Tag Archives: modernism

No. 76 Dean Street: a restoration drama

No. 76 Dean Street, Soho

Until some point soon after lunchtime on Friday, 10 July 2009, No. 76 Dean Street probably looked, to the thousands of people who rushed or ambled past it daily, much like any other Soho building. A few, perhaps, would have glanced up and seen it for what it was — a townhouse of some quality, built c. 1740, and thereafter subject to the usual vicissitudes, serving variously as residence for the seventh Earl of Abercorn, a workhouse, premises for a firm of leather-cutters and, most recently, offices for a financial services company. A brief look into one of those tall ground-floor windows might, if correctly timed, have revealed an elegant deal-and-oak staircase curving up towards the right of the front door. Sometimes, indeed, passing by after dark, it was possible to gaze upwards, usually more by accident than design, and to be astonished once again at what the chance illumination revealed inside that front first-floor room — elaborate cornices, surfaces painted with scenes of various sorts — a fleeting impression of gilt, brightness and even grandeur reclaimed from the slushing tides of ambient, could-be-anywhere ordinariness lapping about our city.

Soon after lunchtime last Friday, however, a fire seems to have started somewhere within the air-conditioning system of No. 76 Dean Street. By the time dusk fell, the roof had collapsed. Continue reading


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Dilapidated or just complicated? ‘The Roman Forum’ by David Watkin


A few sentences into David Watkin’s The Roman Forum, notice is served that this will be no ordinary guidebook. The first paragraph establishes a tone that will persist throughout:

“The Roman Forum is one of the most famous of all historic sites, the heart of the ancient city, the hub of the Roman empire, the goal of tens of thousands of Grand Tourists. It is still visited by millions of people a year, yet it can be a baffling experience. Part of this is because archaeologists dig deeper and deeper in the understandable pursuit of knowledge about Rome and its early history, leaving behind rubble and holes which are ugly and difficult to understand. It is also because some of the most prominent monuments, which are believed by almost all visitors to be antique, turn out essentially to be products of the nineteenth or twentieth century.”

Yet how many other guidebooks would, by way of introducing the reader to ‘one of the most famous of all historic sites’, begin by asserting that the site in question is not only ‘baffling’ but also ‘ugly’ and ‘difficult to understand’ — let alone insist on the illusionless point that what may be seen today of the Forum is, in large part, a modern restoration? How many authors would dismiss archaeologists’ ‘pursuit of knowledge’ at the Roman Forum, of all places, with recourse to that pity-saturated adjective, ‘understandable’?

Prof Watkin, on the other hand, is no ordinary compiler of guidebooks. Professor of the History of Architecture at Cambridge University, fellow of Peterhouse since 1970 and a convert to Roman Catholicism, he has written important books on Sir John Soane,Thomas Hope, C. R. Cockerell, Athenian Stuart, John Simpson and others. His account of George III’s architectural patronage was a scholarly history in which the effort to avoid writing an instruction book for princes was palpable, if not wholly successful. Prof Watkin’s most famous work, Morality and Architecture (1977, revised edition 2001) indicated a willingness to defend as a matter of present-day urgency the inherited architectural vocabulary of ancient Greece and Rome, while at the same time acknowledging timeless doctrinal truth as simultaneously fundamentally different from and confidently superior to the sort of claims that can be made in favour of style, zeitgeist or positivist assertions of ‘progress’.

Not everyone has admired this. Thus Prof Mary Beard who, in her role as general editor of Profile Books’ ‘Wonders of the World’ series, commissioned Prof Watkin to write the present volume, again demonstrates the bracing disinclination to avoid controversy which has not only offended sensitive souls along the way, e.g. here, but lent energy to her re-invention as a successful uber-blogger, achieved without damage to a career as a fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge and a classicist of formidable seriousness.

For commissioning Prof Watkin, in any event, Prof Beard is to be warmly congratulated. The Roman Forum is, to use the almost too predictable phrase, a triumph. Clear-eyed, surprising, malicious, injunctive, polemical and often intensely funny, it achieves a minor wonder of the world in taking a place all civilised people feel they know and rendering it, if not new exactly, then far more complicated, contestible and immediately significant than had previously seemed to be the case. Continue reading


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Ancient and Modern: Palladio at the Royal Academy


Architectural exhibitions are, by default, flawed exercises. Few curators would have the nerve to stage, say, a Titian blockbuster without a single Titian painting on view, a marble-free Bernini show, a Schiaparelli crowd-pleaser offering the curious not a single faded frock or frill. And yet the celebration of a lacuna — a high-profile Hamlet minus the prince — is a matter of necessity in the world of architectural exposition. Goethe once claimed, apparently, that architecture is frozen music. If so, the best a curator can offer is a glimpse of the score. The actual performance takes place on some other stage entirely.

Hence the inevitability with which the Royal Academy’s excellent Andrea Palladio: His Life and Legacy comes to be made up out of sketches, plans, notes, printed pages, painted portraits, sections and facade elevations, near-doodles, a set of drawing instruments in a leather case, maps, and of course those meticulously-constructed lime and beechwood models, smelling of varnish and scholarly obsession — dolls’ houses made by angels for princes, immodest household shrines of formal perfection, each one as cleanly excised from the environmental matrix encasing actual buildings as inital intention ever can be from deed or subsequent doubt. Continue reading


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The picture unframed: Francis Bacon at Tate Britain

Right at the heart of Tate Britain’s current Francis Bacon retrospective, at the literal physical centre of the exhibition, there is a smallish room. Unlike every other room in the exhibition, this one isn’t lined with large and imposing oil paintings, virtually all of them hung in gilded frames: glazed, reflective, spectacular.

Instead, the room is filled with evidence for the way in which the paintings outside were made. There are pages ripped from art books, pictures on newsprint aged the colour of old jaundiced skin, photos of friends and rivals commissioned from John Deakin, lists in a sprawling generous hand, body-building magazines with homoerotic overtones, ink doodles, pictures of Bacon’s own pictures, photos ripped from current affairs magazines featuring wrestlers and famous Nazis and dead people, prints of film stills, the predictable Eadweard Muybridge sequences, the concrete remains of a less predictable interest in David Gower — all of it torn and battered by use, everything spattered with paint — fodder or perhaps rather compost for the painter’s imagination, the refuse of decades of imaginative consumption and elimination, leftovers of creation, the rich and pungent detritus of the studio floor.

It’s fitting, I think, that this room is at the centre of the exhibition, because it takes us right to the crux of at least the most immediate problems we face in confronting Bacon’s work. Should we be looking at the subject matter, or at the paint? Are we here for horror, about which we’ve all heard so much, or for beauty? Are we in fact doomed to stand staring at all the accumulated clutter, metaphorical as well as actual, of this most public of private lives, or is there any way of getting past it in order to reach the actual art itself — and what would we find if we did?

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Ahead of the curve: the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2003

[The following article originally appeared on the Electric Review website.]

How often does it happen that London’s summer weather outshines its art? June 2003 started out by giving us plenty of brilliant sun — plus the hyper-depressive ‘realism’ of Tate Modern’s Cruel and Tender, some predictably boring snaps by Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Britain, and possibly the most flaccidly aimless Royal Academy summer exhibition in recent memory. So does this mean that we should all stick to slapping on the Factor 18 and concentrating on those tan-lines, at least until Bridget Riley’s dated but now weirdly retro-chic 1960s stuff starts to work its undemanding magic at Tate Britain next week?

Well, no. Help is at hand, or rather, at the Serpentine. For several years now, the presiding forces there have commissioned a temporary summer pavilion from a well-known architect. This time they have chosen Oscar Niemeyer, the 95-year old seminal modernist and the man who brought us Brasilia, as well as plenty of other concrete wonders drooled over extensively by the photographers at Wallpaper*, among others. And this, like the Riley show, was an inspired choice. Now that even postmodernism has been reduced to being an ironic and quotable tic of the long-ago 1980s, and now that we don’t have to take modernism’s endless vaingloriousness seriously any more, there is something adorable and soothing and innocent about it all — like watching the television sitcoms of one’s own childhood or laughing at photos of one’s parents’ fashion mistakes circa 1973.

So it is no wonder that everyone has, entirely correctly, embraced Niemeyer’s pavilion as a marvellous success. It is a success. Made — inevitably — of concrete, aluminium and steel, and with a great sheet of brilliant red down one side of it, the structure looks rather like a large white curving ‘M’ drawn rather casually across the green landscape of Hyde Park. Indeed, if one goes down into the lower level of the pavilion — sunk a few feet below the level of the lawns beyond it — one can watch a small film in which the Modernist Master himself casually draws the ‘M’ and speaking meaningfully about the need to ‘explore the meaning of the curve’ or something like that — presumably leaving his collaborator José Sussekind and the capable people at Arup to sort out the details. From the inside, this lower level produces interesting worms’-eye views of the undulating lawns beyond. The real point, though, is the upper level. Above, the roof of the pavilion swoops with the illusory lightness of a tent or marquee, letting in great vistas of blue sky and green park on either side; a circular window at one end frames the pastoral scene beyond, while a ledge on the aspect facing the Serpentine Gallery itself provides what must be one of London’s greatest, if most evanescent, lounging and looking opportunities. Inside there are low tables and rounded benches of the sort that one might find in any improvised metropolitan bar, except that the dusty concrete floor, the rush of open air and changing light effects keep insisting that this is something different. The fact that it won’t be there forever probably helps, too. Over the summer the pavilion will serve as a sort of improvised cafe, and then as the leaves start to fall it will vanish as suddenly as it appeared. Unlike so much modern art and architecture, this is a pavilion that has enough sense not to hang around once it ceases to please and amuse.

In the meantime, it looks marvellous. From the outside, its simple white-and-red formula is set off brilliantly by the midsummer greens and blues of the park beyond. On the inside, it forms a sexy, light-hearted space that makes its inhabitants look sophisticated and sleek. It shows no signs of taking itself too seriously. It shows every sign of making lots of people — modernist groupies, middle-brow dating couples, simple thirsty wanderers — very happy indeed. In this way it seems to have much more of a ‘point’ than many things inflicted upon us in the name of art.

Of course one can go too far in insisting on the ironies inherent in, err, a glorified tea-room. But those ironies are there all the same, as obvious as Niemeyer’s apparently effortless skill in using glass, concrete and colour, and most of them connect directly to Niemeyer’s stature as a hero of modernism.

Take the simple matter of function. On one hand, despite a parallel emphasis on form (that curve again) it is a central feature of modernist self-understanding that architecture not only can but in fact must have a political, even a moral impact. The concrete (as it were) proof of this can be seen everywhere from the anti-fascist posture of the Barcelona Pavilion to the slightly anxious New-World boosterism of the US embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square to Brasilia itself. Needless to say, to believe this is to accord architects an awful lot of power — far more, obviously, than one should entrust to anything as vulgar as, say, a patron.

And yet when it comes right down to it, modernism does not have a brilliant track-record at producing things that actually do what they are meant to do. Some of modernism’s most stunning offspring — one thinks of Mies van der Rohe’s prism-like skyscrapers of the early 1920s — remained stillborn on the drawing-table, either because they could not yet be built or — more likely — because they worked better as dreams than as buildings. With its opulent materials and self-conscious lack of functionality, the Barcelona Pavilion may in fact have had more in common with sculpture than with architecture. Can there be a single modernist architect who never built an art gallery that won prizes for its good looks while remaining stubbornly resistant to the showing of art within its often glassy, often sloping walls? As for Brasilia, half its Wallpaper* charm lies in the aestheticism of its empty corridors and onward-rushing ruin, as poignant as anything etched by Piranesi. (Rio, meanwhile, scruffy and demotic, thrives apace.) Modernism was supposed to elevate mankind, but we never really rose to its challenge. This is why, today, it is the ultimate in irresponsible luxury styles, suitable only for those sophisticated enough to appreciate its rebarbative simplicity, intelligent enough to be able to separate it from its bad historical memories, and rich enough to work around its practical defects and demands.

Hence, perhaps, the 2003 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion. Given a light-hearted commission, Niemeyer has created a light-hearted structure. It will not have to look very good for very long. It will not have to achieve a high moral purpose. The beers and glasses of wine it sells will not have to transform their recipients into newer, better men. Instead — and despite the insistent modernist allusion both of its form and of its creator’s name — it appeals to another tradition altogether — a frankly pastoral one. Giorgione, I suppose, started off on this path, later explored so magically and hauntingly by Titian, Claude, Boucher and others, ending up — with only the faintest haze of irony starting to draw in — on the plein air scenes of Manet and the Impressionists. Et in arcadia ego … Such art, and the architecture that referred back to it, were ways of framing and regularising the relationship between man and nature, seen most obviously in those moments when man was sufficiently removed from the realities of the natural world that he began to miss what had previously been an integral if often burdensome bond. So forget modernism. If this pavilion is about anything, it is about a pleasure-dome built in the wilderness where those who no longer need to labour on the land can enjoy the fresh air, the open vistas, the glint of light on water. All of which is some long way from the aspirations behind, say, Brasilia, or the various communist party headquarters built by Niemeyer, or the aspirations of modernism, full stop.

I first saw the 2003 Serpentine Pavilion on a beautiful summer evening. Gradually, twilight started to fall. Shadows lengthened and the sky darkened from indigo into lingering violet. Green treetops turned first gold and then ultramarine. A private view was taking place. Across the lawns strolled elegant old men in immaculately-cut suits, effervescent 30-somethings flirting over their glasses of wine, the odd barefooted middle-class infant running delightedly wild under the blessing of a hundred tolerant grownup smiles. Like the nymphs and shepherds in a painting by Giorgione, couples lounged on the grass, while the odd celebrity passed amongst us like classical gods in a renaissance conceit: supermodel Liberty Ross, a kindly-looking Lord Rothschild, tiny elfin Tracey Emin who alighted briefly amongst the mortals and then was gone. This was, perhaps, as close as I shall ever come to living out a life familiar only from Boucher’s paintings — beauty for pleasure’s sake, a gilded twilight anticipating a long green dusk — and none of it would have been possible without the pavilion, conferring, however inadvertently, its elegance and nostalgia on all of us. So as long as the good weather holds, I’d very much recommend making your way to the Serpentine Gallery and experiencing one of the most real if fleeting delights of this London summer.

Bunny Smedley is ERO’s arts editor.

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Mies van der Rohe at the Whitechapel Gallery

[This article originally appeared on the Electric Review website.]

There’s something to be said for exhibitions that position themselves less as didactic accounts of their subject than as star-struck cheerleaders on their subject’s behalf — or for those that display not only literal artefactual evidence of their subject’s career but also adopt his own prejudices and predilections. Anyway it’s hard to fault Mies van der Rohe 1905 – 1938 on either regard. This major examination of the first, Europe-based half of Mies’ career, organised by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and currently showing at the Whitechapel Gallery, pulls off its retro-modernist take with an enviably straight face — although whether you find this delightful or just a little unnerving is a matter of taste, perhaps even of mood.

Put bluntly, Mies van der Rohe is an architect’s retrospective that includes lots of architecture and virtually nothing about the architect himself, let alone the world around him. All of which is, in some sense, very much in keeping with Mies’ belief that architecture is simply ‘the will of an epoch translated into space’, rather than the creative interaction between an individual and the traditions he inherits. According to Mies,

We are concerned today with questions of a general nature. The individual is losing his influence; his destiny is no longer what interests us. The decisive achievements in all fields are impersonal and their authors are for the most part unknown. They are part of the trend of our time towards anonymity.

Thus the exhibition provides an account, as rich in fulsome appreciation as it is in certain types of detail, of 38 projects developed by Mies between his arrival in Berlin in 1905 and his departure for America in 1938. What is does not do is to tell the viewer much about Mies himself, or about his friends and colleagues, or his patrons or critics, or the traditions within which he was working or about the world in which he lived. The story, in other words, is entirely a formal one. Who needs personalities when there’s formal development? Who needs history when there’s modernism’s own privileged account of itself?

Ludwig Mies was, for those of us who like this sort of detail, born in Aachen, deep in the Catholic Rhineland, in 1886. His father was a stonemason — a personal circumstance with considerably more than Hello! magazine-type relevance, since it arguably played a part in shaping his attitudes towards the quality and treatment of building materials and his understanding of the way in which structures should support themselves — and since this craftsmanly ethos may well have encouraged remarks like his revealing ‘God is in the details’. (It was a strange feature of Mies’ mature work that although it could, as countless provincial ninth-rate imitators have since made all too clear, be executed on the cheap, Mies insisted on extremely fine materials in his own constructions, perhaps most famously in his use of bronze in the Seagram building but also, discernibly, in the Barcelona Pavilion.) From 1908 to 1912 he worked with a progressive architect named Peter Behrens who also (as this exhibition will not tell you) employed Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius around this time. What became of Mies during the First World War I have no idea, which perhaps says all one needs to know about the biographical detail provided by this exhibition.

In Berlin afterwards, however, having left a wife and family elsewhere, Mies found a role for himself on the cutting edge of modernism. He became involved with G magazine (contributors included El Lissitzky, Walter Benjamin, Man Ray, Georg Grosz, Kurt Schwitters, Piet Mondrian, Constanti Brncusi and Fernand Léger); he also designed amazing fantasy skyscrapers that could almost certainly never have been built given the technology of the time. But that was hardly the point. It was during this period that he changed his name from prosaic ‘Mies’ to the more cosmopolitan-sounding Mies van der Rohe. Mies was the last director of the last Bauhaus School of Art & Design (it was shut down by the Nazis in 1933) and by the late 1930s, came to believe that the United States offered greater scope for his architectural vision than did Europe. He emigrated in 1938. His years in America were successful and fulfilling ones, but are beyond the ambit of the exhibition.

Instead, the exhibition is made up of many, many studies of individual architectural projects, from the Riehl House (Potsdam-Neuabelsberg, 1907) to the Resor House (Jackson Hole, Wyoming, 1937-38). Most of Mies’ earliest works are rather ordinary suburban houses built for well-to-do middle-class people. Try as the curators might, they have a difficult time making a case for the architectural greatness of these pleasant bungalows, set in tidy little gardens, full of Arts & Crafts detail. A German artist named Thomas Ruff has photographed a number of Mies buildings for this show. These opulent, appreciative chromatographic prints, with their luxurious finish and mildly hallucinogenic colours, seem again to make one sort of case for these early buildings — conferring on them a measure of formal power, as well as near-infinite glamour. But these recent photos also stand in humorous contrast to a few much earlier photographs of these houses, looking as they did when they were actually being lived in by the men and women who’d commissioned them — at which point they were smothered in vines, hung with patterned flock wallpaper, and cluttered with endless, comfortable, inelegant and thoroughly old-fashioned-looking tat.

This makes an inadvertent point about modernism — it’s a dated period style now, not a road to enduring aesthetic truth — but at the same times says about Mies’ architectural priorities, too. Mies did not seem to care very much about the functionality of his buildings, about any of their qualities other than design per se. His eye-catching glass skyscrapers of the inter-war period were unbuildable. His masterpiece, the Barcelona Pavilion (1929) had no purpose at all other than its formal elegance. Has there ever been a building that was closer, in terms of intent and effect, to pure sculpture? Compare this with the impact of building like Durham Cathedral, or the Petit Trianon at Versailles, or even St Pancras Station, and one gets some sense of the self-regarding nature of the modernist project — but this is not an exhibition that allows comparisons.

Nor was Mies exactly over-engaged in politics. It says something about Mies that this exhibition could include proposals for a monument to Bismarck, a monument to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (Communist ‘martyrs’ of the November Revolution), as well as the German Pavilion at an international exhibition circa 1934 decorated with the eagles and swastikas of the National Socialist Party. Mies’ beloved prisms were nothing if not versatile. And when Mies eventually left Germany, he did so not because of the objectionable nature of the regime or its persecution of his colleagues — both pretty evident by 1938 — but because he was seeking a better environment for commissions. For Mies, one suspects, the architect existed in a place beyond good and evil, beyond the needs of the people who might commission or inhabit his buildings, beyond the need even to build the buildings. It isn’t easy, after all, being the conduit through which the will of the epoch expresses itself …

Thus the stars of this exhibition, along with Thomas Ruff’s sumptuous prints, are Mies’ own plans, often executed with considerable style, and backed up with models and the odd computer simulation. The curators succumb to a brief flurry of excitement over G magazine — who wouldn’t? — but this only serves to underscore the lack of colour, context, variety in the rest of the exhibition. The circumstances of the commissions? The building materials? Did the buildings work? The curators’ implied contempt for such questions surely mirrors Mies’ own. Similarly, in the exhibition Mies’ architecture seems to appear more or less out of nowhere. Only three other figures — the neoclassical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Peter Behrens and Frank Lloyd Wright — get a look in. So the effect is to suggest that Mies grew out of no tradition and learned nothing from his colleagues and critics. But the lack of biographical background precludes reference to that stock-character of romanticism, the sui-generis genius. Instead the plans simply develop, the structures form themselves on the page, with all the satisfying naturalness and inevitability of the growth of a crystal. And then they stay there. There is no hint of the contingent, the accidental, or the flawed and failed. By the same token, Mies was surely one of the most influential architects of the last century or two, but in this exhibition one gets little sense either of what his fellow architects borrowed from his achievement, or what they ignored. That is, one suspects, because the assumption that these ‘projects’ stand outside history. And as I wrote at the beginning, while some people will adore this, others may find it seriously alienating.

This is not, of course, to say that it’s a bad exhibition. There is much in Mies van der Rohe that is both skilful and beautiful, and even more that is interesting. Anyone with an occupational interest in design will, I suspect, find parts of it genuinely inspiring. And for the broader public, it’s a worthwhile show. Mies deserves to be brought to our attention fairly frequently. Not least, he did as much as any single individual to give most of the developed world its urban environments of glass-clad skyscrapers, its suburban environment of flat-roofed shells. At their best, these sorts of structures look spare, clean and fresh; they are cheap to build, suitable for all sorts of site and adaptable to a host of purposes. Of course, in the best post-modern tradition, there’s an irony in the fact that so much of the charm — I choose the word purposefully — of this sort of thing now lies in the complex fact of its dated quality, its resonances with the villas of East European dictators and perhaps our own parents’ more adventurous friends — its rootedness in a particular time that has now passed. Mies would have hated this, but of course for many of us it no longer much matters what Mies thinks. It is perfectly possible to admire, indeed even to love the fruits of modernism without having much time for the climate and soil that nurtured them.

For the curators of this exhibition, however, it’s a different story. In their decision to adopt a tone of uncritical acceptance in the face of Mies’ whole approach to architecture — indeed, his whole approached to the whole vexed business of modernism — the curators may have missed an opportunity to provide an even better show, which might at least have cast the odd raking beam of criticism across Mies’ achievement, illuminating it to greater effect. The fact that the ethos underpinning his work is, in many senses, still highly controversial hardly makes it any less interesting. Instead of engaging with this, though, the exhibition simply ignores it. There’s an elegant arrogance in this decision; there’s also a degree of myopic silliness. Sometimes, less really just isn’t more.
Mies van der Rohe 1905 – 1938 will be at the Whitechapel Gallery from 10 December 2002 – 2 March 2003. Admission is free.

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