New festival London Modern celebrates modernist architecture and more
The inaugural London Modern festival launches this year in 2022, so we took the opportunity to talk to co-founder Chris Romer Lee. The architect, co-founder of Studio Octopi, the mastermind behind the Thames Baths and writer, tells us what we can learn from the Modernists and what we can expect from London Modern. Plus how he rediscovered 20th century architecture through lockdown cycle rides across the city he has lived in his whole life.
(Photographs by Nigel Green from our Modern London Map.)
What is London Modern?
London Modern is a cultural, not-for-profit festival that will make the case for modernism. A programme of tours, talks and events will encourage as many people as possible to value and celebrate the arts, design and architectural legacies of the mid-20th century by learning about the history and philosophies behind the movement, the experiences of people who live with its legacy, and the lessons it offers today. All kinds of modernist buildings will be festival venues: private houses, public buildings such as churches, civic buildings and schools and commercial buildings such as offices and industrial examples and residential estates. But we are not just about architecture. Through our cultural programme we will celebrate modernism in its wider forms: literature, politics, philosophy, music, fine art, and design of everything from furniture to fashion.
Why are you launching London Modern, and why now, in 2022?
London has a rich and diverse history of modernism – in music, in art, in fashion and design – a heritage that is valued by an increasingly wide audience. But some aspects of modernism are disregarded. London does not look after its modernist buildings. They are vulnerable to demolition and development.
Threats to landmarks such as the French Railway House on Piccadilly and Richmond House in central London are just two examples. More modest structures are under threat, too. The Central Hill estate and the brutalist South Norwood library are good examples.
Demolition and rebuilding, rather than retrofitting and adapting, is not only environmentally irresponsible, but often socially disruptive to the people – many from marginalised groups – who live in these buildings. London Modern will seek to spotlight and raise awareness of this rich social and architectural heritage and the risks it faces.
Who is behind the festival?
It all started when I (@chrisromerlee) posted a tweet puzzled as to why London doesn’t have a modernism festival, similar to the well-established annual event run Modernism Week in Palm Springs and the activities of the Modernist Society in Manchester. Journalist Helen Barrett (@helenbarrett) picked up on my tweet and we decided to explore the idea more with friends, Patricia Brown (@patricialondon), Richard Brown (@minorplaces) and Malcolm Garrett (@malcolmgarrett).
We’re now all directors of the not for profit, CIC. Current events such as Open House, LFA and organisations such as the Twentieth Century Society do great work, but they cannot do everything. Open House is particularly successful and its annual tours are often oversubscribed, which indicates appetite for greater access. Other festivals’ focus is just architecture. Ours will be broader: by including the most dynamic programme on topics such as literature, politics and design, we will be putting buildings in context, and offering a wider, more valuable cultural experience than architecture festivals.
What can Modernism can teach us about living well in the 21st century?
The utopian ambitions of modernism are so rare in today’s architecture and design and that is certainly one reason why this period has fascinated me. Take the Barbican for example, the scope and quality is still awe inspiring. From the light switch to the form and arrangement of the towers across the estate. In Owen Hatherley’s Modern Buildings in Britain: A Gazetteer (2022), he argues that modernism is still with us, whether it is or isn’t, Modernism offers us a utopia that didn’t always work but there is much to learn from its successes and failings.
Are there any particular buildings or architects that/who will be part of the celebration of Modernist architecture?
The programme is only in draft at the moment but it will be far reaching. From lost modernist public art to a nostalgia trip with Galt toys. Other themes include the film of Saint Etienne to the obsessive work of collector Johnny Trunk. The spotlight will be on the importance of Retrofirst within the built environment but also Traditionalists, who are they and what do they want? We welcome ideas from anyone and encourage people to widen the debate through our social media channels and by signing up to our mailing list.
Which Modernist buildings in London have influenced you and your work the most?
I’ve lived all my life in London. The architecture of this great city has had a huge influence on me and the practice, Studio Octopi. During lockdown a friend and I took our permitted exercise with long cycle journeys across the capital. It felt like I was reacquainting myself with my home. The empty streets focused our attention back onto buildings we had overlooked for years. Lutyens’ Tower Hill Memorial, Golders Green Crematorium, Stirling & Gowan on Avenue Road, Foggo & Thomas in Pimlico, Besant Hall by AL Osborne, Twickenham Bridge by Alfred Dryland and Maxwell Ayton. In a way these cycle rides to the furthest corners of London uncovered so much that I’m still trying to come to terms with the material and inspiration we collated. Perhaps London Modern is one outcome from this.