Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Mid-Century Modern Part 1 - Architecture

This post is the first in what will hopefully be a series, covering a topic that has always fascinated me - the aesthetics of Mid 20th century design, in all its forms. I'm aware that this is a very broad subject so I'll try and stop myself rambling if I can.

I'm going to put a disclaimer in here - this is a purely amateurish appraisal, in that I'm not claiming to have any academic understanding of architecture! Indeed, I would say that my first impression of this style was formed from the neutral perspective of a child, through the lens of cultural touchstones like the James Bond movies. I remember finding sets like the villain's lairs incredibly evocative, appearing futuristic whilst also clearly being a vision of what the past thought the future was going to be. Most importantly, they didn't look like anything I had ever experienced - these were not cosy, familiar spaces to live in, but spaces where your existence seemed rather incidental; clean and spacious, perhaps a little cold, but intriguing. They were spaces you wanted to explore.

The architecture of the 1950's and 60's is the inhuman channeled through the agent of the human; its shapes and materials (hard lines, concrete, steel and glass) are as far removed as possible from the organic materials and forms of traditional construction, and as such it reflects a fundamental contradiction within us. We are imperfect creatures of flesh and blood who make mistakes, but strive to create perfection, for example through mathematics or music or electronics. It seems natural that this process should reach its ultimate distillation in an era defined by polarisation - east vs west, capitalism vs communism, annihilation vs life.

In completely rejecting natural forms and materials, these structures seem to counter-intuitively compliment nature through the fact of their otherness. Take for example the Milwaukee Art Museum pictured below.

As it occupies the crest of a hill the viewer must see it imposed, from any angle, against the sky, where the absence of any other artificial forms starkly highlights its geometric nature. However, whilst at first it seems to dominate the horizon, on second glance its monolithic banks of windows reflect the sky, creating the illusion of transparency and incorporating a simulacrum of the surrounding natural environment.

From my perspective as an amateur photographer, mid-century modern buildings are fascinating subjects. Their profusion of angles and cleanliness of form means that they catch light and shadow in ways that are supremely satisfying to the human eye, as becomes apparent in this shot of the General motors technical centre in Warren, Michigan.

The same applies to this fantastic building, which is no other than the Arts Tower at the University of Sheffield, where I studied. Incidentally, it's the tallest University building in the UK. (The photo is my own).

I've lost track of the amount of photos I've taken of this building - every time I walk past it a new idea pops into my head. As part of the post-war construction boom in UK universities, it could have easily become a cheap and shabby monstrosity, but again its purity of form turns it into something more than the sum of its parts. The very simple pattern of the facade, uninteresting in piecemeal, creates an entirely different effect when seen in totality. (photo credit - wikipedia).

So there you have it. If I've managed to interest you, I hope you do have a deeper look at some buildings from this period, they capture a moment in time very poignantly. Good places to start are the Barbican centre in London, which conveniently has its own tube station, or the Southbank centre on the Thames, both of which boast fascinating architectural flourishes that merit repeat viewing.