‘Modernism’, as a philosophy of architectural design and planning, should not be confused with ‘modern’, a term for something that is simply recent or current.
Modernism emerged in the 1920s though its antecedents go back, at least, to the beginning of the century. One of its basic tenets is ‘form ever follows function’, an idea famously articulated by the American architect Louis Sullivan in his 1924 book The Autobiography of an Idea. One implication of this is that elements not integral to the function of a building, such as decoration, should be used carefully or avoided altogether.
Premonitions of this idea were appearing in the Sydney architectural press by the early 1900s. A critique of northern Sydney houses that appeared in Art and Architecture in 1905 warned that ‘A little ornamentation in the proper place is always pleasing ...but it may be easily overdone’. The over use of ornamentation, it was suggested, reflected transient fashion so that ‘one’s ultra-modern house’ could quickly become ‘as out of date’ as the ‘villa of twenty years ago’.
Implied in this criticism was the desire to find the formula for timeless beauty and good design. That was also the quest of Modernists in later years. Their search led them to the form that followed function. Accordingly, when prominent Sydney architect BJ Waterhouse summed up the ‘new movement’, as Modernism was sometimes called, he quoted German architect and writer, Bruno Taut: ‘Beauty originates from the direct relationship between building and purpose’.
Not everyone was excited by this notion. In the mid-1920s Sydney architect and writer Florence Taylor referred to early manifestations of Modernism as ‘freak architecture’. She deplored the movement’s ‘contempt for sentimental association’ and the lessons of history (Building, October, 1925). For, if the link between form and function was one guiding truth for Modernists, the willingness to reject past truths was another. Modernism embraced the present and the future where English Revival and Georgian Revival architecture specifically drew upon previous styles for lessons in good design. The latest technology and materials, steel, concrete and structural glass, allowed the creation of new forms and surfaces which the Modernists eagerly sought. And where other schools celebrated the skills of the artisan, Modernism employed mass production for the efficiency it brought. To build better housing, more effectively in order to fulfill social needs, made Modernism a democratic form of design in the minds of many of its earliest proponents.
Perhaps Sydney’s most passionate advocate of Modernist architecture was Harry Seidler, who arrived in 1948 to find a city he thought still looked to the past rather than the future. By 1958 he could claim that the ‘battle for modern architecture’ was being won. At last the ‘stripped clean logical’ architecture he espoused was ‘cleansing’ a building industry ‘steeped in traditional wasteful methods of construction and stylistic architectural decoration.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 1 April 1958)
At this stage in his career, Seidler practiced a form of Modernism which eschewed decoration but embraced the aesthetic possibilities afforded by new materials and building technologies. Rather than following the dictum 'form ever follows function', he explored the asymmetrical arrangement of external elements and the potential of scintillation - the effect of offsetting elements - to create aesthetic interest.
Earlier expressions of Modernism were more receptive to the use of overt decoration. Art Deco buildings typically incorporated linear or geometric shapes in render, grilles or brickwork. Functionalism featured asymmetrical facades and streamlined curves. However, both Art Deco and Functionalism are regarded as Modernist forms because they typically used modern materials and their clean lines spoke of the future. Where there were references to historical styles, such as classicism, these were typically presented in a ‘stripped’ or highly simplified way. North Sydney had some of the earliest expressions of streamlined Modernist houses in Sydney exemplified by J Aubrey Kerr's 'Nicklin House' (1938) and EM Osborn's 'Simms House' (1938). In Stan Symonds' futuristic apartment building at Blues Point, completed in 1968, one sees possibly the most inventive use of concrete in North Sydney.
The popularity of Modernism has fluctuated over the decades. The work of American writer Jane Jacobs, who argued for the retention of streetscapes created over decades in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was an influential critique of basic precept of widespread renewal and rebuilding of congested inner city precincts. In Sydney, by the early 1970s, widespread antipathy was stirred as old buildings were replaced by ‘concrete boxes’. Modernism’s apparent disregard for the relevance of historical fabric was blamed for many of Sydney’s lost houses and the sterility that seemed to accompany streets of high rise towers. But it is also the case that the movement’s preference for clean lines and airy open plan spaces has endured to influence most present-day developments.