The New Vision for The New Architecture: Czechoslovakia 1918-1938 by Jaroslav Andel
The new exhibition, Modernism: Designing a New World, at the Victoria & Albert Museum, which only opened on 6 April 2006, has already ruffled many feathers amongst cultural critics. It has provided a terrific opportunity for conservatives to damn modernist architecture – especially system-built housing - as the hand-maiden of totalitarianism in the 20th century. More liberal folk have emphasised the brighter, lighter, more transparent world which modernist design ushered in, a harbinger of the Habitat and IKEA lifestyles espoused by so many today. The pages of British architectural magazines and broadsheet journals have been filled with ‘For’ and ‘Against’ opinion forums, as if this were any proper way to ask the question as to what modernism in architecture and design had really achieved.
This wonderful book on the impact of modernist ideas in architecture in Czechoslovakia between the wars helps to ask the question in an entirely different form. It does it in two distinct ways. Firstly, it is not a book about architecture per se, but about how photographers perceived the impact of the new architecture as part of a new vision of the modern world, bursting with new forms of technology, power, and public democracy. Young photographers, heavily under the influence of the Russian Constructivists or artists such as Moholy-Nagy, found in the dizzying heights, volumes and spaces of modern buildings, a new way of representing space and human endeavour.
Many of the photographs are taken, characteristically, at an angle, looking upwards diagonally, creating an energy and dynamism to the image that they perceived inherent in the ‘poetry of construction’ itself. This was a world in which the planner, the civil engineer and the architect were the heroes of a new world order. Even the photographs of modern plumbing are highly aestheticised and symbolic: Freud would have relished them.
Most of the photographs are devoid of people, and are exercises in visual and architectonic style. An exception is the series of bird’s-eye view photographs of crowded open-air café terraces, evoking a new age of leisure and public sociability. Andel’s introductory essay on the relationship between photography and modernism is a model essay in every way, as are all of his brief introductions to each new section. There is still much to be written about the relationship between architecture and photography – a subject of continuing controversy – and this book makes a terrific starting point for such a debate.
The New Vision for The New Architecture is also highly relevant to current controversies about the political legacy of modernism in that it is divided into a number of sections, each dealing with a specific building type or genre, principally: exhibition sites, trade fairs, department stores, cinemas, airports, utilities buildings, offices, schools, sanatoria, spas, swimming pools, cafés, family houses, churches, crematoria. As a result, one can see at a glance that the question to be asked is not whether modernism was good or bad, but how it was entirely related to the development of a wholly new set of building types, brought into being by the growth of public welfarism and social democracy, which simply hadn’t existed before, and around which it achieved many lasting successes. Visit the Open-Air School in Amsterdam or The School on the Sound in Copenhagen, for example, both over seventy years old, and you will be struck immediately by how modern and enduringly delightful they remain.
Many of the Czechoslovakian buildings pictured in this book seem equally modern. The selection by building type reinforces this key point that modernism was ideally suited to the early days of the cult of hygiene and bodily improvement. Such architecture only came into its own on a bespoke basis; once it became a standardised formula, regardless of local conditions and circumstances, functionalism went badly astray. The nadir of modernism is by agreement the large tract housing estate built to provide an existenzminimum for the working classes, released from inner city slums. However, many of these outlying estates, cut off from the services and opportunities of the city, became social monocultures, which eventually turned in on themselves, becoming dangerously territorialised. As Andel points out, the concept of the genius loci was anathema to the new architecture, and once it began to ride roughshod over local histories, traditions, topographies and social cultures, it was doomed. He also rightly notes that early modernism was as much about individual lebensreform – diet, cleanliness, physical well-being, group activity – as it was about dirigiste Marxist notions of mass social change.
This is a beautiful book, filled with beautiful images. But it is also a thoughtful book, intelligently structured and rigorously edited. It opens new windows on the rather sterile debate about modernism that in Western Europe is fixated on the catastrophic failure of standardised mass housing, and ignores the many success stories in the creation of a whole new range of buildings that we now take for granted. In the 1930s Czechoslovakia was in the forefront of new thinking about architecture, design and the application of new technology, and this book is a wonderful evocation of that period and its many social and cultural achievements.