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Will Modernist domestic architecture still be relevant in fifty years?
Modernism was never intended to be a style, but a movement – after the horrors of war, architects rejected the past in favour of a utopian vision of humanity’s problems solved by design. Embracing new materials, new technologies, and the ‘machine’, they rejected ornament and preached ‘truth to materials.’ Unfair as it may be to blame Modernist architects for the flawed social housing projects they inspired, the reality of living in estates like the recently demolished Robin Hood Gardens (completed in the 1970s, but along Modernist principles), proved far from utopian. The question is not whether Modernist project failed, but whether the domestic architecture it left behind is even relevant today. ‘One of the most important fundamentals of Modernism is the dogma that the past is irrelevant to the future,’ says Dutch designer Marcel Wanders. Almost a century on from the early days of Modernism, he raises an interesting point. Now that it’s in the past, has Modernism become irrelevant?
Modernist architects were looking for solutions to the post-war housing crisis – today we face a crisis of our own: one in four people worldwide is either homeless or living in slums or substandard housing – a problem that is only going to be exacerbated with 70% of the world’s population predicted to be living in cities by 2050 (versus 30% in 1950). With a different set of challenges, do we look to Modernist architecture for solutions, or find our own?
Post-modernism championed pluralism. ‘I don’t want to live in a time with no past,’ says Wanders. ‘We live in a time with an incredible history for us to learn from and bring forward.’ Today’s complex problems require a broad-minded strategy, a ‘both-and’ viewpoint that enables solutions to come from the past, the future or anywhere in between – and today’s architects are embracing that approach. Asif Khan, Sam Jacob and Studiomama have explored concepts such as communal living, collaborative architecture and the blurred lines between public and private through collaborations with MINI Living. Multi-disciplinary collective Assemble is forging a new model for the architecture studio, tackling everything from derelict terraces to adventure playgrounds. And IKEA has set up Space10 to imagine cities in which we co-exist in multifunctional living, working, meeting and eating spaces. Modernists might have come up with the wrong answers, but at least they were asking the right questions. Today’s architects still believe design can solve humanity’s problems, they just need a broader definition of design.