George Orwell, Modernist
There's not a lot of architecture in George Orwell's writing. When it does feature, it's not really clear what his feelings are about it. In 1984, for instance, the only modernism (the Senate House-influenced Ministry) is sinister and authoritarian, but the real horror of Smith/Orwell's London is its decaying Victorian buildings, which are barely functioning ruins. Coming Up For Air similarly combines suspicion of the tide of modernity and the suburbs with a sense of the 19th-century built environment slipping beyond salvage.
The lack of interest in architecture in Orwell's non-fiction has long surprised me. As someone with a fairly detailed sense of the shape of a potential democratic, socialist Britain, you'd think there's be more about it. Really, I think he was too much of a pragmatist to get hung up on whether the Britain he desired looked like an 1870 Board School or the Finsbury Health Centre. He was, if you prefer, a phenomenologist - it was effects that mattered, not aesthetics. But he looked forward to the rebuilding that would have to come after the War, and it's intriguing to speculate briefly on what an Orwellian architecture might be.
Here's a data point, from "The Lion And the Unicorn" (1940):
The place to look for the germs of the future England is in light-industry areas and along the arterial roads. In Slough, Dagenham, Barnet, Letchworth, Hayes - everywhere, indeed, on the outskirts of great towns - the old pattern is gradually changing into something new. In those vast new wildernesses of glass and brick the sharp distinctions of the older kind of town, with its slums and mansions, or of the country, with its manor-houses and squalid cottages, no longer exist. There are wide gradations of income, but it is the same kind of life that is being lived at different levels, in labour-saving flats or council houses, along the concrete roads and in the naked democracy of the swimming-pools.
That's the new England, the promise of the suburbs and the new towns: philistine, materialist, but more equal than before. The "naked democracy of the swimming pools" - beautiful. No wonder our present state is so suspicious of the municipal baths. There's no democracy, naked or otherwise, in a gym. "Fitness First" is pretty much a fascist slogan, an inch from "Strength Through Joy". But that's a subject for another time.
But it's in another line from that excerpt that we can see the foundation of Orwell's modernism: Those "labour-saving flats". There's a revealing "As I Please", from the Tribune of 9 February 1945, which has the pleasingly candid quality of something written quickly and in the grip of emotion, a sort of off-the-cuff charm. (The full text can be found here, on a site I can't vouch for.) Here's the start:
Every time I wash up a batch of crockery I marvel at the unimaginativeness of human beings who can travel under the sea and fly through the clouds, and yet have not known how to eliminate this sordid time-wasting drudgery from their daily lives.
He goes on to describe many of the miseries of keeping house in 1945. I don't mind washing up, but Orwell plainly despised it - not a surprise, given his experiences as a plongeur - and had little patience for the rest of the housework. He continues:
What, then, is to be done about it? Well, this whole problem of housework has three possible solutions. One is to simplify our way of living very greatly; another is to assume, as our ancestors did, that life on earth is inherently miserable, and that it is entirely natural for the average women to be a broken-down drudge at the age of thirty; and the other is to devote as much intelligence to rationalising the interiors of our houses as we have devoted to transport and communications.
I fancy we shall choose the third alternative. If one thinks simply in terms of saving trouble and plans one’s home as ruthlessly as one would plan a machine, it is possible to imagine houses and flats which would be comfortable and would entail very little work. Central heating, rubbish chutes, proper consumption of smoke, cornerless rooms, electrically warmed beds and elimination of carpets would make a lot of difference.
He goes on to describe what he sees as the only sensible solution to the washing-up problem: doing it communally, like a laundry. Individual mechanised dishwashers were simply beyond the bounds of the imagination at the impoverished, ramshackle end of the Second World War. The only alternative, he says, is eating off paper.
But I digress. This concern for hygiene is prevalent in Orwell's writing - think of the lingering descriptions of grime or grease clinging to every surface in 1984, down to the dust in the folds of Smith's neighbour's face. Here we see what it means in practical political and design terms: making homes that will save people time and effort. Saving people from drudgery - a harmonious intersection of design and socialist thought. The detail of his vision is sweet, but it's also chiding. Central heating is now almost universal, and an undeniable amenity. But why are carpets still so prevalent? What happened to the idea of the cornerless room? Wrecked by association with prefab bathroom pods, perhaps, or the difficulty of placing bookscases against an edgeless wall.
Overall, however, we can see a commitment to making home a pleasure. Orwell's instincts here - and I'm sure he wasn't aware of it - are in sync with Le Corbusier. He could see home as a labour-saving device; a machine for living in. And we can see what makes that a humanitarian impulse. After all, what does he identify as the alternatives, the first two of his three paths? Primitivism or despair.