The legacy of modernism

Tuesday, 09 January 2018

Robin Hood Gardens residential estate

With over 30 years spent researching the rise and fall of the Modern Movement in architecture, particularly in Britain, Professor John Gold from Oxford Brookes University is now undertaking the final part of his research, capturing the movement’s legacy.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, a time of considerable bleakness for those who still believed in the core ideals and mission of architectural modernism, his project has sought to build an understanding of the role of modern architecture and architects in reshaping the fabric and structure of British metropolitan cities.  

Professor Gold’s subject matter had three main phases; the first was a period fuelled by the excitement of ideas but in which little was actually built; the middle stage saw cities dramatically reshaped and the final period was marked by challenge, disengagement and urban legacy.  

He has produced two, highly acclaimed books covering the first two phases: The Experience of Modernism: modern architects and the future city, 1928-53 (Spon/Routledge, 1997) and The Practice of Modernism: Modern Architects and Urban Transformation, 1954-72 (Routledge, 2007) and is now working on the primary archive and field research for his third volume due to be published at the end of 2019: The Legacy of Modernism: modern architects, the city and the collapse of orthodoxy, 1973-90.

Discussing his longstanding project, Professor Gold, Professor of Urban Historical Geography, said: “Inevitably, it has challenged me to start thinking and writing about some of the problems thrown up by a research project developed over an elongated period of time. Ways of thinking about the subject change, conceptual frameworks evolve, new methodologies gain popularity and old ones are discarded.  

“Fresh archival materials have been deposited to find homes for personal papers or practice records but other primary sources have been lost, sold or even destroyed.  Above all, the questions that one might ask now might well be different from those asked back then.”

Fresh archival materials have been deposited to find homes for personal papers or practice records but other primary sources have been lost, sold or even destroyed. Above all, the questions that one might ask now might well be different from those asked back then.

Professor John Gold, Professor of Urban Historical Geography, Oxford Brookes University

Over the years Professor Gold’s work has involved numerous oral history interviews with individuals who have particular architectural training. He has captured their recollections of the past and how they experienced the sea change in thinking about policy towards urban renewal.  

From spring this year he will carry out the last round of oral history interviews for this project, approximately 50 of them in total.  

Professor Gold said: “This current phase of research is certainly timely given the fragility of the key source of data. The generation of architects and planners I will be interviewing are now senior citizens, and many individuals who I would have liked to interview about their life and work have sadly died in the ten years since my previous volume was published.   

REA 2017

“It is therefore crucial to ensure that a satisfactory number of architects and planners who participated in this key period of urban change can be interviewed and their valuable testimony transcribed.   

“The benefits of this research are not confined to this one project. As well as enabling me to bring the project to a close with data that allows the same quality of insight as in my last two books, the project will also provide interview transcripts and audio-files that will serve as a lasting and key resource on the experience of those who readily considered themselves part of the Modern Movement.”  

Professor John Gold is one of the recipients of the Research Excellence Awards 2017/18, part of Oxford Brookes’ commitment to supporting research-active academics.

The funding is providing him with the opportunity to complete his research, including planning and carrying out the oral history interviews and also support with interview transcription.

Image: Designed by the Smithsons and completed in 1972, Robin Hood Gardens residential estate in east London was one of the accepted landmarks of brutalist architecture. It was demolished in 2017.