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Friday, 4 April 2014


Snapshots of modern architecture

“Architecture is the art of how to waste space.”
Philip Johnson

Looking at two books on architecture, I see one locates the beginning of modernism with the Eiffel Tower while the other reminds us that we can’t ask the question without looking back to the Renaissance. Considering that Renaissance architects had classical Rome in mind, and the Romans borrowed from Greece, this sounds like a polite way of telling us the question is irrelevant. However we like beginnings, and some of us need them, so I would put the Palais de la Jetée in Nice near the start. It was opened in 1883, close enough to the 20th century to be modish. Rather than making grand and tiresome claims on behalf of the state, it offered vicarious entertainment. Best of all, it had a brief life. It caught fire three days after it opened, was restored and reopened in 1891 then in World War 2 the German army stripped it for steel. We are becoming conditioned to the idea that grand monuments should never be around for too long, and if they will be, let them be ruins. Just as megalomaniacs build temples to themselves that quickly turn into shopping centres, the modern architect designs buildings expecting them to be torn down or transformed as soon as someone else has another idea. Still, it takes a cold heart not to regret the passing of the Palais de la Jetée. We know that were it around today, American corporations would have plastered their logos across it or some Russian oil baron would have turned it into his exclusive domain. 

The tower once stood in Trafford Park, Manchester. Its correct name is, or was, the Metropolitan Vickers Water Tower. Built in 1902, dismantled in 1940 on account of German bombers, it carried Radio Transmitter 2ZY on its crown and would be the second BBC radio tower in the country. Industry, technology, modern design, Sigmund Freud: it perfectly represents everything the word modernism meant in the first part of last century. The horse adds a post-modern element of contextual opposition. The man is a Turkish tourist; perhaps the photographer was as well. 

Speaking of contextual opposition, a hallmark of modernism was its rejection of neo-classical iconography while embracing its grandeur. Forget Doric columns, porticos and domes, but don’t ignore the monumental scale evoking the expansive breadth of our culture and civilization. When the Grand Masonic Lodge in London called on Henry Ashley and Winton Newman to build a new temple in 1927, they also wanted a memorial to the masons who had died in World War 1. The architects came up with a building now considered one of the outstanding examples of Art Deco design in the world. The columns and the architraves recall neo-classicism but for its time the building was distinctly modern. I have difficulty understanding how far the tentacles of the Masonic conspiracy have reached into our society. Either they are in league with a group of Jewish bankers and pretty much run the world economy, or they are profoundly anti-Semitic. One thing readily identifiable about masons is their architecture. They love the hidden codes found in symmetry and the hints at arcane science and mysticism. Don’t we all.

New Yorkers like to think they own the triumph of modernist architecture, and for once it is hard to be completely unsympathetic towards them. Impressive as it is from the outside, the really exceptional details in the Empire State Building are the plaques in the lobby identifying by name every labourer who worked on it. There is something in that which shows supreme self-confidence; not so much in the idea of the building being the work of a community, but in the attitude that there will one day be taller buildings than this one but they will never surpass the achievement. 

Here we have the Aldred Building in Montreal; completed the same year as the Empire State Building and, clearly, something of a little brother in the looks department. Like the Empire State Building, it stands out on the skyline but the real beauty lies in close-up, the friezes on the exterior and the design work indoors. Let New York have its Empire State Building; every self-respecting city needs an Aldred. Australian cities like Perth used to have quite a few. Now they don’t, they’re about as interesting as the crust on a three day old cup of coffee. 

Speaking of death, which I think we were in passing; architects have designed tombs. There are monuments in Père Lachaise in Paris that are considered the best work of particular architects. Most of these are massive; the size of small mansions, but a few are outstanding for achieving a lot with a minimum of expression. There is a history of modernism in the cemetery, which I am only vaguely familiar with, but as I recall, following World War 1 there was widespread rejection of anything ornate or elaborate in monuments. In some cases, the architects behind the remembrance fields in France consciously rejected typically pseudo-classical designs because these were associated with the state. The people, those who had paid for the state’s errors with their lives, deserved something more dignified. That idea percolated down to civilian monuments in cemeteries. Where once the size and detail in a stone angel said something about the deceased’s wealth or status, now their families were inclined to go for something simple that said a lot more. Note the American flag to the left. I assume this means this is a military memorial. Notice too how you don’t need much at all to give the site proper solemnity.

We are moving towards what is normally classified as late-modernism, but along the way, let’s stop by this charming house by a Canadian lake. Difficult to be absolutely certain here but there is a suspicion this is an example of a phenomenon that took off in post World War 2 North America and spread worldwide faster than any healthy notion should. The concept of pre-fab homes goes back much earlier; there are advertisements for them from the 1849 Californian gold rush, but we associate them with the great suburban land grab of the 1950s. Why think this is a pre-fab? Well, it’s too neat, too small and the asymmetry of the entrance emphasizes the symmetry of the rest. The too small and innocuous verandah above the garage adds to the effect of something built with mass production in mind. The giveaways are the too narrow eaves and the fake shutters. The reasons for investing in a pre-fab are obvious; they were cheap. The desire to design them is harder to understand. One began with a basic premise – two bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom, dining room etc – then worked down from there. It became an exercise in trimming the details so that the homeowner scarcely noticed the difference in space. Designing pre-fab homes was a job for the fundamentally cynical and anti-social.

Here we arrive at something easier to identify. Streamline Moderne was one of those hiccups in taste that did not feel so obnoxious after the first convulsion. One thing to love about it was that it drew its basic influence from ships. The authentic streamline moderne building was supposed to remind observers of ships cutting through the high seas. Really, though a few houses were built in the style, it belonged to just three types of buildings; motels, apartments and factories - perhaps because it was the best design for hiding the drab sordidness of what went on inside.

Here we can see the basic outline of the ship a little better, though this is an example of what we might call streamline moderne light. Real S M would have more features and flaunt its style like a peroxide blonde. Note the broken windows on the first floor, and this apartment was still relatively new when the photo was taken. One measure of how badly Australia’s building heritage has been handled by state governments is that in Perth and Brisbane there would be a fight to preserve this building. That’s sad and embarrassing. This was bought in England. The broken windows have an English look to them, though they tend to turn up more often on housing estates.

I’m not sure if this is south-western U.S desert or Canadian prairie, and I’m cannot say what exactly the building’s purpose is, apart from something industrial or wholesale, but I do know that it belongs out here. Once modernism got over its thing about height and thought about breadth instead, the number of regions it fitted in with suddenly expanded as well.

Interestingly, the cars belong to the era of high S M, as do the portholes over the portico, but the building itself doesn’t really qualify. It’s a motel of some description. My limited experience with American motels accords with what I’ve read in Learning from Las Vegas. All the energy in attracting customers was directed to the street front. Once past the neon you were in a place that could suddenly look old and ordinary.

Several of these photos came from the same box in a flea market, and I’m guessing were taken by the same person. Full credit to them for getting the New Topographics look while making it look so patronisingly easy. Here we have a school, presumably in Mexico or south west USA, judging by the sign on the roof. There’s something about the look of this place that encourages truancy. That something is called modern architecture.


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