4. Modernism

Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, architecture had evolved, new styles being created from elements in existing traditions. Although styles went in and out of favour, they remained much as they had always been. Modernism, on the other hand, was an artificial ‘style’ created by those architects of the time who sought something entirely new.

The search for a different form of architecture was triggered by the ‘Battle of the Styles’ during the latter part of the nineteenth century. This resulted in almost every kind of building, including classical, baroque, Queen Anne, Gothic and Tudor, all jostling with each other along the streets of British cities. Today, many of these buildings, where they survive, are treasured as great architecture, but at the time of their creation they were often despised by the profession.

The modernist’s rejection of the past presented a conundrum: how much should be discarded? The purists believed that everything had to go, including pitched (sloping) roofs, gables, pediments, ellipses and polygons, as well as traditional building materials such as brick, stone, wood and stucco. Conventional structural components, including arches and the trabeated forms used to create ‘box’ elements within a building, were similarly cast aside. Instead, cantilevered structures were employed, allowing the exterior of the completed work to be faced with a glass ‘curtain wall’.

The two main tenets of modernism were that of ‘form follows function’, also described as functionalism, and rationalism, the expression of a steel or concrete structure in a building’s outward form. In the latter respect, the new creed was based on the concept of using materials honestly, as expounded by Ruskin in Victorian times.

Unfortunately, the modernist establishment had a tendency to prevent any kind of opposition. It also separated the teaching of art from architecture, preventing the latter from being taught on traditional lines.

Almost a century after it arrived we can view this architecture in perspective. Without doubt, modernism can be irrational, using leaky flat roofs instead of a pitched roof where water drains away quickly. This was a problem at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Westhope, where his cousin Richard Lloyd Jones was heard to say ‘Dammit, Frank, it’s leaking on my desk’, to which Lloyd Wright replied, ‘Richard, why don’t you move your desk?’. An observation by Mrs Lloyd Jones that ‘this is what you get for leaving a work of art out in the rain’ hits on a big problem with modernism: although the principles of ‘form follows function’ are preached, such buildings are often designed purely for visual impact whilst practical considerations are ignored.


Many commentators have tried to unravel the complex strands of change that brought about modernism. To understand these elements we must look more closely at the Victorian age and the seismic social changes that occurred between the middle of the nineteenth century and the outbreak of World War I.

The Victorian Background

The world of art saw the founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848, in which Edward Burne-Jones, Holman Hunt, Millais and others, led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, returned to older forms of art and created extremely popular works. Three years later, the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace showed Victorian art and technology at its very zenith.

Although positive social improvements were made in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Victorian world showed signs of decline. Darwin’s The Origin of Species, which appeared in 1859, and Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, which he started writing in 1860, are particularly significant. Neither of these publications had an immediate effect, although they opened to floodgates for more extreme views. The Theory of Evolution, however, had serious implications, changing man’s perceived place in the Universe, removing him as God’s special creation and shattering the Victorian dream of a ‘New Jerusalem’.

From this time onwards, art and architecture appears to be on a downward slope. In 1861 the firm of Morris, Marshall and Faulkner began producing decorative elements derived from the Pre-Raphaelitic style, leading on to the Arts and Crafts movement. By the 1880s the flowing styles of Art Nouveau appeared, culminating in Mackintosh’s School of Art in Glasgow. And by the end of the century Aubrey Beardsley was producing decadent art, despite being inspired by Burne-Jones.

The aesthetic movement, whose leading members included Oscar Wilde, made the curious declaration that they wanted to pursue ‘Art for Art’s Sake’. In the early part of the twentieth century this concept led art away from populist forms and towards abstraction, which reacted against the naturalistic style of Art Nouveau. Cubism, for example, took an almost perverse pleasure in using a shape almost unknown in nature. It seems as though humanity, having lost its relationship with God, was trying to create a ruthless new order. And indeed it was, for although in 1917 the communists only triumphed in Russia, they gained a significant global influence in art and architecture throughout the twentieth century.

The Strands

Commentators have made various suggestions as to the origins of modernism. It has been claimed, for example, that the Red House, built for William Morris by Webb in 1859, was the source of the principle that ‘form follows function’, since its windows were organised to suit the internal layout. However, this doesn’t hold water, since this kind of fenestration is common to all Gothic buildings. Indeed, there’s no link between modernist designs and such a traditional house.

Others suggest a connection with Art Nouveau, described in one instance as ‘the asymmetrical flaming shape derived from nature, and handled with a certain wilfulness or bravado, and the refusal to accept any ties with the past’. Certainly, modernism was willful and rejected the past, but, with the exception of Gaudi’s work in Barcelona, had nothing in common with Nouveau’s naturalistic shapes, also seen in Celtic work and in the pagan forms found in Norman churches.

Another concept is that of ‘functional tradition’, often apparent in industrial buildings and canal structures, especially those created during the industrial revolution between 1740 and 1840. However, such designs were made that way to minimise work and to make life as easy as possible: there simply isn’t any connection between this and modernism.

The Modernist Manifesto

Modernism was new, requiring different technology. Reinforced concrete, having been fully developed by the French in the nineteenth century, was successfully used in 1902 to build flats in Paris. Four years later, at Buffalo in the USA, Lloyd Wright completed his Larkin office block, a curious building without windows but provided with air vents at each corner.

However, the first really significant modernist building was the AEG Factory in Berlin, created by Behrens in 1907. In the same year, Hermann Muthesius formed the Deutscher Werkbund, which went on to create many other modern buildings. And by 1908, New York’s first reinforced concrete skyscraper had been completed.


Art at this time was going through a very strange period, which was also reflected in architecture. In 1910 the Grafton Galleries showed the first post-impressionist exhibition by the Bloomsbury Group. The following year saw the appearance of expressionist paintings by Matisse and Van Gogh, which used distortions of line and colour to express personal emotions, reacting against the naturalism of the earlier impressionist style.

These artists were influenced by Nietzsche, a German philosopher who believed only the strong should survive, expounding the concepts of ‘superman’ and of ‘will to form’. This was a humanist agenda that advocated that human beings, without God, could achieve anything through the power of the mind. Quite how this could match reality is anyone’s guess.

In 1913, Schmitz created his Leipzig Memorial in the city of Leipzig, using the terrifying ‘brute force’ of expressionism. Oddly enough, this was only a year before the outbreak of World War I, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of soldiers and the final crushing defeat of any hope of returning to the old Victorian world.


In 1909, the Italian architect Sant’Elia began a five-year promotion of his ideas on Futurism and his plans for a multi-layered city. The principles of Futurism are best described by quoting Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto:-

The modern building like a gigantic machine…. Lifts must swarm up the facade like serpents of glass and iron. The house of concrete, iron and glass, without ornament — brutish in all its mechanical simplicity — must rise up the brink of a tumultuous abyss, the street … gathering up the traffic of the metropolis connected for necessary transfers to metal catwalks and high speed conveyor belts.

This is a frightening variation of expressionism, reminiscent of the film Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang in 1926 and depicting the world in the year 2000, or the book The Machine Stops, written in 1909 by E M Forster. In both of these, human civilisation is reduced to an ant colony and the individuals within it have lost all significance.

At this point, architecture moves from buildings to social engineering. After all, why would anyone want to create an unnatural world such as this? For only one reason, the suppression of individuality, the creed of communism.

Oddly enough, the multi-layered city resurfaced in the sixties as the Barbican development in London, which was relatively successful, possibly because some of the site’s original buildings were retained, together with new landscaping and trees. Sadly, the area felt isolated from the rest of the City and included some horribly bland tower blocks. The layers were intended to expand outwards from the Barbican, but this never happened, perhaps because of the high cost of construction.

The International Style

By 1910, a six-storey office block had been created in Leeds using reinforced concrete, whilst other large buildings began to employ fan-forced ventilation. However, the first building in the International Style, which used glass and steel over the front of cantilevered floors, was the Fagus Factory by Walter Gropius, construction of which began in 1911, the same year in which reinforced concrete was used by Loos at Vienna to create The Steinerhaus.

Another slightly later but significant building in this style was the Bauhaus School building at Dessau, started by Gropius in 1919, the year he established the Wiemer Art School, and completed in 1925. As in the Fagus Factory, he used a skeleton of reinforced concrete, asymmetrical massing and exteriors made of glazed ‘curtain walls’. The cantilevered form of construction meant that walls no longer performed a structural function. Gropius himself talked about ‘the abolition of the separating function of the wall’ and said that ‘the walls … [were] restricted to that of mere screens’.

In later years the International Style became popular for office blocks, where continuous glazing provided good daylight and the lack of fixed walls accommodated various layouts. Unfortunately, glazed buildings were also thermally inefficient, making them sensitive to changes in the weather and putting increased demands on heating and cooling systems.

In 1913, G Gilbert completed his Woolworth Building, New York’s first true skyscraper, with its 42 floors reaching 760 feet (232 metres). Meanwhile, Hermann Muthesius and his Deutscher Werkbund had created The Glass House for the 1914 Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne. This had a glass brick and iron staircase, a prismatic dome and walls of glass bricks. Glass, which had rarely been used as a traditional structural material, was soon to become very popular with the modernists.


1914 saw the arrival of a pioneering and rather strange French modernist architect by the name of Corbusier, who introduced a system for creating reinforced concrete houses, involving the use of slabs held apart by columns. In 1917, Cubism had reached it’s zenith with the founding of the Dutch De Stijl movement, whose designs were once described as being ‘where comfort has yielded to geometry’. This obsession with cubes, held by Corbusier and other modernists, is difficult to comprehend, yet these young architects grasped it in both hands, thereby bestowing the twentieth century with a huge number of incredibly boring boxes.

By the twenties, expressionism had reached its zenith and in 1920 Corbusier exhibited his ideas for redeveloping the city at the Paris Exposition. The following quotes, not necessarily made at this time, indicate his way of thinking:-

The city that has speed has success.

We must kill the street. We shall truly enter into modern town planning only after we have accepted this preliminary determination.

Looking beneath these statements we can see that Corbusier considered the city to be a machine, in exactly the same way as Marinetti in his Futurist Manifesto, not as a home for real human beings with human feelings. He apparently aspired to an anthill full of rapidly-moving people who were never to make any contact. Indeed, he actually said:-

Considerable sacrifices were demanded of the inhabitants of the machine in order that purely abstract formal development … might be carried as far as possible.

Such warped thinking had a dreadful effect on the twentieth century, leading Charles, Prince of Wales, to say in later years:-

The consequences of making this vision [Corbusier’s] a reality, as most now recognise, has been disastrous, producing the shattered urban wastelands that have desolated entire communities and disembowelled some of our greatest cities.

In 1922, Corbusier introduced his Citrohan type of house, which was in the form of a white box built on stilts with split levels and roof patios. Looking at these structures through twenty-first century eyes reveals something that is utterly lacking in style or interest. It’s as if Corbusier wanted to reduce the house to nothing. There also seems little virtue, apart from displaying the architect’s skills in structural engineering, for putting a house on legs.

The Twenties and Thirties

In 1922, Kandinsky and Klee, who were later to become influential in the International Style, arrived at the Bauhaus. Two years later, at Utrecht, Rietveld completed the first house to be built in this style. 1925 saw completion of the Bauhaus, as well as the arrival at the Paris Exhibition of a new style of architecture known as Art Deco. Although the Deco style of building was highly influential and very popular, it wasn’t favoured by many modernist architects, because of its ‘plebeian’ mass appeal and its frequent links with earlier building styles. One of the most stylish buildings of this period must surely be New York’s Chrysler Building of 1930, reaching a height 1,000 feet and finished with a ‘telescoping’ aluminium top.

In 1928 Gropius was replaced at the Bauhaus by Mies Van de Rohe. However, his stay was rather short-lived, for in 1933 Hitler’s National Socialism arrived, modernism was banned and the school closed, never to open again.

In 1936, Lubetkin and Tecton created the Highpoint 1 flats at Highgate in London. This high quality building was in Corbusian form, complete with roof garden and characteristic wide windows. These homes were in a pleasant setting of trees and possessed wealthy inhabitants, which allowed this style of architecture to be seen at its very best.

In the same year, Corbusier built houses in Paris of concrete beams, with exposed brick for the internal walls, the latter perverse in a modernist building, although relatively cheap. Bricks and stonework remained fashionable as internal finishes for many years, particularly in the 1970s, although in the author’s view this never increased their attractiveness.

The Postwar Period

Two years before World War II the Paris Exposition of 1937 featured Corbusier’s Pavillion, bearing a slogan popular with communists and radicals, which said:-

‘a new era has begun, an era of solidarity’

Although Corbusier appeared to embraced socialist principles he was also an elitist, a problem common amongst those of a creative disposition, which persuaded him to place Le (meaning ‘The’) in front of his name. Corbusier’s anticipated ‘new era’ was briefly interrupted by the war, a consequence of which was that much of Europe was left in ruins. At the end of hostilities many countries, including Britain, took the ‘opportunity’ to clear away thousands of traditional homes under the pretence that they were ‘slums’. The new Labour administration was quick to act, adopting the creed of modernism with vigour, encouraging the reluctant inhabitants of older houses to move into new blocks of flats.

The fifties saw the development in Britain of CLASP, a grid-based system for creating prefabricated schools, as well as the arrival of fluorescent lighting, which reduced both the heat generated in buildings and electricity costs. In 1952, Corbusier completed his Unité d’Habitation at Marseilles, which was based based on ‘socialist principles’, with accommodation for 1600 people as well as shops. It took the usual Corbusian form of a ‘slab’ on legs with inset balconies in a rectilinear ferroconcrete grid. The building was crudely finished, as the concrete was moulded using rough timber planks, a form of construction later adopted in the Brutalist phase of the sixties. One year later and the UN Secretariat Building in New York was completed in the International Style, featuring the obligatory ‘glass curtain’ wall, as well as humidity control.

In 1955, the London County Council (LCC) began work at Roehampton on a successful development of flats, where the appearance of the Corbusian ‘slabs’ was mitigated by placing them in an idyllic setting amongst grass and trees. Relocating such structures to an urban area only resulted in pure ugliness.

Despite Corbusier wanting to rid cities of streets, the idea of ‘streets in the air’ became popular in the sixties, with many flats incorporating access ‘decks’. At the same time, ‘new brutalism’, the creation of buildings using raw or un-faced concrete, was favoured. Despite this fad for concrete, Stirling’s University Engineering Building at Leicester, built in 1964, was finished in traditional hard red brick and received a huge amount of praise. It was variously described as ‘neo-constructivism’ or having a ‘pseudo-functionalist’ form, but, despite all the acclamations, it had structural problems and suffered from damp. It also led to the creation of other similar buildings in the seventies, all of which were horribly bland.

In 1967, Lasdun completed his multi-layered National Theatre on London’s South Bank, using a heavy concrete style of brutalism. Along with the nearby Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward Gallery it formed an incredibly ugly composition. Charles, Prince of Wales, made this comment concerning the National Theatre:-

More like a bunker than a palace … seems like a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting.

The Modernist Disaster

Although many acceptable modernist buildings appeared in the fifties and sixties, Britain in this period was also subjected to some unforgivable architecture and planning. An apparent outbreak of mass insanity, perhaps brought on by the trauma of World War II, resulted in a complete lack of effective controls. The traditional centres of many historic towns and cities were torn apart in a frenzy of so-called ‘comprehensive developments’, which destroyed any vestige of history and replaced it with soulless and windy shopping centres surrounded by tower blocks and motorways.

As cities go, London escaped quite lightly, unlike the centre of Birmingham, which was torn to pieces by motorways and the notorious Bull Ring. The ‘rationalist, scientific and socially responsible’ developments of the 1950s included such possibilities as the demolition and redevelopment of Soho and Oxford St, including some of the most colourful and interesting parts of the city. Another proposal, the inner motorway box, would have destroyed much of the delightful housing found in Saint John’s Wood and more besides.

By the end of the sixties the public outcry at modern developments resulted in changes to Government thinking and an abrupt halt to the worst of these schemes. A gradual return to sane planning procedures followed, together with a deeper understanding of the ‘built heritage’ to be found in our towns and cities.

Here’s what the Prince of Wales says on this subject:-

[comprehensive development] is the victory of ideology and arrogance over humanity and common sense.

The Demise of System Building

Some of the plans described above might have been bearable if it hadn’t been for the poor quality of the new structures, which were often constructed using prefabricated elements, a method known as ‘system building’, which was a far cry from the founding principles of modernism.

Public confidence in this technology was shattered in 1968, when a gas explosion at the 200-foot Ronan Point tower in London’s Canning Town resulted in structural collapse and five deaths. Although the explosion was on the eighteenth floor, the entire corner of the building gave way. As a result, gas was banned from high-rise buildings for many years, and, although this tower and similar blocks were strengthened, this particular example was finally demolished in 1986.


All new things in the world eventually become old, so that which once seemed old is the new. Architecture, and modernism in particular, is no exception to this rule. It’s difficult to say at what time the modernism’s creed began to fall apart. Certainly, the use of brick at Leicester’s University Engineering Building may well have led other architects to experiment with traditional materials. Indeed, by the seventies many architects had reverted to using half-circular arches, pitched roofs, decoration and mouldings, whilst the Greater London Council (GLC) created lower buildings placed closer together. This shift away from modernism didn’t stop the construction of very high office blocks, including The Sears Tower in Chicago (1,450 feet) and New York’s World Trade Center (1,350 feet). However, there was a move towards more ‘organic’ styles, as demonstrated by Utzon’s Sydney Opera House of 1973, which used reinforced concrete shells on ‘Aztec’ terraces.

High-Tech Modernism

The last spasm of modernism came with the high-tech style, in which the structures used for a building’s services were highlighted using silver, scarlet and royal blue paintwork. The Centre Pompidou in Paris, started in 1971 by Piano and Rogers, was an outstanding example of the style, incorporating a museum, library and other public areas and providing over a million square feet of space. At the time, Richard Rogers expressed an enlightened view of architecture, saying:-

Technology cannot be an end in itself but must aim at solving long-term social and ecological problems.

… places for those who live, work and visit; places where all can participate, rather than less or more beautiful ghettos.

Rogers went on to create the Lloyds Building in London, which he started in 1979. This employed an ‘expressed structure’ where the exposed services formed ‘an ornamental order’. Constructing a building in this manner was very practical, allowing the services to be easily maintained and replaced from the outside the building’s steel frame and glazed ‘curtain wall’. Oddly enough, although this building might be thought to be Futurist, it didn’t clash with the adjacent classical buildings, which explains how Rogers could make this profoundly sensible but carefully-worded statement:-

The recognition of history as a principle constituent of the program and an ultimate model of legitimacy is a radical addition to the theories of the Modern movement.

which, in effect, admitted that the original modernist creed could no longer be sustained.

High-tech was also used by Norman Foster for the Sainsbury Centre at Norwich’s University of East Anglia of 1977, a building once described as ‘a well-serviced metal-clad barn’. In fact, Foster’s work was closer to structural engineering than architecture, albeit in a different style to that of Victorian train stations. He again demonstrated this in his modular Stanstead Airport building of 1991, which was supported by ‘elegant column trees on an expansive grid’.

The End of Modernism

The Presence of the Past exhibition, held at Venice in 1980, introduced the post-modernist works of Venturi, Moore, Bofil and Krier. These designers didn’t object to modernist elements but believed that historical features were also entirely acceptable. Robert Venturi, in rejecting the ‘less is more’ creed of Mies Van de Rohe, is quoted as saying:-

Less is not more, less is a bore.

By the eighties, several sixties tower blocks had been demolished. Today, some parts of London, such as Hackney and Peckham, have been transformed by the removal of such buildings. The process of restoring old houses also began in the 1980s and now many other structures, including warehouses and industrial buildings are regularly converted into homes.

Carbuncles and Classicism

One of the most significant moves against modernism came in 1984, when Charles, Prince of Wales, gave a speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) describing the proposed extension to the National Gallery as:-

… a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.

The audience, mainly consisting of pro-modernist architects, were appalled, no doubt even more so as the comments were those of a layman. Even so, his views struck a chord with the public that the architects simply couldn’t ignore. The Prince later commissioned the making of the new community of Poundbury near Dorchester, construction of which began in 1993, with buildings designed in various traditional styles by Leon Krier and other post-modern architects.

Another contentious issue of the eighties was the development of Richmond Riverside, created by Edith and Terry between 1983 and 1988, where several eighteenth and nineteenth-century buildings were sensibly blended together with new construction in a suitable classical style. Despite being popular with the public, many in the architectural establishment were outraged, insisting that Quinlan Terry’s work was a mere ‘pastiche’, to which the Prince of Wales responded:-

… it is not just a series of copies of buildings from the past. The architect has used a familiar language to create an expression of harmony and proportion.

Today, although modernist buildings are still constructed, they often include historical elements, thereby retaining what is sometimes known as ‘a sense of place’. Modernism is just another architectural style, not a form of social engineering for imposing communist ideals upon the unsuspecting masses.

Architecture and Morality

Back in the nineteenth century, the thinkers Pugin and Ruskin believed that architectural styles could change human attitudes. Although this may contain a grain of truth, some take this to ridiculous lengths, arguing that the modernism of Walter Gropius is morally superior to the classicism of Quinlan Terry, merely because the former is related to socialist principles. In essence, they want make an argument about class war instead of creating decent buildings.

The fact is, buildings don’t always determine human behaviour, so that some people can be happy in well-maintained tower blocks whilst other identical buildings are vandalised slums. The design may exacerbate social conditions but it isn’t usually the real cause, despite the fact that a ghetto on the ground is usually easier to maintain than one that’s high in the air.

In the end, architecture and the argument isn’t about politics: it’s about creating buildings that are both comfortable and pleasing to the eye. Modern technology can satisfy the former requirement, but the latter is more a matter of taste. Architecture can go in two directions: it can create buildings in styles that ruthlessly express man’s supposed triumph over nature or it can produce structures that empathise with the natural world.

The View of Everyman

Here are further comments and quotes by Charles, Prince of Wales, which have been well-received by the general public:-

We have disintegrated so many of the possibilities of life — a deadly demolition job which was carried out by modernism. It has pulled up the roots of our tradition. The ground of our being which has been nurtured for so long in the soil of perennial wisdom — the destruction so deadly in its effect.

When a man loses contact with the past he loses his soul.

We must work in harmony with nature once again and reconnect man with the organic roots of his being, with the healing timelessness of living tradition.

Hope belongs to a world that recognises the idea of limits; going with the grain of nature and cherishing and learning from the best of what we have inherited from the past.

Finally, here’s his general advice for good architecture, as expressed in his book A Vision of Britain: A Personal View:-

PlaceDon’t rape the landscape
HierarchyThe size of buildings and good manners
ScaleLess might be more, too much is not enough
HarmonySing with the choir, not against it
EnclosureSomewhere for children to play
MaterialsLet where it is be what it’s made of
DecorationA bare outline won’t do
ArtNot just a sculpture in the forecourt
Signs and lightsDon’t make rude signs in public places
CommunityInvolve people

©Ray White 2004.