Fred Scott enjoys Colin Davies’ new wide-angle perspective of modern architecture
‘A New History of Modern Architecture’ by Colin Davies (Laurence King, £50)
The poet Marvin Cohen once told me of a story he was writing of an author who wrote a book about everything. The New York Times called it ‘comprehensive’; one critic said the book’s only rival was reality itself. In any writing of history what is left out, and for what reasons, is as important as what is included. Deciding on inclusions and exclusions may be more difficult in this new age of globalisation. Watching the recent sequel to ‘Blade Runner’, I wondered who would want to be an architectural critic in such an environment, a future dystopian Los Angeles in which all building is homogenised by electronic media. Would it even be possible to be a critic in such a place? One might think, in an echo of the Moratorium on Building proposed by David Greene and Mike Myers back in 1974, “Please stop, let’s wait for a minute and try to pin down what’s going on”. It is probably always when practice is abundant that theory is threadbare; excessive building in the real world means less building in the mind, with its accompanying interrogation of the reasons to build.
Two from 1913: German Embassy Building, St Petersburg, Russia (ph: AKG/Sputnik), Fagus Factory, Lower Saxony, Germany, by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer (ph: Alamy/Bildarchiv Monheim)
Early histories such as Viollet-le-Duc’s ‘Dictionnaire’ and Ruskin’s ‘Seven Lamps’ didn’t have to contend with the concept of the Modern that arrives with the twentieth century. How strange to appropriate such a term that signifies transience, a word that invokes perpetual redefinition – ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ – to signify something canonical. This becomes ever more apparent in the various attempts to then define the Post-modern, depending as it does upon Modernism being finished.
Two from 1928: Siedlung am Fischtalgrund, Berlin, by Heinrich Tessenow (ph:AGK/Imagno Lange House), Krefeld, Germany, by Mies van der Rohe (ph: AKG/Bildarchiv Monheim/Florian Monheim)
Two excellent histories have been written by British authors, both teaching in the USA. Alan Colquhoun’s ‘Modern Architecture’ (2002) sensibly stops more or less with the work of Louis Kahn. Kenneth Frampton’s magisterial ‘Modern Architecture, a critical history’ (1980) now stretches into four editions in pursuit of the new, but by so doing the cogency of the first edition is diluted. The major part of the original publication is pegged to manifestoes as much as to buildings, to the architectural utopianism of Europe and the USSR, the Bauhaus, de Stijl, Constructivism, and Le Corbusier of the Radiant City. His near dismissal of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City is ideological, not architectural. It may be possible to propose another attempted definition: Modern Architecture always has a political dimension, and the Post-modern does not, it is post-ideological. The question is although these two writers are still echoingly relevant, are they now to join the great authors of the nineteenth century. Are they no longer contemporary?
Two from 1930: Westhausen Estate, Frankfurt, Germany, by Ernst May (ph: Institut für Stadtgeschichte, S7A1998/21814) Karl Marx-Hof, Vienna, Austria, by Karl Ehn (ph: Alamy/Angelo Hornak)
Colin Davies’ ‘New History of Modern Architecture’ is less troubled by ideology. Here one finds Asplund’s Woodland Cemetery sharing a spread with the Mussolini-sponsored Palace of Italian Civilisation. It seems that nothing architectural gets left out; the book has an unprecedented wide-angle view, taking in everything from Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia to OMA’s CCTV in Beijing.
Two from 1968: São Paulo Museum of Art, Brazil, by Lina Bo Bardi (ph: Getty Images/Rob Crandall), Habitat 67 housing, Montreal, Canada, by Moshe Safdie (ph: Alamy/Eric Brown)
There is a general schema of appending ‘Influences’ at the end of the chosen topics and one could quibble at numerous points, for instance is the Karl-Marx-Hof in Vienna the major influence on Dutch Modernism, and is Hugo Häring’s cowshed Expressionism or Functionalism, or are they sometimes the same? But that would be niggardly. This compendium is composed with a generosity and enthusiasm, matched throughout with succinct commentary. It is particularly good on architectonic analyses as well as recording conversations and fancies current in the leading schools at different times. The description for instance of how structure and style inter-relate in the design of Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI in Rome is masterly. Equally well-wrought expositions appear throughout the book. Davies writes plainly and with depth, and with a lucid brevity. He says that he wants the book to be ‘useful’, and it will surely prove to be that.
Two from 1995: Faculty of Architecture, University of Porto, Portugal, by Álvaro Siza (ph: Colin Davies), Kansai International Airport, Osaka, Japan, by Renzo Piano (ph: Alamy/Yooniq Images)
This is a post-rectangular history of a subject that can no longer be defined by social purpose. Seemingly without prejudice, Colin Davies corrals in an extraordinary range of buildings and ideas, applying an unrelenting intelligence to every part. The book is sure to soon be at the elbow of history and theory teachers in every school of architecture. It is an extraordinary achievement.