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Unloved in Birmingham: Why modernism has so few defenders

Modernism’s radical manifesto causes its buildings to be misunderstood, says Kieran Long

Architecture minister Margaret Hodge has made her amateur views on architecture abundantly clear long before her decision not to list Birmingham Central Library. But her attitude, and the debate it provokes, brings to light one of the paradoxes of modern heritage. We must think harder about why some modernist buildings are still so unpopular.

There is something paradoxical about wanting to list a building that only experts like

While it is hazardous to generalise about the many modernisms of the 20th century, the kinds of buildings we are looking at here (Birmingham’s Bullring was one, the library another) find so little popular support that ‘expert opinion’ – from English Heritage and parts of the architectural profession, in this case – is often their sole defence against destruction.

There is something paradoxical about wanting to list a building that only experts like. Modernism in architecture was an attempt to make a fundamental break with history, to establish new ground rules. These rules had to do with new construction technologies, but more so, to do with the perceived political and practical weaknesses of vernacular and classical buildings.

‘Expert opinion’ defending modernism can come across as high-handed

Because of modernist architects’ often wilful antipathy to established ways of making towns, it is not surprising that popular opinion is against a great deal of it. And because of the wilfulness of that disconnection with historical precedents, the ‘expert opinion’ defending it in debates like this can come across as high-handed and out of touch.

I realise that this is very general, and there are of course modernist buildings of all kinds that are grounded, characterful and beautiful, particularly where the rhetoric of optimism and progress is appropriate and thrilling.

But we should not be surprised that a style that broke so self-consciously and fundamentally with the traditions and rituals of public life should find so few supporters.

The way certain emerging apologists write about modernism today, it’s as if they do not understand one of the fundamental premises of modernism as a style – that it attempts to be more about the future than about the past. In this country more than perhaps any other, memory is vitally important. The rupture that modernism created in our cities is still keenly felt and not beloved.

kieran.long@emap.com

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