Modernism: The Revival (1993 - present)

Updated Monday 26th November 2001

The mid 1990s saw Modernism reinvented and embraced once again.

Peckham Libary Creative commons image Icon Beatnic under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license

Rethink

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. Yet public reaction to the great Modernist experiment remains ambivalent at best, and hostile at worst.

Prince Charles' complaint that Modern Buildings don't have enough curves, 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.

Gentrification

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. Although most of the block's flats are still publicly owned, Trellick has become a pop culture icon, printed on t-shirts and featured in pop songs, as well as one of the trendiest addresses in London.

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 Now a wholly private development, Keeling House's council tenants have been replaced by young professionals keen to find a base near to the City of London, and able to pay in excess of £200,000 for the privilege.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

What's Left?

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.

The award-winning Will Alsop considers himself a Modernist even though his most famous buildings, such as the Peckham Library and Media Centre, appear to be the antithesis of the sober Modernist style. Alsop's work with public sector clients, often in run down urban locations, suggests that the most talented British architects, after a decade of working largely on prestigious corporate projects, have rediscovered the value of public architecture.

Lawn Road Flats are undergowing renovation, with twenty-five of the thirty-six apartments intended to form part of the 'Key Workers' housing policy: i.e. they will be reserved for teachers, nurses, policemen and other public sector workers who might otherwise struggle in the inflated London property market.

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.

 

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