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Review: Ornament is crime celebrates our Modernist architectural heritage

PUBLISHED: 11:00 10 July 2017 | UPDATED: 12:33 10 July 2017

Tadao Ando: House in Monterrey, Monterrey, Mexico, 2011 (Courtesy of Ornament is Crime/Phaidon)

Tadao Ando: House in Monterrey, Monterrey, Mexico, 2011 (Courtesy of Ornament is Crime/Phaidon)

© VIEW Pictures Ltd

In a much needed re-evaluation of Modernist architecture, Ornament is Crime celebrates the enduring architectural legacy of the last century. Frankie Crossley speaks to co-author Matt Gibberd.

Ornament is Crime, Matt Gibberd and Albert Hill, Phaidon, £29.95Ornament is Crime, Matt Gibberd and Albert Hill, Phaidon, £29.95

Crime of passion

In a much needed re-evaluation of Modernist architecture, Ornament is Crime celebrates the enduring architectural legacy of the last century. Frankie Crossley speaks to co-author Matt Gibberd.

Modernist architecture doesn’t get an easy ride when it comes to critics. With its roots firmly in the early 20th Century, Modernist buildings have ever since been somewhat a ‘marmite topic’; either loved or loathed. Now, a new book breathes life into Modernist work past and present, reflecting on its ideals and infused with a furious aversion to the perils of unnecessary ornament.

Walter Gropius: Gropius House, Lincoln, MA, USA, 1938  (Courtesy of Ornament is Crime/Phaidon)Walter Gropius: Gropius House, Lincoln, MA, USA, 1938 (Courtesy of Ornament is Crime/Phaidon)

Ornament is Crime title takes its name from a renowned 1908 essay written by Adolf Loos, delivered to reject the prevailing style of Art Nouveau. “The evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects,” wrote Loos.

Author of the introduction to this impressive volume, Matt Gibberd grew up in a Georgian house. With a renowned architect for a grandfather in Sir Frederick Gibberd, the man behind the Liverpool Cathedral, as well as an architect for a father, Gibberd was always attuned to Modernism. “I suppose I grew up with modern architecture as part of my surroundings,” he says.

His late grandfather’s former garden on Downshire Hill in Hampstead is now the site of the famous Hopkins House which features in the book and is still lived in by its 1970s architects Michael and Patty Hopkins. “It’s a very high tech piece of architecture as they call it, a high tech style in amongst the beautifully preserved Georgian street. It’s very unusual,” says Gibberd, who would go on to establish The Modern House agency with co-author Albert Hill, now based in Islington.

“My interest came after graduating from university. I went into magazines, I worked at the World of Interiors magazine and got a very good grounding there in all forms of aesthetics. I ended up writing a lot of their house stories, the modern ones for them, and I still do that. So I guess that’s where it stemmed from,” he says on his road to becoming an agent and Modernism connoisseur.

�ebo Lich� Architects: House Among the Trees, Bratislava, Slovakia, 2013 (Courtesy of Ornament is Crime/Phaidon)�ebo Lich� Architects: House Among the Trees, Bratislava, Slovakia, 2013 (Courtesy of Ornament is Crime/Phaidon)

Now living in a Modernist home in Highgate designed in the 1960s by and for Swiss architect Walter Segal, Gibberd is planning his own project. “I’ve been working with Assemble, the architects who won the Turner Prize, to build a house at the bottom of the garden. So we’re trying to add our own small form of architectural legacy as well,” he laughs.

There’s quite the back catalogue to add to. With a canon of Modernist homes in the area, from the well known Isokon Building to the Highpoint Estate to the less well known Highgate Spinney and Spedan Close, “Hamsptead and Highgate has a particularly large amount of interesting housing stock,” Gibberd affirms.

With the book only featuring standalone homes, local Modernist gems featured in the book include 66 Frognal, a 1938 home of much contention due to its International style and cacophony of colour, as well as the 2007 Sunken House in De Beauvoir, and Newington Green House built in 2005.

Why might north London be such a mecca for Modernism? “There are a couple of reasons,” he explains. “Firstly, Hampstead and Highgate are where the liberal minded have tended to congregate and I think you’ve always had an artistic community, particularly in Hampstead.

“There’s also been a bit more of an availability of land there, so people since the 60s have built some really amazing larger scale projects and one off houses, and continue to do so. I think it’s a bit more of an open minded area design-wise than other parts of London.” Liberal has certainly been a term lathered over the residents of north London, in both positive and negative incarnations in equal measure.

Once written off as ugly or plain, distance and perhaps a new more open minded attitude has seen a renewed interest in the much maligned architectural style. “Having run the modern house for the last 12 years I would say the general understanding of and interest in Modernism has exploded in that time frame,” Gibberd says..

“And I think that that’s because it’s only with some kind of historical analysis and perspective that we can actually appreciate the merits of something and work out what the best examples are. I think the answer is we’ve not got enough perspective on it; we’re far enough away to be able to appreciate the good ones.”

There are a whole host of examples to choose from, with examples plucked from every corner of the globe and illustrated in equalising black and white. “I would describe it as a book for the Instagram generation in that it’s very visually led. And the idea was that we’ve given it a deliberate lack of hierarchy I suppose, so what the book does, it juxtaposes houses from different years and different parts of the modern movement.

“You might have a house from the 1930s next to a house built last year and it shows the aesthetic similarities between them without any comment. But the idea is that it shows how modernism has remained remarkably consistent and still is very much thriving in architecture now.”

Gibberd explains that, although timeless, each building must be built to suit its context. “I think it’s important that we build things that are of our time so that we can progress, rather than pastiche. I don’t believe in building in a pastiche way. I also think the best modern buildings are very sensitive to their context.”

Indeed, to demonstrate just how different those contexts can be, the book integrates the more recent and subtly differentiated work of Sou Fujimoto, Tadao Ando and John Pawson, with contemporary architecture ensures the lingering legacy of the style pervades into the present. It also has a global appeal, with examples drawn from Mexico to Chile to Japan’s Moriyama House.

And why has it remained so timeless and uniform even on a global scale? “I think because it has very enduring qualities. I think because modernism is about the landscape, bringing the outside in, it’s about living with natural light. It’s about the new possibilities of concrete and steel to enable people to live in an open plan way if they wanted to. There’s a lot of variation in the way that people live in modernist houses as a result of those materials. I think as a style it has an innate longevity to it.”

Gibberd and Hill cultivate a sense of context with quotes and lyrics from popular culture, drawing on a range of figures and groups from Oscar Wilde to The xx. “Really the quotes are a way to provoke the reader a little bit but also to provide a counterpoint to the images. And they’re all in some way inspired by this idea that ornament is crime. Albert put the quotes together and they’re from all sorts of sources from films to music lyrics to all sorts of things, and of course quotes from architects themselves.”

“To be honest it’s to add a bit of colour throughout the book because the way that it’s formatted is there’s an introductory essay that I’ve written which is a very personal account of my own experience of Modernism.”

Ornament is Crime isn’t billed as a follow up to Phaidon’s This Brutal World, but it certainly follows a similar format, and targets a form of marmite architecture that’s either loved or hated. “I’m a great believer in preserving the best examples of every era,” says Gibberd. “I agree there are some very bad examples of modernist building, but that we need to safeguard the very best examples.” Of that, there are clearly plenty.

Ornament is crime is published by Phaidon and is available for £29.95.

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