Sunday, September 18, 2016

MODERN MYTHS: IS MODERN ARCHITECTURE A LIE?



Malcolm Millais

The stimulus for this piece came from the book Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture by Malcolm Millais, published by Francis Lincoln Limited, London, 2009. It is now September 2016: the book has finally found its way to the remainder store ‘@ $7:00 for all books.’ Copies of the Millais publication are stacked on the tables along with all of the other glossy titles, fact, fiction, and random writings that had hoped for a better outcome. It seems that this book, in this sorry context, has not been a best seller. Yet the cover still declares its determination. There is little to wonder or be puzzled about with this situation because the text appears to be extremely negative, almost neurotic: seemingly obsessive, delusional, compulsive, full of details about failures and cheating in modern architecture. It is accompanied by numerous photographs and sketches that all carry what read as cynical and sarcastic commentaries, as if the raging bitterness of the author knows no limits; for example:
Home sweet home in enemy territory
The exciting toit jardin of béton brut
A house or a succession of metaphorical separations?
Architecture as a lot of hot air



There is something depressive about this book that hammers home an opinion on modernity in stark, deliberate, hopeless black and white. Any poetry is squashed, diminished, neglected: engineered out. ‘Life is my way or nothing!’ seems to be the attitude: ‘what I can make no sense of, no one will.’ One can be easily put off, because the text looks like an unrelenting diatribe against modern architecture. Still, it is worth reading, if only to test one’s commitment to architecture, its recent history and the present. The unanswered question is: what might one want if not what we have and have gone through? Can one really challenge history and leave a void, a black hole - nothingness?


The cover of this publication carries a strange, enigmatic title with an odd graphic format. Was it designed by an engineer? ‘EXPLODING’ is in bold red letters; ‘THE MYTHS OF’ letters are in black bold, but in a much smaller block typeface; ‘MODERN ARCHITECTURE’ is the same size as ‘EXPLODING’ but in bold blue. Why the differentiation? This title is located in the sky over the photograph of Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe housing scheme being demolished. The author’s name is in bold white letters in the clouds of dust at the bottom of the cover, sized smaller than ‘THE MYTHS OF.’ Is this a false modesty? The raw awkwardness and determination of the book is obvious in the cover. One tries to read the intent: ‘EXPLODING ARCHITECTURE’? ‘EXPLODING MYTHS’? - or is it revealing ‘THE MYTHS’? - ‘MODERN MYTHS.’ It seems that just too much is being attempted too boldly; too assertively. One is left puzzled, uncertain. Surely this is the author’s chosen title, not that of the publisher. Publishers have a better knack of selecting titles that have a more persuasive hum with clever, even subtly friendly references or resonances. The bland approach to the cover is seen repeated throughout the publication that is totally unforgiving: nearly everyone is wrong; misguided - heroes are cheats, charlatans. Modernism is a myth, based on a lie. Can this be so? It is as though the author has a grudge against the modern world and is determined to force his view onto everyone through his factual logic. He never seems to pause to ask why everyone except him, apparently, has been allured into a world of lies and cheating; has remained blind to it. Is the rest of the world full of idiots; fools? How can this one person live in such a place as this era when he alone knows what is wrong? Is this why the cover of the book seems to scream out just too loud, too incoherently? Little wonder that the text reads like a somewhat demented mind raving and ranting, never asking if there might be a ground to hold sense, to reveal relevance somewhere in between. The book brims with what feels like hate; dislike; distaste.


Millais is an engineer who is said to have studied architecture and building technology before qualifying in his chosen profession. One might comment that there is no architectural critic worse than an architect who has moved on to other things. That Millais, the engineer, is still so close to architecture and architects only potentially makes this worse: it is too easy for all architects to be categorised as incompetent acolytes. How does he speak to an architect he is working with? Apparently he has worked on many projects, both great and small. One can already see that this man will never give in; that his view is strong and determined; fixed, and right! It would seem to be pointless to try to argue a case for modern architecture with him; to try to explain possibilities. No doubt he would give a smart, snide retort to dismiss any dispute, or so his demeanour suggests.

Millais standing on le Corbusier's grave: just nasty?
An illustration of the approach of the author to his subject?

The photograph shows Wednesday night’s speaker standing on the grave of founding modernist Le Corbusier. Is Malcolm Millais smiling? Was he about to kick the concrete tomb? He looks harmless enough. But his book “Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture” takes no prisoners. It was probably a mistake to allow him anywhere near the tomb of the still-reigning hero of modern architecture and erstwhile destroyer of Paris.

As one reads the book, one is indeed challenged. The issues are clearly sourced and referenced as factual items; even the most apparently outrageous issues are sourced. The author is not making this up. What he is claiming has happened, so it appears. One would have to check the context and content of his extracts to really confirm this, but it can be assumed, perhaps, that most quotes are accurate and present a satisfactory replication of their intended sense and reality even as a brief quote. For example, the author illustrates how le Corbusier - oh, how much is this man hated! - apparently cheated with his silo photograph: it seems literally black and white. The pitched roofs have gone: (for another Corb ‘cheat’ see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/corbusier-renaissance-man.html ) Millais makes one thing very clear in the book: all roofs should be pitched. Modern architecture is simply stupid for even thinking otherwise: flat roofs leak! This is a publication with no compromise; little joy; no happiness - just whinging and complaint. The book never seems to pause to ask about the experience that initiated these movements and interests; that stimulated them. It seems to fail to realise that the twentieth century was a time of turmoil and social upheaval, not only with major wars, but also with technology. It was a time of fast and enormous disruption and change. It swept up thinkers, challenging them to respond to this situation – why not? That they may have made mistakes in this excess makes them no different to anyone else – except perhaps Millais himself. Does not architecture reflect its society? If society has been dysfunctional, why not its architecture?



Mies's tower

One can recall the events Millais mocks. That one discovered these texts and images, built or unbuilt, and was moved by them, inspired by them, is as much a fact as those Millais itemises; that Millais might like to argue the case against this does not negate their relevance. The Mies - he even sarcastically complains about the use of 'Mies' and 'Corb' - model of the glass tower was indeed iconic: it is a word that Millais pillories, but the concept was, and indeed still is. Out of the florid, sentimental exuberance of the Victorian society, the modern era moved into a heady, hedonistic time and horrid wars that test futures: why not test architecture? Such times stimulate hope. That statements might be made by way of manifestos was a part of the times: there was enthusiasm for change, for dogma, for difference. It seems odd that one can now argue that this should never have happened: it did, and these proclamations were/are important. That they may not have been implemented to the letter does not make them false; that Millais dislikes them and can ‘prove’ their weaknesses, has more to do with him than history.





Millais raves on about the notion of ‘honesty’ in modern architecture and repeatedly points out that things were not ‘honest.’ Does this ambition for truth in expression become nothing if modelled only as style? Does Modernism fail if one can show that it is more style than new, grass-roots movement conforming in every way with its dreams? Maybe visions can and should inspire rather than become precise, engineered recipes. The work of Gropius is transformative; as is Corb’s work. That Meis set the example for glass towers in the much-praised Seagram Building is fact; that one may not like the future does not change much: it reviews the past and relocates it into a time that is NOW. This is life. We can all see things differently. Millais may rave on with every fact that he can dredge up, but it will never change what happened, or how things were felt in their lived origins. Millais’ interpretations revise the context, re-frame it with other understandings and the present, but this is what some research does. Good history, like good art, is assessed within its beginnings, in its own context, not that of another era. This fact, this approach, seeks to not change the original experience, that driving force, that excitement lived; where, e.g., young and old architects admire, love Ronchamp, and still do. Such contextual research seeks to discover this enthusiasm and sense, not merely complain about it with rational interpretations and analyses.





Unfortunately, the critic Millais seems to have no real alternative concept or proposal: this is a problem, because he is so keen to cast everything aside as irrelevant and worse. One cannot demolish a past and proclaim nothing as an alternative, not even create a fantasy past if the future is uncertain. Does he want everything ‘engineered’ - predictable? One can recall beautiful engineering - Brunel bridges, tunnels, railways, ships, e.g. - but Brunel was a poet, a special talent as well as an engineer. Millais seems to ignore poetry as something real and relevant, but goes closest to acknowledging it in his chapter on bridges. Now, one can be critical of bridges designed by architects - see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2011/05/on-bridges.html and http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/02/tensegrity-bridge.html - and other matters too, but there needs to be some directional sense to a critique, some ambition of outcome, even if it might be simple ‘honesty,’ a notion that Millais seems to struggle with.


Millais gets most enthusiastic about architectural education when he writes about Hannes Meyer taking over the Bauhaus: at last the mystics had gone! This is followed with the suggestion that engineers should teach architects, an idea that seems to support the understanding that only engineers are right: maybe mathematicians are OK? In the last chapter, Millais tells about a mathematician, Nikos Salingaros, who has proven the need for 'hierarchical complexity' - 'not only in architecture but in general' -  and has established a measure for it. He appears to offer support for this strategy and writes about another mathematician, Christopher Alexander, supporting his A Pattern Language. Millais does not mention Alexander’s The Nature of Order books, but one can assume he would find them agreeable to his cause too. These studies might be interesting and revealing, but one already knows is that self-conscious, rational measures and analysis do not provide a simple, self-conscious strategy for good design; there is no recipe: more is involved, in spite of the clarity of analytical facts. It is this subtle sense that Millais seems to mock with his raucous rigour; he ignores it; kills it, the thing that should be loved.



Fifteen principles of wholeness




In spite of being able to agree with nearly everything Millais elucidates, there remains a problem. There is substance in the search for modernism that we probably still need to pursue. That we might have failed to date does not make the efforts useless, inferior or false. The great desire to seek an expression for the new world did drive folk to write, hypothesise, experiment. Consider the times, the change from the weight of Victorian indulgence; the desire to move away from the preconceived past. One might admit that the ego was too eager, too keen to wipe the slate clean; but times have changed this. We do need a more subtle and enriching experience in our architecture. Unfortunately the computer is providing opportunities to explore abstractions as well as allowing us to build some monstrous forms: but rebuilding the past is no answer, even if Prince Charles might favour this approach. We do need to try to embody the richness of the spirit in the present. We can learn from the past; but because architecture is of its time, this means that we must change too if our architecture has any hope of becoming a revelation.


Now consider our era: our lying politicians; our negotiating town planners; our hyped promotional material; our innate arrogance; our selfie culture that sees everyone as an individual and genius. There is much that is driving matters on and on, leaving little time for reflection. Just when things might begin again to know and express more about a different context and life is unknown. If we refuse to change, things may just keep on the same trajectory as that defined by Millais. Sadly, his engineering approach will not fix things up, even though it is asked to hold anything and everything up, as Millais notes.



Millais quoted some old modernist writings, but there are many more that could have been included, ones that would not have helped his argument. We need to try to embody our past into our future, as science does. The process of conjecture and refutation is successful in science, so why not in architecture: then we could accommodate the Millais position along with everything that is good in modernism and all past eras, bringing these creatively into a new and grander future that builds for the human spirit and its happy accommodation. Trying to do this for a fragmented, bickering society that holds few shared beliefs will be difficult, for buildings are shaped and decorated by these matters of faith. They become symbols resonating with understandings beyond rational engineering, even though it is this analysis that supports them. The two aspects of architecture need to work together rather than fight as fragments. Each needs to respect the other. It is this blatant lack of respect, its belligerence, that makes the Millais book hard reading. Maybe this is why it reached the remainder shelves?



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