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TONY TRAVERS - LOOK TO THE PAST TO GAIN CLUES ABOUT REGENERATION

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Modernism is in the news. The Victoria & Albert museum has opened a major new exhibition of the - choose your own a...
Modernism is in the news. The Victoria & Albert museum has opened a major new exhibition of the - choose your own adjective - cool, brutal, iconoclastic, destructive style that has had so much influence over design and architecture since the 1930s. Modernist art and design evolved as a reaction to the 1914-18 war, believing a rational, new start was possible and desirable. Architecture turned towards clean lines,

a lack of ornamentation and use of glass and concrete.

By the 1950s and early 1960s, modernism had evolved into an aggressive brutalism. Idealistic politicians, planners and architects combined this style with technologically-advanced system building that allowed rapid redevelopment of towns and cities. Local government was a major patron of modernism and still owns great chunks of it, though little is now much loved. Except, that is, by an important body of designers and critics who feel that idealist architects such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe have been blamed for failures that were not their fault.

Park Hill in Sheffield, once described as a 'perfect paradigm of Brutalism' was commissioned by the city council. The Byker development in Newcastle and Thamesmead in south-east London are other examples of social housing modernism in full flight. The Hulme area of Manchester is another area much loved by critics of 'concrete slab' modernism. Cumbernauld centre stands at the zenith of Brutalist new towns.

On the other hand, modernism has heavily influenced much of today's design. The best contemporary architecture owes a debt to modernists, as do household objects from toasters to lemon-squeezers. There would be no Bilbao Guggenheim and no Habitat shopping if there had been no modernist movement. Some Brutalist social housing, for example the Trellick Tower in west London, is popular.

By chance, BBC4 recently broadcast a programme about crook-architect John Poulson. Apart from the sad tale of politicians being bribed, the key message of this story concerned the way local and central government allowed themselves to be sucked into a crazy modernist utopianism. The wholesale replacement of parts of towns and cities with lumpy concrete architecture was seen as 'progress'. Such clearance schemes failed to reckon with the social and cultural changes that followed the 1960s.

Today's city regenerators should perhaps take note of the dangers of being too swayed by any particular form of renewal. Are buy-to-let downtown apartments with bolt-on affordable homes really the key solution to metropolitan revival? In theory, yes, but then again in theory, no.

Perhaps the best way of making a balanced judgment about modernism is to visit the V&A. Council members and officers should make it a priority. History is so often the best place to look for clues to the future.

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