University of Otago

The Word on Modernism:

How books aided a revolution in design, 1925-1965

Architectural Review
Le Corbusier
European Tradition
American Tradition
English Tradition
New Zealand - Beginnings



‘The Word On Modernism: How Books Aided a Revolution in Design’

Is revolution too strong a word to describe what happened to architecture in the second quarter of the 20th century? Although it was one form of design amongst many, modernism carried through a radical change in building that we still live with today. Berthold Lubetkin, a Russian architect in Britain during the 1930s, said it was a style of architecture intended for a society that did not eventuate, leaving these buildings as a reminder of a future that never came to pass. Modernism has been absorbed now into retro, possibly the longest-lived design trend of recent years. Its design logic continues to shape domestic building where the simple, shed-like forms of the post-war period have become a popular New Zealand vernacular.

Print media was a powerful ally in the spread of modernism, shaping opinions on the new architecture. This exhibition follows the path of the modern family house through architectural publications and tracks the visual education of an interested but non-specialist audience. Apart from the Home Science School where house planning was taught, the University of Otago has not entered the field of practical architectural education. These books and journals reflect an amateur appreciation when architecture was a truly popular subject but they do not constitute a history of modern architecture by themselves. Instead, this selection shows how modernist architecture was promoted through firm but gentle instruction. This ‘polite polemic’ ranged from mild persuasion to reformist blasts, particularly following the Second World War when good design was seen the cure for society’s ills.

The material collected by the University of Otago Library shows the campaign to promote modernism over all other forms of design to have been highly effective. The architectural books in the Brasch Collection and in the Bliss Classifications show a strong bias towards modernism as well as a resolutely Anglophile selectivity. The sheer weight of titles shows a cultural preference for British solutions to the design of the modern family house, despite the fact that the pace of design was being set elsewhere, notably in California. One particular British journal, the Architectural Review, is central to understanding the way that architecture was communicated in New Zealand. Its representation of international architecture with an emphasis on Scandinavia and the Americas, filtered through English sensibilities, produced a compelling combination.

This exhibition also tracks the development of New Zealand modernist architecture, both in this country and abroad. New Zealand exported a number of architects to England who became central to the modern movement. Their work was recognised there but little heralded at home. Local modernism was an eclectic field that local journals and publications represented in the same manner as the prestigious journals from England and North America. Carefully framed and cropped black and white images were set into graphically adventurous spreads. The moral issues were black and white as well, particularly in the early years. Home and Building and the Design Review were joined by arts and literary publications with the shared purpose of promoting an ideal form of design that is almost unimaginable today. The era closed with the battle for popular acceptance of modernism declared undecided. This can be seen in the 1960s plan books in which builder’s modernism co-existed with cosy looking bungalows, allowing choice for everyone. There was even a growing appreciation of previously despised Victorian architecture. Looking at these pages conveys something of the pleasure and excitement of seeing something new for the first time, when architecture had important things to say to everyday people and books and magazines were the way to communicate them.

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