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DOCOMOMO conference tackles vision and reality

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The docomomo project - as represented by its biannual conferences, seminars, campaigns and publications programme - is arguably the largest and most diverse voluntary critical symposium in the contemporary architectural world. At the time of its origins in the late 1980s, docomomo involved a 'mere' 12 countries. Last week, in Moneo's new Architecture Museum on the Arcadian island of Skeppsholmen, delegates from 37 countries assembled for its fifth conference. Indeed, so international and cosmopolitan has this principal event in the docomomo calendar become that the concluding council meeting begins to resemble the general assembly of the United Nations - a huge horseshoe of seated delegates, central flower arrangements, headsets and translators.

One consequence of this remarkable growth is that the conference has become too big to follow. The logistics of scheduling over 60 papers in three days necessitate continuous parallel sessions, with the consequent difficulty of choosing between simultaneous papers of equal interest, though one's omissions will eventually be made good through publication of the full proceedings. Compensation for loss of focus is richness of coverage; a critical review of modern architecture diffracted through the cultural prism of virtually every corner of the globe.

The conference sustained the promise of its title 'Vision and Reality', for the cumulative effect of all this material was compelling evidence of modern architecture's protean development and regional mutation. Where one cultural, political or economic system might assimilate and transform momo's early ideals, another would corrupt or suppress them. The impact of the Second World War and the ensuing recruitment of Modern architecture to the cause of national reconstruction emerged as the most decisive common factor determining realities, superseding earlier avant-garde visions. As for social housing, be it in New York or Glasgow, we were reminded of how the relentless numerical logic of an institutionalised delivery system could transmute the loftiest humanitarian ideals into brutalising tracts of urban wasteland.

Alongside the main theme were further papers grouped around the topics of modern landscape, industrial technology, urbanism, education and the conservation register, reflecting the burgeoning specialist committees charged with the task of developing the docomomo agenda. The sheer range of vocational viewpoint is docomomo's great strength - participants include practitioners, historians, writers, research scholars, teachers, curators and critics - though surprisingly there are few students, a shortcoming that the council is determined to address.

Such diversity should ensure that docomomo's perennial identity crisis of whether it is about protecting momo's past or discovering its future is never quite settled. And neither should it be, if the discourse is to remain dynamic and evolve. Whether it will do so beyond 2002, when its benign and inspirational founding chairman Hubert-Jan Henket retires, remains to be seen. At least its next assembly at Brasilia in 2000 should break the somewhat Eurocentric pattern of its preoccupations to date. Indeed it was the Brazilian delegation's preview of their hospitable venue that provided the most positive endorsement of the conference theme in relating that nation's embrace of Modernism not as a stylistic accessory, but for its emancipating release from a colonial past.

Their exhilarating reminder of modern architecture's real social achievements was amply reinforced by the encyclopaedic post-conference tour of Stockholm's pre-and post-war social housing - mile after mile of undogmatic, humane and quiet decency set in endless forest. Then, just as admiration-fatigue was imminent, came the final coachstop. We arrived at the Woodland Cemetery, Gunnar Asplund's sublime work of genius at Skogskyrkogarden. Here at last, awed by this transcendent celebration of human mortality, the chattering delegates fell silent.

John Allan is a principal of Avanti Architects and was docomomo-uk's first chairman

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