Modernism: where did it all go wrong? An essay on British post-war housing

One urban designer looks back at a utopian future


There’s something about modernism I’ve always found captivating – its imposing, monolithic style, rigid symmetry of clean lines and large-scale use of raw concrete. Possibly because there’s a fascination about something that was designed for the future but has spent so much of its time lost in the past. And, as the success of this magazine shows, I’m not the only one. In recent years it’s made a resurgence in popular culture, with the revival of schemes such as Thamesmead, Sheffield’s Park Hill, and not to mention the modernist mecca of the Barbican estate. 

However, is it immoral to praise an ideology of design that was criticised for being detached from its social context and for creating the conditions that engineered social deprivation? Or is this unjust when it was victim to a welfare state that dictated the distribution of the lower classes into ghettoed isolation? 

To understand the era from which modernism was born, head back to Manchester; 1845, where Karl Marx’s financier Frederich Engels documented the chaotic flaws that originated from the unplanned industrial city. The oppressive ideologies that stemmed from a period of social control through spatial differentiation; the idea that workers can’t escape the arrangement of society to which they are born. 

From this context, modernism arose. Exemplifying the energy and efficiency of the machine age, the movement was bold and showed rationality from a generation eager to accept the scientific spirit of the 20th century and abolish pre-existing ties that previously divided society.

Modernism preached that a city made for speed is a city made for success. Through the application of his basic principles: decongestion, augmentation of density, increased mobility and access to space, design could influence human behaviour and society would become more equitable, with everyone having equal access to networks and services. By this method, class conflict would be removed. 

Modernist pioneer Le Corbusier instigated the “death of the street”, explaining the ‘corridor-street’ should not be tolerated and the modern street should be a masterpiece of civil engineering. Corbusier expressed his contempt for the ‘cultural chaos’ that contemporary urbanists now esteem.

Many critics believe Corbusier’s ubiquitous technical design and rigidity of his social engineering was too ‘rational’. Modernism fell victim of its authoritarianism and failure to recognise society’s multiplicity of voices: creating areas that separated citizens from their cultural context and removing all sensory qualities of the city.

However, the modernist movement was effectively hijacked by the Keynesian economy, leading to years of urban managerialism where local governments were controlling access to scarce resources such as housing and education. Modernist planning became stigmatised during the 1980s through changing social attitudes within the welfare state, the rise of Thatcherism and the property-owning democracy. The creation of ‘natural selection’ by the free market effectively concentrating the lower classes into ghettos of isolation, with most modernist estates developing problems of drug-dealing, crime and vandalism – a dystopian perversion of the socialist principles it was built from.

This led to many being pulled down less than 20 years later and the subsequent creation of monotonous, soulless suburban cul-de-sacs – marketed to rescue society from the tyranny of modernists. An interesting paradox is that the resurgence of many modernist estates demonstrates their design ‘problems’ are removed when populated by different sections of society. 

Le Corbusier showed us that planning could not exclude the long-term welfare of the urban community: there has to be opportunities for employment, education and culture to create social and economic sustainability. Modernism highlighted the impact of neoliberalism in cities and how reductions in government social housing and welfare empower greed in the private sector. Not coincidentally, one Conservative government referred to social housing as a “petri-dish for Labour voters”.

It all raises questions deeper than stylistic appraisals of modernism – namely, how do we provide homes for the masses? Who builds them, and for what gain?

Modernist ideas might not work in the practical sense, but they have allowed us to see a representation of society that was impractical, and idealistic.  Without it, we might not have explored the synergy and cultural significance of citizens on society. However, above all, it gave a legacy of designing for people, not profit – and for that reason, we have a lot to thank it for.

Modernism: where did it all go wrong? An essay on British post-war housing Comments

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