Sunday, May 15, 2016

Deformity follows Dysfunction

Make no mistake. Modernism has won.

Advocates for traditional approaches to architecture, urbanism and craft may feel they have millennia of precedent on their side, Modernism just being an aberration in the course of human history. This is a hopeful daydream. The quantitative present reality is that there has been more industrially wrought infrastructure and architecture erected in the past century than the sum total of all traditional architecture produced throughout the long history of previous civilisation combined. Man's built environment by volume is today more Modernist than far. This is partly attributable to two factors. Firstly, there is simply more people that have lived and been provided housing, workplaces, transportation infrastructure etc., under the dominance of Modernist ideology. The population in a single lifetime, from the 1930's, has soared from under 2 billion to over 7 billion and continues to rise exponentially. Secondly and more significantly, the industrial efficiency of extracting resources from the earth and converting them into capital withers all previous traditional capabilities.

Nevertheless, the aforementioned factors of population increase and industrial efficiency in and of themselves were not determinative. Human society did not inevitably have to be organised as it is. There must be an underlying consciousness, an entrenched ideology, serving as the intellectual basis (or perhaps pathology depending on your point of view) that drives the choices we've made. Perhaps taking a moment to review the spoils of the Modernist victors will provide some insights.

A Multinational Style

The early efforts at coalescing a Modernist architectural ideology were directed towards alleviating social issues facing early 20th century European lower middle class society. Due to rapid industrialisation, there occurred a massive implosion of production to centralised locations, often cities where unprecedented accelerated growth contributed mightily to deplorable working and housing conditions. The conceivably noble ideas of using the efficiency and surplus wealth of industry to address the social problems it generated set early Modernists about the task of designing industrially produced worker housing schemes that were to apportion adequate space, light, plumbing combined with an aesthetic that was to provide continuity with the industrial life, a "factory away from factory" as it were. As it turned out, factory workers didn't much care for these schemes; ironically they would later be constructed en masse for public housing, mostly for those who weren't part of the workforce at all.

Undeterred, the Modernists quickly abandoned their initial ethical foundation in search of a more reliable clientele with deep pockets, the industrial, commercial and financial institutions of a burgeoning global capitalism. For faceless, privatised centers of economic coercion, an anonymous architecture of glass and steel was just the stylistic imagery for the growing sterile, impersonal power of the multinational corporation. Propaganda of apparent transparency is embodied in glass towers of what are truly opaque, autocratic institutions that dictate virtually all means of production and control all access to capital.


Whereas large corporations are generally content not to draw too much attention to themselves preferring non-descript, mid-century revival Modernism, trustees  of the civic realm (museums, universities, concert halls and the like) seem to fall over themselves to blow budgets or endowments in their care on the latest architectural deformities. Why?

Actually, I don't have a good answer. They're onerously expensive, impractical for their purpose, impossible to maintain. Most of these starchitects proudly assert that their "art" is intended to subvert the status quo. Give me a break, who are these privileged brats subverting? Each other? They're certainly not calling for any social change of the system that has made them rich. Others claim they wish to reflect the fear, anxiety and tension of contemporary society. Is this the moral responsibility of an architect towards the civic realm? Hopefully starchitecture is like disco; one day we're going to wake up, someone will have declared it dead and we'll finally be rid of it.


Nothing represents the modern concept of freedom like the independence of the automobile and the open road! Of course automobiles aren't technically free. Neither is the open road free when you stop to think about the trillions of dollars of taxpayer dollars invested in them. Let's not forget the dependence on nonrenewable fossil fuels used to power them and the industrial military complex used to secure those resources. That reminds me, I've got to pay my auto insurance premium. They weren't kidding when they sang "freedom isn't free"...

But I digress, suspending reality for the moment; Modernism loves the "symbology of freedom" that the car represents. For decades Modernist planning theory crafted the zoning that allocated more and more space for the automobile. Single use zones for living, working, school, shopping etc. with arterial roads or highways to travel between by car. Virtually all of the public funds of course went into roads instead of public transportation. Architecturally, more funds and space are now allocated for the automobile than for human beings. It's a great time to be a car!

West Village "Texas Doughnut"
I've been reminded recently, scolded is more like it, that folks love their cars. Not yet having utterly destroyed the environment, the sprawl of the suburbs has a little ways to go yet before it completely exhausts itself. However, at least some see the writing on that wall, concerned about the crumbling architecture and infrastructure, tired of the long commutes, sick of the non-stop traffic so that many are returning to the cities, lured by the density of mixed-use and walkability. The problem is that they're bringing their suburban ideals and their cars with them. The bureaucrats and architects seem only too willing to oblige their automobiles by approving and designing practically every sizeable infill as some form of parking garage. Developers appreciate the public handouts from transportation coffers that fund the costly parking garage core of these superblocks, around which they can profitably build commercial retail and rental property. As a result, our cities are becoming as snarled as sprawl and just about as inhospitable to the pedestrian.

Don't like Modernism? Not to worry, it won't be around for much longer! By the time it's fully replaced it will have had a good run of 100 years. Even all bad things must come to an end. The capacity to design, fabricate and construct buildings is being wrested away from human beings as I write this. In a follow up essay I'll explore the dystopian future of architecture...Parametricism.

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Contributed by Patrick Webb


  1. YIKES. This sounds so bleak. I imagine we should appeal to an inner sense of beauty and appropriateness that I assume we still have deep down inside our subconscious selves.