Sunday, June 29, 2014

An Architectural Utopia

2001: A Space Odyssey
Utopia is a 16th century literary invention derived from the Greek οὐ, "not" and τόπος, "place". Owing to an homophonic anomaly most folks think 'Utopia' refers to a 'good place'. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, that would be an 'Eutopia'. An Utopia in point of fact is "no place" at all. I contend that we are fast approaching a global architectural Utopia, a built environment of "no place" and "no one".

An Aesthetic Cleansing

I just cringe when I hear a designer or architect say they are after a 'clean' look. What does a 'clean' look mean anyway? After all I think very few of us would prefer a 'dirty, unclean' look! 'Clean' is code for a sparse, minimalist design bereft of craft, cleansed of ornament, devoid of the polluting evidence of the human touch. A product of industry, possible only with the precision of the machine. We can practically place a date for when this pogrom against craftmanship began in earnest, January 21st 1910, with Adolph Loos' infamous lecture "Ornament and Crime". Ornament and craft were condemned as unevolved and degenerate relics of a primitive past. A self-proclaimed liberator of the craftsman, Adolf claimed their employ by the privileged was abusive and immoral. A progressive society would free them of their toil:

"We have out-grown ornament, we have struggled through to a state without ornament. Behold, the time is at hand, fulfilment awaits us. Soon the streets of the cities will glow like white walls! Like Zion, the Holy City, the capital of heaven. It is then that fulfilment will have come.”  - Adolf Loos

The foretold aesthetic cleansing arrived, carried to its logical fulfillment. The former craftsman freed from his toil, liberated from his art could now slave as a laborer in the factories supplying the materials of industry or assembling them as a "mechanic" in the field.

A School, a Style, and the Rise of the Machine for Living

Bauhaus Dormitory
In 1919 a "House of Building" or Bauhaus was established in Germany putting Adolph Loos' ideas into practical application. Surprisingly, coursework included fine arts and several years of workshop training under the direction of craftsmen and artists. However, the emphasis was technological, the preparation of designs for mass production by industry, canonized by the adopted slogan of the Bauhaus, "Art into Industry". Industrial efficiency demanded a reductive approach, an extreme simplification and unification of design that realized the elimination of moulding and ornament.

The early efforts of the Bauhaus laid the grounds for an "International Style" unveiled in 1932 at the Museum for Modern Art in Manhattan, NY. What made the this style "international"? It certainly did not embrace the millennia of accumulated cultural traditions of many nations and peoples from across the globe. Commonly held among those various humanistic traditions, man had always been held as the subject of architectural design, the building was to be the objective reality, an outward expression reflecting his inner, spiritual nature. In stark contrast, the International Style enforced the complete extinguishment of any lingering artifacts of  human culture, employing a complete reversal of the traditional thought process of design. The new doctrine dictated that "Form" was to follow only practical "Functions". The building and the attendant practical efficiencies of construction usurped the position of subject, placing people as just one amongst many objects such as chairs, toilets, stairs etc. populating the structure. The International Style might have been more appropriately called the Extranational Style, it reflected an aesthetic beyond the cultural influence of any nation or culture. It was the first step towards a new architecture, a Utopian architecture of "no place" in particular.

Drywall Factory
If the International Style achieved an architecture of "no place", several of its visionaries would envision that the built environment of the future would likewise be an architecture of "no one". Prominent leader of the movement, Le Corbusier, declared the house the "Machine for Living". The military industrial complex in place after World War II quickly adapted itself to the mass production of industrialized construction components. Traditional, simple building assemblies, adapted to local environmental conditions, often furnished and always constructed by local craftsmen were rapidly supplanted by complex, standardized cavity wall building assemblies wholly dependent on mechanical systems designed by engineers. The establishment of international building codes would ensure that those engineered building systems were everywhere to stay.

Progress and Propaganda, The Freedom of Limited Choice

Proposed Clemson Architectural Center
Charleston, SC
There is the prevailing opinion that contemporary architecture is progressive, at least among architects who have been indoctrinated in this philosophy. Examples of progress take many forms: embracing new materials, "green, sustainable" technologies and pursuing bold, unprecedented designs. This is epitomized by the American Institute of Architects annual Progressive Architecture Award. The architectural community pats itself on the back for specifying multimillion dollar complexes utilizing high-embodied energy materials of glass, concrete and metal alloys wholly dependent on mechanical systems burning fossil fuels to function, life expectancy unknown. The architects designing these projects are "International", neither educating themselves locally nor maintaining a practice locally, nor are the highly engineered proprietary building systems they specify locally furnished. Instead, they impose a signature style, free of cultural influence, independent of craft that can be plugged into any major city: New York, London, Beijing, Dubai or ceremoniously dumped in the historic districts of traditional cities such as Rome, Kyoto or Charleston. The envisioned "Utopia" has quickly morphed into a "Dystopic" reality, an alien, uncultured, craftless built environment of "no place" in particular.

Tianjin EcoCity Ecology Museum. Courtesy Steven Holl Architects

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Contributed by Patrick Webb 


  1. Bravo Patrick!
    The Brave New World seems a cheerless place.

  2. More work for us less retentive folk when they come round to that alien concept of texture and colour;)

  3. i'll say it...modern architecture leaves me feeling cold or maybe that should be clean...don't much care for it, personally or professionally.

  4. On seeing the latest proposal for part of the waterfront in VA/WASHDC, I commented "Oh Great, another group of square boxes, whatever happened to CHARM?"

  5. Worse yet when one of these progressive architects is let loose on an existing historic building. For example, Richard Meier in 1989 did his best to erase and eradicate the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, CT.

  6. Agree whole-heartedly; modern architecture has no soul. At least this group understands the historic preservation and traditional craftsmanship are truly green and sustainable .

  7. Well argued. You might find my blog on the place-killing effect of regulation interesting.

  8. I did indeed Philip, read every post. The connections between industry, regulation and the degradation of culture of which architecture is a visible symbol are hardly tenuous.

  9. It looks like a weapon.

  10. In May, I led a walk for the Jane's Walk weekend in New York City on the wonder and richness of building ornament near Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan. I can imagine that those who went on this walk, as well as many others in New York, would relate so much to your essay. Such shiny, soulless buildings are threatening the real "somewhere" of so many New York neighborhoods and elsewhere globally.

    Because your essay resonated so much, I featured it as part of a post this week on, my New York-based blog on walking experiences and mindfulness of architecture, nature, and history. Thought you'd want to see it.

    Thank you, and here's to a restoration of life-filled buildings that honor the soul, craft, tradition, and culture of people and places.

    Susan DeMark

  11. Hello Susan,

    Thank you for your comment. I'm glad it led me to your blog!
    Your local, Gotham insights of my article were wonderfully expressed.

    Best Regards,


  12. Leeds, UK, is a good example of this. Lots of 'signature' buildings replaced the ordinary buildings that once lined its streets (with their countless little details and denser rhythm) and became soulless in the process. I'm sure it was once a fine city: barring a few streets in the very centre it's not a nice place to be, however clean they keep the streets.