I’m not convinced Thomas Heatherwick is the best person to be discussing boring buildings

Architects are often snobby about – and no doubt jealous of – the designer Thomas Heatherwick, who isn’t an actual architect yet still manages to wangle important building commissions. And he knows this. In his documentary for BBC Radio 4, Building Soul, where he examines what he calls the ‘blandemic’ in today’s architecture, he asks to interview fellow Spectator writer Jonathan Meades, who responds: ‘The last person who should be doing a series on urbanism is a designer.’ Heatherwick wears this as a badge of honour. Indeed, qualifying as an architect is no guarantee of quality – check out the past nominations for the Carbuncle Cup, the now defunct prize

In search of utopia: Chevengur, by Andrey Platonov, reviewed

It has been a long journey into the light for the greatest Russian modernist most people have probably never heard of: Andrey Platonov. Born in 1899 in Voronezh, he started professional life as a mechanic and land-reclamation engineer, making him one of those rare writers with an affinity for both people and machines. In the mid-1920s, he was branded an ‘anarchic’ spirit by Maxim Gorky, who nevertheless admired his work. His great early novels were openly critical of the Soviet policy of ‘total collectivisation’ – which, in Platonov’s nightmare scenarios, tends to collectivise people to death. The best and longest, Chevengur – now available in a handsome translation, with an

Fast cars, minimalist design and en suite bathrooms: the real Rachmaninoff

The train from Zurich to Lucerne tips you out right by the lakeside, practically on the steamboat piers. A white paddle-steamer takes you out of the city, past leafy slopes and expensive-looking mansions. Tribschen, where Wagner wrote the ‘Siegfried Idyll’, slides away to the right as you head out across the main arm of the lake. At the foot of Mount Rigi, shortly before the steamer makes its whistle-stop at the lakeside village of Hertenstein, is a promontory where – if the sun is coming from the west – a yellow-coloured cube shines among the trees. This is the house that Sergei Rachmaninoff built between 1931 and 1934: Villa Senar,

The political polyvalency of modernism

The late Sir Roger Scruton often pronounced in a harsh manner on modern architecture and modern music, perceiving in various work an assault on bourgeois culture and a break with tradition. Back in the 1950s, music critic and CIA agent Henry Pleasants (a station chief in Bonn) delivered if anything a more scathing view of the ‘agony’ of modern music, arguing that it had severed its connection with the idioms bequeathed by the human voice. It might seem natural that opposition to the iconoclasm of artistic modernism would go hand-in-hand with a relatively conservative politics. Furthermore, knowledge of Nazi attacks on Entartete Kunst suggests a clear disjunction between far right

The genius of Cezanne

Pity the poor curators of major exhibitions struggling to find fresh takes on famous masters. The curators of Tate Modern’s new Cezanne blockbuster have begun by dropping the acute accent from his surname, apparently a Parisian affectation not in use on the artist’s home turf. Anticipating grumbles about another major exhibition devoted to a dead white male artist, they have emphasised Cezanne’s outsider status by painting him as a provincial from Provence. It was a role the artist liked to play in Paris, once famously excusing himself from shaking Manet’s hand on the grounds that he hadn’t washed in a week. Cezanne’s peers put their money where their mouths were,

The well of happiness – and despair: Queer St Ives reviewed

In the winter of 1952 the 21-year-old sculptor John Milne travelled to St Ives in Cornwall to take up a temporary job as an assistant to Barbara Hepworth. The arrangement was that he would become her pupil in exchange for helping her in the studio, but he was subsequently paid a small salary and ended up staying in her employ for two years. By this time, Milne had decided to settle in the town, which had become a thriving modernist artists’ colony, and in 1956 he acquired Trewyn House, a three-storey Victorian property next door to Hepworth’s studio. The reason a working-class boy from Eccles could afford so substantial a

Don’t read Ulysses; listen to it

Dublin. 16 June 1904. A little after 8 a.m. Two men – both annoying, one stung with grief and ambition – are having an argument. One is pierced by thoughts of his late mother. ‘Pain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart.’ She has come to him in a dream smelling of wax and rosewood. ‘Dedalus,’ the other calls up to him. ‘Come down, like a good mosey. Breakfast is ready.’ Ireland. 16 June 1982. 6:30 a.m. Radios all over the country emit the words ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan’, and don’t stop broadcasting until they have read out every word of Ulysses, down to its last,

A play for bureaucrats: David Hare’s Straight Line Crazy reviewed

It’s good of Nicholas Hytner to let Londoners see David Hare’s new play before it travels to Broadway where it belongs. Few Brits will know the subject, Robert Moses, an urban planner of the 1920s who built the roads and bridges that gave New Yorkers access to seaside resorts in Long Island. This is a play for bureaucrats. Nit-picking and box-ticking are the main points of interest. Squiggles on forms. Correct signatures at the bottom of proof-read documents. Hare is copying George Bernard Shaw and his script is a celebration of rhetoric above all other qualities. Dialogue-junkies will enjoy the screeds of quickfire chatter that keep the play motoring along.

The genius of Iannis Xenakis

This year is the centenary of the birth of Iannis Xenakis, the Greek composer-architect who called himself an ancient Greek stuck in the contemporary world. His instrumental music at times suggests an alien species trying to communicate with us through our musical instruments, his electronic music a distressed animal on the receiving end of amateur dentistry. For his part, Xenakis said that music ‘must aim… towards a total exaltation in which the individual mingles, losing his consciousness in a truth immediate, rare, enormous and perfect’. Of all the post-war European firebrands, Xenakis remains the most influential today. ‘Xenakis opened many fields of inquiry that are still vital, undiscovered, and brimming

Ralph Vaughan Williams: modernist master

To look at a picture of Ralph Vaughan Williams is like contemplating an image of a mountain. Not the elegant, keen-eyed Edwardian intellectual whom we sometimes glimpse on CD sleeves or in concert programmes; I’m thinking of the portraits from the last decade of his long life. By the 1950s ‘RVW’ had been the father of British music for so long that he already seemed like part of the landscape, and he looked it too. The craggy jowls, the weathered thatch of grey hair; that questioning gaze — and beneath it all, those great, tumbling scree slopes of rumpled tweed. In his 150th anniversary year he’s still there, towering in

Abstract and concrete: the beauty of brutalism

Nothing divides the British like modernist architecture. Traditionalists are suspicious of its utopian ambitions and dismiss it as ugly; proponents romanticise it, yearn for the civic principles that built it and gloss over its failings; the young see period charm in flat roofs and straight lines, while the old associate them with deprivation; the wealthy mostly avoid it — and many people have no choice but to live in it. Nearly 100 years after Le Corbusier set out his five points of modern architecture the British are still arguing about its merits, partly because we still live with so much of it: housing, offices and civic and industrial buildings. Two

Disappointingly conventional and linear: BBC radio’s modernism season reviewed

This week marks the beginning of modernism season on BBC Radio 3 and 4, which means it’s time for some pundit or other to own up to abandoning Ulysses at page seven, or to finding T.S. Eliot a bore, or to infinitely preferring the landscapes of J.M.W. Turner to the repetitive squares of Kazimir Malevich. That pundit, however, won’t be me. Modernism is rather like the birth of the Roman Empire. It could be seen as a brilliant sloughing off of everything that had decayed in favour of sensible revolution, or as the predictably reactive consequence of years of wrangling over a loss of identity. Most of the contributors to

When did postmodernism begin?

There’s a scene in Martin Amis’s 1990s revenge comedy The Information in which a book reviewer, who’s crushed by his failures and rendered literally impotent by his best friend’s success, is sitting in a low-lit suburban room beside a girl (not his wife) named Belladonna: ‘She was definitely younger than him. He was a modernist. She was the thing that came next.’ Stuart Jeffries argues in his new book that the thing that came next was in fact a thing that started a couple of decades before Amis wrote The Information. In Jeffries’s telling, postmodernity can be dated to 13 August 1971, when Richard Nixon held a closed-door meeting that

The Sunday Feature is one of the most consistently interesting things on Radio 3

The story is likely apocryphal — and so disgraceful I almost hesitate to tell it — but it goes like this. On the night of 14 November 1940, as more than 500 Luftwaffe rained bombs on the people of Coventry, the newly appointed city architect Donald Gibson was watching the fires. Gibson had been appointed to the newly created position of ‘city architect’ three years earlier by the radical Labour council that had come to power in a local election. His job was to modernise what was then Britain’s best-preserved medieval city, and build the ideals of social justice and equality into the city’s brick and mortar. That night, as

Deserves to be much better known: Sophie Taeuber-Arp at Tate Modern reviewed

Great Swiss artists, like famous Belgians, might seem to be an amusingly underpopulated category. Actually, as with celebrated Flemings and Walloons, when you start counting you discover there are more of them than you thought. Paul Klee, for example, and Alberto Giacometti. A third, whose work is reassessed in a large exhibition at Tate Modern, was Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Clearly, unlike the other two, hers is far from being a household name even in fairly artistic homes. There are several reasons for this, one perhaps being the unwieldiness of that cognomen itself. She was born Sophie Henriette Gertrud Taeuber in 1889 at Davos, and as was then the custom, hyphenated her

Welcome to the Impasse Ronsin – the artists’ colony to beat them all

Of all creatives, visual artists are perhaps the least likely to work in isolation; the atomised life of garret-installed solitude is not for them. Artists have always bounced off one another, whether in colonies, studios, collectives or co-operatives. The YBAs would not have been a thing, let alone a now-unfashionable acronym, had a significant group of them not chosen to hang out together. There are outliers, of course, but for the most part artists seem to like rubbing along together, perhaps in the belief that the fumes of oil from one studio can inspire brushwork in the one next door. The Impasse Ronsin, a tiny cul de sac in the

The magnificent fiasco of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House

John Ruskin believed the most beautiful things are also the most useless, citing lilies and peacocks. Had he known about the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, a rural community 50 miles west of Chicago, he might have suggested it too. Except this modernist building of 1951 is an evolved expression of the emerging industrial culture Ruskin so despised. But it is several other things too, notably an example of fraught transactions between architect and client. The Farnsworth test case became a trial whose transcript ran to 3,800 pages. Of all relationships, except that between a firing squad and its target, the architect-client example is the one most predictably headed for

Why did David Bomberg disappear?

David Bomberg was only 23 when his first solo exhibition opened in July 1914 at the Chenil Gallery in Chelsea. ‘I am searching for an Intenser expression,’ the brash young painter wrote in the introduction to the catalogue. ‘I hate… the Fat Man of the Renaissance.’ As if to advertise his radical intentions, the first work in the exhibition, the strikingly geometric ‘The Mud Bath’, was hung outside the gallery, facing the street. Bomberg was endowed with a self-belief bordering on conceit. Born in 1890, the fifth of 11 children of Polish-Jewish immigrants, he spent his childhood in the overcrowded slums of Birmingham and east London. An educational loan allowed

The man who built Britain’s first skyscraper

In 2011 Britain’s first skyscraper was finally given Grade I listing. The citation for 55 Broadway — the Gotham City-ish home of Transport for London, which sprouts up from St James’s Park Station — said that the building was important in a number of ways: its architect Charles Holden, the designer of Senate House and a range of breakthrough modernist Tube stations in the 1930s, was increasingly recognised as major. The building’s scale and structure were pioneering for London in 1929. And the sculpture on its otherwise plain façades was by important artists including Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill and the young Henry Moore (his first work on a public building

An idea made concrete

Was the Bauhaus the most inspired art school of all time or the malignant source of an uglifying industrial culture which has defiled our cities? Two books look at its influence abroad after 1933 when the Nazis put the jackboot in. The Bauhaus was nothing if not modern — even if ‘modern’ is now a historical style label and the Bauhauslers were as trapped in their historical circumstances as we are in our own. This was noticed and ridiculed by Tom Wolfe in his 1981 squib, From Bauhaus to Our House, a book as bristling with cheerful spite as with clever wordplay. Although not quite so simple, the Bauhaus was