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A Modernist misconception

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The Lessons from Modernism exhibition in New York corrects the widespread misapprehension that Modernist architecture eschewed environmental issues

A fascinating exhibition is running in New York, which should correct one of the popular misconceptions about Modernism. The white, smooth architecture of the Bauhaus, of the International Style and similar early to mid 20th-century architects, is stigmatised for its absence of environmental awareness, while being admired for its radical form-making.

This beautifully mounted exhibition, Lessons from Modernism at the Cooper Union, sets out to show how wrong this is. It is simply that, at the time, environmental concerns were of a different – but no less important –nature to those that preoccupy us today.

Urban populations in the 19th century suffered appalling ill health from the desperate living conditions in the newly industrialised, crowded towns. Social reformers, doctors and engineers fought for improvements to these conditions that were no less urgent, and no less environmental, than today’s challenges – they affected immediate personal health rather than global ecological health. The needs were for fresh air, good ventilation, sunlight and access to the country.

Many Modernist buildings were informed by environmental parameters

Lessons from Modernism demonstrates, through detailed analysis of 25 buildings, the extent to which many Modernist buildings were informed by these environmental parameters, and that the architecture
that is considered such a stylistic and intellectual revolution of the late 19th and early 20th century was driven by the contemporary social and political mission to improve public health. Architects and planners were imbued with the same reforming zeal as their medical, social and political contemporaries. They understood the desperate need for healthy living environments for working people, and quite determinedly designed buildings that would answer this need. This drive for health was one of the most significant underlying principles of the revolution in architecture but these principles are, today, obscured by our obsession with artistic and stylistic form.

Witness Le Corbusier’s occupants of his Ville Radieuse doing calisthenics in his gardens in the air or in the parks made possible by his dense slab blocks; acknowledge the ubiquitous sun terraces and the celebration of bathing in early Modernist houses. Many of the earliest manifestations of Modernist architecture were the sanatoria built in central Europe, where Modernism first took hold – such as Aalto’s in Paimio, Finland, and Bijvoet & Duiker’s in Hilversum. These display all the elements that became some of the leitmotifs of Modernist vocabulary: deep cantilevered balconies, sliding glass walls, sun terraces. Always designed for
the best solar orientation, they had plentiful flows of fresh air and the projecting balconies also provided solar shading. It was Le Corbusier who invented the brise soleil, which disappeared but has returned with a vengeance now that the problem of solar gain is again being taken seriously.

This same mission for health drove Modernist interiors and furniture: light, smooth and sparse – everything easily cleanable to ensure no accumulation of dirt and a healthy environment.

Architecture has drifted to the fringe of being a product for the elite

‘The Modernists were attempting to make architecture for a class of people who were not necessarily privileged to the architectural product,’ says Professor Kevin Bone, curator of the exhibition. ‘That’s very relevant for our times because, once again, architecture has drifted to the fringe of being a product for the elite. I think the early Modernists imagined that we could build light, airy, and dignified architectural environments for working-class people.’

Concerns for the environment – albeit a personal rather than global one – informed the architecture in a period that has long been regarded as having irresponsibly ignored these factors. This show makes it abundantly clear that there were principles that underlay Modernist architecture that need to be rediscovered.

Alan Berman is a consultant at Berman Guedes Stretton and the author of books on design and sustainability

Exhibition: Lessons from Modernism, Arthur A Houghton Jr Gallery, Cooper Union, 7 East 7th Street, New York, until 23 March

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