We’re still learning that one size
doesn’t fit all
|In 1851 Prince Albert exhibited a block of “model houses for four families” at his Great Exhibition. Through the subdivision of domestic space and the selective connection of rooms and fittings, modern architecture would provide, according to The Times, “the entire groundwork upon which much of the moral and social improvement of the population must be based”. This paternalistic determinism, albeit coupled with a nascent humanist agenda to produce decent homes for more then the rich, went on to inform what became the modern aesthetic.
By 1926 Le Corbusier was creating one modern vision for a future at Pessac, near Bordeaux: more than 100 “machines for living in” that truly revolutionised the notion of dwelling. However, upon completion, no-one would move in. The locals mistook his future perfect “cubism” for a North African village with no relation to “them”. The “spirit of a new age” - despite its spatially generous aesthetic offering the best of amenity and technology - had revealed one major flaw: a failure to consider the importance of domestic memories and associations to the way in which people recognise and construct homes.
In the 1960s architect Philippe Boudon revisited Pessac. The once carefully coloured boxes had been extended, reconfigured and wholly infected by the “activity of living”. Pure modernism had given way to pitched roofs, shutters and Bordeaux chintz. Le Corbusier, reflecting upon this resident appropriation, observed: “You know, it is always life that is right and the architect who is wrong.”
We suggest that Pessac - a happy accident - is one of modernism’s most influential examples. As Henri Lefebvre concludes: “Le Corbusier produced a kind of architecture that lent itself to conversion and sculptural ornamentation. [Residents] took what had been offered to them and worked on it, converted it, added to it. What did they add? Their needs...” Modernist functionalism had (inadvertently) empowered people to create their own environment, complete with all of modern life’s technological innovations.
Things would soon change. The UK’s generous Parker Morris standards for living would first be halved and then become the prescribed maximum. Along with the space, the potential for resident appropriation and the odd rogue caryatid would be squeezed out by a government push to deliver the numbers. Means-tested standardisation and monotonous repetition became the norm.
So, where now for modernism?
In his 1945 essay “The Post-modern House”, Joseph Hudnut tells of a client who “has in mind a Cape Cod cottage which upon being opened will be seen to be a refrigerator-to-live-in; [and Hudnut is] by no means sure of which of these requirements, assuming them to be inconsistent, is the most prescriptive.” He derides modern houses as “pure products of technological research and manufacture”, arguing that houses of the future should contain a “promise of happiness”, engaging with the dreams and associations, as well as the practical needs, of diverse potential residents. We concur.
The modernist project had the right intentions: to deliver good living for all. But a narrow understanding of use, as merely function - rather than custom and usage - applied in a paternalistic way, led it down the cul-de-sac of what is now understood, and often distrusted, as the modern style. Resident participation in the design and ongoing construction of homes is rarely discussed within the modernist agenda (Pessac remains an oddity) and yet offers great potential. Modernism as was may now be an anachronism, but the spirit of modernism is not. One hundred years in, it has only just begun to understand, on a person by person level, how “my home can fit me”.