Utopia revisited

Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

Updated: Friday, March 23, 2007, 2:32 AM

Le Corbusier's drawing, "A Contemporary City for Three Million Inhabitants," 1922, at the Corcoran exhibition, captured in design how technology and planning could solve the problems of urban living.

Architectural movements, like the buildings they produce, come and go. First you love them. Then you hate them. And then, despite everything that nagging voice in your ear is saying, you start to find them interesting again.

Le Corbusier's drawing, "A Contemporary City for Three Million Inhabitants," 1922, at the Corcoran exhibition, captured in design how technology and planning could solve the problems of urban living.
Marcel Breuer's Club Chair, 1925, Modernist design in the Corcoran show, assembled by London's Victoria and Albert Museum.
"The Mechanic," by Fernand Léger, 1920, represents the machine aesthetic. National Gallery of Canada
Photo Gallery: Utopia revisited

A century ago, Modernism with a capital M was the movement that gripped the public imagination. It promised a machine-made utopia of freestanding high-rises surrounded by green parks and wide-open parkways, where drivers could tool speedily along.

But the towers soon became slums; the highways backed up, and Modernism became the house style for corporate America. The same folks who promised to free us from domestic drudgery instead applied their talents to designing cubicles for wage slaves. So much for utopia.

Now, Modernism is again having its moment, and the revisionists are out in force. There must be something in the water because two major exhibitions devoted to the movement and its disciples are being staged at opposite points on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington takes on the theory,

with a poignant

survey of Moder-

nist art, architec-

ture and design

between the

world wars,

while a three-

part New York

retrospective on

the career of

master builder

Robert Moses

shows the terri-

ble things that

can happen

when the best-

intentioned ideo-

logy is put into


Though accidental


these shows effectively book-end a movement that imagined a better world but ended up giving us bad things in beautiful new ways.

The encyclopedic Corcoran show, ambitiously titled "Modernism: Designing a New World," features rarely seen works by a parade of Modernist stars. Assembled by London's Victoria and Albert Museum, the opinionated survey strikes a new path for the fusty Washington institution, which is under new leadership.

By contrast, New York's three small, linked shows were conceived locally by a pair of historians who have been clearly itching to rebut The Power Broker, Robert A. Caro's genre-defining, Pulitzer Prize-winning, and none-too-flattering biography of Moses. The organizers don't do much overt editorializing in the galleries; that job is left to the catalog. It's enough for them to evoke comparisons between Moses' astounding resume of bridges, parks and housing projects, and the slothful pace of reconstruction in New Orleans and at ground zero, to convey a more positive view of his legacy. (See accompanying review.)

The revisionist New York shows, grouped under the single title, "Robert Moses and the Modern City," are likely to be chewed over for a long time. But the Corcoran is where Modernism's story begins.

For many people today, Modernism is merely a decorating style that can be easily achieved with a trip to Design Within Reach. The ideological life has been so squeezed out of Modernism that the term is often used interchangeably with the lowercase modern.

But for its founders, Modernism was a heroic cause. It offered a complete world view that was as much a break from the old order as other isms of the early 20th century. A stroll through the Corcoran's sprawling Second Empire building, now drenched in primary colors, should remind visitors that the ideas can't be separated from the objects.

The founding Modernists didn't just envision a new form of housing that would be healthier and more functional than the stuffy rooms of the Victorians; they also cooked up the furnishings, kitchen utensils, clothing, art, entertainment, and sporting equipment for those who would occupy the utopian residences.

Although it's possible to date the origins of Modernism to the prewar Cubist experiments of Picasso and Braque, the Corcoran takes 1914 as the movement's official starting point. Modernist ideology coalesced in its fullest form as a response to the horrific imperial grudge match of World War I, which left European civilization broken and disillusioned. When the smoke from the howitzers cleared, Modernist theorists like Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius were determined to rebuild Europe without the ornamental trappings of the old regimes - indeed, without any history at all.

Early in the show, the curators sum up their feelings with a famous quotation from Gropius, who founded the influential Bauhaus design school. "The old forms are in ruins," he wrote. "The benumbed world is shaken up, the old human spirit is invalidated and in flux towards a new form."

Architects and artists weren't the only ones trying to find new forms after the war. The Soviets tried to reinvent the world with a new political system, with its own awful consequences. The Corcoran installation, cleverly designed by Catherine Armour, makes the connection between the two utopian isms in the introductory gallery, where a replica of Vladimir Tatlin's spiraling Monument to the Third International holds center court, orbited by such icons of Modernist design as Alvar Aalto's amoeba-shaped Savoy vase and Marcel Breuer's leather club chair.

Fortunately, the rest of the show is less heavy-handed. It's also more than Modernism's greatest hits. There are 450 objects in this vast - possibly too vast - exhibit, including sketches torn directly from Corbusier's notebook, several of his paintings, a streamlined Czech-designed Tatra coupe from 1937, and an odd assortment of bathroom appliances created to satisfy the Modernists' enthusiasm for hygiene.

Several famous Modernist rooms have been re-created for the Corcoran. You can poke your head into the sickly green Frankfurt kitchen that was meant to be an experiment in domestic efficiency and put your feet up in the Salon d'Automme, based on the model living room designed by Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand. The re-creation wouldn't have been possible without today's Modernist knockoffs.

Like Modernism itself, the Corcoran show is at its best early on. The first years were a time of fantastic creative ferment, rivaling the early Renaissance, when painters, architects and product designers rapidly traded ideas.

Corbusier, the movement's most articulate spokesman, supplied a manifesto in his 1923 book, Towards a New Architecture. He was besotted with the new technology of the day: cars and planes. In a few short years, the inventions upended the ancient rhythms of daily life. People moved faster and saw the landscape from new vantages. Instead of representing buildings as they might be seen by someone on the ground, Modernist architects and photographers began to depict them from on high.

The change in perspective would have a profound effect on how designers, and planners like Moses, thought about cities and the landscape. Their designs became remote assemblages of forms that would be reduced by artists like Mondrian into abstract color blocks.

Despite the new levels of destruction that machines permitted in World War I, Modernists continued to see technology as the world's salvation. Machines were a major influence on design, both in form and function. But the Corcoran show acknowledges that many artists quickly started to have doubts about the ability of technology to solve the world's problems.

Midway through the exhibition, it's clear that even Corbusier, who famously declared that a house was a "machine for living," was feeling uncomfortable with his early dogma. Stumbling upon a vitrine containing his collection of driftwood, shells and rocks offers a small epiphany. Suddenly, you can understand how the same designer who dreamed up Plan Voisin's superblock housing scheme later became the architect of the soulful Ronchamp chapel.

The show winds on through several more rooms before concluding with a single blurred photograph by Dmitri Baltermants from 1941 of greatcoated Polish soldiers leaping over trenches, bayonets in hand. It's clear that whatever hope the Modernists had of creating a better world would be buried with the dead of a new war.

Changing Skyline | If You Go

"Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939" runs through July 29 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. Information: 202-639-1700 or www.corcoran.org.

Changing Skyline |

Inga Saffron blogs about Philadelphia architecture at http://go.philly.com/


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

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