Friday, June 09, 2006

Mod cons

“Many different styles can be characterised as Modernist, but they shared certain underlying principles: a rejection of history and applied ornament; a preference for abstraction; and a belief that design and technology could transform society.”

Information board at the V&A's Modernism exhibition, June 2006.

The huge exhibition (until 23 July) makes clear that Modernism emerged as a rejection of terrible things past, advocating a new, post-world-war order. Much of it derives from friendly, leftie ideas about social equality: better housing for the poor, workplaces that ease the burden on the worker. But there’s a great difference between equality and the sort of uniformity these grand designs impose.

Some things are great fun – I liked the kooky teapots and saucers – and the foldaway furniture makes the most of confined accommodation. But the great blocks of housing in concrete and glass are just ugly and oppressive, fitting people into neatly wrought boxes.

Despite the elegant socialite in the foreground of JJP Oud’s “Municpal Housing” (1931-2), it reminded me of Victorian models of the panoptic prison system – where individual identity is subsumed by the institution.

There’s also little softness or comfort in the models. With my lower back beginning to protest at all the time spent hunched at computers, I didn’t think the various takes on chair looked that supportive.

Having lived in a concrete block, I know how impractical an austere little living chamber is to keep warm and damp-free, and how quickly the weather and vegetation can make the crisp lines and bright facades look old and dour and forsaken.

Actually, the insistence on abstract lines and blocks rather than the “natural” (for all there’s a section on Modernism’s observation of the natural world) could suggest a rejection of the squidgy, mucky sort of existence we actually live.

It’s a world of firmness and phallic projection into space, which I can see might be liberating after decimation by world war and flu. Though not denying the genuine social ills the Modernists tried to put right, there’s something disturbing about artists and engineers organising people’s lives on such a scale.

The Dr made the point (after a few beers) that you could show the same Modernist-built housing estates now as their builders did the Victorian slums, and make the same points about deprivation and despair. The buildings are not solutions to the problem: the communities in question are still places money is not directed.

There was something a bit sinister about the projected health and dynamism of this new generation of people. A fun bit of film about nudey ladies doing exercise swiftly moved on to mass-participation stretches and Triumph of the Will.

The totalitarian edge to Modernism is its rejection of the past: the arrogance of defining the bright future, once and for all.

Those laughing, nudey girls are part of a rejection of the “wrong kinds of body” – which led to the singling out of “corrupting” racial, political and sexual elements. The dehumanising power of abstraction made the 20th century’s mass killing machine all the easier.

Though this may just be our being wise after the event, Modernism is sinister because we know where the ideology led. It’s an interesting, comprehensive display and analysis of a major social and political movement. Intellectually vibrant, ambitious and bold, but really not very comforting.

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