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Alan Colquhoun's Modern Architecture is a somewhat less-than-traditional survey of modern architecture, exploring the evolution of the movement from Art Nouveau in the 1890s to the megastructures of the 1960s. Colquhoun, Professor Emeritus in the School of Architecture at Princeton University, explores the complex motivations behind modernism and critically assesses its triumphs and failures in a mere 287 pages with 183 illustrations. This account seems a little light in both length and visuals in comparison with other current and past textbooks, such as Kenneth Frampton's 328-page Modern Architecture: a Critical History, which contains 362 illustrations. However, after comparing the information provided in Colquhoun's account with that of other modern architecture textbooks, it seems that there is very little that he has left out. Colquhoun writes with an originality and succinctness that is both readable and enjoyable.
Colquhoun introduces his book by explaining the ambiguity of the term "modern architecture." Some support the view that modern architecture encompasses all buildings of the modern period regardless of their ideological basis. Colquhoun, however, takes the stance that it is an architecture "conscious of its own modernity and striving for change" (Colquhoun, 9). His arguments and examples throughout the rest of the book precisely reflect this viewpoint. According to Colquhoun, the book seeks to situate itself in the space between the "idealist utopias of the historical avant-gardes and the resistances, complexities, and pluralities of capitalist culture," forming something of a bridge between the two periods (Calquhoun, 9). He makes clear that the book is in no way attempting to be encyclopedic, though the narrative does follow an overall chronological sequence, and tries to be less certain in its outcome and less triumphalist than those of most previous histories of modernism. Colquhoun is not presenting views that he believes to be superior to all others; rather, he is exploring the movement in a critical, in-depth manner through a series of essays reflecting an important moment in the confrontation of architecture with the external conditions of modernity. The book aims to sharpen our image of the adventure of the modern movement.
The first chapter provides a good idea of how Colquhoun organizes information, the tone he takes with the subject matter, and what factors he explores in order to provide his account of modern architecture. Curiously, Colquhoun begins his exploration of this adventure in the 1890s with the Art Nouveau movement, not the Arts and Crafts movement which preceded it. He does, however, cite the Arts and Crafts movement as its inspiration and explains its origins to a certain extent. On the opening page of the chapter we see a full-page photograph of a view within the octagonal stair hall of Victor Horta's Hotel Van Eetvelde, completed in 1895 in Brussels. Horta's work is a perfect exemplar of Art Nouveau and has been used in other textbooks, such as Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co's Modern Architecture. It's possible that Colquhoun uses this less-than-original example to establish the fact that he is not trying to give a radical account of modern architecture.
Upon reading just the first paragraph, it becomes apparent that Colquhoun is very geographically oriented. He traces the beginnings of Art Nouveau from Belgium, then to France, and finally to the rest of Europe. He goes on to explore the movement in several individual countries such as Austria, England, Germany, and Spain. He also explains how the movement spread so rapidly-by means of journals such as The Studio, which contained high-quality, mass-produced images. He pays careful attention to the circumstances surrounding the movement, such as the Industrial Revolution. Colquhoun cites not only the Arts and Crafts movement as a considerable influence on Art Nouveau, but the use of iron as an expressive architectural medium and the theories and designs of French architect and theorist Viollet-le-Duc as well. In addition to explaining the cultural events surrounding the movement, Colquhoun also explains the philosophical movements that contributed to it, namely Symbolism, which holds that art should not imitate appearances but should reveal an essential underlying reality.
After providing a complete idea of how the movement came about, Colquhoun begins a detailed explanation of the technical aspects of the movement in its birthplace of Belgium and France and the underlying principles that formed it. He explains that the characteristic motif of Art Nouveau is a flowering plant-like form of the kind first found in English book illustration and French ceramic work of the 1870s and 1880s, and provides a photograph of a ceramic piece by Eugene Rousseau from 1887 for reference. He employs the work of Henry van de Velde to describe the fusion of subjective and objective and of ornament and structure that Art Nouveau encompassed, using a chair designed by van de Velde as an example. From there, Colquhoun jumps from city to city, exploring the effects of the movement on the inhabitants as well as the effects of political and social factors on the movement itself, providing sufficient exemplary illustrations along the way, but not peppering the pages with extraneous images. Each image provided highlights a specific aspect of the text and contains a brief explanation of how they do so in the label. Bruno Taut's Modern Architecture, on the other hand, provides several pages of text describing the various movements followed by several pages worth of images, lacking any explanation of how they fit into the scheme of things. In my opinion, Colquhoun's method is much more effective and helpful. As he jumps around the globe, Colquhoun chooses one or several architects from each country or city and a corresponding work that best exemplify the movement. His choice of architects does not stray very far from the traditional and most popular examples, but he manages to give them a fresh spin, shedding new light on their roles as architectural masters. Colquhoun ends the chapter by explaining the causes for the decline of the movement, citing affordability of the products and the decline of bourgeois and nationalist fantasies.
The proceeding eleven chapters, focusing either on a specific theme or region, follow much the same organizational method that the first lays out and include topics ranging from the artistry of Adolf Loos to the social engineering of Scandinavia and a wide variety of subjects in between. In the second chapter, Colquhoun takes us to Chicago to explore organicism versus classicism from 1890 to 1910.