Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Five things I learned from reading Militant Modernism by Owen Hatherley


1. Owen Hatherley is, above all, an architecture critic; his writings can be seen regularly in the Guardian. His bailiwick is looking at the British built environment from a left-wing point of view, although he recently wrote a book about Soviet architecture. His love of the Socialist/Modernist/Brutalist structures of the 1950s and 1960s in Britain and his hatred of 1980s-and-beyond "Blairite mall architecture" and low-cost individual housing in Britain is well-known and idiosyncratic to the point of distraction. Nowhere in his Guardian writings, his excellent if discursive A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (which I've also read) or any of his other online writings does he mount a convincing defense of why it is better for good Socialist human beings to live in 20-story apartment blocks and not tiny bungalows. He just seems to think Brutalist architecture looks really cool. Which it does! But as to assertions that Brutalist architecture is efficient or effective as a living or working space... I have evidence to the contrary.* Regardless, Hatherley is a keen observer of the built environment and as such I was excited to read his first book, Militant Modernism from 2008, and surprised to find it's not all about Modernist architecture! It's also about Modernist social organization, Modernist sex politics, and Modernist art and theatre. Which makes me think maybe Hatherley should expand his horizons, because while he's acutely able to look at architecture, he actually writes interestingly and convincingly about culture, society, and politics from a Modernist-Leftist perspective.

2. Militant Modernism consists of four chapters, which makes my remaining "four things I learned" really convenient. In his introduction and first chapter, Hatherley debuts his early apologia for Modernist architecture, expertly explicating all the arguments against living in tower blocks (the working class liked their old pre-war tenements, which, after reading Alan Moore on the subject, I can tell you is definitely true). Hatherley laments a future that never was, an experiment he says that was never properly tried. He eviscerates new homes with all the mod-cons, private living, living designed for commuters, and so forth. But then the first chapter takes a sudden shift into talking about the Industrial Revolution, going back to a century before the Modernist movement, and here Hatherley is working on solid ground, looking at the mechanization that Marx and Engels (and many successors over the next three to four generations) feared and how it took away Britons' long-standing connection with the land. Urban living changed the psyche of a large proportion of the populace, turning them into cogs of production. An excursion into Vorticism is fascinating if only for its brevity; again, Hatherley ventures down a side-alley I desperately want to explore more of. A Clockwork Orange (book and film, released at bookends to the Brutalist decade) is cited as the turning point that made people think of the tower blocks as homes of roving, ultraviolent gangs, just as Hatherley quietly points out that the bleakness of the tower blocks gave us great art, like the cold sexiness of Northern English postpunk (Pulp, Cabaret Voltaire, the Human League, Ultravox). I shrug, knowing from reading Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again that most of these bands were solidly middle-class, living in suburban gardens and not urban tower blocks.

3. In chapter two we look at the Soviet avant-garde's place in Modernism, their space-travel fantasies (again, very briefly and intriguingly drawn and just as soon retreated from by Hatherley) and fantasies of social organization, which worked themselves out in the pre-purge architecture of the 1920s and early 1930s Soviet Union. This is a very small window for Soviet architects with non-politically orthodox views under Stalinism to work in. In 1933, most Socialist German architects fled Hitler's Germany, and ran straight into a Soviet Union racked by Stalin's purges and collectivization. But as usual, Hatherley cites a barely-glimpsed alternate future, where Soviet groups like ASNOVA (and their publication ASNOVA News), designed and even sometimes built internationally-recognized Modernist masterpieces on a par with the Bauhaus. In the mid-1920s, truly autonomous and self-contained Socialist living quarters were built, meant to embody the Soviet way of byt, or domestic life. K-Type apartments featured the elements of more traditional family life, including rooms for children, while in F-Type apartment blocks, all social elements, including child-rearing and meals, would be performed utterly collectively and communally. It wasn't just the workers who got the high-rise block treatment; apparatchiks and bureaucrats lived in 1920s versions of later British postwar luxury high-rises, explicitly recalling J.G. Ballard's High Rise with the architect living in the penthouse.

4. Chapter three is about "sexpol," and the psychological impact of Modernist living on traditional ways of courting and expressing sexuality. Much space is given over to the fascinating psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich, known best in the West for his fringe explorations of "orgone energy" and cloudbusting. But in the 1920s and early 1930s, he was investigating the socio-sexual impact of communal living and the Communist revolution in the Soviet Union. There is a thread in 20th-century Modernist/Socialist thinking of asserting the rights of sexual freedom, which ran counter to totalitarian efforts to control the worker and place workers in family units. As mentioned in the earlier chapter, communal living led to communal sexual arrangements, where every apartment was potentially a "bachelor flat," and everyone in the commune a potential sexual partner. With no families and the community raising the children, paternity would indeed become a forgotten legal fiction. Hatherley then goes on to examine the politics of the body under Modernist Socialism, remarkably similar to the Nazi ideas of fitness for the good of race and nation, but with a throbbing eros beneath the surface that the cold Aryan lines of fitness culture of Germany did not possess. And then we look at the arena in which the eroticism of Socialist living could not be suppressed, probably due to the nature of the medium: cinema, and its relentless sexualizing gaze. We are invited to look at early film examples of Socialist sex as antecedents to Yugoslav director Dušan Makavejev's series of films celebrating the earlier ideals of Socialist and Reichian sexpol with the help of the West's contemporaneous sexual revolution. Makavejev's 1971 fiction/documentary anthology WR - Mysteries of the Organism makes the Reich connection explicit with an examination of Reich's followers left in the United States after his arrest, disgrace, and death in the 1950s.

5. The final chapter of Militant Modernism moves from film to theatre, and the promise of a Brechtian Modernist theater. We're very far from architecture now, but here Hatherley shows the keenest eye of all. Brecht presents the mass pop appeal that Hatherley wishes Modernist architecture has. The idea of being able to disrupt capitalism with its own cultural artifacts was of course later examined by the Situationists, but Brecht offered that opportunity 40 years and a world war before the abortive revolutions of 1968. The shift from post-World War I joie de vivre to 1930s (literal) Depression is as evident here on the German stage as it was in Soviet architecture and social organizational theory in Chapter 2. In the 1930s, fascist dictators were using the radio and film to communicate directly to the masses; Brecht and Walter Benjamin hoped to give the Left a key to these media with treatises on radio and film. Brecht directed an explicitly political fiction-documentary film (much like Makavejev 40 years later, Brecht here plays with form and genre as well as the familiar Brechtian alienation of mixing the "real" and fictional) called Kuhle Wampe. The censorship of this film in the dying days of the Weimar Republic sounded the death knell for a constructivist, activist Socialist film in Mitteleuropa until after Hitler had been defeated.

*As someone who works in the Harvard University Science Center and saw what it looks like after a particularly daunting rainstorm (here's a hint: Harvard's allocation for rain buckets for the Science Center must be about 10% of the Harvard Corporation's budget), 1960s Brutalist architecture is not and has never been particularly livable or workable.

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