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The Modernist Movement: Doubts (1953 - 1961)

Updated Monday, 26th November 2001

As Modernism got into a post-war stride, the first doubts started to gather.

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Vision Of Utopia

Modern Architecture has frequently been blamed for a catalogue of social ills, and images of rundown housing estates and tower blocks have become synonymous with social decay and breakdown. That the public reputation of the architectural profession remains low can be attributed to the perceived failures of much of Britain's post-war housing.

Architects do, however, have a defence. Many of the offending tower blocks were 'system-built', i.e. they were constructed with prefabricated sections bolted together on site, according to a set of enclosed instructions, and in a sense, architects were often hardly involved in their construction at all.

Political pressure to build in the post-war years also meant that many non-system built blocks were constructed on the cheap, with cuts usually being made in the 'service' area of estates. Lack of adequate security and concierge facilities would prove fatal to many of the ambitious estates in the 1950s and 1960s.

Against this background, it is perhaps worth noting that it was architects themselves who first expressed doubts about the impact the Modernist project was having on the community fabric.

Modernist town planning was heavily influenced by Le Corbusier's Ville Radieuse plan of 1933, which promised a future of sunshine, fresh air and greenery for city-dwellers. One of Britain's most successful public housing schemes, the Alton West Estate in Roehampton (1958), was a conscious attempt to bring the Ville Radieuse to Britain.

Le Corbusier's new city would consist of giant apartment blocks and green, landscaped spaces. This was a powerful vision of utopia in the immediate post-war years, when re-housing families from crumbling Victorian slums to clean, modern apartments was a political priority.

The Ville Radieuse influenced CIAM's Athens Charter of 1933, a document whose grand rhetoric and idealism similarly extolled the virtues of zoned cities and giant residential towers, and which cast a long shadow over town planning in the years after World War Two.

The Short Narrow Street Of The Slum

By the time CIAM held its ninth congress in 1953, younger architects led by Alison and Peter Smithson had become frustrated by the Athens orthodoxy, and were pushing for a rethink.

The Smithsons and their allies attacked the utopianism of Le Corbusier and warned that Modernist Architecture was in danger of damaging communities, eliminating neighbourliness, and ignoring the basic human need of 'belonging'. They wrote; "The short narrow street of the slum succeeds where spacious redevelopment frequently fails." In 1956, this group finally broke with CIAM, and formed another architectural think-tank, Team X.

The Smithsons concentrated their efforts on attempting to rectify the shortfalls they saw in Modernist theory. Their Golden Lane Housing Plan - originally sketched out in 1952- consisted of low-rise "streets in the sky" in which it was hoped that wide elevated galleries ('streets'), and a generally greater proximity to the ground would eliminate the worst failures of Modernist orthodoxy. In 1972, they realised their vision with Robin Hood Gardens in east London.

Ivor Lynn and Jack Smith's Park Hill Estate in Sheffield (1961) was designed with similar concerns in mind, and yet neither of these projects were immune to the social problems which would engulf housing estates in the future. Their Brutalist exteriors also meant that both would become easy targets for critics.

Street Spirit

Meanwhile, Denys Lasdun was spending time in the narrow streets of Bethnal Green in the East End of London, photographing the boisterous street life and trying to work out how Modernists could preserve this community spirit within their social housing projects. His solution was the 'cluster block', of which his biggest and best example is Keeling House.

Opened in 1957, Keeling House consists of four tower blocks and a central service core. The blocks are arranged to look onto one another, and 'hanging gardens' are provided as communal washing areas. It was hoped that the atmosphere of the street below, with busy neighbours frequently bumping into one another as they went about their daily chores, would preserve the traditional community.

But Keeling House was not immune to the problems of community breakdown and vandalism which scarred many other estates, of all architectural types, throughout the UK.

By 1961, doubts about the utopia which Modernism promised were not sufficiently strong to halt Britain's ambitious public house-building projects. But over the next twenty years, public criticism of modernist architects and their work would reach such a ferocity that Modernism - as a cogent philosophy of building a better society through architecture- was almost universally agreed to have failed.





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