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Anxiety attack

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Anxious Modernisms: Experimentation in Post-War Architectural Culture Edited by Sarah Williams Goldhagen and Rejean Legault. MIT Press, 2001. 335pp. £23.95

The received version of post-war architectural history is that the Modern Movement died in 1972 (according to Charles Jencks) to be replaced by a blossoming Post-Modernism.

The oddly titled Anxious Modernisms tries to rectify this crude historicist view by reassessing the development of design philosophy until the 1970s.

Its dozen or so essays seek to demonstrate that the canons of the Modern Movement, in themselves fairly vague, were being questioned from the 1930s by architects including Haring and Wright, and after the war a range of modifications prompted by changes in the social, political and cultural climate were being proposed. Hence the anxiety. Far from following a monolithic stylistic formula, Modern architecture in the post-war decades was far more diverse and pluralistic than has been assumed, and the strains that go to make up Post-Modernism (in the broad as opposed to the Jencks/Venturi/Graves sense) were evolving throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

Eight categories of change are identified in the introduction: the emergence of mass popular culture, anti-architecture movements, post-war democratic freedom, the need for entertainment, primitivism, the search for authenticity, the study of history and a concern for regionalism and place.

The examples range from Italian neo-realism, ABAT-Afrique housing, the Smithsons, Neutra's houses, Saarinen and IBM, Cedric Price's Fun Palace, Rudovsky, Bakema's challenge to CIAM, Neo-Classicism in East Berlin, the French Situationists and the Japanese Metabolists.

In a coda, Sarah Williams Goldhagen identifies three political agendas adopted by Modern architects: the consensualists, such as Gropius, Mies and Terragni who accepted the status quo and put their faith in advanced technology; the negative critics, mostly Marxists such as Stam and Meyer, who wanted architecture to engineer revolutionary change; and the reformists including Aalto, Le Corbusier, Rietveld and Gray, who were critics of capitalism but sought to ameliorate its effects.

Fascinating stuff, but the book strains too hard to relate these categories of changed directions to the specific examples and does not sufficiently show how external pressures altered architectural thinking. Words, not deeds, take precedence, but we all know that there is a huge disparity between architects' pronouncements and the buildings they produce. However much intense intellectual justification was offered by, say, the Smithsons or the Metabolists, their architecture was not remarkably different from what was then current fashion.

For me the most absorbing essay was the most architectural - an analysis of Paul Rudolph's 1956 designs for the Jewett Arts Centre at the mock-Gothic Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Before his retreat into macho Brutalism, Rudolph was a severe critic of Modern Movement dogma, and his attempt to reintroduce traditional devices such as entrance identifiers, context, materiality and decoration only shows how narrow those dogmas had become.

The Jewett Centre now looks similar to any other Modernist American building of the time, despite the subtle inclusion of elements which would become brazenly historicist in the 1980s. In fact Rudolph's first scheme, inspired by the Doge's Palace, was pure PostModern, but it was rejected by the client for being too 'fussy' - a coded message for too 'gay' (since Rudolph was a homosexual).

Concerned about losing the job, Rudolph replaced the ornamental brickwork with pierced screens a la Ed Stone, the only form of 'decoration' that was tolerated (just) by reformed Modernists, although it hardly suited the Massachusetts climate. Of course Rudolph was a protege of that old chameleon, Philip Johnson, who had no qualms about making the U-turn into stripped Classicism for the Lincoln Center and thence into full-blown pastiche Po-Mo.

Although for the average practitioner in the 1950s to 1970s there was an unspoken hegemony of narrow Modern Movement approaches, major buildings of the period which used to be vaguely lumped together as Modern can, as this volume indicates, now be seen for their diversity and gradual absorption of the ideas we call Post-Modern. However, all the architects discussed would see themselves as Modernists, rejecting historical formulae, relying on technological advances, and responding to the zeitgeist. Even today no architect (apart from Piers Gough perhaps) would describe themselves as Post-Modernist, attesting to the enduring power and richness of the broad Modernist ethos.

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