Teaching By Example


By Alan Powers. London: Merrell. 2005. £35

A picture in Alan Powers' Modern: the Modern Movement in Britain captivates the ambiguities of the 1930s. Flanking the great Corbu are haughty Serge Chermayeff, raffish Wells Coates, jeune premier Jim Richards, the Hon Godfrey Samuel), and Max Fry who had not yet quite mastered the Corbusian hand-jive. Photographed at the opening of the legendary MARS Group exhibition of 1938, it makes a Modernist iconostasis. We could unpick the implied theology of the Modern Movement in Britain, as Powers struggles manfully to do, or we could just see a bunch of stiff-shirted poseurs, not quite sure whether they gain more glamour from their proximity to Le Corbusier or association with social action suggested by the diagram behind. On reflection we should not be surprised that the decade's most famous structure is a pool for parading penguins.

That ambiguity between glamour and social action is one of Modernism's central dilemmas, in some ways as strong now as it was in the 1930s. Powers' raising of it is, I fear, inadvertent as the thrust of his text is descriptive. His knowledge of the field is wide and it has the virtue of recognising what were once considered backwaters, such as Oliver Hill and Goodhart-Rendel alongside the acknowledged masters, but it is the selection of examples that creates the interest and opportunities for personal exegesis, as they are presented from a descriptive rather than analytical viewpoint. This format of textled introduction followed by a longer run of illustrated examples, follows the format of one of the 1930s' finest books in architecture, F. R. S. Yorke's The Modern House. So houses by Elisabeth Benjamin, Dora Cosens and (Ms) Justin Blanco White take their bow alongside Highpoint and Isokon and a fine house by cinema specialist Harry Weedon. It also resurrects examples by almost forgotten émigrés like Rudolf Frankel and Fritz Ruhemann, and factories for continental companies like Roche by the Swiss master Rudolf Salvisberg, and Bata by the Czech Vladimir Karfik.

Like Yorke, Powers presents his selection attractively though far from comprehensively, and just as the Modern House showed that Modernism went further than Mies, Corb and Gropius, he adds real evidence to the realisation that the Pevsnerite and Richardsian screens concealed a richer, deeper and broader Modernist culture in Britain during the 1930s. But beyond presenting that evidence attractively though far from comprehensively, this book only offers a starting point for urgently needed further analysis. JEREMY MELVIN

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