David Greusel composed this essay on some of the failings of Modern architecture several years ago. It is included here to give additional perspective. It should not be considered a manifesto, however.
May 29, 1999
There is in the state of Rhode Island a community college of 1970s vintage that is virtually indistinguishable from community college campuses in Indiana, Texas and California. The reason it is indistinguishable is not because it was built by a nationwide franchise (McJuCo’s), or designed by a nationwide architect, but because it adheres to the strictures of modern design then in effect, which were morally, if not legally binding on all practicing architects in America at the time (except for the incipient Postmodernists, but that’s another essay). This community college fails to convey anything about its community (Providence), its state (Rhode Island) or its region (New England). It lacks detail, color, indigenous materials, interest and beauty. How has modern architecture failed us? Let me count the ways:
1. It has given us a “universal language” that is both impoverished and banal.
2. It has forced our capitalist society into an ill-fitting socialist set of values.
3. It has lowered the standard of quality for buildings to an irredeemably low level.
4. By denigrating ornament, it has elevated pragmatic functionalism to the level of ultimate goal
Modern architecture has given us a “universal language” of architecture, the famed “International Style,” that is both impoverished and banal. Although it held promise in the hands of the modern masters such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, the vocabulary of modern architecture has suffered from decades of oversimplification and reductionism to the point where it is self-limiting in the extreme. In essence, modernism strips away any hint of “historicist” or classical detail to reveal the “true essence” of a building, which of course is not the true essence at all but simply a reduction of graceful and eye-pleasing detail to the lowest common denominator. Henry Ford’s ill-advised observation that “history is bunk” was quoted fondly—and often—in architecture schools across the Western world.
Only a few forms—and fewer materials—are permitted within the narrow boundaries of modernism, beginning with the box. Though the box may be sheared, warped or cloned, it is the basic element of contemporary architecture, and woe betide the architect who seeks to slope a roof. Sloped roofs are viewed as retrograde, or residential, or both. Columns are permitted, of course, but only in their “pure” forms, either uncovered steel sections straight from the mill, or concrete poured in round tubes. Windows, per se, are forbidden, to be replaced by the much superior curtain wall, a floor to ceiling expanse of glass, that, beside being energy inefficient, is better suited to views of Lake Michigan than to a suburban middle school.
These are only a few examples of the impoverishment of the designer’s tool box under the heavy hand of modernism, but the results are everywhere visible: schools, churches, and office buildings that are indistinguishable from shopping malls, and from one another. Modernism has given us law schools that look like parking garages and parking garages that look like law schools. One of the refreshing counter-trends of the past two decades has been the rise of urban festival marketplaces, like Fanueil Hall in Boston, that discarded the dictates of modernism for a funky, eclectic blend of traditional and modern ideas. Of course, to modernist purists, such delightful marketplaces are bourgeois and pandering.
Second, modern architecture has, ironically, forced our capitalist society into an ill-fitting set of socialist clothes. It is an open secret that the early heroes of modernism were all socialist in their political leanings (except for Phillip Johnson, who was actually fascist in his leanings, but that’s another story). Worker housing was a great theme of early modernism, as Tom Wolfe clearly lays out in his entertaining expose of modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House. The unfortunate result of these political underpinnings is that worker housing was not only the objective of the early modernists, it became the dominant form of modern architecture. The resemblance between the worker housing constructed in prewar Germany (before Hitler chased all the progressive architects to our shores) and the luxury condominiums of Florida’s Gold Coast is more than coincidental.
It is no exaggeration to say that many of the monuments of American modernism, from Lever House to the Seagram building to the John Hancock tower, are in fact witting or unwitting tributes to worker housing. The irony, of course, is that these same buildings were in fact the homes of many of America’s most powerful corporations, the very symbol of decadent capitalism that the modernists sought to undermine. Perhaps their subversion is their victory, for if they failed to bring down the capitalist structure, they at least forced it to dress in the garb of socialism, and to enjoy it. If the modernists could not destroy capitalism, they at least succeeded in humiliating it.
Modernism as worker housing reached its low point in the construction of notorious government-sponsored high-rise projects for the urban poor in the 1950s and 1960s. Billed as “urban renewal,” these programs razed block after block of “blighted” (that is, under-maintained) apartments and townhouses that were at least humane in scale and proportion, and replaced them with oversized gardens sown with huge modernist boxes, planted on superblocks with no streets to provide a sense of scale, neighborhood or any urban vitality. These complexes realized Le Corbusier’s dream of a “radiant city” of tall towers in a park, but the dream quickly turned into a nightmare. The failure of these award-winning design projects is legendary, capped by the 1972 demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis, which was hailed by some optimists as “the death of modernism.” Modernism, however, has proven to be more resilient.
Third, modernism, rather than ushering in the “radiant city” imagined by LeCorbusier, has lowered the standards of building construction to an irredeemably low level. This was perhaps one of the unintended consequences of modernism, as no self-respecting modernist would, in the past, own up to advocating ugly buildings, but ugly buildings were the result nonetheless.
Here’s what happened: in stripping away all the ornament, detail and classical details of the previously normative classical styles, the modernists not only made ornamentation unacceptable, they made it unaffordable. The standard of the construction industry became the box, the flat roof, the planar wall surface, and the glass curtain wall, and anything else came to be seen as “bric-a-brac” or unnecessary frou-frou. It is not surprising that in our cities, the best loved buildings are the very classical structures so adorned, for they contain a richness and a level of detail that modernism neither allows nor aspires to. The human eye loves orderly complexity, as Jonathan Edwards defined beauty, and modernism seldom provides it.
Fourth, by denigrating ornament, modernism has elevated pragmatic functionalism to the level of an ultimate goal. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with being either pragmatic or functional. One of my design studio professors was fond of asking, if slightly ironically, “how would a farmer do it?” But when function is elevated to the ultimate goal, the result is guaranteed to be uninspiring. Surely airplanes and boats must be functional, and their beauty inheres in their functionality—being fitted to a particular purpose. But buildings are not airplanes or boats, and in fact it is quite easy to design a building fitted to its purpose (i.e., standing up, keeping the water out, and providing a minimum of light and ventilation to its occupants).
By focusing on function to the exclusion of everything else, modernism managed to lower the bar once again. Buildings need to aspire to more than functionality. They participate in the life of a city in a unique way that boats and airplanes never will, and they should seek to add to the sum of their city’s beauty, not merely keep the rain out. Ironically, the originator of the famous dictum that “form follows function” is none other than Louis Sullivan, a giant of late 19th century architecture whose structures were so richly ornamented with beautiful organic decoration that he was anathematized by the European modernists once they took over the academy. Sullivan’s point, which the modernists missed, was not that buildings should be exceedingly plain, but rather that they should look like what they are, a bank like a bank, a school like a school, and so on.
Unfortunately, Sullivan’s observation about function became, for modernism, a license to remove any hint of decoration from our buildings, until we were left in an architectural Dark Ages in the 1960s and 1970s where the best that could be expected of a designer was a brick box with a strip of curtain wall glass on it somewhere and a (notoriously leaky) flat roof. Our cities are full of the rotten fruit of Sullivan’s misunderstood saying. The double irony is that by limiting the designer’s palette so severely, we achieved the opposite of what Sullivan meant—schools and churches and banks that were indistinguishable from one another.
So are there any beautiful buildings out there in the modernist style? Without doubt. Richard Meier has raised the impoverished vocabulary of white surfaces and pipe railings to the level of art in many of his buildings, which clearly meet Edwards’ definition of beauty being found in harmony in complexity. Even Le Corbusier created a lovely chapel in Ronchamp that defies most of the principles of his International style. Alvar Aalto and Louis Khan created buildings of lasting quality by bending the rules of modernism to suit their individual visions. The problem is not so much with the masters, who were also artists, but with the followers, who were trained in the style of Corbu and Mies but practiced it artlessly, filling our cities with bland modernist junk food that insults our tastes to this day.
Having laid out some of the obvious failures of modernism, it is worth noting that today, the trends in architecture are even more ominous than when the modernist style was in its ascendancy just after World War II. Architectural thinking today, while not turning loose of the basic tenets of modernism (i.e., the complete rejection of history and historical styles as being artificial and inauthentic) has gone off on an even more disturbing tangent that is not only anti-history, but anti-beauty.
The thinking goes something like this: we live in ugly, chaotic, irrational times, and we need an architecture to match. Needless to say, the fruit of this kind of thinking will leave sober citizens begging for even the blandness of bad modernism. If you have not already seen a building that looks like a half-skinned animal or a train wreck, just wait. There will be one coming soon to your community.
R.C. Sproul observes rightly that “ideas have consequences,” and in the world of architecture, the ideas that influence designers have consequences that last for generations. As Winston Churchill said, “First we shape our buildings, then they shape us.” The battle for the mind of the architect is at least as important as the other fronts of the culture wars: movies, television, literature and art. Keep that in mind if you ever have the opportunity to sit on a building committee or a local zoning board.