Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914-1939 At the Victoria & Albert Museum, London SW7, until 23 July
Seventy years ago, Nikolaus Pevsner insisted that 'the new style, the genuine and legitimate style of our century, was achieved by 1914'. In a book, originally titled Pioneers of the Modern Movement, that was to have a huge inuence on British ideas about Modernism in architecture and design for many decades to come, this recent German émigré promulgated a view of the Modern Movement that placed its roots back in the mid-19th century, in the Gothic rationalism of Pugin and then the crusading social ideals of Ruskin and Morris.
For progressive British thinkers in the 1930s it was reassuring to know that Modernism actually kicked off in this country. This large and totally captivating exhibition acts as a healthy corrective to such notions. Its curator, Christopher Wilk, begins his account in the aftermath of the First World War, in the ferment of radical ideas that followed the collapse of the old order across much of Europe and most notably in Russia. It's obvious from the beginning that this exhibition (accompanied by a monumental catalogue) is about ideas as much as objects.
Modernism, writes Wilk, 'was not conceived as a style, but was a loose collection of ideas.'
A year ago, the galleries housing this exhibition were filled by a show ('International Arts and Crafts') that failed on almost every level. Carefully stripping out the social and political idealism - clearly identified by Pevsner all those years ago - that was a key theme of the Arts and Crafts movement, that exhibition ended up as a parade of (often very unappealing) artefacts.
'Modernism', in contrast, offers a coherent argument about the evolution of Modernism from a quest for social utopia into a 'new spirit' (Le Corbusier's term) in architecture and design; from an early obsession with the infinite potential of the machine to a dialogue with nature and the organic; from early socialist ideals to a compromise with totalitarianism and massmarket capitalism. As early as 1932, Johnson and Hitchcock offered Americans a sanitised version of the movement, in MoMA's 'International Style' exhibition, that prepared the USA for the arrival of Mies, Gropius and Breuer. A movement had become a style.
Emphasising the functionalist aspects of Modernism at the expense of its diversity, Pevsner, Giedion and other critics prepared the way for the anti-Modernist reaction of the later 20th century.
Expressionism, Suprematism and Italian Futurism were seen as disturbingly irrational. But Modernism was not just about suppressing ornament and rejecting tradition, it was a humanistic celebration of the joy of life and an optimistic vision of the creative potential of human beings.
This emerges in the extraordinary collection of objects in the exhibition, ranging from a multi-coloured Futurist suit, wonderful stage costumes, Mies' staggering drawing (or was it the work of a gifted assistant? ) of the 1921 Friedrichstrasse skyscraper project, a complete 1920s fitted kitchen, furniture and photographs, film clips and posters to radios, cameras and the lovely 1937 Tatra car made in Czechoslovakia (a star exhibit) on the eve of the German invasion that signalled the end of an era of optimism.
Architecture, as ever, cannot be easily accommodated in a gallery, but period photographs, blown up to large size, are used to supplement drawings and models, among them the exquisite reconstruction of Bruno Taut's 1914 model of his Glass Pavilion designed for the Cologne Werkbund exhibition of that year.
By drawing on so many sources for these objects, including largely unexplored Russian collections, Wilk and his team underline the internationalism of the Modern Movement. Britain enters the story late in the day, with the arrival of a series of émigré architects - some from the Europe of the dictators, others from British dominions overseas - the key catalyst. By 1937 Berthold Lubetkin could declare that Britain, for all its ingrained conservatism, was 'almost the only country in which Modern architecture can ourish with comparative freedom'.
The way in which Modern architecture took centre stage in the post-war period in Britain, with consequences sometimes triumphant, sometimes tragic, will form part of the subject matter of a future V&A exhibition on Modernism after the Second World War.
For the moment, this exhibition, superbly designed by Eva Jiricna, should not be missed.
Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist based in London