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AN IDEAL FOR LIVING


Novelist J.G. Ballard (Crash, Empire of the Sun) has penned one of his periodic pieces for The Guardian, a meditation on modernist architecture coinciding with a giant gallery exhbition at London’s V&A.

Here, excerpted, are his thoughts on the relationship between modernism and its ideals and the horrors of the 20th century:

Modernism’s attempt to build a better world with the aid of science and technology now seems almost heroic. Bertolt Brecht, no fan of modernism, remarked that the mud, blood and carnage of the first world war trenches left its survivors longing for a future that resembled a white-tiled bathroom. Architects were in the vanguard of the new movement, led by Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus design school. The old models were thrown out. Function defined form, expressed in a pure geometry that the eye could easily grasp in its entirety. Above all, there should be no ornamentation…

But the modernists maintained that ornamentation concealed rather than embellished. Classical columns, pediments and pilasters defined a hierarchical order. Power and authority were separated from the common street by huge flights of steps that we were forced to climb on our way to law courts, parliaments and town halls. Gothic ornament, with all its spikes and barbs, expressed pain, Christ’s crown of thorns and agony on the cross. The Gothic expressed our guilt, pointing to a heaven we could never reach. The Baroque was a defensive fantasy, architecture as aristocratic playpen, a set of conjuring tricks to ward off the Age of Reason.

So modernism was a breath of fresh air and possibility. Housing schemes, factories and office blocks designed by modernist architects were clear-headed and geometric, suggesting clean and unembellished lives for the people inside them. Gone were suburban pretension, mock-Tudor beams and columned porticos disguising modest front doors…

Modernism saw off the dictators, and among its last flings were Brasilia, the Festival of Britain and Corbusier’s state capital buildings at Chandigarh in India. But it was dying on its pilotis, those load-bearing pillars with which Corbusier lifted his buildings into the sky. Its slow death can be seen, not only in the Siegfried line and the Atlantic wall, but in the styling of Mercedes cars, at once paranoid and aggressive, like medieval German armour. We see its demise in 1960s kitchens and bathrooms, white-tiled laboratories that are above all clean and aseptic, as if human beings were some kind of disease…

I have always admired modernism and wish the whole of London could be rebuilt in the style of Michael Manser’s brilliant Heathrow Hilton. But I know that most people, myself included, find it difficult to be clear-eyed at all times and rise to the demands of a pure and unadorned geometry. Architecture supplies us with camouflage, and I regret that no one could fall in love inside the Heathrow Hilton. By contrast, people are forever falling in love inside the Louvre and the National Gallery.

All of us have our dreams to reassure us. Architecture is a stage set where we need to be at ease in order to perform. Fearing ourselves, we need our illusions to protect us, even if the protection takes the form of finials and cartouches, corinthian columns and acanthus leaves. Modernism lacked mystery and emotion, was a little too frank about the limits of human nature and never prepared us for our eventual end….

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