Tarek Merlin traces the erosion of his infatuation with modernism, which he believes has left a terrible legacy
There's something about modernism…Was it really all it was cracked up to be? I find it strange to realise how for so long I was an admirer of all things modernist. I naively felt it was the grandfather of my design sensibilities, the period in which stepping stones for our lives today were laid out, in every way, not just architecturally, but culturally too. On second thoughts, however, I have come to the conclusion that modernism was crap and has done more harm than good.
There has been an unsightly hysteria around the modernist movement of late. I can't look at the Arne Jacobson Egg/Swan chairs now without thinking ‘Foxtons'. I used to love those chairs, and Foxtons have taken an iconic piece of modernist design and made it crap. I really don't know how they did it.
People in pubs are forever boasting proudly of having moved out of the ugly city into ‘one of those modernist homes' in the country. They speak of the benefits of function and utility, and the beauty of the 1930s' architectural proportions. But last time I checked there were low ceilings, repetitive units and thin metal-framed windows.
Recently, I found myself outside the V&A at 9:30am on a bank holiday Monday, giving an elderly gentleman the evils because he had pushed in front of me in the queue for the wildly successful Modernism exhibition. A stampede ensued when the serenely carved doors swung open promptly at 10am. Gladly remarking that the elderly gentleman had stood in front of the wrong doors, I rushed towards the reception desk, cleverly avoiding being elbowed by a modernist-looking couple, ferociously dragging their modernist-looking children behind them.
Once inside, though I was initially taken in by Le Corbusier sketches and a design for a skyscraper I had no idea Mies Van der Rohe created, I slowly began to see through the modernist myth - nothing was what it promised. Yes, all the walls in Reitveld's house could slide into one another, and post and beam construction meant a column-free interior, but why was it so ugly and why so drab? As Peter Cook recently quipped, Mies Van der Rohe was incredibly boring.
Corb's vision of a house as a machine for living in could not be more onerous. Why would you want to live in a machine? The lack of comfort seems incongruous with what makes us happy.
On second thoughts I have come to the conclusion that modernism was actually crap and has done far more harm than good
The merits of modernism are obvious, but the original ideologies have now been lost, or at best become confused along the way with failed high-rise Park Hill estate in Sheffield (inspired by Le Corbusier's Unité D'habitation in Marseille), and painfully intellectual minimalist interiors that create vast spaces of nothingness. Furthermore, if the modernism era is defined as 1914-1939, (the V&A's dates), then what the hell are we doing now?
Having thought about it, there is no terminology for today's architecture. You used to be a classicist, a modernist, or a post-modernist and people knew where they stood. Today's elite architects avoid style, reference, allegory and philosophy, leaving us without frameworks or rationales. In some respects this is, admittedly, a good thing, even if it does make it harder to describe to your mum what you do.
The avoidance of a classic style, however, has unfortunately created a style of its own and some architects seem a bit trapped by it. Some architectural celebrities puke up worse versions of a good idea they had 10 years ago and weaken their architectural legacy.
The architects responsible for the study project for a villa on the front cover of a recent BD, seemingly designed for the Jetsons, stoicly defended its buildability. But I did not realise that was the burning issue. Are they unaware that their design originality is being sacrificed by adhering to a style that has become a caricature of a bygone future? One celebrity victim of this affliction recently unveiled a scheme for a new university building in Barcelona. It was a typical example of how they get so caught up in a stylised approach, not realising how it takes them over, leaving nothing of real substance.
There's nothing wrong with being populist, or even modernist as long as you get it right, but architecture must beware - buildings hang around much longer than fashion seasons. Stylised taste and stylised buildings will wilt and flounder.
Tarek Merlin is an architect at Alsop and Partners and one of the 10 young professionals on Building's graduate advisory board