Professor of Architectural History at Birkbeck (University of London), where he also directs Architecture Space and Society Centre, Mark Crinson believes that it is necessary to talk about the modernist architecture and that it is much more than just historical heritage. In the following interview, the presenter of the upcoming first international conference ‘Modernism for the Future’ in Kaunas dedicated to architectural heritage, shares his thoughts on the complex nature of modernist architecture and on the ability of built environment to shape our everyday lives.
You are the author of several books that examine the interactions between modernist architecture and its changing social and cultural contexts. How, in your opinion, modernist architecture is seen in nowadays light? Is it widely recognised?
In answering this, so much depends on what we mean by ‘modernist architecture’, then on the particular buildings being considered, and then on where we are located. We have the modernism of the avant-gardes of the 1920s – a continental European phenomenon; the modernism that increasingly sought the patronage of governments in the 1930s and later; the heretic modernists of the 1950s, who criticised what had become a successful, official modernism. Broadly, that narrative of different waves of modernism is true of certain parts of western Europe; but of course, it’s not true of eastern Europe, of Latin America, of India and elsewhere. Today, it seems to me that a certain kind of modernism – the middle-class house of the 1920s-50s – is widely recognised as embodying a desirable lifestyle (a new kind of luxury which was more about light and air, new forms of planning, and new technologies), and this is reflected in market values. And then there are buildings by high profile architects who are firmly in the architectural canon. But there is a lot of modernism – perhaps most particularly social housing – which isn’t valued, which isn’t easily protected, which is understood by some as representative of a certain politics which some see as outmoded (and again, the cultural specificity of this has to be underlined). Your question, you see, is not easy to answer…
Having wrote several books on modernist architecture, and directing the Architecture and Society Centre based in Birkbeck’s School of Arts, which focuses on research activities in the area of architectural, design, and landscape history, etc., why, do you think, it’s important to talk about modernist architecture today and from what kind of perspectives?
The simple answer is to say, look this is just part of our modern history – the attempt to make an architecture which hadn’t been seen before because it tried both to express and to respond to the new experiences and conditions of modernity. And it is not just part of our history; it is part of our continuing attempt to come to terms with the changing world. To me almost every kind of story told about modernism is problematic. And so, we must continue to foster research and discussion into modernism – and I hope my centre does this (though that’s not all it does) – both because it’s essential to how we understand our cities and because it’s essential if history and criticism are going to engage with those who design our environments. So, in adopting any perspective we must be self-critical and use other perspectives to relativize our own – not, I hasten to add, so that we are happily pluralistic and anything is given value if it is enshrined in subjectivity (a surprisingly common view in western academia), but instead so that we can build dialogue into our methods. If it might seem that I’ve dodged your question, let me give you an example. Over the last year, my centre put on a series of events (talks, symposia, panel discussions) concerning how we understand the social in architecture, and complementarily how architecture creates notions of sociality and society. The events ranged from topics about the role of architectural historians in the Congo and Mozambique, to presentations about the idea of adventure playgrounds or about the Berlin Mietkaserne or about American suburban housing and the subprime mortgage crisis, and talks about housing and the migration crisis, the ‘re-discovery’ of the street in public housing estates just before the onset of neo-liberalism, to walks around Lubetkin’s public housing estates. For me personally, much of this helped me to think around a problem which is both historical and contemporary – the demolition of the Robin Hood Housing estate in east London, designed by the architects Alison and Peter Smithson. So, for me the climax of this whole series was a panel we ran on why conservationists had not been able to protect the estate, and on the very strange decision of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London to conserve a fragment (two flats) hacked out of the building during the demolition process. The problem here is that we are still trying to understand the success and/or failure of the Smithsons’ work at the same time as public housing in Britain is being substantially decimated by a political regime intent on entirely rolling back the welfare state.
The modernist architecture has long been associated with progress and modernity, but now it has rather taken up the role of historical heritage. What, in your opinion, should be done in order to rethink the architectural modernism legacy in contemporary world? And who supposed to do it?
As you can see from my previous answer, I do not believe that modernism can simply be assigned the role of ‘historical heritage’. It is a continuing part of our experience of modernity and a continuing part of the way we engage in the politics of our cities. I am not an uncritical fan of modernist architecture – I am a child of the 60s and 70s, when in Britain there was a huge backlash against many of the building types that modernism was associated with, and as such I cannot but help remember that modernism did produce some catastrophic environments. To blandly associate modernism always with ‘progress’ is not going to help sort out its problems. As to who is ‘supposed’ to rethink its legacy, that’s simple – all of us.
In what ways do you think built environment can shape our everyday lives?
I take this very literally. Every time I walk down a street, or enter a building, or feel hot in a room, or can sleep undisturbed, or look out the window onto something that gives me pleasure, then my everyday life is shaped by the built environment. And so, whether or not we are continually or even consciously aware of it, the built environment matters.
One of the aspects that you treat in your books, and supposedly will talk about in the upcoming conference ‘Modernism for the Future’, is the internationality of this rather unique architectural style. Could you tell us how did different cultures managed to manifest through architecture? What mind-set was a driven force for this phenomenon? And what role does the internationalism of modernist architecture potentially plays in today’s globalised world?
The question of cultural expression through architecture is a very complex one. In modernism – a movement dominated by architects, we need to remember – there has periodically been a need to try to get out of the architect mindset (what some call ‘architectural culture’) and try to rediscover the way that culture is really the product of those who live it and do it – in other words, everyone. It is those moments in modernism that particularly interest me. This is linked to my work on internationalism. Really, this is many things – it is about linking architecture to ideas about global knowledge, about how architecture has been used by forms of world government, but it is also about the promotion of a demotic understanding of the world that gets out of the frame of national identity and the nation-state. All of these have heightened relevance in the context of our current forms of globalisation.
Under the slogan ‘Modernism for the future’ the first international conference is designed to not only enrich historical knowledge of the past, but also to share future visions for the modernist architectural legacy. What in your opinion we supposed to look up to in the future in terms of modernist architecture?
If we turn back on the past we risk forgetting the lessons of its mistakes and of its successes. I am very dubious of the idea of ‘future visions’ when we are dealing with our own and other people’s environments. To me, ‘future visions’ is the language of property investors and developers, of self-interested politicians and marketing experts. Whether modernism has a future is not something that I have any stake in – buildings will continue to be built. What matters is that society makes beautiful, responsible and inclusive environments.