Modern Movement voices from the past
The Experience of Modernism: Modern Architects and the Future City 1928-53 by John Gold. E & FN Spon, 1997. 278pp. £24.95
I have a friend who, whenever one of the British pioneers of Modern architecture dies, sends me the obituaries in order to stress the links, as he puts it, 'between authoritarian state socialism and the appalling disaster of municipal housing in the post-war decades'. As I knew plenty of these people I have to say, 'Yes, but . . .' because they weren't quite as authoritarian as he supposes.
John Gold took the more positive step of interviewing many of these figures in the 1980s, and relating their recollections to the archives of the ciam and the mars Group, and to the record of pre-war, wartime, and post- war propaganda for the Modern Movement.
He takes off from his childhood in Ilford, Essex, now the heart of the London Borough of Redbridge. He lived in one of those late-Victorian terraces near the High Road, with 'narrow but substantial gardens where a child could get on with things unobserved by interfering adults'.
The 1962 plan for a new town centre of concrete and glass was to provoke outraged opposition when the houses were described as slums, with demolition 'in the best interests of the town'. They were boarded up and vandalised by the council to keep out squatters (led by the redoubtable Ron Bailey) and cleared piecemeal to become temporary car parks. Residents 'quickly cut their losses, accepting a selling price based on 'site-value only', and moved out. Those who could not afford alternative housing, like my parents, eventually accepted rehousing in a block of high-rise council flats some miles distant.'
Comprehensive redevelopment never happened and the area today is a windswept mess 'that can justifiably be regarded as much worse than existed previously'. But 12-year-old Gold went to the central library to see the seductive models and found them precisely the splendid and logical town centre for the twenty-first century that Ilford needed - wholly welcome, if only his family had lived a few streets further away.
He provides a remarkably detailed account of the way that propaganda for the Modern Movement was conducted in Britain up to the point where, by 1953, the clients in government and their allies in the construction industry had been won over. 'The image of the future city had long been, in Lubetkin's phrase, a convenient way of selling oneself,' and meanwhile the high moral tone of the design imagery and social ideology had 'insulated itself from criticism'.
Gold makes several important points about the mars Group and its output. The first is that paper is cheap, and that 'it is not obligatory to think through every detail before picking up the drafting pen'; some lovingly preserved illustrations in archives 'were never more than lightly discarded first sketches' which really can't sustain the critical attention they have had to bear.
The second was a comment by John Summerson that it was always hard to know the criteria for suitability for membership. 'One is tempted to say that it was safer never to have built anything than to have built something that was not quite up to the mark.' Gold's book is a beautifully researched and gently ironical account of events and ideologies that are slipping away from living memory.
Colin Ward is author of Talking to Architects (1996) and many books on housing