Phase 4: The Will to Forget (1932-1950) – Memory Reluctant

By 1936, the Modern Movement had condensed as the prime focus of architectural projection in Britain. Melancholia had found its initial form. This was the blank white wall, the tabula rasa, the dazzling expanse that met the gaze of the viewer even at the same time as, in the words of the Decca notes to Britten’s War Requiem (1962), the “gradual sinking of the European scene into darkness”. These white walls are not film screens on to which memory might be projected, but blank expanses from which history, and memory, are excluded. The tabula rasa effects an absolute forgetting.

This unconscious acceptance of a blank world was made possible by the coalescing of the Modern Movement in the late 1920s and the trajectory of CIAM (Congres International d’Architecture Moderne) from its inception at the Chateau de la Sarraz, Switzerland, in 1928 to its last meeting in 1956. Its defining moment came in 1933 when it espoused town planning as well as architecture in its attempts to define the “Functional City”. It recommended strict functional zoning and the distribution of residents in tall apartment blocks separated by wide expanses of open space. Local authority reconstruction plans more all less followed these strictures following the Second World War but momentum quickly drained as the plans failed to find support among new residents. A hammer blow came when the unfortunate inhabitants of Dresden, those who had survived Britain’s blanket-bombing campaign, rejected Mart Stam’s CIAM-approved plan as, with dreadful irony, “an all-out attack on the city”.

To understand why CIAM’s obviously flawed ideas struck a chord and were accepted for so many years, I believe it is necessary to read the characteristic motifs of Modern Movement urban practice – white walls, rationalism, antipathy towards the street and rigid zoning - in pathological terms, as the expressions of the first of three phases of melancholia. The graduated development into the second phase, that of melancholic re-enactment, then becomes evident when the Smithsons’ Team X succeeds CIAM after 1953, heralding what becomes known as the New Brutalism.

Following are a few examples from London of the first phase, of absolute forgetting:

White Walls

The prominent central column of the University of London’s Senate House (Charles Holden 1932-37) provides a totemic starting point for an architecture based on blotting out all memory. It echoes the monumentality and blankness of the Cenotaph.

University of London Senate House, Keppel St, Bloomsbury; Charles Holden, 1932-37. © RO’C

At Finsbury Health Centre in Clerkenwell, two large white walls are the architectural elements closest to the street. These are what you see first as you approach the building:

Finsbury Health Centre, Clerkenwell; Lubetkin and Tecton, 1936. © RO’C

Recessed between the projecting arms nestles the core of the health centre, as can be seen in the contemporary poster below (recently reproduced as a postcard). However, this depiction is particularly revealing, for behind the centre is a pitcure of how Britain was perceived: as diseased. A tombstone lurks. The new façade hides the pathology, and the centre will have been hoped to deal with the problem, but the juxtaposition of the slogan “Your Britain” with the bleak landscape behind is telling. “Modern methods” are explicitly associated with curing what ails Britain.

“Your Britain: Fight for it now” by Abram Games, a health poster from the 1930s depicting the ground-breaking Finsbury Health Centre. © IWM PST 2911.
The poster caption on the right reads: “Modern medicine means the maintenance of good health and the prevention and early detection of disease. This is achieved by periodic medical examinations at Centres such as the new Finsbury Health Centre, where modern methods are used.”

By the later Thirties white walls had become commonplace. But, in my view, they were more than a fashion, they were the primary symptom of a subconscious process, the need to blank out memory, to help survivors endure long enough before the hitherto repressed re-creation of a memorial landscape.


Spa Green Estate, Finsbury; Lubetkin and Tecton, 1943-50. © RO’C

Hallfield Estate, Paddington; Lubetkin, 1946-49. © RO’C.
(Because of the intervention of the Second World War, buildings designed in the Thirties were built in the later Forties and early Fifties.)

Rationalism

Rationalism, its acme the grid, was understood as a building block of the Modern Movement and all its works. And, in terms of this phase of trauma processing, this makes sense. The psychological effect of the characteristically stark, geometric grid is to foster a feeling of security through visible predictability. As with the blank walls that exclude history and memory, so the grid dispenses with hidden corners, unexpected bends or puzzling tangents. Nothing unpleasant will be stumbled across as the eye scans the facade.


Loughborough estate, Brixton; JL Martin, LCC, 1953-57. © RO’C.
(The Modernist slab, though largely built in Britain in the late Forties and early Fifties, was conceived and designed during the Thirties. Note the irony of the pub name – Le Corbusier was Swiss.)

However, the steady, progressive working of the will of memory can also be perceived in such  site as, ironically, such slabs are full of blind corners inside, remote stairwells and claustrophobic passageways. Contrary to the plan, they induce heightened feelings of insecurity among the residents. Thus the beginnings of a reproduction of the inherently insecure landscape of the Front can be perceived. This theme of practitioners ending up with the opposite of what they set out to do, is, in fact, indicative of the progress of the subconscious will of memory. The conscious becomes an acceptable cover for the subconscious, its antithesis. By demanding, in uncompromising ideological terms, acceptable, secure social housing for anonymous clients, architects become the unwitting tools of a subconscious drive that, in effect, made them produce unacceptable, dangerously insecure social housing peculiarly fitting for survivors of the Front.

Stradophobia

An aversion to the public street, a fear of it almost, was characteristic of Modern Movement urban planning. The street is a place of interaction, a meeting place, where the known mixes with the unknown. The idea of doing away with the street, promoted by the Modern Movement, was acceptable to the public because the street was a place where too much could happen, where faces could be recognised, stories told, memories jogged. The first stage of melancholia could not handle the open-ended nature of the street, it needed self-containment, for fear of meeting something strange.

Hallfield estate, Paddington; Tecton, 1947, executed by Drake and Lasdun, 1950s. © RO’C

Zoning

Discrete, functional zones, a basic principle of the Modernists, allowed interaction and exchange within the city to be simplified and made more efficient, but also less susceptible to the unpredictable. The reassuring regularity and repetition of the zoned city meant that little untoward could be imagined happening there. As William Faulkner alluded to the need for underlying order in The Sound and the Fury (1929), each element and function was in its ordered place. The idea of the city as febrile Great Wen is rejected, not only because such a concept harks back to a discredited pre-war landscape of inhabitation, but because anything febrile might allow the unexpected to emerge – the forgotten, the half-forgotten, the deliberately repressed.

Ville Radieuse plan, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, 1930.
(A – residential/cultural; B – Hotels/embassies; C – Business; D – Light Industry; E – Heavy industry; F, G – Government institutions/Universities; H – Airport).

Aversion to the city and the soil

If one were to summarise the prevailing attitude of Modernist planners towards the city from the Thirties, it seems to have been a general aversion to its centralising tendencies and an antipathy to the land itself on which the city was built. Thus, huge road projects were envisaged which entailed demolishing much of the core and allowing drivers to pass through and get away from the city while devaluing what might actually be arrived at within its limits. Such was the thinking by the Fifties, for example, which turned the great London boulevards of St James St, Pall Mall and the Haymarket into unpleasant one-way rat-runs, or envisaged, in the early Seventies, an elevated motorway as replacement for the homely hub of Covent Garden market, or in Paris, most painful of all, that converted the Place de la Concorde, site of the execution of Louis XI and the triumph of the French Revolution, into a roundabout the size of several football pitches. In terms of the land itself, doctrinal adherence to Corbusier’s concept of lifting residential units to first-floor level and above, the better to enjoy the fresher air, meant the ground itself of the city was abandoned to parking lots, refuse collection areas and unattractive voids and discontinuities in the cityscape. However, if one re-imagines the city as the Front repatriated, then the curious urge to abandon the very ground it occupies becomes understandable, for such ground becomes toxic beyond endurance.