Monday, May 19, 2008

History Today

This picture is taken from The Ladybird Story of Houses and Homes. It was a book I had as a child. Despite being a children’s book though it is a document of impressive ideological purity.

The picture above is accompanied by some forceful modernist rhetoric. “New materials have made possible a new kind of building”, it states. It goes on in suitably robust form, like a junior version of Towards A New Architecture: “As the steelwork carries all the weight all rooms, windows and doors can be placed in the best positions for convenience, sunlight and fresh air”. The picture itself is charming, heroic and reassuring in the same measure. A pipe smoking chap and his wife stroll the verdant parkland created between the modernist point blocks whilst new towers march onwards towards the future.

The final image in the book is of a ‘modern country house’. It is accompanied by some more heartfelt polemic; “Architects are constantly trying to design with modern materials and building methods, houses as perfect, in the modern way as the houses of the great periods of British Architecture”. The house depicted has been designed in a sort of 1960's 'secondary school moderne'.

Running up to this flag waiving finale is a brief history of housing through the ages starting with some amusing looking cavemen. The story only really comes alive though with the Victorians who, as was the case during the period when the book was published (1963), really get it in the neck. “We have seen”, it says; “how the Industrial Revolution made some people very rich so that they could build themselves lavish, but usually ugly houses”.

Describing the interior of a ‘typical’ Victorian house the writers add; “ The room is crowded with chairs, little tables, cabinets and shelves. All available space is filled with artificial flowers, stuffed birds and useless things of all kinds” (My italics). Compared with the overbearing father and his consumptive child depicted here, the healthy looking couple engaged in outdoor pursuits of the modern country house illustrate the restorative powers of modern architecture.

None of the other houses, from the funny looking caveman's cave to the semi-detached 'homes for heroes' are treated with quite the same scorn. Which makes this book an interesting document of its time, a period when the certainties of architecture permeated down to children's history books.


owen hatherley said...

Isn't it a sign that by the 60s Modernism had - briefly - made itself common sense, in the Gramscian hegemonic manner...and see also.

Anne said...

That's funny. I was about to post a Ladybird picture in a "sign of the times" sort of way too. Totally different subject, mind. Lovely looking book. Must look out for it.

Charles Holland said...

Comments! Finally, the drought is over. The crops won't fail!

Owen, you'll have to enlarge on that I'm afraid. At least the Gramscian bit.....

Anne, yes, they're sweet illustrations. I recently found a great stack of Ladybird books in a second hand shop including a great one on folk art. I look forward to your post. And thanks for at least thinking about the meme. If you link back to Sit Down Man then it might become clearer as I didn't describe it too well.

owen hatherley said...

Apologies for smartarseitude - the Gramsci ref was to his ideas about how the political right is so often able to make its ideas into common sense, into unarguable, immutable facts, hence giving itself hegemony, regardless of whether it is actually in power or not (cf: almost all Labour governments, ever); and that the left has to have a counter-project to make its own ideas dominant (which it obv has done, on stuff like gay rights, equal pay etc if not on economics).

Post-war, I would wager that Modernism made itself the default, common sense idea, for a time, partly out of widespread disgust with the 30s (and its architecture) - as you can tell from the design of totally demotic stuff like record sleeves and greasy spoon caffs, Modernism was the dominant aesthetic, even if you didn't regard what you did as 'aesthetic'. That didn't outlast Ronan Point and its ilk, but in architecture, from abt 45-75 it would have been eccentric not to be a Modernist, in the same way it seems eccentric now to be an unreconstructed Marxist and believer in the strictures of the Neues Bauen. (history will absolve me!)

Charles Holland said...

Ah yes, I see what you mean. Funny I was thinking of writing an "Against Common Sense" post inspired by that don't say pretentious thing you and others posted up. Politically as you say, it works to shore up reactionary positions. It is the trick of conservatives to brand their beliefs as 'common sense' whilst branding others as 'ideoligical'. For instance in the way that positive discrimination will always be seen as social engineering and that plain old fashioned discrimination won't. Similarly with education attempts to change or alter the curriculum to reflect current mores is seen as PC meddling, which assumes that the curriculum we have exists in some unquestionable state of being simply 'right'. The 'proper' teaching of history for example is usually referred to as a return to common sense, as if that is somehow free of ideology. This is the default setting of all conservative thinking. That things are fine as they are and they just happen to suit me very well too. Convenient.
I hadn't though thought of modernism occupying that ground in the '60's though, which is an interesting idea. Although I suppose in that sense it is simply what is the current orthodoxy, although some are less likely than others.