absorbing modernity: tyranny

Wanting to be modern seems like madness, we are condemned to be modern.

Octavio Paz, Mexican Pavilion 2014, Condemned to be modern.


I could use the word ‘tyranny’ in three ways here: firstly, the ‘tyranny’ Paz refers to, that there seems no way out of modernity; second, the ‘tyranny’ of the architects and planners of modernity, beyond the control of those they effect; third, the ‘tyranny’ of tyrannical governments for which modernity and industrialisation became supreme tools of oppression.

The last one first. Many of the exhibits from the former Soviet bloc countries focus on the obvious links between totalitarian regimes and modernity. Totalitarianism is probably impossible without modernity.  They both shared the ambition and the means to remake the world. Totalitarian control requires economic, social and political change at an industrial level, and here, the factory is both metaphor and actuality. The mass production of goods is at once the mass production of architecture and the mass production of people. New people, new architecture.

The Romanian (‘Site Under Construction’) and Kosovo (‘Visibility: imposed modernity’) pavilions detail the destruction of traditional building (and therefore culture) under communism: depressing displays of photographs of that destroyed, and of that now left standing. Allende’s Chile (‘Monolith Controversies’) was no totalitarian state, but the architecture of socialism here was imported from the Soviet Union: the concrete pre-fab housing factory. 


I was reminded of our own Australian experience: the famous Housing Commission experiments of the 1960’s and ’70’s in Melbourne: the world’s tallest pre-fab buildings of that time. They were regarded as an engineering marvels, they could be taken down piece by piece as easily as they were were put up. Of course, they have not been taken down.

The pavilions of France (‘Modernity: promise or menace?’) and Britain (‘A Clockwork Jerusalem’) emphasis the point that the architecture of totalitarianism was never confined to totalitarian states. In this ‘tyranny’ the architects and town planners lead the way. The Russian Pavilion (‘Fair Enough: Russia’s Past, Our Present’) makes the same point by mocking up the exhibition as a ‘trade fair’ of architectural requirements and elements. 

The British pavilion documents the architectural enthusiasm for these sorts of developments, and the ideological underpinnings.


“When Hugh Wilson and Lewis Womersley built the 3,284 housing units of the Hulme Crescents in 1971, they were already building on hallowed ground. This was the site of industrial slums described with dramatic effect by Friedrich Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1844. Wilson and Womersley built a monument to the emancipation of the working classes from their Victorian subjugation, using the history of architecture to prove their point.


Hulme Estate: Eagle Crescent

Each of the four Crescents were named after famous Georgian architects whose spirit would now be shared with the workers’ families in Manchester, instead of the landed gentry. Hulme itself later acquired the reputation of a slum when a series of design faults led to the estate being closed to families. For a short while, the Crescents became a free zone for the Bohemian culture that also spawned the Factory music scene and bands like Joy division, before it was demolished in 1991, barely two decades after opening.”

Perhaps the most famous example is Le Corbusier’s La Ville Radieuse, his ‘final solution’ for Paris. Mercifully, it was never built, although Le Corbusier did manage to commit a similar crime in the old city of Algiers. What is striking in all these designs is the absence of actual people. The people that these schemes are designed for are an abstracted ‘people’, ‘the people’ are the same ‘people’ that totalitarian regimes and ideologies constantly reference, but there are no persons here, and no ‘person architecture’.


© 2014 Linzi Murrie All rights reserved.