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Heaven on Earth?

MODERNISM AND THE SPIRIT OF THE CITY

Edited by lain Boyd Whyte. London: Routledge. 2004. [pounds sterling]24.99

Early Modernism was an atheistic movement that threw tradition out of the window, and with it all sentiment and spirituality. That is the common assumption. This book puts forward an alternative view: that, on the contrary, religion was always present, hidden behind Modernism's glassy facade, not thrown out but suppressed, like the Freudian subconscious. Some architects acknowledged it and allowed it to shine through, but historians were mostly blind to it, anxious as they were to emphasize the revolutionary aspects of Modernism rather than its traditional roots. But the idea of revolution was itself only a secular version of the old religious idea of redemption. Modernism was essentially Utopian, and what was Utopia if not a vision of Heaven on Earth?

It is a perfectly respectable thesis and potentially a fascinating field of inquiry, but it needs a more focused study than this collection of rather tired essays written, according to the blurb, by 'ten distinguished scholars'. The essays are of two main types: surveys and monographs. In the first category we have, for example, a discussion of the concept of genius loci with reference to Lethaby, Geddes and Bruno Taut, an examination of some ideological aspects of post Second World War town planning in Britain, and an analysis of privacy in housing from a spiritual point of view.

The monographs include studies of the Bismarck monument in Hamburg, the Gothic Wertheim department store in Berlin of 1904, and Le Corbusier's Purist paintings, interpreted almost as religious icons. These essays began life as papers read to two symposia, one that was at Yale and one at Edinburgh. This might account for their authors' apparent lack of commitment to the subject. All too obviously, most of them simply adapted their current research to fit the thesis. One has the impression of a room full of academics forced against their will to debate a topic that they are not really very interested in. The generally poor and occasionally atrocious quality of the writing doesn't help. A couple of these essays are fatally infected by the particular strain of logorrhoea that afflicts so much current architectural theory.

Perhaps Iain Boyd Whyte, who introduces the essays with a competent overview of the territory, might be persuaded to write a proper book on the subject.

Book reviews from this and recent issues of The Architectural Review can now be seen on our website at www.arplus.com and the books can be ordered online, many at special discount.
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Author:Davies, Colin
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2004
Words:432
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