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Modernist city dreams turn to nightmares

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In a culminating acte de theatre at the well-organised, high-calibre, but poorly attended conference on 'The Modern City Revisited', Michael Sorkin rolled out a four post-er. Revisiting the 'modern city' was, he claimed, an ongoing process dominated by concepts and ideas that are post- universal, post-zoning, post-automobile and above all post-adjacency - the latter a new and liberating condition that means anything can now be developed anywhere next to anything else.

It was a startling reversal of the views that had dominated this conference dedicated to examining a wide spectrum of different case studies of modern city developments - from Berlin, Rotterdam, Milan, the Soviet Union and postwar England to Brasilia and Brooklyn - over the past 80 years.

Central to the whole discussion was a consensus view about the definition of the modern city, in sharp contrast to the muddled definitions of 'Modernism' and 'the Modern Movement' revealed in some of the papers. The modern city idea, and the one more generally revisited at the conference, was summed up as 'a dream of making a social and compositional unity'. This phrase of Lubetkin's was introduced by John Allan in a brilliantly lucid paper on the doomed new town for Peterlee, a scheme beset by a continuing conflict 'between democracy and bureaucracy' and the machinations of inept politicians, many of whom it appears set out to dupe poor old Lubetkin about the aims of a New Town that was never really meant to be.

Dreams of the modern city - often with distinct national prejudices of course - started at different times around Europe, but eventually became dominated by the Corbusian idea of a ville radieuse, with its large-scale blocks straddling the countryside or imposing a high-density presence on existing urban areas. James Dunnett, speaking about Le Corbusier's vertical city, underlined the weakness of the arguments pursued by advocates of low- and medium-density development, as opposed to the clarity of the Corbusian vision which realised, in the ville radieuse , about 88 per cent of open space.

Further arguments about density and notions of the geometrical and rationalist organisation of blocks and quartiers were presented by Judi Loach, speaking about the neglected qt8 estate in Milan, and by Professor Ken Lambla from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. His research has taken him into a re-appraisal of the principles underlying the Justus van Effenstraat deck-access housing experiment at i Spangen, Rotterdam in 1921 by M Brinkman, whose whole philosophy was tinged by his interest in Theosophical principles of art, nature, social life, and their adaptation to architecture and planning.

Prior to the formation of ciam, a menu for a new Berlin had been set out in the golden 1920s with the aim of it becoming 'the most modern city in Europe'. In a well-researched, didactic opening paper, Bernd Nicolai (University of Edinburgh) outlined city planner Martin Wagner's programme for a new 'functional' capital. Taking into account, on the one hand, the general social debate on the importance of metropolitanism (a 'new reality' depicted, for example, in the work of Weimar artists like George Grosz) and, on the other, the polemical statements of Adolf Behne on functionality, Wagner dreamed of his modern city. His vision soon miscarried. It was thwarted by politicians, although their grudging acceptance of Modernist buildings over the next decade into the fabric of Berlin went some way to mitigate the loss of a real plan.

These stories proved a sharp contrast to the planning debacles that beset post-war Britain. ciam Modernism hardly got a look-in. Can there be a more depressing story than the fate of the 17th post-war New Town (Peterlee), or the impertinent post-war industrial Modernism of Birmingham, conceived by a manic engineer as a rabbit-warren of roads for traffic and burrows for pedestrians? Andrew Higgott's paper on the difference three decades of development 'made in Brum' was a brave attempt to fly a British Modernist kite. Paradoxically, it is proving little different in Brazil. According to conference organiser Thomas Dekker, Brasilia - which he refers to as the 'Ultimate modern city - fared little better than Birmingham, or Berlin. Apart from the few familiar civic buildings by Niemeyer, the rest of the place has become an architect's and planner's nightmare.

Dekker's paper caught the increasingly pessimistic mood that was beginning to pervade the conference on the last day. It had become obvious - further underlined in the final discussion session - that the Rationalist and Functionalist dream had been successively distrusted, destroyed and finally dissipated. As Sorkin said, the modern city was posited on the idea of a Cartesian world, on social determinism, classlessness and on the universal eradication of differences. Today, Post-Modern urbanism is multi-cultural, regionally sustainable and, above all, enjoys the creation of differences.

'The Modern City Revisited' was a Docomomo-uk Conference held in conjunction with the department of architecture and landscape, University of East London, 27-28 March

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