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Ambiguous Objects: Modernism, Brutalism and the Politics of the Picturesque
‘Ambiguous Objects: Modernism, Brutalism and the Politics of the Picturesque’, is a book chapter published in Mark Swenarton, Igea Troiani and Helena Webster, eds, The Politics of Making (London an d New York, Routledge, 2007) pp. 183-194. Many creative architects have looked to the past to imagine the future, studying an earlier architecture not to replicate it but to understand and transform it, revealing its relevance to the present. William Kent admired Renaissance Italy, John Soane looked to ancient Greece and Ludwig Mies studied Schinkel. Countering the myth that modernism has no history, historians have resorted to different periods to give it a past. Associating a mild and misty climate with moderation and imagination, Nikolaus Pevsner identified the picturesque with a sensitivity to nature and place, ‘liberalism and liberty’, like others before him. Aware of inter-war resistance to a new architecture, he saw the picturesque as a means to make modernism familiar to England. Critical of modernist disregard for cultural, social and geographic differences, Pevsner drew attention to the picturesque in order to question one modernism—international, mechanical and insensitive—in favour of another—local, emotive and environmentally aware. Identifying the picturesque with ‘the modern revolution’ as well as a later modernism, and associating the picturesque with England while affirming its wider relevance, he attempted a delicate balance of ideas. In 1955 Reyner Banham supported a new architectural movement, Brutalism, which he opposed to the picturesque and to Pevsner. But his favoured architects⎯Alison and Peter Smithson⎯also disappointed him. Like Pevsner, their fascination for the picturesque was a means to reassess and revise modernism. Rather than Banham’s tabula rasa—a concern for technology and disposability that served a market-led economy—the Smithsons favoured the continuity of modernism with earlier centuries and opposed the banality and wastefulness of consumer society. In choosing a site and a name, retaining fragments, creating a ‘half-building/half-ruin’, allowing ivy to grow inside and out, and enjoying the weather, their approach was characteristic of the picturesque, in which design, construction and use are potentially interdependent and open-ended. Recalling the eighteenth century as a means to reconsider the twentieth century, and recognising no rupture between the past, present and future, Upper Lawn Pavilion is picturesque, modernist and Brutalist.
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