Three Books

When we began this post it was called ‘three new books’. Unhappily, ambition trumped reality and available time and it has been pushed down and down and down the queue, quietly transferred into a new blogging system and thence pushed down a little bit more until we have now finally got around to finishing it. The premise was this: three [not at all recently] published books that appear to embody the connections, contradictions and complexities of the contemporary architecture ‘scene’.

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The books in question are these: Geoff Manaugh’s The BLDGBLOG book, Malcolm Millais’ Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture and Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism (in fact, it was the arrival of the latter author’s latest book, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, that prompted us to finish this off; shamed by the fact that Hatherley can write two books in the time it takes us to do one blog post).

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Things frequently links to BLDGBLOG, dazzled by the ongoing aesthetic provocation and the idea that modern architecture is, ultimately, an ongoing spin-off of the military-industrial complex, an unstoppable force that succeeds even through its failures, certainly on aesthetic terms (if by aesthetics one believes that ruins, hybrids, fringe buildings, literature, visual experiments, land art, environmental catastrophes, and rendered speculation are the romantic landscape of the early 21st century. It’s unapologetically techno-centric in its approach, pondering consequences only once they’ve happened but also speculating about the unexpected and unintended architectonic and cultural shifts that will arise out of a digital, highly visual and industrialised culture. Of the three, The BLDGBLOG Book is also the most faithful to its blog origins (Hatherley’s online essays being rather more self-contained and less reliant on imagery and Millais’ effort being self-consciously reactionary).

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TBB’s nostalgia for the ruins of the future is kept in check by its enthusiasm for the ruins of the present, be they real of imaginary, and the sheer potential of Modernism as a place of pollination and inspiration. Malcolm Millais would surely bridle at the book and weblog, seeing it as a neat encapsulation of all that is wrong with Modern architecture, and has been right from the start. Exploding the Myths… would love to see itself in the same iconoclastic vein as Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House (or even The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by Rod Hackney and that great charity shop standard, A Vision of Britain).

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Millais’ sarcastic broadside is aimed at what he perceives to be the century-long con trick against the general public, perpetuated by the media and modern architects alike. From the cover (that rather tired old image of Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt Igoe imploding) onwards, Millais delights in slaying what he believes are sacred cows, forging his way towards a brave new iconoclasm. From the blurb: ‘Millais shows modern architecture to be a sham based on a collection of myths, fallacies and cliches: from the adoration of Le Corbusier to the fiasco of the Sydney Opera House; from architects’ inept interference in the design of bridges to the irrelevance of much of their education, this and more is critically exposed in this book.’

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The position stated here is obvious, but unpick it and it appears ever more like the most worm-ridden conspiracy theory; that modern architecture is a repressive con trick foisted upon an ungrateful populace and kept in place by a metropolitan elite interested only in protecting their own interests. Millais (‘a retired structural engineer who worked with Arups and others on many postwar buildings in Britain and elsewhere’) unsurprisingly positions the structural engineer as the unsung hero of the century, tirelessly working behind the scenes to save architects from themselves and keep their wretched, overwrought structures from toppling over, while simultaneously being responsible for ‘true’ functionalism that actually delivers what people want. For Millais, the twentieth century works best when engineers are less supine and take the reigns from architects and their aesthetic mistakes.

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It’s this debate between populist wants and needs that fills the gulf between Exploding the Myths… and Militant Modernism. Hatherley contends that there is a popular hunger for innovation and experimentation that has subsequently been condemned as paternalistic, socially catastrophic. As Jonathan Meades noted in his New Statesman review of the book, ‘what if modernism was not imposed on a working class that really yearned for good old back-to-backs and outdoor privies but was welcomed “as part of a specific collective project”? Streets in the sky were paved with hope. Aneurin Bevan envisaged a National Housing Service.’ This is the kind of statement that doesn’t fit into the existing narrative.

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Hatherley’s book is a dense paean to a long-lost form of artistic and architectural optimism, epitomised by the heroic, fervent creativity of the Russian Constructivists, the last time an architectural movement was truly dedicated to social change. While Hatherley’s book is a lament for lost potential, Manaugh’s is a glorious chronicle of as yet unrealised potential. BLDGBLOG’s chief strength is its ability to marry the real with the unreal, creating an essentially romantic view of the world, a techno-utopia that manages to absorb and incorporate its own mistakes, preferring to retain the ruins of modernity and the rusty machines, damaged infrastructure and cultural fallout that underpins ‘progress’, rather than sweep it all neatly under the carpet. By contrast, there are scarcely any ruins left of the world evoked in Hatherley’s book. In the first section he writes extensively on the photographer Richard Pare’s project The Lost Vanguard, an exhaustive personal odyssey to chronicle the crumbling remnants of high Soviet Modernist Architecture (1922–32), subsequently passed over for Realpolitik and pastiche.

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BLDGBLOG’s enthusiasms, Hatherley’s witty but often Eeyore-ish laments and Millais’ swivel-eyed rants are all different takes on the same origin story, the tale of a creative and cultural process that has occasionally failed (and will continue to occasionally fail). The reasons for these failures, and the expectations that are confounded along the way, are the real tensions in this story. Modernism is not murky social engineering conspiratorially hidden beneath a thin veneer of aesthetics and theory. Instead, it is simply an ongoing expression of culture. While Militant Modernism and BLDGBLOG have an explicit understanding of the interplay between built space and human experience, Exploding the Myths.. uses almost all forms of ‘modern’ as a whipping post, a convenient peg on which to hang frustrations.

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