The surge in demand for electricity after the second world war meant that the ‘last of the great unspoiled glens’ could not remain that way for long. Monar Dam was constructed in Glen Strathfarrar, in the midst of the romantic ideal of the Scottish Highlands; nothing could be further from the Modernist aesthetic, making Scotland’s hydro schemes particularly dramatic. The jolt caused by stark, monolithic, linear concrete set within a backdrop of natural beauty is without comparison. Obtaining ‘power from the glens’, however, was the sole focus of the engineers and builders responsible. The postwar hydro schemes rose as a product of their time: one in which aesthetic concerns came to mean so much more than originally envisaged.
On the 19th April 1970, commemorating 100 years since his birth, a colossal 19-metre statue of Lenin was unveiled in the heart of the East Berlin district of Friedrichshain. It was sculpted by the President of the USSR’s Academy of Arts, Nikolai Tomsky, in red granite imported from the Ukraine. The monument stood in the centre of Leninplatz, casting an overbearing shadow over the hordes gathered to witness the event. Though significant in itself, the statue stands sentry to the high-rise plattenbau tower, one of the tallest residential towers in East Germany. The standardised and prefabricated plattenbau system was widely used in the reconstruction of postwar East Germany. The name in this context translates to, ‘platte’ meaning ‘panel’, ‘bau’ meaning ‘building’ and refers to the prefabricated concrete panel.
I hate to claim to be an authority on anything or anyone, so an invite to wax lyrical about the late great Delia Derbyshire (1937-2001) was daunting though irresistible. I will therefore neither claim to be an authority nor even an expert, but can merely endeavour to imbue you with just a splash of the passion I have developed for her work. And maybe incite your curiosity to check her out. Disclaimer done.
The career of Owen Williams took in both triumph and disaster, moving from purely functional engineering projects to more expressionist, proto-brutalist buildings. Williams would produce a huge range of buildings and constructions over his 50-year working period, producing motorways, factories, aircraft hangars, offices, apartment blocks, health centres and so much more. He was a driving force in the construction of twentieth century Britain, and a pioneer in the use of a material that would define the postwar city, concrete.
The postwar - and subsequent Cold War - boom in telecommunication demanded all manner of experimental engineering and ingenious infrastructures for transmission to receive, store, sort and (re-)distribute data. Exploiting the airwaves required tangible engineering of distinctive vertical forms that were peculiar to and implied their purpose. The slender broadcast antennae, masts and towers, festooned with aerials and receiver dishes, were positioned prominently in the landscape for unobstructed access to the Hertzian space.
Electricity pylons have become such an embedded part of the modern landscape we rarely notice them and yet, such is their importance with our energy infrastructure, they seem to have free reign to march across virtually any environment. During a trans-European car journey Robert Watson and Geoff Howard began photographing these ubiquitous and often maligned structures. The Modernist talked to them about the project.
The one word bound to deter a female student in my day, when asking a male student his subject, was ‘engineering’. No one went out with engineers. Someone must have done, but no one remotely cool. Engineering was the opposite of cool. Today I feel the opposite, I admire engineers and rather wish I had thought to become one. It began years ago with the exhaust pipes of a 1930 Alfa Romeo, featuring a series of parallel fins for cooling hot gasses that were strictly functional and an unlikely thing of Deco beauty.
Looking back at the architects and designers of the post-war period, one thing in particular stands out in contrast to present-day design philosophies: optimism. Figures like Buckminster Fuller - who described his own mission as “an experiment to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity” - pursued their work with an ideological zeal. By the time Fuller died in 1983, that guiding principle of optimism had departed, less than 20 years after his iconic geodesic domes were debuted in Montreal.
Picture: Earl W. Muntz, right, and Jacque Fresco, left with architectural model of the Trend Home. Los Angeles Examiner
I Love My Brompton
If ever Royal Mail issues British modern engineering design classics stamps they might include Anglepoise lamps, Dyson hand dryers, the World Wide Web, graphene and Brompton folding bikes. Why Bromptons? What’s so special about them? Why do their owners combine smugness and fanatical loyalty? Sit down, kiddo, and close the door: this is why...
The bicycle is by some measures the most efficient form of transport engineered, yet its design hasn’t fundamentally changed for 130 years. If cars were like bikes, we would still drive Model T Fords (though they would have carbon fibre starting handles, as one bike designer quipped). A simple drawing of a bike made in 1915 would look similar to one made in 2015. Unless, that is, it was a sketch of a Moulton.
Prominent modernist architects were often enlisted to prepare masterplans for the rapidly growing British university sector in the late 1950s and 60s. In the case of the University of Leicester, it was Leslie Martin (of Royal Festival Hall fame) who was commissioned to come up with a plan, the result being a cluster of three distinctive buildings located on the edge of the city’s Victoria Park. Viewed together – which is something best done from inside the park – the trio of buildings are bold examples of 1960s architecture. They are impressive, though not overly imposing, yet individually they all deserve the title ‘landmark building’ - a label perhaps used too often now to impose a false gravitas upon uninspired architectural attempts at place-making.
Very rarely can the first lines of any architecture book strike a reader as intensely as the opening of Daniel Merro Johnston’s La Casa sobre el Arroyo. The passionate atmosphere that Merro Johnston conjures up in the tragic and lyrical vision of a house devoured by flames sets the reader in an attentive mood that sensitises the whole experience of reading and understanding the story of the design, life and death of the Casa sobre el Arroyo (House over the Creek) in Mar del Plata, Argentina.