Modern, but not contemporary


The owners of the RIBA Stirling prize nominated ‘Outhouse‘ describe it: “We didn’t want it to be built like it was a house from a hundred years ago,” in a BBC interview.

It’s a bizarre statement because stylistically it’s clearly the descendant of nearly a century of Modernist design, that can be traced back to the famed 1928 ‘Barcelona Pavilion‘ by Mies Van Der Rohe. Compare the two side by side:


Above: ‘The Outhouse’, nominated for the 2016 RIBA Stirling Prize

Below: The ‘Barcelona Pavilion’ circa 1928.

It’s time we stop conflating Modernist design with contemporary design. The Outhouse is stylistically a Modernist house, but represents little of the present day period in which it is built. I don’t mind people building Modernist design if that’s what they like, but it’s clearly wrong to call it contemporary.

Advocates of Modernism frequently use that kind of language to describe buildings like the above as being ‘of their time’, and criticize non-Modernist architecture as anachronistic. But this is plainly nonsense. Modernism is not based in the present day. It was a vision of the present and future formed in the early 20th century.

When first created Modernism in architecture had counterparts in all other art forms such as paintings by Mondrian, or music by Schoenberg. Looking at them comparatively you can see they were of the same cultural moment. Yet if you look around contemporary culture today – at painting, fashion, film-making or furniture design you will see little that resembles Modernism or ‘The Outhouse’.

Modernism was of its time, but it’s not of our time.

It’s time we stopped talking about it so.