A sense of the Modernist
There is always a feeling. It’s a special kind of feeling full of joy and excitement when experiencing great architecture. When visiting a place that has been designed by one of the greats I always have an intuitive response of emotional expansion – It floods me with an overwhelming inner experience of the presence of that moment, and yet somehow remains contained within whilst creating a spiritual connection to the whole context of the building. I love that feeling, and this month’s Blog is about a particular architect whom I think excelled in creating architectural experiences like this – Sir Denys Lasdun
Before I began formally studying Architecture I had been keenly drawn towards the Modernist style and took particular interest in the early 20th Century movement. The rational and functional spatial organisation appealed to me, and as someone who took to drawing from a very early age I felt comfort in the modernist style of composition used for creating spaces and forms. However when I began studying architecture I experienced a slightly different world. Post-Modernist ideals had quickly spread throughout the teaching and practice of architecture from the 1960’s onward, and so when I began attending Architecture school in 2005 Modernism had been long gone. We were still taught about Modernism, but only as a kind of relic which had now become useless. My training conditioned me in new ways of seeing and understanding approaches to architecture which were apparently now more relevant.
It is difficult to counter Post-Modernism. It stands on a shifting ground of interpretive and subjective ideas that can never truly be pinned down, and it is only in the last few years, having stepped outside of traditional architectural work that I have felt free to revive my love of Modernism. Two buildings that have particularly helped with this are the University of East Anglia Library building, and the National Theatre in London, both designed by Sir Denys Lasdun.
When I first visited each of these buildings I did not know them as Lasdun works, nor was I familiar with him. But my memories of these experiences are both as poignant and moving as any. I felt as if I were the first person to discover them; exploring them in awe and studying the forms and details of the structural concrete. I felt a certain sense of belonging, as if I had been absorbed by the building and fitted perfectly into the spaces in and around it. It was a numinous experience.
Lasdun was a true Modernist and to me his work expresses truth and beauty as well as anything can. In trying to understand his story I have come to gain some insight on my own experiences of his work. I have also, I feel, gained a sense of something which has been lost in architecture, something which is no longer taught or fully understood; A sense of the Modernist.
Lasdun lived Modernism. He typified it so well and held to its principles so strongly that he is often considered to be the greatest Modernist architect of the UK. After the Post-Modernist era he has again become the hero that he was during the 1960’s, because he never sold out on his Modernist values. Lasdun demonstrated time and again how to create Modern buildings full of grace, elegance and class. He saw each of his buildings as a microcosm of the city as well as something contributing towards it and took a firm stance against timid architecture which would not have a positive impact on its surroundings.
This was done in a very simple and sophisticated way. He used space, walls and light as tools to curate experiences for people within his buildings. Lasdun used model making as an integral part of his design process and much more extensively than his contemporaries. Through this he mastered the delicate control of user experience and famously saw the movement of people around his buildings as the only necessary decoration to their design. He compounded this with exquisite detailing which he used to emphasise the structural designs of his architecture. The idea behind each building was holistically applied to its forms, so that it was expressed through every part and in every detail.
“(The decoration is) in the detail of a handrail, what you actually put your hand on. It’s in the detail of which way do you go to the loo, with emblematic signs telling you. It’s in how the building is put together.” - Denys Ladsun
Modernism is often post-rationalised as a stylistic form of design which favoured bold and minimalistic geometry. The underlying principles and philosophy of this incredible movement are frequently overlooked because so many tried, and failed, to replicated and implement the ideals which had been set out by the great architects of the early 20th Century. I would agree that a lot of “Modernist” architecture is not good, and has perhaps had a negative social and environmental impact. But to me Lasdun is proof that it was not the ideas that failed. Lasdun delivered these ideas by building on the foundations of what had been set out by the Modernists. He perhaps, understood this more than anyone, and his unwavering and staunch efforts to uphold the Modernist principles were the very thing that made him great and then also unfavourable within his career. He lived Modernism.
Lasdun’s understanding and ability to curate and deliver refined and sophisticated spatial organisation, through the careful and finely detailed composition of building elements, is something founded upon the guidelines set out in Modernist architecture. These guidelines were founded upon the principles of understanding how people use and experience space. It should be that the form of the building represents the needs and uses of it. Alone. And when a building does this, alone, without the dramatic and frivolous ornamentation of decoration it becomes magical. The experience this pure architecture feels pure and human in the most moving and primordial sense. I love that feeling.