Wednesday, January 18, 2012


We have come to almost carelessly accept the general classification of the changes in architecture at the beginning of the last century and earlier, looslely as 'The International Style' - well, its beginnings. Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson gave this title to a book on the International Exhibition of Modern Architecture held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1932, and it has stuck as a broad reference for this new work. But the title says very little about the modern movement other than it was international. Charles Rennie Macintosh, in one of his communications to his colleagues in Vienna, wrote more articulately about the stirirngs of this ‘modern movement’ and its aims.

In our racy world that spends so much time on getting away from itself to reach its new future – without ever knowing what, where or why – it is useful to reflect, from time to time or even more regularly, on where we have come from, where we might be going; why we are what we are, and on what we might be. Without this understanding we remain floating in a world of vague ambition, with no guide other than whims that are randomly personal, fashionable or otherwise: or all of these together.

Macintosh’s letter to Vienna, (circa 1902), gives a clear understanding of the aims behind the changes he was interested in. He has been linked with the Art Nouveau movement, but his daughter has made it very clear that he rejected the ambitions of these decorative ‘margarine flow’ lines: Mary Sturrock is very positive on this issue. 'My parents didn't like art nouveau' she `says 'and Macintosh didn't like art nouveau. He fought azgainst it with these straight lines against these things you can see for yourself are like melted margarine. . . ' (Howarth, p. xxxi).
Macintosh seemed to have very clear ambitions for his future that was not so much about himself as others, as the letter reveals.

Portion of letter from Macintosh to Josef Hoffmann:

I have the greatest possible sympathy for your latest idea {this was to create a guild of handcraft in Vienna} and consider it absolutely brilliant. Moser is perfectly right in his plans to produce for the time being only items that have been ordered. If your programme is to achieve artistic success (and artistic success must be your first aim), then every object you produce must have a strong mark of individuality, beauty and outstanding workmanship. Your aim from the beginning must be that every object is created for a specific purpose and a specific place. Later on, when the high quality of your work and financial success have strengthened your hand and your position, you can walk boldly in the full light of the world, complete with commercial production on its own ground and achieve the greatest accomplishment that can be achieved in this century; namely the production of all objects for everyday use in beautiful form and at a price that is in within the reach of the poorest, and in such quantities that the ordinary man on the street is forced to buy them because there is nothing else available and because soon he will not want to buy anything else. But until that time many years of hard, earnest, honest work by the leaders of the modern movement will be required before all obstacles will be removed either totally or partially. For a beginning the ‘artistic’ (excuse the term) [sic] detractors must be subdued and those who allow themselves to be influenced by them must be convinced through continuous effort and through the gradual success of the modern movement that the movement is no silly hobby of a few who try to achieve fame comfortably through their eccentricity, but that the modern movement is something living, something good, the only possible art for all, the highest achievement of our time.

Thomas Howarth, Charles Rennie Macintosh and the Modern Movement, Routledge Ltd., London, reprinted 1990, (first published 1952), p.p. xxxviii - xxxix

Today’s ‘me-my’ makes the words ‘hard, earnest, honest work by the leaders’ appear naive, just as the words ‘no silly hobby of a few who try to achieve fame comfortably through their eccentricity’ carry a particular sting if one chooses to consider them. But bold self-promotion is the order of our times rather than self-criticism, so matters such as these are easily ignored - glossed over.

As for the concept that products can be made ‘at a price that is in within the reach of the poorest, and in such quantities that the ordinary man on the street is forced to buy them,’ this outcome is now achieved through cheap imports of low quality items rather than through any concentrated effort to achieve beauty or craftsmanship in our country through our efforts and commitments. One is left wondering; just what does our society stand for? What might the contents of a letter be today? It would surely be much shorter. Could it be: I have a great design that will revolutionise the world. I will get it produced in the third world so that I can maximise my profits?

What are we missing out on?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.