Sunday, 18 December 2011

Art, design and modernity

When did the world start looking and sounding more or less as it does today?

Click on the embedded YouTube link to hear the Miles Davis nonet playing Rocker, a Gerry Mulligan composition. Recorded in March 1950. Fresh, isn't it?

Go back three years - and have a listen to Charlie Parker's Crazeology (click on YouTube link below). Such a complex and yet catchy melody

Now look at the aircraft below: Have a guess when it first took to the air? It's a shape not unfamiliar in today's skies...

This is the Boeing B-47, which first flew on 17 December 1947 - 64 years ago yesterday! Its design foreshadowed the B-52, which first flew in April 1952 - and is scheduled to remain in service with the USAF until 2045 - a staggering 93 years after its first flight!

The Big Leap Forward was the swept wing planform and the multiple jets slung under the wings in pods. Big fat turbofans have replaced the slender, polluting turbojets, but otherwise, the configuration of modern passenger jets is little changed.

Now, on to automotive. The last major innovation in terms of the car was the Kamm tail, applying downward force on the rear wheels at speed. Before that - it was the fared-in mudguards. These had been separate until the second world war - then smoothed into an integral unit with the bodywork. If I'm not mistaken - the first mass-produced car with smooth sides... was the Soviet GAZ M-20 Pobieda - which entered production in 1946, at the same time as American cars were still sporting vestigial mudguards. It was two years later that the USA would catch up with the USSR in car design! Technically, it was not the world's most advanced car in 1946, but its design would show the way forward.

Above: a 1952 Hudson Wasp. Today's Opel/Vauxhall Insignia (Buick Regal across the water) is but slightly sleeker at the front and has that aerodynamic back - but essentially, we have the same design concept. Launched in 2008 it has many improvements over the Hudson from 56 years earlier - yet design-wise, the man-on-the-street in 1952 would not be overwhelmed.

Clothes - fashions - certainly for men, wearing something today that would be entirely normal in 1950 - two-piece suit, jeans or chinos, sweatshirt, leather shoes or canvas sneakers - would even look fashionably hipster retro. (Imagine walking about in 1950 wearing clothes from the 1890s!) For women - well, there's a greater tolerance range when it comes to fashion.

Railways - streamlining was present in the zenith of the Age of Steam; by 1964, the Japanese Shinkansen bullet train linked Tokyo and Osaka (515km, 320 miles) in four hours (top speed 210kmh /130mph).

Architecture - moderne has been with us since before WW2. I was recently looking for Scandinavian architecture that has stood the test of time - that has inspired architects to this day. Look at this - Jorma Järvi's design at Pakila primary school in Helsinki from 1954. The stairs, the sunlight, the scale - such a huge leap from the Education Board (architectural style) primary school I attended with its high, thin windows, overbearing brickwork and long, dark corridors.

Yes, information technology has had a profound influence on the way we live and work and entertain ourselves; the change over the past 20 years has been radical. But from the the point of view of the way the world looks and sounds, the last fifty years have brought us little in the way of revolutionary progress. Just small increments, recyclings of what's been, reiterations in a more contemporary key.

The study door is open. The TV's on. There's an ad for Krakus hams and smoked meats. The music - a straight lift from Philip Glass's score for the 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi (see trailer here).

We're not living in a breakthrough era for art, design and music. When will see signs that things are starting to change dramatically once again? Maybe not in the immediate future - when the global economy's in recession, there's less appetite for risk, for design innovation (unless it can be proven to have a direct effect on measurable things like productivity or fuel consumption).

What were the drivers of modernity in the middle of the 20th Century? In one word - war. It was war that got us from the Wright Brothers to the B-52 in less than fifty years. It was reaction to war that stood behind Jackson Pollock.

Wars have been great catalysts for those leapfrogs of human progress - but let's not wish for one now.

This time last year:
Happy ever after

This time two years ago:
Road and rail let me down again

This time three years ago:
Alignment and synchronicity

This time four years ago:
Retro shop, ul. Fabryczna

1 comment:

adthelad said...

"Wars have been great catalysts for those leapfrogs of human progress - but let's not wish for one now."

No need to - the USA have been warring and testing equipment in the field for many years now - one of the reasons (Iraq, Afghanistan ...) for starting the wars in the first place, and have much new technology prepared and being developed for the next biggy.