Why Modernism Has Never Stopped Being Cool
Mr Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois, USA, 1951. Photograph by Mr Alan Weintraub/Arcaid, courtesy of Phaidon
A new book from The Modern House team celebrates contemporary architecture from the 1920s onwards.
When the prominent and provocative Viennese architect Mr Adolf Loos first presented his seminal essay “Ornament And Crime” in 1908, he was railing against the “immorality” of unnecessary ornamentation, which he believed led to stylistic obsolescence and hindered cultural progress. Mr Loos’s ideas laid the foundations for the modernist movement and influenced or legitimised the working methods of subsequent generations of architects.
The legacy and continued influence of modernism on residential architecture is examined in a new book compiled by Messrs Matt Gibberd and Albert Hill, the cofounders of design-led real estate agency The Modern House. Borrowing its title from Mr Loos’s essay, Ornament Is Crime is published by Phaidon and provides a photographic compendium of some key works from the 1920s to the present day. Classics such as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and Mr Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House are presented alongside contemporary properties by the likes of Snøhetta, Sir David Adjaye and Mr John Pawson to demonstrate how the tenets of modernism remain relevant today.
“The point of the book is to demonstrate the sheer diversity of modernism, but also its main characteristics, which have remained largely consistent,” explains Mr Gibberd. “We placed houses from different eras alongside each other to show how architects have continued to translate the principles of modernism in a remarkably similar way.”
Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, Poissy, France, 1929. Photograph by Fondation Le Corbusier, courtesy of Phaidon
The tell-tale modernist attributes Mr Gibberd refers to include flat roofs, bands of horizontal windows, geometric forms and surfaces finished in crisp render – usually painted white. These features have become commonplace in contemporary building projects, but in the wrong hands can lack the finesse and conceptual rigour of the homes included in the book. “True modernism is about embracing the landscape, living with natural light and maximising internal space, which are fundamentally enduring qualities,” Mr Gibberd points out. “What’s amazing is that if you asked someone to sketch out their ideal modern home, it would probably still look like Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House.”
For Messrs Gibberd and Hill, the book is something of a passion project – a condensed visual manifesto of the principles that guide their business, including several properties previously sold by The Modern House. The company markets homes that represent an aspirational and elite interpretation of modernism, which has proven a successful formula and will likely attract a similar audience of aesthetes to this publication.
The use of large-scale black-and-white images is intended to emphasise the silhouettes and composition of the various structures, rather than their surface detailing or context. It also serves to glamourise the buildings, which are grouped to accentuate commonalities across different time periods. Quotations from the great modernist architects are interspersed with lyrics from indie bands such as Arcade Fire and Local Natives, which help to emphasise the idea that, though many of these buildings are in fact relics of the past, they still somehow feel enticing and current. Ultimately, Ornament Is Crime serves its purpose as a coffee-table book for fans of modern architecture looking for a survey of projects that exemplify the elite execution of this seemingly evergreen architectural ideology. “Some styles can been seen in retrospect as little more than stylistic cul-de-sacs,” Mr Hill concludes, “but modernism will always be viewed as a critical part of architecture’s history.”