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Mapping the Modern

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review: The Modern Movement in Architecture: Selections from the Docomomo Registers Edited by Dennis Sharp and Catherine Cooke. 010 Publishers, 2001. 280pp. £22

There is a paradox at the heart of the whole Docomomo enterprise. If anti-monumentality was one of the defining characteristics of the Modern Movement, how can Modern Movement buildings be conserved when doing so turns them, by definition, into monuments? It is a paradox that Hubert-Jan Henket freely acknowledges in one of this book's three introductory essays.

Certain Modern Movement buildings, he says, 'are representative of the best architecture of our time, and for many of us these are objects which, quite simply, we love'. We must surely sympathize with him. Conservation may be contrary to the spirit of Modernism, but we can't just sit back and let old friends be destroyed. And in any case, conservation is only part of Docomomo's mission; the 'co' of conservation is preceded by the 'do' of documentation. This compact, 280-page paperback is Docomomo's attempt to make the fruits of its documentary labours available to a wider public.

It is a distillation of the Docomomo national registers held at the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI) in Rotterdam.

The registers contain hundreds of 'fiches' of detailed information on Modern Movement buildings all over the world. There are 600 entries in this book, submitted by 32 national working parties.

Inevitably, there are some big gaps (nothing at all from Africa, China or India) and the country-by-country presentation creates some curious imbalances. The US, for example, is represented by 20 buildings and so is the UK. Fair enough, we might say, but then for some reason Scotland has a section all to itself, with a further 11 examples including the Forth Road Bridge and a North Sea oil platform, which can hardly count as Modern Movement masterpieces.

These inconsistencies are not important in themselves, but a lack of editorial flexibility effectively renders certain country sections almost redundant. Each building entry typically consists of a very brief description and one black-and-white photograph. Such economy of information may be intriguing and enticing when the building in question is a 1930s convalescent home in Slovakia by the Moravian architect Bohuslav Fuchs, or the First City Polyclinic in Novosibirsk of 1928 by P Shchekin, but what is the point of including, in the French section, the Marseille Unite, Ronchamp, the Villa Savoye and the Centre Pompidou, all of which have been documented to death?

The book doesn't quite know what it wants to be. If it is trying to be a reference work then it should contain more information on each building - at least some plans and sections, a more detailed description and a few bibliographic references. If, on the other hand, it is trying to draw attention to far-flung and littleknown gems of Modernism, then it should exclude the canonical examples.

The straightforward book format may be part of the problem. The original intention was to publish the material in a loose-leaf form so that, in true Modernist fashion, it could adapt itself to the needs of different users. This idea was abandoned, presumably for reasons of cost.

What the project cries out for, however, is an injection of Post-Modernist technology. It is not clear what form the full records lodged at NAI actually take (what are these mysterious 'fiches'? ) but, according to Maristella Casciato who chairs Docomomo's specialist committee on registers, they 'document not only the status quo of the object concerned but also its conception, the stages in its design, the final results, the processes of its transformation, its sedimentation in collective memory'. In that case, they should be scanned, entered in a database and published on the web without delay.

Colin Davies is professor at the University of North London

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