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Modernism: it's on the ropes, but still with us

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It was interesting to read that Modernism today is both dead and ubiquitous (the retrospective views of Paul Hyett and Robert Adam - AJ 20.6.02).

Whence this conundrum?

Certainly there is a tremendous plurality of architectural styles today. Those designers working at the edge make great efforts to articulate and justify their personal visions. I suspect it is these designers Hyett has in mind when he summarises the state of architecture: certainly, the extremists (of whom Adam is surely one) do not collectively constitute a corps of Modernists.

Far from it.

However, there is a middle ground, and I suspect it is this consensus mainstream Robert Adam has in mind when he rails against 'official Modernism'.

Certainly, the current consensus is to be feared. In the hands of the state (English Heritage and local planning authorities) the consensus seems alarmingly Orwellian. But Modern it is not.

Although Modernism represents the broadest church yet conceived, there are two tenets which define it. First: the recognition and celebration of that which is essential to making a building; Frampton's 'poetics of construction'. A steel column is not concealed to suggest a loadbearing masonry structure. A sun-breaker actually breaks sunlight before it enters a space and is not a pseudo-cornice. Some have attacked shortcomings of implementation (Mies' details being the usual target). But who said it would be easy?

The second tenet is assigning priority to spatial configuration.

If there is money to be spent, it is best spent on shaping pleasing configurations, as opposed to decorating cheap space.

The issue of whether the inside should be 'the inside of the outside' is secondary:

designs may follow the two fundamental tenets yet derive great richness by nesting dissimilar envelopes, as Utzon has done.

So what is our new 'official Modernism'? The new Paternoster Square will showcase it, as will some developments on Oxford Street. Money is spent on facades, not spaces. 'Giant order' pilastered bases or colonnades appear frequently, as do north facing brises-soleil. These are framed buildings, but the framed elements are subsumed by masonry. Attic storeys ('setbacks'), with further ornament, complete tri-partite facades.

This is 19th century architecture, albeit with less ornament second time around. We might call it set-back culture.

And where in today's discussions is the social dimension?

Modernism doesn't require a social dimension in its definition but surely Modernity is still a powerful tool for serving the majority: if delight truly lies in sophisticated configuration and tectonic honesty, then much more can be achieved for little.

Design is cheap.Without Modernity, now as before, there can only be one type of building: the house.

So is Modernism dead? It is on the ropes, certainly.Hegel, though he has taken a pummelling over the years, looks good for a comeback. For surely the recent unconscious proliferation of setback culture buildings provides evidence that Weltgeist exists.Our return to 19th century values as a society - our reinvention of stratified wealth - is producing an architecture to match.

Charles Whitaker, London SW13

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