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Modernism: still a meaningful concept or just a weasel word?


Modernism is dead, proclaimed RIBA president Paul Hyett last week at the institute's annual conference at Interbuild. Not true, said Robert Adam, in a separate paper he delivered on the subject of design assessment and taste.The entire establishment of the profession is actually 'institutionally Modernist', he says, borrowing a phrase. Even to the extent that the vocabulary used by some design guides and the planning system - perhaps even magazines such as this one - enshrines it, beyond style, as the 'inevitable way forward, like it or not'.

For Hyett, though, there is a new pluralism at large, thanks to 'contemporary' not 'Modernist' architects 'whose work is orientated strongly towards the new'.

We have come so far from Modernism's origins, he says, that to apply the term, say, to Foster's 'sculptured' GLA, is meaningless.

In a way, both are right. Adam's contention that the 'ideology' of Modernism is so established that most who espouse it don't know they're doing it, rings true.

It is the accepted currency. And when councils such as Birmingham call for 'high-quality contemporary design', he feels they really mean 'Modernist', since if 'contemporary'means just existing now, 'high-quality design being designed now' is a needless description.

What is clear from both positions is that attempting to define good architecture is difficult without lapsing into stylistic pitfalls, and we await with interest the DTI's new performance criteria - Design Quality Indicators - that will attempt once more to set out the elusive qualities of good design. Imagine a Government document setting out the constituents of a good painting.

Thankfully, with architecture there are measurable elements, not just pure aesthetics. Opinions will always differ - and Allford Hall Monaghan Morris'Monsoon building is a case in point.Disallowed an RIBA award this year, the scheme did win Lord St John of Fawsley's Royal Fine Art Commission Trust and will simply try again next year with different RIBA award judges. Interestingly, the scheme in question is a contemporary reworking of a Modernist building from the 1960s. Modernism is dead?

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