Trouble in Utopia The Shock of the New


Trouble in Utopia

Robert Hughes's classic series about art in the twentieth century. This edition deals with the aspirations and reality of the art in which we live, architecture.


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The skyscrapers of New York City are still, for most people, one of the great emblems of modernity,

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but one of the major architects of the 20th century, Le Corbusier, thought otherwise.

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He called this city "a tragic hedgehog".

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Any New Yorker knows what Corbu meant.

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He hated its contrasts, its medieval dirt and inequalities of class

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and he wanted to abolish the distance between the streets down here and the spires up there.

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He had a vision of New York as a possible, though flawed, Utopia.

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New Yorkers didn't take that seriously then. Today they still don't.

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This century has been an age of utopian propositions. They've been drawn, designed, argued about,

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sometimes even built. And in the process, it has shown that ideal cities don't work.

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To the extent that planners have tried to convert living towns into Utopia, they've destroyed them.

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It seems that, like plants, we do need the shit of others for nutriments.

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But some of the best minds of our culture have thought otherwise.

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They believed the arts could reform people, especially architecture.

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For architecture affects you most directly of all. It is the art you live in.

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Rational design would make rational societies.

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The optimistic feeling of the time is recalled by Philip Johnson.

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It was one of those illusions of the '20s, that movement in which I had the privilege to take part,

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the Modern movement, International Style. The architecture of the '20s was thoroughly of the opinion

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that if you had good architecture, lives would be improved.

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Architecture improved people and people would improve architecture until perfectibility descended on us

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and we'd be happy for ever after.

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But the architects of the Modern movement weren't the first to feel this visionary urge.

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Utopia had been around on paper since the 15th century when Alberti and Leonardo speculated

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about how to build the ideal town and Antonio Filarete planned a city named Sforzinda,

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designed to abolish the muddle and filth of the medieval warren.

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A place for every job and rank of society and every rank and job in its place.

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The dream of a didactic architecture, secular buildings that morally improved you,

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came to a climax around 1800 with the designs of a Frenchman, Etienne-Louis Boullee.

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He was a son of the French Revolution and his designs were obsessed by death, authority

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and the grandeur of the new state.

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They were never built. They would have needed a slave state to build them, but within 30 years

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the Industrial Revolution had created another kind of slave state.

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Throughout the 19th century, architecture had nothing to do with this misery or to say about it.

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Architects built palaces for the rich, villas for the upper bourgeoisie

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and ceremonial structures for the state. Some were of such splendour they became targets for Modernists

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and the main one was the Paris Opera, designed by Charles Garnier, a great whale of marble and bronze

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of such splendour that there would be no possible way to build it today.

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Although the civic pride of the 19th century expressed itself like this,

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the poor, the invisible ones, had no architecture.

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What they had was slums.

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By 1900, in the eyes of a handful of gifted and missionary designers, scattered across Europe,

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architecture itself was a symbol of inequality, and decorated architecture even more so.

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The distrust of decoration in early Modernism was not simply an aesthetic matter.

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It became a moral issue in the 1890s at about the same moment as the birth of its direct opposite,

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the European luxury style, Art Nouveau.

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Art Nouveau was the final exquisite protest of craft sensibility

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before the hand and its work were swamped by machine product.

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It was the snobbish style, consciously elitist.

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In Art Nouveau, culture parodies nature and the pre-industrial world makes its last stand

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among the twining shoots, the wavy lines and the languid stained-glass lilies.

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But the idealist radicals of the 1900s looked to the machine.

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They were in revolt against the injustices of industrial capitalism,

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but they wanted technology to reform culture. They saw themselves as social engineers

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and two such men were Mario Chiattone and Antonio Sant'Elia,

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Italians who wrote the Futurist Manifesto of Architecture in 1914.

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We are no longer the men of the cathedrals, the palaces, the assembly halls,

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but of big hotels, railway stations, immense roads, colossal ports, covered markets,

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brilliantly-lit galleries, freeways, demolition and rebuilding schemes.

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We must invent and build the futurist city, dynamic in all its parts,

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and the futurist house must be like a machine.

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These were dream cities, paper architecture that nobody expected to build.

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And Sant'Elia was killed during WWI at 28, before he could build anything.

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But he had fixed the imagery of concrete cliffs and flyovers

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that would dominate architecture and science fiction for 40 years.

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His speculative passion was shared by architects in other countries, including Soviet Russia after 1917,

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where constructivist designers like Melnikov, Rodchenko and Leonidov imagined vast community centres,

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halls, social condensers, palaces of the people, all based on the machine metaphor.

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But where in the real world could a European architect find practical shapes of the future?

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One place was America, with its industrial forms of warehouse, dock and grain elevator.

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The essence of American Modernism was concentrated in Chicago.

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The city had been wiped out by a fire in the 1870s and so the architects got

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what their European colleagues could only dream of - a clean slate.

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There was no city planning - American business took care of that.

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Grab the block, screw the neighbours.

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But a new principle of building emerged from its chaotic growth -

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skeleton construction instead of load-bearing brick or masonry walls.

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The steel frame took the load and the walls became light panels or opened out into glass.

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Because they weighed less, buildings could go higher.

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This was known as the Chicago style and its master was Louis Sullivan, the first great Modernist architect.

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Sullivan was a true American idealist. "With me, architecture is not an art, but a religion.

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"And that religion but a part of democracy."

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What this entailed for Sullivan and his colleagues in the 1880s and '90s

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was a desire to fulfil both the abstract side of building, its ability to soar and embody systems,

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and its natural side, the poetic rhythms, organic grace notes and ornaments.

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The verticals of aspiration, the horizontals of the mid-west prairie.

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For the first time, the whole centre of a large city was rebuilt in terms of a new style,

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but it was not from his ornaments, but from his structural grid that modern architecture would derive.

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Sullivan's Auditorium Building was finished in 1899 and, in the same year,

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he began the Carson Pirie Scott store, the last major project that he would have a chance to do.

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Structures like this one have come to be seen as talismans,

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the rudiments of a new world of design and construction.

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And although official European architects distrusted the grid,

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the idea had already been tried out in Europe several decades before

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and it grew straight out of the Industrial Revolution.

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The European resistance to the lessons of Chicago was partly due to its use of industrial materials.

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The basic one was metal.

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By using it structurally to actually carry the load,

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you could achieve a great degree of plainness, lightness and delicacy.

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The first man to use iron as the frame of a major public building from ground to roof was French.

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His name was Henri Labrouste.

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Labrouste was born in 1801. He was one of the geniuses of the Romantic era

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and one of his remarks became a rallying cry for functionalism 50 years after his death.

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"In architecture," he said, "form must always be appropriate to the function for which it is intended."

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This was his demonstration piece, his first significant building.

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The Sainte-Genevieve library in Paris with those exquisite barrel vaults on their wrought-iron tracery

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which floats out of the row of slender columns that runs down the centre of the building.

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And all this designed at the amazingly early date of 1843.

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This prophetic building was far ahead of its time

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and is the point from which the use of iron and steel as architecture, not simply engineering, begins.

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The second modern material was concrete, reinforced with steel rods and cables.

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Engineers had used it, but the first architect to use it expressively for other than a hangar or bridge

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was the German Max Berg, who built the Centenary Hall in Breslau in 1912,

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a vast ribbed dome covering 21,000 square feet, four times the area of the dome of St Peter's.

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When the concrete set, the workmen refused to pull away the wooden moulds because they were scared

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it would collapse, and Berg had to start tearing them down himself.

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But the hall is still there.

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However, the supreme material of Utopia was sheet glass.

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Glass was the opposite of stone and brick. It meant lightness, transparency, structural daring.

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Glass was the essence of the skyscraper and the skyscraper became the essence of the modern city -

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a thin film hung on a steel skeleton. No more load-bearing walls.

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60 years later, this is the face of every corporation -

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the glass box, the all-over grid of spandrels and mullions, the curtain wall.

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The chief architect of glass was a German, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

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He didn't put up many buildings, but the ones he did build acquired a great moral importance.

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For decades, buildings like his apartments on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago

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have been considered the epitome of reason.

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Straight lines, clear thought and extreme refinement of proportion, detail and material.

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They were acts of faith, absolute and austere.

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But Mies loved the idea of crystalline building, the pure prism.

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And so his designs in the '20s believed in salvation through glass architecture

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and the belief was almost religious. Mies' quest for purity goes right back to the Germany of 1920

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and his unbuilt design for a skyscraper on the Friedrichstrasse in Berlin.

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Though other architects were interested in towers, Mies invented the glass skyscraper as we know it.

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"Skin and bones," he said. That was architecture. "No noodles."

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But he also said at the same time, 1923, that he rejected all aesthetic speculation,

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all doctrine and all formalism,

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which is odd because the only architects who were more doctrinaire and formalist than Mies van der Rohe

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were his imitators.

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Mies believed that his buildings, like the Seagram here in New York, were objective

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because they grew out of machine culture, mass production, pre-fabrication.

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"The individual," he chillingly announced, "is losing significance. His destiny no longer interests us."

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But for all his theorising about machine culture, not one Mies design was successfully pre-fabricated.

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Why? Because he was a perfectionist and designed to tolerances that mass production simply couldn't handle.

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His whole background, after all, was involved with the tradition of craft, the action of the hand

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upon fine, traditional materials.

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He did that in a very quiet way, but he wasn't prepared to give up that idea of beauty or to compromise.

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And so when it came to designing the Seagram building, he could have used steel or aluminium cladding,

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but, no, what Mies wanted was bronze, this dark, satin-y material

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which gave him the play of shadows within shadows that he wanted.

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The result was aesthetically superb, but also fiendishly expensive and quite unrepeatable.

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But the Seagram is all balance as well, and generosity.

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Useful and ceremonious, one of the great buildings of our time.

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Mies wanted a universal grammar of architecture. Consequently, his flats look like office blocks

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and his museums look like airports or factories.

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Obsessive subtlety of form. He could spend weeks, months,

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thinking about how to turn a corner with I-beams and cladding.

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But a naivete about the larger social meanings of architecture, which in Mies' world did not count.

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And so many of Mies' projects tend to look authoritarian.

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One of the largest is the Federal Centre in Chicago,

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which today looks like an ultimate refinement of American corporate style - the big, chilly slabs

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grouped around an intimidating open space, an ideal blank table which then gets a decorative ashtray

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in the form of a sculpture, in this case a stabile by Alexander Calder.

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Philip Johnson, who collaborated with Mies on the design of the Seagram, remembers the dogmatism

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of his master's voice.

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He believed in the ultimate truth of architecture, especially his,

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that his architecture was closer to the truth - capital T - than anyone else's

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because it was simpler and could be learned. He felt his architecture could be learned and adapted

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for on into the centuries.

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But in ways his influence was bad because it made everybody realise, "Well, I'm doing Mies."

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That means it was cheaper. Every cheap architect could copy Mies and go to the clients

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and say, "I can do a building cheaper than last year because now I can do it like Mies.

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"We'll have a flat roof and glass walls and simple, factory-made curtain walls on the outsides."

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So it was a justification for cheapness that took over entirely our cityscapes today

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and it's what you see in New York.

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But the great image of the new architecture wasn't the single building. It was the town plan.

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The planners saw their paper cities with the detachment built into the view from a building like this one.

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Very high up, very abstract, like looking down on a drawing board, and somewhat nearer to God.

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What their projects had in common was an alarming obsession with social hygiene.

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In future, the human animal, instead of lurking in streets and squares, would live in tower blocks

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and commute by monorail and biplane and scurry about in allotted green spaces

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and in general be made to do one thing at one time in one specific place.

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Thus the millennium would dawn and the old cities of Europe which escaped the ravages of WWI

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would now be flattened by idealist architects.

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Most of these utopian schemes fell somewhere between the suburb and the ziggurat

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and most favoured the ziggurat.

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One motif recurs over and over - tower blocks on a rectangular grid, separated by patches of green space

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and joined by superhighways.

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It was a theme harped on by Frenchmen, Germans, Russians and Italians,

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but the lyric poet of this dreadful idea, which has influenced cities for the worse from LA to Zagreb,

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was a Swiss. His name was Charles Edouard Jeanneret, better known by his nickname, Le Corbusier.

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His ideal of good planning was summed up in one phrase.

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"La ville radieuse." The radiant city.

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His answer to the crowded towns of Europe, so unpredictable, so hard to control,

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was the tower block, glittering above the greenery, decentralisation brought about by the car.

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The car would abolish the human street, possibly even the foot.

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Everyone would have a car. Some people would have aeroplanes, too.

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The one thing nobody would have would be a place to bump into others, walk the dog, chat, strut

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or do any of the hundred other random things that one does on a street and which, being random,

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were loathed by Le Corbusier.

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La Ville Radieuse was a nightmare.

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Not only would its inhabitants surrender their freedom of movement,

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they would also have to give up their memory, insofar as it was recorded in stone and brick.

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One of Corbusier's obsessive projects was the improvement of Paris,

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which involved the assassination of the city and its rebirth as tower blocks.

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Endless repetition of one crushing unit. People would be nothing more than cells in a mass-transit system.

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His logic was Cartesian. He was French, after all.

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And the platonic, Cartesian... absolutes were in his heart.

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And they made wonderful perspectives and marvellous models of how you'd wipe out the city of Paris.

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It was a delicious intellectual exercise. How serious he was about it, I don't believe for a minute.

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The people who were serious were the Germans. They were the bad ones. They built them!

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One thing Corbusier built is here in Marseille.

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The Unite d'Habitation of 1947.

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Nine storeys high, set in green space, with an unusual roof.

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It contained a gymnasium, a space for exercise, a paddling pool for the kids and a bicycle track.

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Even today, this is one of the great roofs of the world.

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The place is a metaphor of Corbu's social aims.

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The concrete garden of ideal form, giving health to those who live in it.

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To me, the roof of the Unite has a sadness approaching that of a Greek temple.

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Corbusier finished it after WWII

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and almost 30 years after his celebrated descants on the Acropolis in his book Towards An Architecture.

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"The Greeks on the Acropolis," he then wrote, "set up buildings animated by a single thought,

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"drawing the desolate landscape around them and gathering it into one composition.

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"Thus, at every point on the horizon, the thought is singular."

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And the only place that he ever found which approached that bare singularity of the Acropolis

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was the roof of this building.

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He was so ill-informed about the habits and traditions of the society

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that he thought people would go on the roof if he made it beautiful. The real point is he was free there.

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And it's a sculptural joy to wander around the roofs of Marseille.

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The troubles begin below the roof.

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The Unite was meant as a social experiment, a prototype for mass housing.

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There is a rough nobility to this concrete, even though it's grimy and can never mellow like stone.

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The piloti or stilts are a grand muscular shape, although nobody uses the space under them for anything

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and the cars have to park in the green space.

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And as housing, the Unite has not been a success.

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Its emblem is the figure of Corbu's modular man,

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the distorted great-grandchild of Vitruvian man

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and, unintentionally, a symbol of Corbusier's lofty disregard of real human needs.

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Privacy in the flats hardly exists.

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Many of the rooms are little more than cupboards.

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The shopping mall on the fifth floor is mostly out of business because the French like real markets,

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down on the street - another fact of life that the form giver did not grasp.

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Finally, nobody wanted those plain, morally-elevating interiors with paper lamps and craft rugs

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and slung chairs and Cubist tapestries. And they are now crammed

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with exactly the sort of gaudy, fake period furniture that Corbusier struggled against all his life.

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He could never understand why the French kept wanting it, but they did and they still do.

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Corbusier only got one chance to build an ideal city - Chandigarh, the new capital of the Punjab,

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which Nehru asked him to design in 1960.

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Its site was a blank, a windy plain at the foot of the Himalayas.

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Here Corbusier could create a sculptural monument from scratch.

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There was nothing to compete with. His buildings would be absolute.

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And so they were, except that they never came to life as a city.

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They have the passionate dignity and uninhabitability of sculpture,

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but after 30 years nobody wants to live there and so Chandigarh,

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like most capitals that have been invented overnight by governments, is socially lifeless.

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Elevating as an idea and depressing after the first 24 hours.

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Yet though he failed as a sociological architect, he was a great inventor of shapes,

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the Picasso of architecture.

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And his language was based on two systems of form which seemed utterly opposed, but he saw as similar -

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classical Greek architecture in all its lucidity

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and the clear, analytic forms of machinery.

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He wanted to celebrate what he called "the white world", the world of clarity and precision,

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of exact stucco and glass, of culture standing alone against the real world of muddle and compromise.

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No building shows what he meant better than the Villa Savoye outside Paris, finished in 1930.

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The Villa Savoye was one of the classics of what came to be known as the International Style.

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The principles of this style were laid out, once and for all, in 1927

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in the Deutscher Werkbund housing exhibition in Germany,

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an architectural trade fair for which Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Mies, Bruno Taut, Peter Behrens

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and JP Oud built demonstration homes.

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The name International Style was coined in 1931 by two Americans,

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historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson.

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The first principle was that it was a style of volume, not of mass.

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It wasn't built up from bricks like this. It was a taut skin stretched across a frame

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and everything that that meant. Lifting buildings on piloti - even now we use the Corbusier word.

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That point came from Corbusier, lifting everything up because it had a sixth side -

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the underside. You can't see that unless you have a volumetric to look at everything.

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How could you have a ribbon window if it was mass? They would fall down if it was a brick mass building.

0:31:560:32:02

Nobody would use that word "brick" because that meant mass.

0:32:020:32:07

Stucco was the one weightless material that everyone could get,

0:32:070:32:10

so every building in the International Style's purest form was stucco.

0:32:100:32:16

From that came the principles of design of these volumes. You don't put a door here and windows in.

0:32:160:32:24

You have ribbons of window and then because it's functionalist

0:32:240:32:27

you put a big window for the dog and a little window for the cat.

0:32:270:32:32

The third one was a non-principle, typical of our mixed-up age. The avoidance of ornament.

0:32:320:32:38

Ornament had disappeared up to that time anyhow because it was too expensive

0:32:380:32:44

and there were no more craftsmen. That's still true. Now we use pastiche to imitate old ornaments.

0:32:440:32:50

That's the way it's come back in, but that principle of the avoidance of ornament was the easiest to do.

0:32:500:32:57

If you believe in volume, not mass, you can't put tops on buildings. Any angle like that was taboo.

0:32:570:33:03

It had to have a flat roof.

0:33:030:33:06

But, you see, I came in in '28 and by that time it was pretty well codified, the International Style.

0:33:060:33:13

We'd had Weissenhofsiedlung, which was the epitome, the high point of the International Style.

0:33:130:33:19

Everybody had to do a flat roof, to be white, to use stucco.

0:33:190:33:23

And they all did. They saluted and did whatever Mies said.

0:33:230:33:27

He was a kid at the time. Kid, for an architect, being 40.

0:33:270:33:31

And it was an amazing thing for a kid to do, to get all the great architects to do the same building.

0:33:310:33:37

So I was there at that time when all idea of mysticism or anything that wasn't rational

0:33:370:33:43

or couldn't be clearly explained was rigorously rooted out.

0:33:430:33:48

The main place from which this style emanated was the Bauhaus,

0:33:500:33:54

started in Weimar and then established in Dessau and closed by the Nazis in the '30s

0:33:540:33:59

on the grounds that it was a Bolshevist conspiracy against the family and the German race.

0:33:590:34:05

Bauhaus meant the rethinking of every manufactured object, not just buildings.

0:34:050:34:11

During its short life, 15 years,

0:34:110:34:13

it utterly transformed the idea of advanced design in Europe.

0:34:130:34:17

It was a network of men and women who wanted to remake culture in terms of industrial process.

0:34:170:34:24

The man who formed the school, wrote its programme and ran it for the first 10 years of its life

0:34:240:34:30

was the architect Walter Gropius.

0:34:300:34:33

Gropius' ambition had set early in his career.

0:34:340:34:38

In his early 20s, in 1907, he had worked for the leading industrial designer in Germany, Peter Behrens.

0:34:380:34:44

Today we're used to companies getting one designer to furnish their whole visual style.

0:34:440:34:50

70 years ago, that was extremely rare. Behrens pioneered it through his work for one big client, AEG.

0:34:500:34:58

He designed their factories, their catalogues, even their stationery.

0:34:580:35:02

Behrens went as close as any man had gone to creating a general style of design

0:35:070:35:13

aimed at mass production of a wide range of products from an industrial base.

0:35:130:35:19

Now this point was not lost on Gropius. His major works before the Bauhaus were all industrial.

0:35:210:35:27

In his Fagus factory of 1911, probably the most advanced building anyone had made before WWI,

0:35:270:35:34

the wall is daringly reduced to a glass skin stretched between columns and making a transparent corner.

0:35:340:35:41

The Bauhaus enabled Gropius and his colleagues to pursue the idea of a total art,

0:35:530:35:58

subsuming all the divided arts under a new technology.

0:35:580:36:02

-The first manifesto of the Bauhaus proclaimed:

-"Let us create a new guild of craftsmen

0:36:020:36:08

"without the class distinctions which raise arrogant barriers between craftsmen and artists.

0:36:080:36:14

"Together, let us conceive and build the new structure of the future,

0:36:140:36:19

"which will embrace architecture and painting and sculpture in one unity

0:36:190:36:24

"and will rise one day towards heaven like the crystal symbol of a new faith."

0:36:240:36:30

The Bauhaus view was that it was far harder to design a first-rate teapot than paint a second-rate painting.

0:36:330:36:39

Later in his life, Walter Gropius explained the basic ideas of Bauhaus teaching.

0:36:410:36:46

Everyone had to go through one of the craft workshops before he came into architecture.

0:36:460:36:52

And some of them did not go into architecture. They stayed where they were, in the painting workshop

0:36:520:36:58

or wherever else it was. But any architect should have this basis

0:36:580:37:03

and I think we should have it today, too. It is much too theoretical, still.

0:37:030:37:09

When you compare, for instance, the life of an architect today,

0:37:090:37:13

who is expected to sit in his studio and get everything out of his head on paper and specifications...

0:37:130:37:20

Then it's taken out of his hands and given to an army of workmen who have to execute his will.

0:37:200:37:27

And he is not permitted any more to make any changes and the workman cannot add anything of himself.

0:37:270:37:34

And you compare that with the Middle Ages when they built a cathedral.

0:37:340:37:39

There was a group of people devoting themselves to that building, living on the site,

0:37:390:37:45

doing everything in flesh and materials directly. There was very little designing.

0:37:450:37:50

The extraordinary thing was that the journeyman and the apprentice had to follow a certain direction

0:37:500:37:56

from the master who gave him some geometrical proportions he had to take in his work,

0:37:560:38:02

but otherwise he gave his work individually, independently.

0:38:020:38:06

It was not an execution only of some design of the master.

0:38:060:38:10

They worked really in a true team together there and if something was not well done,

0:38:100:38:16

they took it down again and built it again. For God's sake, it had to be very good.

0:38:160:38:21

Each teapot, watch, glass or radio cabinet was designed as an industrial prototype.

0:38:230:38:30

It had to be mass-produced, but few actually were.

0:38:300:38:33

The demand was too small to justify mass production, hence the rarity of Bauhaus objects today.

0:38:330:38:40

They were too pure to be popular.

0:38:400:38:42

This was especially true of the furniture. Almost all the radical new designs of chair, table or sofa

0:38:450:38:52

were done by architects - Marcel Breuer inside the Bauhaus, Corbusier and Mies outside it.

0:38:520:38:58

Their ideal and often uncomfortable chairs were all of a piece with constructivist painting.

0:38:580:39:04

And they were meant to go with their buildings for the least possible interruption to the flow of space,

0:39:040:39:10

to echo the machine look.

0:39:100:39:13

Some of them lived on into production to furnish the world's airports and corporate lobbies.

0:39:130:39:19

But in their day they were not popular.

0:39:190:39:23

The most severe rebuke to the pleasure-seeking body was made in 1918 by a Dutch designer

0:39:280:39:34

called Gerrit Rietveld and this chair of his is considered a classic

0:39:340:39:38

because it goes far beyond ordinary functionalist discomfort.

0:39:380:39:42

The human body for which it was reputed to be made simply doesn't exist.

0:39:420:39:48

Insofar as it ever was designed to accommodate a human bottom,

0:39:480:39:52

that bottom is a platonic solid existing somewhere out in the ether but never made flesh.

0:39:520:39:58

The fact about these designs is that, august as they are,

0:39:580:40:03

they are not really furniture. They're sculpture.

0:40:030:40:07

They're a three-dimensional development of a two-dimensional pattern,

0:40:070:40:13

the grid and primary colours in the paintings of Mondrian, van Doesburg and the De Stijl group.

0:40:130:40:19

De Stijl was Dutch for "the style".

0:40:200:40:23

Its leader was a painter and critic, Theo van Doesburg.

0:40:230:40:27

As a group, it didn't last long, just a few years during and after the end of World War One.

0:40:270:40:34

Nevertheless, the half dozen artists and architects in the movement were very clear about their aims.

0:40:340:40:40

After the slaughter of the Great War, they wanted to be international men

0:40:400:40:44

and art could supply the model for this frame of mind.

0:40:440:40:47

Down with frontiers, up with the grid. A new world of lucidity would rise from the wreckage.

0:40:470:40:54

No curved lines, masonic rectitude,

0:40:550:40:59

De Stijl was against the individual and for the collective and the universal.

0:40:590:41:05

It laid out a general grammar of shape for every visual art, architecture no less than painting.

0:41:090:41:17

This grid was van Doesburg's design for the roof of a university hall in 1923.

0:41:170:41:23

The programme of De Stijl had no practical chance since art cannot cure nationalism

0:41:280:41:33

and manufacturers were not idealists. But its name survives,

0:41:330:41:37

partly because one of the greatest artists of the 20th century was involved. He was Piet Mondrian.

0:41:370:41:43

This grave and diffident man was one of the last painters to believe that the conditions of human life

0:41:430:41:49

could be changed by making pictures.

0:41:490:41:52

For him, art was not an end in itself. It was a means towards an end.

0:41:520:41:58

Mondrian was an intensely religious man. He had a vision of Utopia

0:41:580:42:02

in which the scales would drop from man's eyes as the visible world disclosed its underlying harmonies.

0:42:020:42:09

Then to see would be to know.

0:42:090:42:12

Mondrian thought of art as a bridge to this clarity of vision.

0:42:150:42:18

Once you had it, you no longer needed painting

0:42:180:42:21

and this belief gave his work an extraordinary consistency.

0:42:210:42:25

We're apt to think of Mondrian as a purely abstract painter -

0:42:280:42:32

the grid and nothing but the grid,

0:42:320:42:34

but his work was grounded in nature and in metaphors based on nature.

0:42:340:42:39

One motif that his grids came from, for instance,

0:42:390:42:42

was the coastal landscape of Holland, the dunes and the sea,

0:42:420:42:46

and the glitter of light on this flatness, the movement of the waves, became a pattern of crosses

0:42:460:42:51

and this criss-crossing field with its points and twinkles of energy

0:42:510:42:55

became one of Mondrian's signs for all substance.

0:42:550:42:59

It was the basis of his universal grammar.

0:42:590:43:01

So it was appropriate that Mondrian should have come to New York - "grid city".

0:43:040:43:09

He got there as a refugee from the Second World War in 1940

0:43:090:43:13

and his studio was remembered as one of the shrines of Modernism in America.

0:43:130:43:18

And what did he like about America?

0:43:280:43:31

Well, Mondrian may not have looked like one, but he was an enthusiastic dancer.

0:43:310:43:36

It's hard to imagine him boogieing to jazz, but that was what he loved to do.

0:43:360:43:41

Out of that music and the New York grid,

0:43:410:43:44

Mondrian distilled his late paintings -

0:43:440:43:46

New York City, Broadway Boogie-Woogie and Victory Boogie-Woogie.

0:43:460:43:51

These paintings are not exactly metaphors of New York and still less can they be read as plans,

0:43:560:44:02

but they are diagrams of the kind of energy and order that Mondrian detected in the great, flawed city.

0:44:020:44:08

The yellow blips shuttling along their paths don't necessarily represent cabs,

0:44:080:44:14

but once you have seen Broadway Boogie-Woogie,

0:44:140:44:17

the view from a skyscraper down into the streets is changed for ever.

0:44:170:44:21

And why should Mondrian's last paintings still move us,

0:44:220:44:26

whereas the Utopian city plans of the architects do not?

0:44:260:44:30

Partly because the space of art is the ideal space of fiction.

0:44:300:44:34

In it, things are not used and they never decay.

0:44:340:44:37

You can never walk in a painting as you must imagine yourself walking in a street or a building.

0:44:370:44:43

His paintings are incorruptible, the building blocks of a system

0:44:430:44:47

that has no relationship at all to our bodies.

0:44:470:44:50

But architecture and design have everything to do with the body

0:44:530:44:57

and the unredeemed body at that.

0:44:570:45:00

Without respect for the body as it is and for social memory as it stands,

0:46:050:46:10

there is no such thing as a workable or humane architecture.

0:46:100:46:13

That's why a place like this, La Defense outside Paris,

0:46:130:46:17

is experienced by everybody, including those who live in it, as a piece of social scar tissue -

0:46:170:46:22

gimmicky, condescending, alphaville Modernism.

0:46:220:46:25

Stick them in concrete boxes and give them some concrete to play on

0:46:250:46:29

and then paint it all bright colours because that's what the kiddies like

0:46:290:46:33

and if the kiddies don't like it, they can write to the minister.

0:46:330:46:37

That is why so many of the classics of Utopian planning have turned out to look inhuman or absurd

0:46:390:46:44

and why they don't work, and why the social pretensions behind them seem to be so much hot air.

0:46:440:46:50

After this, who believes in progress and perfectibility any more?

0:46:500:46:54

Who believes in master builders and form-givers?

0:46:540:46:57

That's right. Who are you? You don't believe in progress?

0:46:570:47:01

But who does now believe in progress Those things have influenced the architecture more than anything else

0:47:010:47:07

I think the progress, the whole Benthamite "every day in every way we're getting better" theory

0:47:070:47:12

is pretty well washed up.

0:47:120:47:14

So there are these waves of...

0:47:140:47:17

We're anti-idealists now, anti-Utopian, anti-pies in the sky,

0:47:170:47:22

and we're very anxious to make our cities work the way they are and hold on to the best we can,

0:47:220:47:28

which is a far saner, more sensible way of looking at things.

0:47:280:47:31

The architectural historian Charles Jencks pointed out

0:47:330:47:36

that one can date the death of the Modern Movement not just to the decade or year, but to the minute.

0:47:360:47:42

It happened in St Louis where the architect Minoru Yamasaki

0:47:420:47:46

had designed a large, low-income housing project.

0:47:460:47:49

Its name was Pruitt-Igoe.

0:47:490:47:51

Tower blocks, parks, recreational streets inside the buildings,

0:47:560:48:00

every sort of Corbusian amenity, most improving.

0:48:000:48:04

The architectural magazines made a fuss over it. It won awards.

0:48:040:48:08

That was in 1951.

0:48:080:48:10

Within a few years, the place had been ripped apart by its unimproved tenants,

0:48:100:48:16

old and middle-aged people were scared to live there

0:48:160:48:19

and the young were in the corridors with flick knives.

0:48:190:48:22

Pruitt-Igoe got so bad that in 1972, major structural alterations were called for.

0:48:220:48:29

Apart from Chandigarh, the only city in the world that has ever been built from scratch

0:50:150:50:20

along the Corbusian lines of rational town planning is here.

0:50:200:50:24

In the '50s, the Brazilians decided they wanted a capital.

0:50:240:50:28

The thing about bureaucrats is that they hate ports.

0:50:280:50:31

They're too open to influence, they're too hard to control. They're too full of life.

0:50:310:50:36

So although they already had one very lively port in Rio,

0:50:360:50:40

the Brazilians decided to put their capital 1,200 kilometres away in the centre of the country

0:50:400:50:45

on a red dirt plateau where nobody had ever lived or ever wanted to.

0:50:450:50:50

Two of Corbusier's most brilliant South American disciples were called upon to design it -

0:50:500:50:55

Lucio Costa did the town plan and the main ceremonial buildings were done by Oscar Niemeyer.

0:50:550:51:01

Now, Brasilia, as the place is called, was going to be the city of tomorrow.

0:51:010:51:07

It was going to be the triumph of reason and sunlight and the automobile.

0:51:070:51:11

Here we were going to see what the international style could really do

0:51:110:51:15

when it was backed with limitless quantities of cash and national enthusiasm. And we did.

0:51:150:51:21

This was La Ville Radieuse all over again.

0:51:260:51:29

How good it can look on film - the most photogenic new town on Earth!

0:51:290:51:34

It's the reconciliation of modernist democracy with the ceremonial grandeur of the state

0:51:400:51:46

that the Beaux Arts had wanted to symbolise 100 years before.

0:51:460:51:50

It has always had a good press too.

0:52:010:52:03

Brazilian architectural critics did not dare say anything against it

0:52:030:52:07

and it's so far away that most other critics have never actually seen it.

0:52:070:52:12

From the air you can see the abstract categories of layout,

0:52:190:52:23

the big living blocks, the administrative core,

0:52:230:52:26

the work areas, the green space, the crossing highways.

0:52:260:52:31

Here, the Corbusian dream has come true.

0:52:360:52:39

The car has abolished the street and the pedestrian is an irrelevance,

0:52:390:52:44

a large irrelevance since most people in Brasilia do not own cars.

0:52:440:52:48

The reality is worse than anything that has been said about the place.

0:53:040:53:08

Brasilia is a facade, run up under political pressure,

0:53:080:53:12

finished in 1960 and already falling to bits.

0:53:120:53:16

Cracking stonework, flaking concrete,

0:53:170:53:21

rusting metal,

0:53:210:53:23

a ceremonial slum.

0:53:230:53:25

So what Brasilia became in less than 20 years wasn't the city of tomorrow at all.

0:53:430:53:48

It was yesterday's science fiction.

0:53:480:53:51

Nothing dates faster than people's fantasies about the future.

0:53:510:53:55

This is what you get when perfectly decent, intelligent and talented men

0:53:550:53:59

start thinking in terms of space, rather than place, and about single, rather than multiple meanings.

0:53:590:54:05

It's what you get when you design for political aspirations and not real human needs.

0:54:050:54:10

You get miles of jerry-built, platonic nowhere infested with Volkswagens.

0:54:100:54:15

This, one may fervently hope, is the last experiment of its kind.

0:54:150:54:19

The Utopian buck stops here.

0:54:190:54:22

I think Brasilia is emblematic.

0:55:240:55:27

The last 50 years in architecture have witnessed the death of the future.

0:55:270:55:31

Like the Baroque or the High Renaissance, the Modern Movement lived and died

0:55:310:55:36

and it left behind its masterpieces which survive, but the doctrines don't inspire us so much any more.

0:55:360:55:42

People are always going to be moved and delighted by buildings

0:55:420:55:46

like the Villa Savoye or the Seagram Building here,

0:55:460:55:49

just as they are today by, say, the Pazzi Chapel or by the Paris Opera.

0:55:490:55:53

But what has gone and, I think, gone for good

0:55:530:55:56

is the idea that architects or artists can lay the rudiments of paradise here on Earth

0:55:560:56:01

and construct working Utopias.

0:56:010:56:03

Cities are more complex than that

0:56:030:56:06

and perhaps you can't purify human needs without taking away human freedom.

0:56:060:56:10

In any case, you have to work with the real world and its inherited contents and memory is reality.

0:56:100:56:17

It took us the best part of 50 years to find that out, but perhaps it was worth the trouble.

0:56:170:56:23

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:57:290:57:32

Robert Hughes' classic series about art in the twentieth century; the avant-garde and the modernist in the century of change.

This edition deals with the aspirations and reality of the art in which we live, architecture. Utopian visions rarely work in reality and Hughes examines the utopian in the parallel lines of concrete, towering verticals of steel and planes of glass of modernism in the buildings, built and planned, of Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Gropius, which he contrasts with the paintings of Mondrian.


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