Monday, 19 October 2009

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.

9 comments:

owen hatherley said...

Orwell did live in a fairly moderne block in North London in the early 40s, which curiously I don't think he wrote about directly, but which has been conjectured as either a model for the dilapidated Victory Mansions or for the well-appointed flats of the Inner Party. it went up for sale not long ago...

PAUL FRANCIS, said...

Excellent article.

In Homage to Catalonia he makes a disparaging comment about Sagrada Familia, but also comments favourably on what I think must be another Gaudi building, maybe the Casa Batllo, without realising they were by the same architect. I don't have the quotes to hand, and may be wrong. I'm going to have to re-read it now...

By the way, I happen to have have just posted a comic strip about Orwell on my
blog
.

Will said...

Owen, that modern block crops up every now and then in As I Please and elsewhere - for instance, he mentions the fact that part of it was ruined by snowfall every winter in the AIP I linked to (I believe it's the same building). But it's never really clear what he thinks about it beyond his horror at its decay, and the decay of everything else. In an AIP a few weeks away from the one above, he talks about his fear that the war could go on forever as what we would now call a "low-intensity conflict" - little immediate danger but occasional flying bombs, and of course everything decaying. We now know of course that that was one of the idea that fed into 1984. The Goldstein quote you've put up on your own blog is so perfect, I'm kicking myself. You've mentioned an IngSoc project - is Orwell a feature of that beyond the name?

Paul, great cartoon - I love your other work as well, like that drawing of the Trellick tower! And is that Didcot Power Station, Ox-Megastructure-1?

owen hatherley said...

The Ingsoc book is a big one on socialist aesthetics in the UK which I don't intend to write for a good few years, until I get a lot of other things out of the way (and can get a decent price for it, touch wood etc) It's mainly for the title tbh, but Orwell's quasi-modernism was definitely going to be mentioned therein, perhaps getting a chapter, along with his jibes at both Arts and Crafts and Constructivism (implicitly) in The Road to Wigan Pier. And lots of the ideas in it feed into In the Shadow of Senate House.

Incidentally Patrick Keiller has used that Goldstein quote to introduce his City of the Future project, which is much more interesting and more Orwellian in its wider form, with juxtapositions between enormously similar (and now dilapidated) Edwardian and 21st century landscapes, than in the enormously truncated version of it that he inexplicably exhibited at the BFI.

owen hatherley said...

(this Keiller link quotes some more Orwell)

PAUL FRANCIS, said...

Thanks Will. It is indeed Didcot power station. Well done, but did you also spot William Morris's Kelmscott?

Jack Self said...

In some ways Orwell's vision of the home as machine for living in is even purer than corbusier's, in that his interest in architecture seems to be solely as a tool for social change - and not an aesthetic pursuit in itself (as it was undoubtedly for corbu).

Will said...

Good point Jack. I get frustrated by the enemies of modernism misrepresenting the "machine for living in" line as advocating homes that are impersonal, industrial in feel, dehumanising ... it's a wilful misunderstanding of Corb's intent that the house should work for its owner, not the other way round. (I thought of this when I read of the maintenance problems afflicting some Poundbury residents recently.) It's refreshing to see Orwell put his finger on the social benefits of the "machine for living in" - making a home a place of leisure, not an unending source of chores.

Tim Maly said...

I don't know exactly how to tease out this thought:

There's something compelling about the fact that when you talk about architecture that Orwell would like, you imagine labour-saving tools for betterment and social change - the best of modernism. But when people talk about Orwellian architecture, the imagination turns to 1984esque monstrous buildings and institutions - the worst of modernism.

The double meaning of the poor guy's name accidentally calls out the double associations of modernism, which feels very right to me. Very neat.