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Reading Alexandra Harris’s curious book on Romantic Moderns, I came upon a chapter describing the attitude of high modernist architects to decoration. This is best summed up in a 1908 lecture by Adolf Loos called ‘Ornament and Crime’. As Harris puts it: ‘Decoration, he suggested, encouraged vices by concealing them; ornament was the beguiling accomplice of the century’s many crimes.’

Loos wasn’t the only one to think that way, a similar view was expressed in one form or another by Roger Fry, the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and others. And, of course, it found expression in their work. I remember, in the modernism exhibition at the V&A that I visited a few years ago, seeing early designs for glass-fronted buildings.

And these, of course, were exactly the sorts of apartment buildings you find in Yevgeny Zamiatin’s We, and for the same reason. Everything is exposed, so no crimes can be committed.

Which made me wonder: was We an attack on modernism as much as an attack on Soviet communism? Or, indeed, was Soviet communism a political expression of high modernism?

4 thoughts on “Panopticon

  1. Two weekends ago I attended this show at the Art Institute of Chicago: “Avant-Garde Art in Everyday Life.” It’s a great exhibit, showcasing work by PIet Zwart and other Constructivist designers who worked to transform mass-produced objects into works of art (the beginnings of today’s ubiquitous industrial design). Of course it all went wrong in numerous ways (Ikea, Crate and Barrel, Bed Bath and Beyond, Target, &c), but the original work is astonishingly beautiful, even noble in its intention.

    But that said, the whole time I kept thinking, they really should hand out that Loos essay to everyone who attends. It’s the most under-read essay I can think of at the moment–one of the most revelatory things a contemporary person can read, to understand the shocking origin of so much contemporary design aesthetic.

    (A copy of the essay is here, for anyone who hasn’t read it.)

    1. Adam, this is, frankly, not an area that I know a great deal about. But I find the coincidence of modernism and early 20th century totalitarianism, curious. Both the Soviet regime of the 20s and 30s and the Nazi regime of the 30s were suffused with a modernist look: Soviet film posters, print design, architecture; Speer’s architecture, the films of Leni Riefenstahl. Combine that with the dictatorial tone of so many of the modernist ‘manifestos’, the sense that people should accommodate themselves to the design rather than making the design adaptable to the people. There is something in this that, at some point, I may pursue.

      1. I can’t say I know the most about it, either. But I’ll be thinking about it a lot over the next five of so years, while attending the University of Illinois at Chicago; a significant portion of that school’s campus was designed by Walter Netsch.

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