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Monstrosities of the Modern Age 2 June 2006

Posted by David in Uncategorized.

Graz, Austria

Above: The Kunsthaus in Graz, Austria, described by architecture critic Giles Worsley as  "some great bulbous sea urchin or perhaps a deformed liver, with scaly skin and protruding ventricles, dropped into the middle of a Baroque town," adding that it "deliberately asserts its alien quality". The term complementary certainly couldn't be used, although blot, eyesore and disgusting easily could.

I watched with interest – and anger at times – the recent programmes Marvels of the Modern Age by Dan Cruikshank and The Perfect Home by Adam de Botton. Both surprised me in the way that they portrayed modernism – the architectural style behind concrete multi-story car parks, most urban decay and sink estates – in a glowing light. I was particularly disappointed by Mr Cruikshank, who’s series are usually entertaining at the very least, with past tour de force being The Lost World footage series.

The philosophy behind both of these modernist loving programmes, and much of Grand Designs also, is that we are in modern times and so should build modern houses. To them, modern houses must not be inspired or at all like anything historical. The embrace of cold concrete, steel and glass along with total rejection of brick, timber and style, simply for the sake of it. Modern for moderns sake. Mr De Botton rejected the need for local character and sense of place, instead demanding a “sense of time” – obviously unaware that there’s never been a sense of time as buildings usually outlive their contemporary period as any real town will quickly prove. Also rejected was the concept of the house, with Mr Cruikshank declaring “the trouble is, when everyone has a front door and garden, the result is this, uninspired and bland housing” (sic). He preferred the state force of China to the free choice other builds. It’s no wonder they almost all hate Thatcher – the right to buy and shrinking state ended their experiments in social engineering by architecture.


Apart from the insulting philosophy which implied that architects, planners and politicians should plan and change our society – it’s no surprise so many are communist – the programmes were heavily one sided. The only retort was in The Perfect Home, when a developer said “this is what the market [and thus people] wants.” This was then sneered at for well over an hour, Mr De Botton accusing anyone who wasn’t a fundamentalist modernist of being afraid of progress. His philosophical take was that societies compensate for what they feel there’s too much of – in this case modern items. If this was the case however, why do we all want the latest gadgets, plasma TVs, cars and accessories? There was of course the intellectually vapid references to Poundbury, Prince Charles and ‘pastiche’ – a French word meaning variety, from Italian pasticcio; a pie with a variety of ingredients. Anything else like this would be celebrated as multi-cultural.

Both showed only the very best of modernism – large pavilions and apartments with views, concierge and cleaners – blaming the disasters on poor maintenance. This was surely a joke, but alas was not. The entire theme was, as Mr Cruikshank confirmed, that we should “give the visionaries another chance.” He then went to see the so called visionaries – one thought the future kitchen would include a plastic dish making machine (totally unaware we don‘t like plastic crockery, which already exists), a fridge with a camera to project its contents to save opening it and wasting energy (why not just a glass door?), and a rubber sink (why?). A later visionary had designed under water homes resembling seaweed (more squid like I thought), each with their own DIY nutrients garden attached via an “umbilical cord”. This, apparently, for “when the entire World floods” – I didn‘t think it was going to. No one mentioned LSD, but we were all thinking it.

At one point Mr Cruikshank accepted the concept of multi-story farms for rearing animals – again saying success would depend upon good management. The ‘exciting visions’ and modernist dreams are more of a nightmare – a horrific World where beauty, nature and individualism are destroyed, the old erased without thought or reason.

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I find it quite alarming that we allow modernist ‘bold statements’ – or architectural ego trips as they should be known – as they so detract from everything else. I hate modernist architecture because it is deliberately brash and harsh to nature and its surroundings. It is impossible to build a coherent street if buildings are rebelling and attempting to out rebel all others. The entire concept is of stark contrast, but beauty is always complementary. An old street, or reproduction one, works because natural materials blend and complement each other and nature. The styles are based around human scales, and are detailed, subtle and soft – again everything complementary, nothing bold, visionary or stark. It isn’t old fashioned to learn from the past and copy what is good, building what blends with nature and what is built around human nature, it’s common sense.

N.B. It is interesting to note, Mr De Botton’s favourite building is the Senate House in Bloomsbury, a high rise monster liked by Hitler, who intended to use it as his base for an occupied Britain. Mr Cruikshank lives in a pleasant Georgian town house, surrounded by others, in a leafier part of London. Also that modernist architects still praise failed buildings; the 1934 Penguin Pool at London Zoo, now deemed “unsuitable for penguins” and Lloyds Tower – where staff depression is well known. After all the eyesores featured on this page, I need to add some balance, so below are photos of Poundbury, how it should be done – complementary, natural, and local charachter.

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