The relative obscurity of Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture is one of those facts that exemplifies the historical amnesia we so carefully nurture today. If you are picking up a history of modern architecture book, this is far from the easiest one, but the fact that it is so utterly unlike the others (Frampton, Curtis, Benevolo, Tafuri, Scully) means it fills a gap no one else has filled. The clue is in its title – changing ideals. This is not a history book that trots out a chronological catalogue of modernist icons (either in the popular or esoteric sense). In fact, there are precious few images. Le Corbusier and Wright get mentioned, of course, but Rietveld and Schindler do not. This is because it is not a history of notable architects or buildings, but a history of the ideas that underpinned them. It is not a book that I have absorbed. That is, I haven’t read it and kept a shorthand ‘copy’ of it in my head. It is a book that I struggle with each time I dip into it because it is challenging. One of the parts that struck me the most is the one on ‘Functionalism’. Having read through so many regurgitations of the same definition of this idea, Collins breaks down this part into four chapters titled: The Biological Analogy, The Mechanical Analogy, The Gastronomical Analogy, The Linguistic Analogy. All of a sudden the concept of functionalism opened up and became more complex – but I also felt as if finally someone had illuminated the subject. The first thing to note is that all four categories are analogies. We find that all the talk about function were based on believing that because things worked (functioned) in a certain way in another field that they could (or should) work the same way in architecture. Bodies function in a particular way, so why not attempt to make architecture work this way? But then machines also work in a particular way, and we have yet another kind of functionalism. This is fascinating not just because it debunks a lot of nonsense about functionalism in modern architecture but because it actually makes one realise how rich it can be if it hadn’t been taken so literally. And who knew that there were architects who actually argued for gastronomic functionalism in architecture?
When I mention historical amnesia, I do so because of the revival of biological metaphors in architectural theory today. Though, again, those adherents don’t realise that it cannot be anything more than a metaphor, and in the end nothing more than an applied or illustrated narrative. The mechanical analogy is also alive (reanimated) and well, as machines (particularly prosthetics) are quite popular again. This time it might be more in the realm of digital machinery and software but nevertheless, it’s just another analogy. And so, although I see student after student make attempts at biomorphic architecture, they remain blissfully ignorant of Collins’ text in the belief that they are novel creators, innovators and inventors. And at best they will reinvent the biomorphic wheel (how many have taken a close look at Keisler’s Endless House?) but this time rendered in photorealistic glory.
I am not suggesting that Collins got everything right in his summary of the development of modernist ideals. His other important book, Concrete, is flawed in some of its historiography and arguments, but they are nonetheless worthwhile reading. The flaws do not render everything incorrect, nor do they stop one from thinking about the questions asked. There is something perversely beautiful about the idea that classical architecture was invented by the Greeks but with the intention that it needed concrete to render it complete. It’s a beautiful yet obviously wrong argument that is full of things that make you understand both concrete and classical architecture more deeply. And given that Collins give so much space to August Perret the book is sometimes criticised for being an homage to the architect rather than a history of concrete. Maybe, but what an homage it is. This is perhaps an illustration of my belief that fiction is sometimes better at saying something essential about things and ideas than history is.
Don’t pick up Collins expecting to be given the latest and most complete understanding of the history of modern architecture. That’s not the point of any classic text. Like I said at the outset, his history does something none of the others do and it’s something that takes aim at a good deal of architectural thought today.