Mon­u­men­tal mod­ernism

Bull­doz­ing the present and re­mak­ing the past in the af­ter­math of war

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - James Stevens Curl’s Mak­ing Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Sur­vival of Ar­chi­tec­tural Bar­barism was re­cently pub­lished by Ox­ford Univer­sity Press.

De­signs of De­struc­tion: The Mak­ing of Mon­u­ments in the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury By Lu­cia Al­lais

Univer­sity of Chicago Press 432pp, £34.00

ISBN 9780226286556 Pub­lished 16 Novem­ber 2018

The 20th cen­tury saw ur­ban de­struc­tion on a mas­sive scale, mostly through war­fare, but also be­cause of mod­ernism’s in­sis­tence that al­most ev­ery­thing cre­ated in the past was worth­less. Reyner Ban­ham (1922-88), for ex­am­ple, in 1965, would have noth­ing to do with the preser­va­tion of any build­ing what­so­ever. Wal­ter Gropius (1883-1969) sup­ported the de­mo­li­tion of one of the finest ar­chi­tec­tural works in the US, Penn­syl­va­nia Sta­tion in New York (1902-11). It was only through gov­ern­men­tal pro­cras­ti­na­tion (not un­con­nected with costs) that Lon­don’s White­hall was not wrecked in 1965-70. This would have in­volved the de­mo­li­tion of al­most ev­ery build­ing south of Down­ing Street and Rich­mond Ter­race, ex­cept for the orig­i­nal block of New Scot­land Yard and Cen­tral Hall. The Palace of West­min­ster was per­mit­ted to sur­vive, as was West­min­ster Abbey, which could eas­ily have ended up ma­rooned on a vast traf­fic is­land.

Spec­i­mens of ven­er­a­ble ar­chi­tec­ture of qual­ity, in the 20th cen­tury termed “cul­tural mon­u­ments”, have al­ways been sig­nif­i­cant for many rea­sons. Think of the Nor­man de­struc­tion of the great build­ings of An­glo-Saxon Eng­land, such as the Royal (or Old) Min­ster in Winch­ester, flattened and re­placed by the Ro­manesque cathe­dral, or the havoc wreaked on the sites of an­tiq­uity, such as Palmyra, by Is­lamic State. Such oblit­er­a­tions are, and aways have been, de­lib­er­ate, to erase the mem­ory of a civil­i­sa­tion that ex­isted be­fore the con­querors took over. The pul­veri­sa­tion of Ieper/Ypres dur­ing the 1914-18 war led to the de­ter­mi­na­tion of the King of the Bel­gians to have the great Cloth Hall and other struc­tures re­built once peace came, and the Poles res­ur­rected the Old Town of War­saw which had been de­lib­er­ately de­stroyed by the Ger­mans in 1944. And in Ger­many too, ru­ined Nurem­berg and other towns have had their his­toric cen­tres recre­ated. Why? Be­cause old build­ings rep­re­sent con­ti­nu­ity, na­tional mem­ory, his­tory and times when towns were agree­able places. Sadly that per­spec­tive has been miss­ing from poli­cies con­cern­ing the ur­ban fab­ric in the Bri­tish Isles, where wide­spread de­struc­tion oc­curred after 1945 with­out the help of the Luft­waffe.

Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, it be­gan to be re­alised that it would be nec­es­sary to make in­ven­to­ries of build­ings at risk from ae­rial bomb­ing or ground at­tack in or­der to at­tempt to en­sure their sur­vival, and to this end lists and maps were pre­pared, iden­ti­fy­ing what was re­garded as worth pre­serv­ing. Such an ex­er­cise omit­ted the fact that of­ten grander mon­u­ments needed the hum­bler his­tor­i­cal fab­ric with which they were sur­rounded, in or­der to give them ap­pro­pri­ate set­tings and even mean­ings, so after saturation-bomb­ing of con­ti­nen­tal towns the maps be­gan to re­sem­ble the tab­ula rasa de­manded by mod­ernists. The Amer­i­can ar­chi­tec­tural his­to­rian and ar­chae­ol­o­gist Wil­liam Bell Dins­moor (1886-1973) very much feared that, “un­wit­tingly”, he and his col­leagues at the Amer­i­can Com­mis­sion for the Pro­tec­tion and Sal­vage of Artis­tic and His­toric Mon­u­ments in War Ar­eas had “been en­gaged in a city plan­ning pro­gram”, for some of the most se­verely dam­aged towns be­gan to re­sem­ble the maps that the com­mis­sion had pre­pared, “with only the marked pro­tected mon­u­ments” left stand­ing.

This is hardly sur­pris­ing, as some of the ad­vis­ers re­spon­si­ble for draw­ing up the lists and maps

Ini­tial pro­tec­tive in­ten­tions of­ten as­sisted enor­mous agen­cies of de­struc­tion, from the bombs and shells of the mil­i­tary to the bull­doz­ers sent in by bu­reau­crats who ac­cepted mod­ernist the­o­ries and aims

held nar­row views about the value of what might be pre­served – and, in any case, of­ten mil­i­tary ob­jec­tives over­rode con­sid­er­a­tions of try­ing to save any man-made fab­ric. Lu­cia Al­lais points out in no un­cer­tain terms that mon­u­ments were re­cast as much to jus­tify the oblit­er­a­tion of the old 19th-cen­tury and ear­lier build­ings around them as to man­u­fac­ture sup­port for the post-war the­o­ries of ur­ban de­sign based on sup­posed uni­ver­sal mod­ernist val­ues. She there­fore very clev­erly brings to­gether the his­to­ries of mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture and of mon­u­ment preser­va­tion, hith­erto some­what dis­con­nected. She also states that we “should not di­min­ish the im­por­tance of [the] turn of phrase, ‘un­wit­tingly en­gaged in city plan­ning’, or its ev­i­dent ref­er­ence to mod­ern ur­ban­ism with its his­tory” of de­struc­tion.

This book de­scribes how diplo­mats, art his­to­ri­ans, ar­chi­tects, ar­chae­ol­o­gists, in­tel­lec­tu­als, lawyers and bu­reau­crats cre­ated mech­a­nisms to make poli­cies for the sur­vival of des­ig­nated “cul­tural mon­u­ments” in an age of de­struc­tive sce­nar­ios. Con­flict, it makes clear, played a huge part in the re­shap­ing of the ur­ban fab­ric when ar­chi­tec­ture and pol­i­tics, in­ter­na­tion­al­ism, bu­reau­cra­cies and ab­strac­tions based on mis­guided the­o­ries and false tele­olo­gies com­bined in a pow­er­ful brew and led to a new or­tho­doxy. Al­lais ar­gues per­sua­sively that ini­tial pro­tec­tive in­ten­tions of­ten as­sisted enor­mous agen­cies of de­struc­tion, from the bombs and shells of the mil­i­tary to the bull­doz­ers sent in by bu­reau­crats who ac­cepted mod­ernist the­o­ries and aims, in­te­grat­ing them into gover­nance. As an ac­count of an as­pect of cul­tural diplo­macy, a re­veal­ing chap­ter in the his­tory of the bat­tered built en­vi­ron­ment, it suc­ceeds bril­liantly, but it is also a re­veal­ing med­i­ta­tion on causal­ity and re­sult­ing de­signs dur­ing a pe­riod of im­mense change.

Lewis Mum­ford (1895-1990), writ­ing in the 1930s, pro­claimed the death of “ob­so­lete” mon­u­ments, stat­ing that the very idea of a mod­ern mon­u­ment was a “con­tra­dic­tion in terms”. One of the dif­fi­cul­ties, of course, has been that, in us­ing a very pover­tys­tricken and in­co­her­ent lan­guage, stripped of all sym­bol­ism and or­na­ment, the cre­ation of a mon­u­ment with mean­ing be­comes very dif­fi­cult, if not im­pos­si­ble. What is now called “her­itage”, how­ever, is sought after by mil­lions, be­cause it is sup­posed to mean some­thing. And that, in turn, brings over-use, and there­fore a dif­fer­ent kind of de­struc­tion, less im­me­di­ate and ob­vi­ous than that in war­fare, but nev­er­the­less very dam­ag­ing.

It is sig­nif­i­cant, and per­haps sur­pris­ing, that three mod­ernists – the Swiss Sigfried Giedion (1888-1968), the French­man Fer­nand Léger (1881-1955) and the Amer­i­can (of Cata­lan birth) Josep Lluís Sert i López (1902-83) – ar­gued for the cre­ation of a “new mon­u­men­tal­ity”, with the “av­er­age man” both client and con­sumer of the new mod­ernism, in which the mon­u­ment would be­come mod­ern again if it were “re-func­tion­al­ized” and ac­cepted as part of a global aes­thetic, some­thing that did not in the end hap­pen. The yawn­ing chasm be­tween the two branches of sup­posed “func­tion­al­ism”, the ar­chi­tec­tural and the po­lit­i­cal, proved too im­mense to bridge, be­cause ar­chi­tec­tural mod­ernism, be­ing a com­plete break with the past, had no con­nec­tion at all with his­tor­i­cal par­a­digms.

Rarely does one come across a book as novel as this one. It cov­ers im­mense tracts of ground, in­clud­ing the “re­stor­ers” who “re­stored” an­cient build­ings to within an inch of their lives (for ex­am­ple, the Greek Ni­co­laos Balanos [1869-1943], who not only patched up bits of the Parthenon with ce­ment, but used iron to join old and new work that rusted and ex­panded, thus in­flict­ing huge dam­age to sur­viv­ing fab­ric); fan­ta­sists in search of a “new mon­u­men­tal­ity” that was noth­ing of the sort; wellmean­ing peo­ple who iden­ti­fied pa­thet­i­cally few “cul­tural mon­u­ments” not to be hit with bombs (but, given the in­ac­cu­racy of bomb­ing raids gen­er­ally, these were usu­ally dam­aged, some­times very badly); and the un­for­tu­nate con­nec­tions be­tween the bar­bar­i­ties of car­pet-bomb­ing and mod­ernist town plan­ning.

Any­one fas­ci­nated by col­lec­tive mem­ory, post-1945 ar­chi­tec­ture and plan­ning, and cul­tural arte­facts should read Al­lais’ work (al­though Leo von Klenze was not “Van”).

Mon­u­ments men dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, build­ing in­ven­to­ries were made as a way to pro­tect cul­tural prop­erty in war ar­eas

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.