Waugh’s portrayal of German architect Professor Otto Silenus is no doubt a fairly accurate reflection of conservative British opinion towards Modernism in late 1920’s; that is to say well-informed and openly hostile. In truth very little was being constructed in the Modernist style in Britain in 1928, and anything that was was far more likely to be a ‘modernistic’ private dwelling, as depicted in Decline and Fall, and thus far removed from the social housing projects of Weimar Germany. Of course Waugh’s novels are unremittingly contemptuous of all that was à la mode and fashionable in society, little surprise then that he wasn’t a fan of Modernism. Waugh, in stark contrast to your average Bright Young Thing, was unfashionable, sombre, grumpy, pious and orthodox; a man swimming against the tide of history.
Cynicism of course was rife amongst the British upper classes in the 20’s and 30’s – war was never far from people’s minds (the officer class had been slaughtered in unusually high numbers during World War I) and death duties were forcing the sale of many a family estate in the country. The British Empire may not yet be sunk but it was holed and listing badly. Britain’s intelligentsia were hardly more enthusiastic, and while the socialist utopia propounded by the Modernists of Europe may have been embraced in fashionable enclaves of London, it was still openly derided by the Oxbridge elite.
Enter scandalous socialite Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde and the austere Professor Otto Silenus of Hamburg.
“It was Professor Otto Friedrich Silenus’s first important commission. ‘Something clean and square,’ had been Mrs Beste-Chetwynde’s instructions.
Professor Silenus – for that was the title by which this extraordinary young man chose to be called – was a ‘find’ of Mrs Beste-Chetwynde’s. He was not yet famous anywhere, though all who met him carried away deep and diverse impressions of his genius. He had first attracted Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde’s attention with the rejected design for a chewing-gum factory which had been reproduced in a progressive Hungarian quarterly. His only other completed work was the décor for a cinema film of great length and complexity of plot – a complexity rendered the more inextricable by the producer’s austere elimination of all human characters, a fact which had proved fatal to its commercial success. He was staring resignedly in a bed-sitting room in Bloomsbury, despite the untiring efforts of his parents to find him – they were very rich in Hamburg – when he was offered the commission of rebuilding King’s Thursday. ‘Something clean and square’—he pondered for three days upon the aesthetic implications of these instructions and then began his designs.
‘The problem of architecture as I see it,’ he told a journalist who had come to report on the progress of his surprising creation of ferro concrete and aluminum, ‘is the problem of all art – the elimination of the human element from the consideration of form. The only perfect building must be the factory, because that is built to house machines, not men. I do not think it is possible for domestic architecture to be beautiful, but I am doing my best. All ill comes from man,’ he said gloomily; ‘please tell your readers. Man is never beautiful; he is never happy except when he becomes the channel for the distribution of mechanical forces.’
‘I suppose there ought to be a staircase,’ he said gloomily. ‘Why can’t the creatures stay in one place? Up and down, in and out, round and round! Why can’t they sit still and work? Do dynamos require staircases? Do monkeys require houses? What an immature, self-destructive, antiquated mischief is man! How obscure his prancing and chattering on his little stage of evolution! How loathsome and beyond words boring all the thoughts and self-approval of his biological by-product! this half-formed, ill-conditioned body! this erratic, maladjusted mechanism of his soul: on one side the harmonious instincts and balanced responses of the animal, on the other the inflexible purpose of the engine, and between them man, equally alien from the being of Nature and doing of the machine, the vile becoming!’
Otto Silenus is described as being no more than 25 years old and having been in Moscow and the Bauhaus before making his way to London; and with ‘King’s Thursday’, his house for Best-Chetwynde, he has ‘got right away from Corbusier’. If Waugh seems strikingly up on Modernist architecture for a man who despised it, he had likely been briefed by fellow Oxford undergraduate John Betjeman (whose teddy-bear carrying entry to college inspired the Sebastian Flyte character in Brideshead Revisited). Waugh is also well known for his outrageous character names and Otto Silenus is no exception. In Greek mythology Silenus was a tutor to the wine god Dionysus and a notorious drunkard, he was also said to possess arcane knowledge and the power of prophecy.
In a final insult ‘King’s Thursday’ is appreciated by no-one, least of all by its depressed creator who says of it, ‘nothing I have ever done has caused me so much disgust.’ It is demolished shortly afterwards.
© Modernist Tourists 2016