Modernism first emerged in the early twentieth century, and by the 1920s, the prominent figures of the movement – Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe - had established their reputations. However it was not until after the Second World War that it gained mass popularity, after modernist planning was implemented as a solution to the previous failure of architecture and design to meet basic social needs. During the 1930s as much as 15% of the urban populations were living in poverty, and slum clearance was one of the many social problems of this decade.
Students at the Bauhaus school of design were taught purity of form and to design for a better world by Walter Gropius. The phrase ‘form follows function’ is often used when discussing the principles of modernism. It asserts that forms should be simplified – architectural designs should bear no more ornament than is necessary to function. Modernists believe that ornament should follow the structure and purpose of the building. Family life and social interaction was at the centre of the modernist dream for a planned environment. “The vision was for trouble free areas by mixing blocks with terraces to create squares, zoning services and amenities, all interlinked by roads”. The modernists planned for zoned areas where residential and commercial amenities were distinct and separate. In his introduction to Modernism in Design, Paul Greenhalgh outlined key features in modernist design including function, progress, anti-historicism and social morality. These principles can be found in many of the key realisations of the modernist dream – Le Corbusier’s famous Villa Savoye in Poissy, France is a prime example. It shows no reference to historic architectural design; the pioneering plan was a progressive leap for the late 1920s. The form clearly follows the intended functions of the residential building, bearing no unnecessary ornament, and the open space surrounding the structure as well as the open plan interior lends itself to the ideals of social living and communication. The modernist ideals were not applied to social housing until 1937, when Maxwell Fry’s Kensal House in London applied the principles of the movement to a social housing scheme. It was a success and is still popular with its residents today. It then became the prototype for other social housing projects to follow the example of modern living.
Many projects of the modernist era were initially successful, and the public came to associate this strong aesthetic with prosperity and progress. In the post war era, the ambitions of the modernists and their “strong sense of social responsibility in that architecture should raise the living conditions of the masses.”
One successful project by the architect Ralph Eskrine was the Byker Housing project in Newcastle, which began in the 1960s. Historically, Byker began as a village, but by the late 19th century the dominant type of housing in the working class area was the Tyneside flat. Conditions were poor, and occupants of the area generally suffered from overcrowding, poor sanitation and poverty. Despite the less that desirable situation, Byker was noted for it’s character, and the strength of neighbourly relationships. The design team were keen to retain this sense of community, and as such, “Byker was one of the first major attempts in Britain to create a dialogue between community and architecture.”
The public housing development combines a perimeter type wall of multi storey flats, low rise housing and public spaces and play areas. The wall makes use of a south facing aspect to utilise light and views across the city and of the River Tyne. 20 percent of the accommodation is housed in the wall, but the remaining majority was contained in the low rise houses within. The project took a modern approach to living, yet mixed it with a consideration for those who would reside there, a lack of which has been a...
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