Ornament is Crime: An homage to modernist architecture

Journey through nigh on a hundred years of modernism with the co-founders of top design-led estate agency The Modern House...

In this extract from Ornament is Crime, a ‘visual manifesto’ celebrating iconic modernist architecture from the 1920s up to the present day, Matt Gibberd explains the importance of the movement and how a shared passion for design helped build one of the UK’s top property agencies… 

The Modern House was the brainchild of my great friend, business partner and co-creator of this book, Albert Hill. It is somewhat of an anomaly in the property industry. We focus not on a particular location but on the design quality of the houses themselves. Many of the projects featured in these pages have passed through the hands of our agency, from High & Over, which was the first genuinely Modernist house built in the UK, through mid-century marvels like Farnley Hey, to more recent interpretations of the style by Graham Bizley and Carl Turner.

Albert and I both studied History of Art and Architecture at university. The Bauhaus was our academic entry point to Modernism, along with the exuberant Abstract Expressionism that came to dominate American art in the middle of the twentieth century. Immersing ourselves in the world of Modern architecture has since given us a much broader appreciation of its intricacies. After graduation, I became a senior editor at The World of Interiors, and Albert was the design editor at Wallpaper, and there’s nothing like a magazine training for refining the eye.

For us, the term ‘Modernism’ has a multifarious meaning. The purpose of this book is to identify its key aesthetic characteristics and show how this most trailblazing of architectural styles is still thriving in the twenty-first century. If Modernist architecture were a family tree, then contemporary architects such as Smiljan Radic, Tadao Ando and John Pawson would all have inherited limbs, ears and noses from the Modernist masters Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Loos declared that decorative details were for degenerates

The buildings in this book – all of them freestanding houses – have been grouped together according to aesthetic commonality, with a deliberate absence of hierarchy, to illustrate, for example, that a house in Yokohama built in 2012 shares a common Modernist lineage with Le Corbusier’s Maison Guiette in Belgium built almost 90 years before. By displaying them in black and white rather than colour, we have placed an emphasis on form and elevational disposition rather than surface detailing or geographical context. The result is a visual manifesto that seeks to reposition Modernism as a style that has transcended the generations to emerge remarkably unscathed. Very clear themes emerge: flat roofs, cubic or cylindrical structures, large windows in horizontal bands, a truth to materials, and a tendency towards plain-rendered exterior surfaces. All of these attributes can be seen in abundance in the architecture of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries that followed the period generally acknowledged as that of Modernism.

Crucially, of course, there is a defiant lack of surface decoration. The book’s title has been burgled from a lecture given in 1910 by the acerbic Austrian architect and theorist Adolf Loos, called Ornament and Crime. In a reaction to the florid forms of Art Nouveau, Loos declared that decorative details were for degenerates – he believed that real design should be strong and stolid and stripped-back. His buildings, such as Villa Muller and the Steiner House, were economical, utilitarian and pure of form.

Adolf Loos: Villa Müller, Prague, Czech Republic, 1930. Picture credit: Vaclav Sedy (page 139)

Loos’ stance had a profound effect, and the white shoots of Modernism sprang up throughout Europe. The newly discovered structural possibilities of steel and concrete did away with the restrictions of small, cellular rooms. And the gradual erosion of social hierarchies in the early twentieth century meant that households were less reliant on servants, and the result was a new world of open-plan family living, where vast expanses of glass brought the outside firmly in.

Indeed, a century after it hatched from its determinedly rectilinear shell, Modernism is as stark and exhilarating as ever, and many contemporary architects continue to use it as their primary reference point. Perhaps the most poignant example is the building on the cover of this book, designed by Bruno Fioretti Marquez. Located at the Bauhaus campus in Dessau, it is a reinterpretation of two houses originally designed by Walter Gropius for professors of the school, which were partly destroyed in an air raid during World War II. Rather than create identical replacements, Marquez decided to retain the proportions of the original structures but further reduce the already-minimalist volumes, with seamless, semi-opaque glazing and light-grey concrete facades. The result is cubic, sculptural and ghostly, and bears the misty-eyed nostalgia of a sepia photograph. For many, it seems, ornament is more of a crime than ever.

Here’s some of our favourite photographs from the book…

Ornament is Crime by Matt Gibberd & Albert Hill is published by Phaidon and can be purchased online at Phaidon.com, Amazon and all other large retailers (£29.95)

Main Image: Fran Silvestre Arquitectos: Aluminium House, Madrid, Spain, 2016. Photo courtesy of Fran Silvestre Arquitectos