The Militant Modernism 14.08.09

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It's good to see modernism wrestled out of the jaws of the middle classes and the heritage industry, says William Wiles.

Did modernism win? The Lubetkins and Lasduns are all listed. The Trellick tower is now a filing cabinet for wealthy hipsters. The V&A Museum's landmark 2006 exhibition Modernism was a blockbuster. At the time of writing, the Barbican's Le Corbusier show is heaving with reverent punters. Ikea and Habitat are the pillars of metropolitan good taste. Sure, it's not for everybody, but it's now part of our heritage, isn't it?

This is no victory, says Owen Hatherley in Militant Modernism. We are in the grip of Ikea modernism, he argues, which has as much to do with the muscular movement that advanced through Britain after the Second World War as New Labour has to do with Clement Attlee. Modernism, the preserve of the middle classes, is now considered "too good" or too difficult for the disordered masses. It has been supplanted by "sandal-wearing continental modernism, freeze-dried and smug", just another flavour in the aesthetic ice cream parlour of consumer choice, its artefacts annexed by the heritage industry.

In this sparky, polemical and ferociously learned book, Hatherley - an icon contributor, who can be read on page 117 - makes his case for a modernist reformation by eulogising some of its less-appreciated past glories. Modernism, far from being just another chapter in the history of architecture or the interior decorator's sourcebook, is nothing if it is not a comprehensive, utopian social programme. As such, it is a potentially useful "index of ideas" for progressives. As you might have guessed, Hatherley is writing from a position firmly on the left - he suggests that modernism provides a blueprint for a radical left-wing alternative to the existing world, a positive proposal for a political persuasion at the moment fixated on protest and rejection.

Militant Modernism breaks into four sections, each tackling a maligned aspect of modernism head-on: brutalism, totalitarianism, sexual politics and alienation. Hatherley is at his best in the architectural tours of the first two of these chapters, which look at Britain's experiments with brutalism and the Soviet Union's flirtation with the architectural avant-garde before the Stalinist freeze. Paying tribute is one thing, but the really valuable elements of Militant Modernism come when Hatherley casts forward and identifies the contemporary parallels of the past phenomena he explores. The spirit of brutalism, for instance, is said to live on in grime and jungle music, and the democratic, revolutionary potential of electronic tools such as Myspace is examined in a bracingly realistic manner.

This is a short book, and it falters a little towards the end, in the chapter on alienation - not a wobble in erudition or argument but a slight loss of voice as the discussion moves away from architecture and into film. It will also be of limited interest to those who are not sympathetic towards the ideology of the author. That caveat aside, there is broad appeal to any effort to free British modernism from the stifling grasp of nostalgia and surround it with some emotions that are a little more robust than feeble longing for the achievements of the 1945 Labour government.

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William Wiles

quotes story

Modernism, far from being just another chapter in the history of architecture or the interior decorator's sourcebook, is nothing if it is not a comprehensive, utopian social programme


Militant Modernism, by Owen Hatherley, Zero Books, £9.99

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