimmerings of the philosophy – a different attempt at truth – that replaces it.
What that implies for places is not clear, except that we will demand their authenticity, just as the places we exist in now shimmer on the edge of shiny, ubiquitous, modernist unreality.
The new ethic will be recognisable by depth. These will not be shiny one-dimensional approximations of cities, food and management: they will be human, three-dimensional reality, rooted in history and culture. Yes, we will struggle to find ways of providing this in a multi-cultural society, where any cultural depth risks parochial intolerance, but we will find it in our shared but different humanity.
We might then look back on this decade with some astonishment, as our government plunged into hideous mistakes – Iraq, NHS rationalisation – because of a complete ignorance of history. We will wonder how we ever unravelled ourselves from an architectural and political establishment that – as Talleyrand said of the Bourbons – forgets nothing and remembers nothing. Fingers crossed that we do.
So go along to the V&A exhibition if you get the chance. It is like the watching the great leviathans of Dickensian art at the Royal Academy ignoring the emergence of Degas and Monet in France. It is the last gasp of the philosophy that has dominated the creation of places almost since this magazine was founded a century ago, and which this magazine has been almost alone in resisting, through the high-rise era and beyond.
It will be nice to be able to tell your grandchildren that you were there to see the last gasp of the monster.
The ‘Modernism: Designing a New World’ exhibition is at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 23 July. The ‘Albers and Moholy-Nagy: from the Bauhaus to the New World’ exhibition is at the Tate Modern until 4 June.