Cities of Modernity

Owing to recent employment-related changes, the RIBA building on Portland Place is now only an invigorating 13-minute walk from work. Their Tuesday Lates are pretty good events (I still need to write about the most recent one), whereas last night was a one-off related to the current Mackintosh exhibition. On the way there I planned to buy a meal-replacing naughty flapjack, but the main counter in the shop was unmanned. At the rear of the shop, there was someone who would cheerfully fiddle with your phone, for money, not that this was a service I required. Hmmph. Nak’d bar it was then, for pre-talk sustenance.

The title of the evening was “Modernity: European Art and Architecture 1880-1914”, making it a real-life compressed equivalent of the series Alistair Sooke presented, at least the Vienna edition. The RIBA building itself is always an Art Deco treat. What I haven’t managed is to see the current exhibition yet – there’s still a month remaining. At the entrance to the lecture theatre we were given surprise gifts, which didn’t include a companion to the free Tunnock’s Caramel wafer of a few weeks ago, sadly.

The first speaker, Alan Powers, covered Glasgow. He explicitly didn’t have too much to say about Charles Rennie Mackintosh, covering instead people I didn’t know about such as John James Burnet and James Salmon, showing photos of their buildings. One painting he displayed depicted a “Whistlerian view” (Whistler was mentioned again during the panel) while another showed the “thrumming” of Glaswegian industry. The Glaswegian architects were clearly aware of contemporary work in Chicago, he claimed, and he noted that one of the prime motivations in the city was to rival Edinburgh, contests with London and other cities being of secondary importance. Some of the buildings he described had been demolished, but the striking Templeton Carpet Factory by William Leiper remains, and I’ll definitely try to find it the next time I’m up there.

Next came Vienna, its advocate being Daniel Snowman. He concentrated on Viennese culture, though he did point the importance of the demolition of the city walls and their replacement by the Ringstrasse, with buildings of wildly varying styles appearing along its route. He referred to the risk of “ghastly Schrammel musicians entertaining you” and then stressed the importance of the Secession movement. Writers such as Hofmannstahl and Schnitzler were among many working in Vienna, which he described as a “self-regarding and incestuous world”, riven with “very trendy suicides”, all to be destroyed by Gavrilo Princip.

Barcelona was described by Greg Votalato. His first photo showed the development of the Eixample area, with the internal courtyards of the buildings and the practicality of the chamfered corners, so designed as to allow the large trams to turn around corners. He sought to link commerce and culture in the city, noting parallels between the vertical crypts of the Montjuic cemetery and the modern ubiquity of shipping containers in the port. Gaudi was described, of course, but he stressed that many of his famous buildings were the result of collaborations with people whose importance tended to be ignored. Finally he posited a thread between the architecture of that period and the later International Style.

The final advocate was Stephen Smith, talking about Paris. I’d particularly enjoyed his BBC Four series about Art Nouveau and he covered some of the same ground here. (I still want to visit a chapel or building he mentioned in this series, somewhere in Surrey (?), but stupidly I didn’t make a note at the time – the Watts Chapel?). Ever keen teasingly to leap between High and Low culture, he said that while the evening wasn’t a competition, nevertheless his team of “galacticos” would triumph – Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Seurat, Degas etc. The eleventh player was Gertrude Stein, as much for her stimulating effect on other artists as her own writing (in the panel discussion later, Greg Votalato emphasised her importance, even if her books weren’t particularly readable). He extolled Cezanne’s “matchless pippins” and went on to talk about Art Nouveau, with the repeating images of dragonflies and metamorphosis. Mackintosh himself moved to France, as support of her thesis, and he wondered whether Nicola Sturgeon would campaign to retrieve his ashes for the Nation. Castel Beranger felt like something “built by swarms of bees driven mad by Royal jelly”, perhaps as a result of the curators’ over-eager buffing. As in the programme, he lamented the demolition of most of the extravagant Metro entrances, which were described in Modern Architecture magazine as a combination of “rational planning, to non-rational intent”.

All the speakers formed a panel on stage, considering questions such as which contemporary cities might be included in a modern list, and whether the indeed the nature of culture still supported such physical foci of endeavour. London was defended as somewhere that could have been included in the original list, and in an updated one, with the warning that artists are being priced out. Diaghilev’s ballet was cited as a potent “carrier of culture”, during the discussion about the extent to which the turn of the century artists/architects were aware of developments around the world, while EasyJet and Airbnb are “key enablers of cultural production” today. Alan Powers stressed the need to differentiate between “modernity” and “modernism”, and he mentioned E. W Godwin, who was a new figure to me. The final audience participant said that Glasgow could be included as a city with great cultural importance today, which led one panellist to feel sad about the changes in UK art education, which is now largely restricted to the wealthy.

The speakers were entertaining and clearly knowledgeable, and I now have a small list of new things to see and people to investigate, which is a good test of an evening expedition.

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