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Neo Avant-Garde and Postmodern: Postwar Architecture in Britain and Beyond

James Stirling and the Smithsons loom large in this collection of essays documenting Britain’s post-war Avant-Garde, writes Douglas Murphy

Neo Avant-Garde and Postmodern: Postwar Architecture in Britain and Beyond. Edited by Mark Crinson and Claire Zimmerman, Yale, £50

This new collection of essays on architecture take two seemingly antithetical strands of radical post-war British architecture, the Neo-Avant-Garde of the 1950s, and the later Postmodern turn of the 1970s, and eloquently open up their history to new angles of interpretation.

In the foreword, Beatriz Colomina notes that the Neo-Avant-Garde was made up of working-class, red-brick educated architects and artists returning from the Second World War, with Postmodernism being developed by an academic elite from the unscarred generation that followed. But rather than being a simple dynamic of cause and effect, whereby the inadequacies of dogmatic Modernism led to the reaction of postmodern eclecticism, this book shows that the two tendencies were far more ambiguously related, both being complex responses to similar social and cultural conditions.

The figures of Alison and Peter Smithson and James Stirling loom large. It was not that long ago that these two most critically significant poles in post-war British architecture were both considered beyond the pale, but for very different reasons. On the one hand the self-consciously avant-garde architecture of the Smithsons was tarnished by the failures of post-war housing and ‘heroic Modernism’ in general, and on the other the massive genius of Stirling had ruined himself not only through apparent functional ineptitude, but also by dying soon after plunging deep into the tackiest aesthetic excesses of the ‘Pomo’ period. Both approaches were seemingly incompatible with the polite pseudo-Modernism that has dominated British architecture since the turn of the millennium.

But in our culturally turbulent period these commonly held attitudes are being reformulated. The architecture of the Smithsons and welfare state Brutalism has been subject to re-evaluation in the last few years, either by critics seeking fragments of political hope in among the gloom of contemporary urbanism, or property developers magically discovering that the middle classes can live in ‘streets in the sky’ after all. Stirling’s posthumous reappraisal has been slower to appear, but with renewed critical emphasis on his work (for example the recent Red Trilogy – AJ 12.08.10), and a large comprehensive exhibition forthcoming at Tate Britain, his virtuosity and power are coming back into focus.

The essays are steeped in biographical details of the many figures discussed, and the sense of ideas being worked out in the context of post-war British society is vivid. What powerfully comes across is the new media landscape after the war, not only of dedicated architecture magazines such as the AJ or AD, but the wider media environment of popular magazines, exhibitions and so on.

Among the highlights of the book is Claire Zimmerman’s essay on the mediation of the Smithsons’ Hunstanton School. Largely based upon a Mies van der Rohe building they knew from just three photographs in the AJ, the school quickly became famous through its dissemination into an architectural culture which in its turn experienced the building primarily through magazine articles. This is of special import to us now considering the internet and its effect on the spread and proliferation of architectural images, where one can ‘experience’ 100 newly completed buildings every single day.

Nicholas Bullock’s account of two of the UK’s most infamous housing projects, Robin Hood Gardens and Ronan Point, contrasts the differences in conception and process between design- and production-led housing. In comparing the local borough architect TE North to the Smithsons, we find characters who by no means fit the popular view of the haughty architect contemptuously forcing unpopular ‘solutions’ on to the public in the name of their genius. Instead, as Ben Highmore points out, we had in the ‘New Brutalism’ a real attempt to analyse and reproduce existing social patterns of working class space, albeit as those patterns themselves were on the wane.

Later, Mark Crinson analyses the responses of the Smithsons and Stirling to the onset of consumer society, discerning latent postmodern tendencies in both architects as early as the 1950s. But whereas the Smithsons looked to ‘harness’ the proliferation of media, Stirling was far more a ‘consumer of styles’, even in his earlier, seemingly more avant-garde works.

This contradiction is recalled in Simon Sadler’s excellent final essay, which in raising the issue of architecture’s potential for criticality poses some pertinent questions for the present time. According to Sadler, there is a difference between Stirling mimicking Constructivism and Stirling mimicking Classicism: it’s that Modernism is an ‘unfinished’ project.

Thus the impression from Sadler’s essay and the book as a whole is that when so many of the ‘avant-garde’ architects of today are either wanton shape-makers or else hopelessly addicted to irony, it is vital to go back and look at how the most talented of another generation attempted to address the problems their society, and architecture’s place in it, posed them.

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