What, exactly, is modern architecture? The first thing to be understood is that the name itself is a lie. It isn’t remotely modern.
According to an interesting American academic paper, the Mental Disorders which gave us Modern Architecture (Sussman/Chen), Modernism arose out of the trauma of the First World War. It presented as a strain of such neuropsychiatric conditions as autism spectrum disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and hyperplasticity.
I’m not so sure the theory always works. Some Modernism, like those 1930s ‘ocean liner’ blocks below Edinburgh’s Ravelston heights or Renfrewshire’s Art Deco Inchinnan Tyreworks, is a joy to behold, yet at its most nihilistic, modernism is readily analogous with the psychic alienation of shell-shocked troops in which an inability to make eye contact or conduct coherent conversations were commonplace symptoms among those displaying the dissociative outcomes of combat stress.
As with faces, so with facades. Previous generations of architects incorporated proportionality and symmetry in the main elevations of their buildings; a shared design grammar gave most of them an anthropomorphic elegance and a semblance of personality. The early Modernists preferred their architecture faceless, on the whole, as if, for them, there was something disturbing about looking at a building which, on some subliminal level, appeared to be looking back.
The phoney prophets of modernism could be astute, however. Opaque attempts to muddy the difference between the traditional and the modern were promoted by Bauhaus sympathisers like architectural historian Nicholas Pevsner, who claimed the romantic medievalist William Morris as a ‘Pioneer of Modernism’ – a manifest absurdity dismissed by art historian Robin Middleton as ‘a piece of propaganda for the establishment, in particular, of the modern movement in England.’
Mackintosh the modernist?
By the same token Scotland’s modernist pioneer was meant to be Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a radical innovator, certainly, who understood the benefits of machine-made components as well as any quantity surveyor, but who nonetheless embraced vernacular traditionalism, and was no more a follower of the Gropius circle than his contemporaries Sir John Burnet, Sir Robert Lorimer, or George Hamilton Beattie, all of whom were conversant with the latest technologies.
In Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Modern Movement , Professor Thomas Howarth, according to his Glasgow University colleague, Alan Tait, ‘took over from Pevsner the holy writ of the modern movement’ in seeking to provide Scottish modernism with a respectable, if entirely specious, ancestral pedigree. Or perhaps, to put it less delicately, to legitimise a rootless bastard style imported from a traumatised Europe in search of a safe post-imperial Zeitgeist.
The onward march of the new priesthood would soon conquer the world, aided, predictably, by a property and construction sector with a lust for profit to match the disruptor-architect’s craving for glory. A decade after the First War, the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) emerged when 24 architects (none of them British or American) declared;
Urbanisation cannot be conditioned by the claims of a pre-existent aestheticism; its essence is of a functional order… a collective and methodical land policy.
The Athens Charter, issued at the third CIAM conference in 1933, was even more chilling. With its emphasis on functionalism and high-rise uniformity, it spawned an orgy of worldwide urban aesthetic mayhem. Almost a century later its pernicious spirit continues to flourish. In ‘The Year of European Cultural Heritage’ (2018) the EU Commission issued a ‘European Quality Principles’ Document, paragraph 16 of which states: ‘when new parts/elements are necessary, a project shall use contemporary design.’ Cue nasty glass banana addition to Edinburgh’s Usher Hall.
Notre Dame et Macron
This interesting example of Stockholm Syndrome, whereby the guardians of our heritage have been drawn inexorably into the arms of the ideological modernists, was fully endorsed by ICOMOS (the International Council on Monuments and Sites) and prompted the following query from this writer:
President Macron’s recent decision to authorise a replica of the lost Viollet le Duc spire of Notre Dame Cathedral is a clear breach of paragraph 16 of your European Quality Principles document which stipulates use of contemporary design in restoration projects. What sanctions will ICOMOS be implementing against the President in light of this breach?
No response is anticipated!
This collusion goes back some way. Article 9 of the 1964 Venice Charter, which was ostensibly about the protection of the built heritage, served the modernist orthodoxy as historic buildings across the world were subjected to destructive ‘restorations’ to make them ‘of our time.’ The ruling order rarely stops to consider what a community wants, though there are moments of hope, as when Macron, having hailed a modernist ‘inventive reconstruction’ of the lost spire of Notre Dame, changed his mind with alacrity when the anger of the public and potential donors brought about a volte face.
Self-serving modernism’s outriders in this battle for the souls of our cities are not only empire-building politicians, ego-charged architects, and avaricious property industry moguls, but a fawning commentariat with well-honed PR and propaganda skills. If the stars of modernism are a priesthood, their mouthpieces in the architectural press are all too often their craven scribes. Just occasionally, there are voices of dissent, as when Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker of Rafael Vinoly’s soaring 432 Park Avenue, which now casts a sacrilegious shadow over Central Park, as:
the tallest, ugliest, and among the most expensive private residences in the city’s history – the Oligarch’s Erection, as it should be known – a catchment for the rich from which to look down on everyone else, it is hard not to feel that the civic virtues of commonality have been betrayed.
Others, like Paul Goldberger, slavish cheerleader for and long-time friend of modernist doyen Frank Gehry, bemoans the fact that ‘There are those who will never respond to Gehry’s work – those people are missing an architectural experience of immense power and subtlety.’ Not everyone takes Goldberger’s pronouncements at face value. Fellow scribe Martin Filler, author of Makers of Modern Architecture, has written tartly that Goldberger ‘always lacked a discernible moral center’.
Yet Filler himself recently launched into a tirade against classicism in The New York Review of Books, where he cites that old canard about ‘Hitler’s insistence that all public buildings in the Third Reich hew to the classical tradition.’ Hereby is a link made between an architectural style and a genocidal tyrant which, by dint of some perverse logic, is meant to damn classicism. In words Filler attributed to some unidentified ‘left-leaning’ architectural lobby, it was ‘a blatant attempt to leverage aesthetics in the service of white supremacy.’
It is odd how classical architecture is tainted by such an association, while vegetarians who share the Fuhrer’s dietary preferences are never accused of being Nazi fifth columnists. It’s odder still that, insofar as we can match an ideology with any given architectural style, it is modernism, with its multi-millionaire architects and mega-expensive prestige projects, which exemplifies all the crassest aspects of the exploitative neo-liberal far right.
The great exponent of the far-right ideology of modern architectural is Ayn Rand, who believed that ‘reason and altruism are incompatible’. Author of The Fountainhead and pin-up girl of, amongst others, Trump extremist and ex-House speaker Paul Ryan and former UK Chancellor Sajid Javid, her novel’s hero, architect Howard Roark, is a domineering sociopath who relentlessly pursues his modernist ambitions. Like all obsessive American manifest destinarians, Roark spares nothing and no-one in pursuit of his ‘right of the ego.’ His nemesis, Ellsworth Toohey, is an egalitarian ‘collectivist’ architecture critic with a taste for traditionalism whose character was based on the British socialist academic, Harold Laski. In that toxic context, the very idea that those who prefer traditional architecture are right-wing reactionaries would seem to be the reverse of reality. No-one, but no-one, could possibly be further to the right than Rand and her Nietzschean man-god, Roark.
It is certainly the case that elements of stripped-down classicism were favoured by Hitler’s architect, Albrecht Speer, yet it tends to be forgotten that Giuseppe Terragni, who designed the 1936 Casio del Fascio for Mussolini, was an uncompromising modernist. This surely allows us to equate modernism with fascism – yet somehow the commentariat never quite connects them.
It is that same powerful commentariat, all too often acting as the propaganda arm of modernist movement, which continues to hold sway over the commissioning classes in the civic chambers, corporate headquarters, government departments and universities of Britain, as well as America.
Perhaps – to paraphrase Rand devotee and one-time chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan – it’s time to apply a necessary corrective to all that modernist irrational exuberance!
Image of 432 Park Ave from the Comcast Building by Sebastiandoe5 CC By-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons