Was modernism complicit with colonialism, and did the struggle for decolonisation also entail a targeting of imperial modernist architecture? Mark Crinson visits the exhibition In the Desert of Modernity to see if the charge will stick.
Image: Aerial view of the Carrieres Centrales, Casablanca, c. 1953, showing Cité Verticale (centre foreground), surrounded by estates of courtyard houses and (left) the bidonville
By Mark Crinson
Modernist architecture was full of good intentions. It would dispel the irrational and the merely woolly. It would cleanse the body and heal the soul. It would draw a world of nasty parochialisms towards cosmopolitanism and the international. Announcing a new beginning it dismissed bad objects like history and style, as well as old regimes and empires, as just so much detritus of the past. And for some time, at least in Europe, it seemed possible to maintain this illusion. But then came the fall. Modernism was bureaucratised and commercialised, architects rebelled against its constraints, residents rejected its harsh disciplines, and historians began to expose its tainted connections. Yet modernist thinking retains some of its attractions; there is a seductive asceticism about it still, and nostalgia often for its utopias.
One of these lost illusions is addressed by the exhibition In the Desert of Modernity, held at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin (29 August – 26 October 2008). It argues for connections between French colonialism in North Africa, modernist architecture and planning, and social unrest in the estates, bidonvilles, and banlieues of contemporary European cities. The exhibition’s thesis essentially is that colonial attitudes to North Africa as a laboratory of modernity generated forms of resistance to colonialism and internal critique of modernism, and that all of these – the laboratory, the resistance and the critique – were then imported into European cities. Such an ambitious argument would potentially overload any exhibition, but the photographs, plans, videos, letters, posters, paintings, magazines and books on display did just enough to suggest the richness and significance of the subject.