Dezeen Magazine

"Can modernism be explained without an architectural education?"

In the 1970s, the Open University offered a course on the history of architecture and design. Architects can learn a lot from it, says Owen Hatherley.

Why don't ordinary people understand modern architecture? It's a question that comes up now and again in what architects like to call "the profession".

If only these people understood the principles and ideas behind, say, a controversial design such as Herzog and De Meuron's proposed and much opposed new skyscraper for Paris, Zaha Hadid's eventually cancelled Cardiff Opera House, listed eyesores like Park Hill in Sheffield, or alternately loathed and loved works like John Madin's Birmingham Central Library. Then wouldn't a lot of tiresome arguments be avoided?

You can give up, as in the occasionally reiterated position that a return to classicism would be necessary in order to communicate again with the general public.

Or, you can always try and explain non-historical architecture to people that aren't architects. In Britain, for a while, this took the form of the Stirling Prize, as an architectural Brits, BAFTAs or Booker, which had relatively high viewing figures in the 2000s, something partly connected with a wave of bumptious, populist architecture by the likes of Will Alsop appearing all over the towns and suburbs of UK.

Can modernism ever really be explained, though, in all its complexity, without an architectural education? In the 1970s, there was an experiment involving thousands that thought it could.

For the exhibition's curators, the Open University is actually a daring multimedia experiment

The University is Now on Air: Broadcasting Modern Architecture, the current exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, focuses on a single module that ran at the Open University from 1975 to 1982, called A305: History of Architecture and Design, 1890-1939.

For the exhibition's curators, the affectionately nicknamed OU is actually a daring multimedia experiment. It presages a way of "mobilising new media environments for educational purposes", which can respond to the crisis of access and quality in higher education, especially in architecture.

First, it gives a crash course in what the Open University – the University of the Air, as it was initially known – actually is. Devised by the Labour government minister Jennie Lee in the 1960s, the OU would offer courses to people that couldn't, or wouldn't, attend a conventional university, and who had no prior qualifications.

It would educate them not via conventional lectures in a campus of gothic or brutalist buildings, but through media – particularly, specially published course books and radio or television programmes, often broadcast in the graveyard shift of terrestrial TV. Unlike the currently popular Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the teaching materials and the assessment of the essays was intended to be at the same intellectual level as a conventional university, with no diminution of quality. When asked decades later what he was most proud of in his three stints as prime minister, Harold Wilson replied "the Open University". The exhibition explains well, why it mattered that much.

Materials from the course are laid out across several rooms in the CCA. Specially made (and attractively designed) pamphlets on the Arts and Crafts or the New Objectivity, a shelf of the set reading (a crash-course from William Morris to Reyner Banham), and most of all the TV. Subjects include Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Peter Behrens and the branding of AEG, Frank Lloyd Wright, Erich Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower, the Bauhaus, and more local topics, like the London Underground or English housing and cinemas of the 1930s (the CCA is putting them on Youtube, one-by-one, for the duration of the exhibition).

In one film, a Corbusian puppet crow gives an extended parody of Towards an Architecture

Most were presented by Tim Benton or Stephen Bayley, whose similarly odd fashion choices and contrasting presenting styles – Benton every inch the earnest, left-leaning 70s lecturer, Bayley rather more arch and ambiguous – share an intensifying criticism of modern architecture as they go on.

Although never less than nuanced, they are products of modernism's historic low ebb, when the post-war reconstruction was finished and was being widely found wanting, for reasons both understandable (poor construction, aggressive road engineering, a lack of public say in planning), and now baffling (a widespread belief that modernism's abstraction and public spaciousness were totalitarian). Accordingly, they often have a tone of special pleading to them: "You might well think this is horrible, here's why it might not be."

There's plenty of critique and some playfulness: in one film, a Corbusian puppet crow gives an extended parody of Towards an Architecture ("the most logical thing would be for us all to live in bins"), and part of PIG, a Problem Identification Game that was intended to investigate the unintended consequences of modernist planning. Even so, they're not here to tell you what you already know, but to suggest things you might not have thought of already.

Benton's film about the immense Quarry Hill Flats in Leeds is exemplary: he tells you why this huge 1930s council estate looks like it does, shows examples where similar projects have worked well, and provides good, unhysterical reasons of upkeep and planning as to why the British equivalent had become so grim.

I wondered what the Canadian audience could have made of this (the exhibition will eventually travel to the University of the Air's permanent home at Milton Keynes), given that so much of it was so extremely British. But this fairly parochial scope was also the source of what I found most interesting in the course.

It suggests a way out of our current tendency to think of the history of modern architecture as a matter of great monuments in great cities by great architects

On one wall was a large map, with a database next to it. This showed the results of one of the pieces of set coursework – finding a building from 1890-1939, and writing an essay on it using the theoretical tools provided by the course. The map had a number for each place an essay had been written about. It had its clusters – a lot of London, Manchester, Sheffield, Edinburgh and Glasgow, and, puzzlingly, Dorset – but gave a good sense of geographical scope.

In front of it were the essays, mostly handwritten, on everything from a pretty Arts and Crafts suburb to a pioneering (and since demolished) 1930s modernist estate in Manchester. This is a possible answer to the most obvious criticism of the courses – that it was a one-way system, in which knowledge passes only from teacher to pupil. Here, the movement is reversed.

It also suggests a way out of our current tendency to think of the history of modern architecture as a matter of great monuments in great cities by great architects. Instead, everyone writes reports on how ideas and movements make their way to the most distant suburb, as if what happens there is of equal importance to what happens in Berlin, London or New York. Which it is.