So why is modernism so important?

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

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So why modernism is important?

It’s probably true that modernism was the first time in history that architects started to think of designing buildings for people who weren’t their clients, and cared about broader social issues, rather than just being designers for society’s elite.  A key issue was how to provide good design for the masses.  While some today criticise modernism’s “one-size-fits-all” approach in mass housing, this was to some extent driven by an understanding of the potential of technological innovation (e.g. mass production building techniques) to make architecture affordable.  In fact one of modernism’s drivers was to address the very issues that New Zealand today is having with respect to a lack of supply of cheap housing.

The Group‘s 1948 Manifesto was explicit regarding this:

“Science has given us the machine.  Industry has shown us mass production.  The machine is better than the plane and hammer, as they were better than the flint axe and bone knife. … The nature of the machine and the method of mass production demand standardisation.”

New flats under construction [Gordon Wilson flats?], The Terrace, Wellington

Mass produced parts of buildings, and designing buildings as a repeating module enabled the provision of large scale housing.  This was the use of technology to effect social good.  Gordon Wilson, architect to the Housing Division of the Ministry of Works, and later Government architect “was particularly interested in housing and put much research into methods and means of fulfilling the programme which was necessitated from time to time” (NZIAJ Feb 1961 p. 1).  This assertive engagement with new technologies and new ways of building led to enormous experimentation and innovation.

Modernism was progressive in every aspect of architectural design.  Its mantra “form follows function” resulted in socially progressive domestic space.

Group House, Takapuna, Auckland, NZ

The Group’s houses, in Takapuna, Auckland, for example, were designed so that front doors opened directly into living spaces.

Entrance hall and staircase, house interior

There was no hallway reflecting the formal social customs of entrance and welcome.

In 1950 A.R.D. Fairburn, contextualised these houses with reference to past architecture:

“our ideas about housing date back to a period when labour and materials were plentiful, and when the Englishman’s house was his castle … We find it difficult to believe that the only real purpose of a house is to keep out the wind and rain; and that there is no pressing need to make any more fuss about this, or to incur any more expense, than is strictly necessary.  Moreover, we find it hard to resist the temptation to use our houses for purposes of social ostentation … Some of us go further, and ask for a certain amount of architectural gimcrackery – false shutters, odd-shaped windows, wooden pillars, fancy gables, and so forth.  Let me say no more about these matters beyond making the brief comment that it is extremely doubtful whether all this sort of thing really adds to the dignity of the human spirit.”

Exterior view of a single storied house and garden, probably Christchurch district

John Scott refers to this when, in a 1973 interview, he stated: “we started from scratch aiming for cheap, well-designed houses as against the pompousness of the thirties and that Spanish bungalow sort of thing and the pomposity of the twenties.”

Beard House, Wellington

Modernist architecture consequently tended to pare back anything that was considered to be excessive and ornamentation.  This was an ambition for building to be honest.  It was an attitude that extended to how materials were chosen and used.  As Miles Warren recalled in his 1978 essay “Style in New Zealand,” “Timber, concrete, ply and corrugated iron were in, bricks just acceptable, wet plaster naughty and wallpaper wicked.  You were excommunicated for marble. … Each material should used au naturel.  Timber should neither painted nor stained.”  This “honesty” also encouraged buildings with exteriors that expressed a building’s structure and the rhythm of the rooms inside.

Herbert Gardens flats, The Terrace, Wellington

Open planning was a result of structural innovations that meant that the job of walls to hold up a building could be replaced by thinner columns.  This enabled taller buildings to be built.  Before this ever increasing wall thicknesses (and so smaller room spaces) meant that very tall buildings weren’t that practical.  This innovation of the structural grid resulted in great flexibility of space planning, which enabled new ways of thinking about the relationships of parts of the house to each other.

Interior view of the Rotherham House, Auckland

As an example, the idea of open planning radically exposed kitchens to living spaces.  The then social etiquette (which we have long since forgotten), was – for modernists – quite literally a waste of space.  Here too is the ancestory of our much loved indoor-outdoor flow.  Modernists strongly believed that informal living should drive domestic life.  In Bill Wilson‘s words: “If you will to live in a house the house must be there, and it must make your living real.  The house is a means, a thing, a machine for living in (poetically speaking of course).”

The idea of “form follows function” also dictated a specific aesthetic appreciation underpinned by these social ambitions. The expression of this new look of construction and the new ideas of planning were understood as beautiful.  As Bill Toomath wrote in 1955:

“architects will be able to create a bold and significant language shared among the everyday buildings of the community.  With building blocks of clear geometric form, and the repeating rhythms of panel and line on their surfaces, a harmony will be brought to our towns, a more simple order to counteract the chaos of man’s inventiveness.”

Exterior view, state flats, The Terrace, Wellington

With this thinking, designing a building which looked gothic, or classical, or had applied decoration, was silly.  Adolf Loos famously wrote in “Ornament and Crime”: “Ornament does not heighten my joy in life or the joy in life of any cultivated person.”  Ornament was at odds with the technology of building and the truth of design.  Why would you apply a decorative layer and obscure the progressive, innovative nature of a building?  Likewise the Group Manifesto asserted that:

“Standardisation or repetition was, in fact, the earliest principle of design on which all the great master-pieces of Classical and Renaissance times were based.  Choice, then, is necessary, not only for full utilisation of our new powers, but to produce that sense of order and unity which is the basis of beauty.”

This is some of the architectural thinking that contextualises the building of Gordon Wilson Flats.  It is a heritage that could be gravely misunderstood by anyone looking for a decorated Victorian or Edwardian building.  It is also a heritage building which, like most architecture, cannot be fully understood in a quick drive by along The Terrace.  Architecture, like all other aspect of human life and culture, is a tad more nuanced.


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Posted under: Architectural History, Heritage, Heritage Buildings, HISTORY | 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “So why is modernism so important?”

  1. m-d Says:

    Great summary of a vital part of architectural history in NZ.

  2. Richard Regan Says:

    Interesting read, thanks.

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