Modernism defined me. But how do I define Modernism? It started as a boy in Liverpool. Today Merseyside has a thriving loft culture, boutique hotels, people drive late model German cars and drink advanced forms of coffee. But I was brought up in an ungentrified Sodom of slums and disenchantment. Not, to be sure, in any conditions of great deprivation myself, but I certainly saw what slums and disenchantment could do to a cityscape. Alun Owen, the local playwright, said Liverpool scars people. It certainly does.
Early on I found exit strategies based in fantasy. There was a television programme called 77Sunset Strip, featuring the same ripe Californian dreamworld that inspired The Beach Boys (who came from the grittier parts of San Diego, not the cheerful parts of Los Angeles): wonderful cars, eternal sunshine, sleek women and gleaming buildings. A farrago of unreflective consumerist kitsch released hitherto mute yearnings in this boy: I thought that my world could be made perfect if only my parents would get a white telephone with a curly flex. (They did and I was right.)
Then there was Nikolaus Pevsner. The 1966 Pelican reprint of Pioneers of Moder Design added the authority of Euro-intellect to my now established taste for high concept materialism. (I was 14.) Pevsner's story arc of architecture and design since the 1880s was a narrative of redemption with the plot-driver that human destiny was directed towards the universal acceptance of architecture inspired by primitive machines. Twenty years later I found myself presenting a gleaming, white, severely rectilinear model of the soon-to-be- built Design Museum to a baffled Prince Charles, pitching to get the heir-to-the-throne to officiate at the opening. He looked exquisitely pained and asked with an heir's air of weary dismissal, "Mr Bayley, exactly why has it got a flat roof?"
I knew he did not want to hear the answer that Pevsner had taught (or indoctrinated) me, that flat roofs were inevitable and correct, that to build otherwise was to deny the forces of history. In those days to argue for intelligent design was to be on the side of design evolution. Now, a magnificent exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum casts Modernism not as the defining characteristic of the present moment, startling and new, inevitable and true, the priority of now... but as a historical style label.
It is deligtful to note that the idea of modernity has been around for a long time. Cennino Cennini in his Libro dell'Arte said Giotto, with his psychologial realism and new-fangled perspective, made painting "modern". Later, Vasari used the word. But essentially, the concept became established in literature long before it became the imperative in architecture, art and design.
In the 18th century, there was a debate between the "Ancients and Moderns". Then the 1828 Webster's defined
Modernism as "something recently formed, particularly in writing". First mention in our current sense? Perhaps Matthew Arnold's 1857 lecture On the Modern Element in Literature. In Paris the Goncourt brothers coined "modernity" the following year. George Meredith's Modern Love was published in 1862. A Danish literary critic called Georg Brandes produced Men of the Modern …