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The International Influence

Thursday 14 April 2011
Words Spindle

The International style; a major architectural movement that peaked in the 1930s and was acknowledged globally due to its indifference to location and lack of reference to historical and national vernacular.  It saw the birth of functionalism, the expulsion of applied ornament and the concept of truth to materials.

Out of the movement emerged pioneers who have become household names in architectural history, such as Walter Gropius (Founder of Bauhaus) and Le Corbusier who coined the term ‘the house is a machine for living’. Its clinical and inhuman ideal saw a response of contemporaneous  criticism, many finding the idea of living in a domestic machine as ‘grim’ and ‘depressing’ and although ultimately, the utilitarian extremism that The International Style promoted saw the death of it, another movement was gathering inspiration and prestige under its wing.

When Art Nouveau and modernism met, they married and became Art Deco. The latter years of the Art Deco movement borrowed the idea of austere functionalism that the International Style was renowned for, and sexed it up. You don’t have to roam too far in Brighton to lay gaze upon examples of this.  Amidst the highly ornamented hotels and regency houses along Brighton seafront, Embassy court stands conspicuously; it juts out as if it were a UFO and undeniably aligns itself with The International styles belief that the modern man does not fit in the traditional world. This building personifies this concept; built between 1934 and 1936 by celebrated Canadian designer and architect Wells Coates, Embassy Court was a status building, incorporating the first penthouse suite in Britain. Though arguably one of most hostile looking buildings to take residence on the sea front, once you look beyond the juxtaposition, its curvaceous shape and strong lines has something of an oxymoronic harsh sensuousness about it, the fact it represents a move away from the stereotypical traditional ‘Britishness’ where decoration adorns every inch of wall space, is refreshing and indubitably influenced by The International style that swept over Europe in the 1920’s and 30’s. When a person looked directly at a building that was designed in the International Style of Architecture, they were overcome with the impression that the flat surfaces and segments of the building could be moved at will, simply by sliding them to one side or the other; Jenga is a microcosm of Embassy Court.

Another element of design relevant to the International Style was the use of continuous windows and reflective surfaces. The Ocean Hotel and Lido in Saltdean demonstrate this.  Both Lido and Hotel’s main building were crescent-shaped, with thin rows of glass windows forming its delicate features and curved wings stretching out from the central entrance structure. The Lido was inspired by The De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, the first modernist public building to grace the UK. Unfortunately another example of Art Deco’s play on The International Style in Brighton is located on the top floor of Primark, where rows of glass windows are filled with mannequins whose dress sense oppose the elegant structure.

Although these listed buildings are only subtle indications of what the world dominated by this movement would appear to be aesthetically, they are stark enough to repel me from concurring with the theory that ornament is a crime. Part of Brighton’s charm is its Regency indulgence in decoration and lavishness, ornament tends to breed character and although formulating fashion was exactly what this movement opposed, it seems farfetched to expect consensus when eradicating style from architecture. However this does not take away the respect and admiration for the boldness and courage these buildings emit; The International style was attempting not only to revamp architecture as we knew it but human kind as we knew it- ‘The house as a machine’ reflected the urgency for physical upkeep, hygiene and even human morality.  Art Deco was clever to take inspiration from this movement enough to diversify itself but not enough to ostracize itself; it is hard to imagine a Brighton, let alone a world without decoration. For better or for worse, it is nourishing to have equilibrium between the modern and the traditional.