The Modernist Concept Of Urban Design Cultural Studies Essay

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The development of our towns and cities is intrinsically linked to many architectural and cultural patterns and trends of the past. Indeed the Aesthetic and strategic practices of architecture and urban design contribute, through a complex of formal and informal processes, to the creation of urban cultures as well as giving shape to distinctive city image [Stevenson 2003].The social and technological changes which characterised the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries, created a momentum of change in the art, design and culture of Western Europe, and precipitated a shift in the ideas behind design and architecture, that laid the foundations for the evolution of the modernist movement. In essence the modernist movement fundamentally altered the way that those who designed the towns and cities we lived in, viewed their role, based upon utopian fancies, standardisation, new industrial materials such as re-enforced concrete, chrome and plate glass, abstraction and a vehement ambition to make a new world, not just a new art [Hughes 2006].

In Britain, the modernist movement did not really develop until the late 1920's and early 1930's, when the formation of institutions such as the Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM), began to formalise and standardise the idea of modernist architecture, not just as a means to design buildings, but to construct a whole new way of living - a style which would seek to incorporate the 'form follows form' mantra into the design of our cities and towns [Gibbered 2008]. During this time, continued urban migration, and the idea of using modern technology to exhort profound and positive influences via the design of our surroundings, was embraced by the majority of society, and soon captured by the imaginations of the architects. As the urban populations of the UK continued to grow, a new approach to urban planning was required that would be able to meet with the increased demand for housing and amenities.

The modernist concept of urban design, saw the traditional urban model for development in the towns and cities of Britain - relatively low-rise streets, squares and urban blocks - eschewed in favour of a rational, usually orthogonal, distribution of slab and point blocks set in park land and open space. The idea of this design was that, rather than being enclosed by buildings, urban space would now flow freely around them [Carmona 2003], and that the Le Corbusier view of eliminating the relative disorder of urban areas would be achieved.

An important development in the design of our towns and cities was the idea of how we lived. In 1934, the idea of communal living was first truly experimented on the middle classes with the design of the Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead (below). This idea of a more minimalist, functional way of living was fairly revolutionary to these social classes at the time and lay the way for similar residential developments such as the luxurious Highpoint one in 1935. This idea of communal living began to filter down to all social classes in London (such as such Maxwell Fry's Kensal House, the first modernist social housing project in Britain, which opened in 1937), and influenced the development of inner city housing, which continued for another four decades.

Lawn Road Flats in 1934 - Image taken from

During the post-war years, the devestation that many had endured seemed to re-envigorate the national psyche with an optimism, and to many there was a sense that here seemed to be a growing idea that this was a chance, not only to re-build Britain structurally, but also to take the nation in a new direction [Gibbered 2008]. Of course, the urban areas of our cities and towns had taken most of the fallout, and this opportunity was seized by modernist architects who believed that, by changing the design of how we lived in our cities and towns, they could provide ambitious solutions to solve extensive social problems. This opportunity, and apparent political will to develop and implement modernist was seen in many of the post-war constructions in Europe, and later through slum clearance programmes and subsequent road-building schemes [Carmona 2003]. In Britain, an extensive re-building project began (by the mid-1950s, 2,500 schools had been built and ten entirely new towns were either under construction or in the early stages of development), and there was a growing need for a town planning policy that could accommodate the needs of these people. This requirement for rapid functionality opened the door for Modernists to begin reshaping the appearance of British towns and cities [Gibbered 2008].

One of the key ideas that developed at this time, and has shaped many of Britain's urban landscapes, was the idea that new towns would be designed and built from scratch. Modernist urban space generally appears in its purest forms when built on Greenfield sites [Carmona 2003], and as such this design seemed to be perfect to implement when strategising the development of these new towns - a sort of blank canvass for many modernist architects of the time. The idea was to be able to create an urban modern utopia, which would deliver British city dwellers from the dark failures of Victorian housing to a bright new world of clean, functional towns [Gibbered 2008], with there dispersed site planning, brick housing, and homey 'people's detailing' [Hvattum and Hermansen 2004].

These New Towns…examples….

Depicted the modernist urban landscapes, presenting idealised sanitised visions of streets, public spaces, and buildings in which the users are little represented [Larkham 1997].

The pattern of modernist development in our towns and cities continued to dominate for the next couple of decades and, by the 1960's modernism had become the lingua franca of British architecture, whether it be schools, office complexes, homes, or even the new towns as above [Gibbered 2008]. Although perceived as successful demonstrations of 'urban utopia', the modernist ideal in urban development will be forever synonymous with the disastrous implementation of public housing schemes. Modernist urban space had moved away from buildings as consituent elements in urban blocks (i.e. concrete terraced masses) defining streets and squares, to buildings as separate free standing pavillions standing in amorphous space [Carmona 2003]. These planned estates could cope with high densities of population, and would provide the amminities that a community required within segregated blocks. What has since prevailed, and was marked during …..

The modern estates instead fostered a sense of isolation and anonymity, and reduced any existing sense of community. The product was fatally flawed; large blocks simplified the land-use pattern, and the nooks and crannies that house economically marginal but socially desirable uses and activities [Carmona 2003].

The rush to build high and fast 'system-built' blocks - prefabricated towers which could be assembled on site as a mean of housing in the cities of the UK, and the idea that ……… [Gibbered 2008].

During the early part of the twentieth century the transformations in terms of population, urban expansion, and a rapid development of communication and infrastructure, resulted in a society and a way of life bent on change and innovation, but also in instability, continual movement, and crisis [Hvattum and Hermansen 2004]. What now seems ill considered is that the visions for ideal cities, in particular those growing out of the modern movement in architecture, were diluted and warped by the 'messy' business of reconstructing actual cities, filled with real people whilst operating within democratic structures [Jones 2004]. Somehow - without any conscious intention on anyone's part - the ideals of free flowing space and pure architecture evolved into our present urban situation of individual buildings isolated in partking lots and highways [Tranick 1986]. Indeed, over the last two decades, the public criticism of this style of development in our towns and cities has resulted in an almost universally agreed idea that modernism, as a cogent philosophy of building a better society through architecture has failed [Gibbered 2008].