52B/52W, Week 1: Militant Modernism



Militant Modernity - Owen Hatherley

I have to thank my dad for making me read this, though he didn't recommend it. I ordered a photo book for him, a retrospective of Balthazar Korab's architectural photography (extremely nice hardcover photo book for that price by the way), and was a few dollars short of free Amazon express shipping; I clicked the first option in the recommend readings, and that was that. I expected this book to be mainly about architecture, from the cover illustration and context of the Amazon recommendation. Not so: it's a much wider retrospective on Modernism, as an attitude that inspired a current. 

First thing I realized is that this book feels distinctly British. Being fresh off a year of reading stuff from French authors, I noticed a habit of the latter to discuss typically french cultural elements: from general works like manuals on recent political history to Albert Camus' L'homme revolté, they all shared a similar francocentricity. The constant mention of the french revolution and related concepts like jacobinisme is the most striking. I suppose you can't blame them for operating within a certain cultural frame of reference. Anyhow, this book had the same sort of alien feel, firstly because of lengthy discussion of modern architecture in a British context to which I am totally oblivious, secondly because it discusses British politics and authors, which I at best know only by name. Most points that the author makes is with British examples. Case in point: Wiley's Ice Rink is cited at page 119. 

This book's greatest quality to me was exactly the fact the it went beyond my cultural frame of reference. This is what I like to call a Wikipedia book: you have to read this with a browser open nearby, at least I had to, because it's so all over the place that you NEED additional information from elsewhere. When visual arts are discussed, there a some pictures that aid comprehension, but so few that additional research is very much necessary. In the case of more philosophical concepts, most of the authors I had no idea even existed, as most are obscure german or russian theorists of various branches of socialism. It's a gateway book: it put many photo-books on my wishlist, and a lot of new authors on my reading list. 

There is a central point around which the book gravitates, although it does so rather loosely: a plea for the continuity of the modernist attitude, a spirit of rebellion and renewal. The author presents modernity while contextualizing it in 20th century socialism, with at it's roots marxism and the russian revolution, with enough coherence to make it sound objectively true. However this objectivity is sometimes lost in occasional jabs at liberalism, which makes this book sound like a politically-loaded manifesto. This highlights certain contradictions, one in particular: Hatherley exalts state planning of urbanism, destroying the old to make place for the new, yet is very critical of the ongoing destruction of British modern buildings, which he's sees as a reactionary return to bourgeois standards by conservative administrations, to use marxist vocabulary. This a trap you wouldn't expect him to fall in, since he discusses exactly that at the very beginning of the book. This attempt at getting a political messages through in a book that is more of an exposé than anything else doesn't take anything away from the work itself, it just feels a little weird and out of place. 

Bottom line the bottom line is that this isn't a 20$ book. With colour illustrations? Probably worth it. This is EXACTLY the kind of book that I'd pay 10$ to have on iPad, with full sized images and pertinent links within the text. On paper however,  I feel that the impact of the read is much less important. Nonetheless, at the price I got it for (which is basically free since I saved on shipping), I'm glad I have broadened my horizons with it.