08 April 2006

The old and the new

Prompted by Designing a New World, the exhibition on modernism which opened at the V&A this week, Simon Jenkins has a tirade against modernism's lack of regard for tradition or comfort. It's easy to blame modernism for failing to incorporate human values but it's not the whole story. The modernists' passion for industrially-inspired solutions extended an enthusiasm for technology that was born in the Victorian age. And domestic design inspired by modernism has liberated women (in particular) from many of the chores required in the Victorian and Edwardian household.

Jenkins cites the disastrous 1960s Hulme estate in Manchester as proof of modernism's shortcomings, but I think there were other factors there that might equally take the blame. Coincidentally, traditional back-to-backs, similar to those that were razed to make way for the Hulme's development, are now undergoing a renaissance just a few miles from (the now rebuilt) Hulme. Possibly as Jenkins was writing, people were camping out in Salford to try to reserve one of Urban Splash's houses in the Chimney Pot Park scheme where traditional back-to-backs have been gutted and fitted with a functional and distinctly modernist interior. At this stage of their implementation they seem a great combination of conservation and development.

(And a footnote: while the Victorians were enthusiastic about industrialisation they were also conscious of the need to conserve. According to Timothy Cooper, Victorian cities were "littered with 'dust yards' staffed by armies of underpaid and exploited women workers who were paid to sift through urban waste to recover items of value." ... a model which, without the underpaid and exploited workers(?), we are beginning to come back to through kerb-side recycling.)

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