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Putting Modernism in perspective.

Here in London Modernism is all the rage, at least in the world of museums and galleries. At Tate Modern, the work of Albers and Moholy-Nagy is displayed to magnificent effect; at the RIBA, an excellent photographic exhibition of Czech Modernism has reminded us just how advanced that country was in terms of architecture, design and industrial innovation in the first three decades of the twentieth century; and most ambitiously, the Victoria & Albert Museum is currently staging a highly successful show called simply 'Modernism'. Why now? Coincidence or zeitgeist? Whatever the answer, all three shows raise questions about our attitude to what could be simply categorised as a historical style from 80 years ago, or alternatively as a phenomenon which fundamentally changed the way we live, work, play and view the world to this day. The strength of the shows in prompting these thoughts cannot disguise the fact that they have a weakness, which is to say one is left wanting more from each: more about origins, more about the interrelationship of one design discipline to another, and more about the Modernist legacy.

Does the presentation of Modernism in somewhere like the V & A mean that as an idea it is a museum-piece? The current condition of architecture across the world suggests that far from dying out as an inspirational idea, it is flourishing as never before. As noted here last month, there is a big price to pay for the re-emergence of an International Style: a mutant version of ideal Modernism is marching across the developing world with scant regard for ecology, aesthetics or even simple functional need. Le Corbusier's Plan Voisin, always a dubious proposition for central Paris, is alive and well and propagating across southern China. Meanwhile in the developed world, the virtues of density related to reduced energy consumption are widely praised; tall buildings are in certain cities becoming everyday rather than exceptional, and the early Modern dreams of vertical cities are coming to pass. Happily there is fine work to counteract the worst excesses.

It is undeniable that we are all post-Modernists now, in the sense that Modernism can be identified as a historical style with its own language (or at least dialect), attached to a distinct period of history. That does not make us 'Post-Modernists' in the art historical sense of that phrase, since that style has more or less been and gone, never having taken root in the way some assumed would happen. Instead, there has been a reversion to the ideas and inspirations that informed the Moderns, and the splintering into different approaches by architects one could justifiably describe as Modernist suggest that the attack on Modernism by its critics was rather like being stung by a bee: painful for the recipient, but fatal for the attackers.
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Author:Finch, Paul
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 1, 2006
Words:465
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