The Failure and Unpopularity of Modernist Architecture

07-12-2018 15:12

Audun Engh

Secretary, Council for European Urbanism. Co-Organiser, The European School of Urbanism and Architecture

Many modernist architects believe they are the representatives of the March of History, that modernism is a successful revolution of the 20th century, and that it is their obligation to defend this revolution, especially against any counter-revolutionary, reactionary attempts to reintroduce the defeated, deplorable architectural styles and urban design principles from before the functionalist/modernist inventions of the 1920s and 30s.

Architects can be experts at psychologically manipulating clients and the public to feel ashamed of their secret, personal preferences for traditional architecture. In an interview, the Norwegian architect and Pritzger Prize winner, Sverre Fehn said: “You have to smash the dreams of your client”.  The architectural establishment will laugh at any suggestions for a traditional design, or if that does not help,  attack aggressively or even use the legal system to ban traditional architecture (large new urban developments in Oslo have regulation plans requiring modernist architecture).

These control mechanisms are supported by an internal organization of the architectural establishment that has been compared by Nikos Salingaros to pseudo-religious cult movements. The techniques used include the initiation of young devotees in architecture schools, via ideological teaching programs (some would call them brainwashing), and the shaming and expulsion of traitors who question the hegemony of modernism (as many traditional architects have experienced – they are often victims of “Berufsverbot,” or effective professional disqualification).

The message from opinion polls, referendums and the housing market across Europe is that 70 – 90 % of the population prefers traditional architecture, if they are given a choice. …

You will find the domination of modernism in sectors where decisions on design are made by bureaucracies, experts and committees… People in these positions are more likely to abandon their personal aesthetic preferences in favor of what is “accepted,” “required” or “normal,” and design that will give them praise from the architectural profession and the cultural media. Developers are told that a mixed-use block structure is not “modern” and “of our time,” but mono-functional concrete slabs in a “park” setting are.

There is a lot of sociology at work here: People are given a clear message that acceptance of modernism will give access to the cultural establishment.  You could even get an award for being “bold” and “innovative.” Honesty regarding your true preference for traditional design will only result in ridicule and embarrassment.

A good example is the treatment of Prince Charles by architects and cultural journalists. As an unquestionable member of the elite, his opposition to modernism was of course dangerous. To prevent his message from infecting people high and low in society, it was regarded necessary to depict him as a ridiculous, reactionary figure, and a threat to social progress. Ten years ago there were signs that he had been “advised” to tone down his engagement in the architectural debate. But the last years he has returned, stronger than ever, with sustainability and public participation as new and very good arguments for traditional building and urban design…

For some reason, even after a sustained modernist campaign, the majority is still true to their aesthetic preferences in the private sphere (homes and summer houses) [for traditional design]. But within the financial elite we see clear signs of a tendency to prefer architectural design that will give you recognition from the cultural elite. Luckily, most people still care more about their personal well-being than the opinions of architects and critics in the cultural sections of newspapers.

But modernist ideologists are far from giving in: In Norway, the architectural establishment has recently started a campaign against the traditional design preferred by most people when they are in charge (building a house for oneself and even paying for it). We now have government-funded programs to educate the population in the blessings of “innovative” architecture, combined with the labeling of traditional design as pastiche, nostalgic, not of our time, copies of a society that no longer exists, etc.

Modernism is replacing Lutheranism as the Norwegian State Ideology.

… Bologna in the City Hall of Oslo, the curator, Gabriele Tagliaventi, shocked people by saying in his speech that the 20th century had been plagued by three totalitarian, Utopian ideologies; fascism, communism and modernism, and that it was about time to expose and dethrone the only one still in power, modernism. Even some traditional architects thought Tagliaventi went too far. But he was right. To repair the catastrophic destruction of the European urban and cultural landscape in the 20th century, by war and modernism, and build all the new sustainable urban settlements needed, we will have to expose the responsibility of modernist ideology, especially in urban planning, reintroduce education in well-proven design skills, and empower local communities and the end users of architecture. Modernism should be reduced to the position it deserves: A failed ideology, but also an architectural style that should compete on equal terms with other styles on the market place.
Andres Duany

3/19/01 New Urbanist Listserve

Given only one chance to bet, I would place it on traditional architecture. The basic win-loss ratio is simply much better. I understand and appreciate the 3000 or so modernist masterpieces as well as anyone (some people argue that a rigorous interpretation would yield no more than 300 masterpieces).

What I can’t abide are the concomitant 30 million (or so) modernist buildings of “regrettable” quality that have destroyed the world’s cities and marred landscapes that looked just fine with traditional buildings. There are so few good modernist buildings that when asked to visit one, it usually requires a long time to think of one, and some substantial distance to travel. To find a bad modernist building it is usually possible to stay put and turn your head a bit. On the other hand, to find a bad traditional building requires real research. The ratio is utterly lopsided. In no other endeavor would such a dismal record be tolerated. A lawyer losing cases at that rate would have no clients, and a doctor would be considered a mass murderer, but architecture is somehow exempt from that sort of assessment.

To me, it is a simple win-loss ratio. When given the chance, I bet on the likely winner.

Dan Zack

7/25/02 New Urbanist Listserve

…architects can attract street life, thus contributing to safety, by making their buildings interesting through ornamentation. Pedestrians tend to neglect streets that are boring. Modernist architects generally hate ornamentation and often have little desire to create something that is interesting to the pedestrian, opting instead for something that looks exciting for half a mile away and stands as a totem to their “genius” rather than creating something that embraces the street and the pedestrian. A blank wall of glass, concrete, or even marble just doesn’t cut it.

It doesn’t matter if the architecture is Victorian, or Beaux Arts, or Mediterranean, or Art Deco. I guess you could even accomplish the desired effect with Modernism, but that would require following some rules—and modernist architects HATE rules. If the architect breaks these rules, and fronts the sidewalk with blank walls, focuses all of the apartments inward on a courtyard, and sticks the ground level merchants deep within the building accessed through a mall-like setting rather than through storefronts accessed from the sidewalk then he isn’t contributing to city safety, and in fact may be damaging it.

Michael Mehaffey

4/12/09 New Urbanist Listserve

In the quest for sustainability… and summarizing some of the science on the ecological weaknesses of much neo-modernist design…

Large smooth surfaces.   These expanses do not age well over time; small dents and accumulations of dirt detract significantly from the pristine aesthetic at birth.  At worst, such structures can become blighted and obsolete, and may have to be torn down prematurely.  At best they require frequent, costly and energy-consuming maintenance. Presented to the public realm, they can be exceedingly anti-urban, and disruptive of the pedestrian realm.

Long unbroken lines, angles and joints.  Again, these do not age well and slight imperfections over time show up disproportionately, requiring excessive maintenance and repair — or, just as bad, suffer a decline in perceived value and appeal.  That is clearly not a desirable occurrence when one is seeking sustainability over time.  Another potential problem is that the high typical tolerances can be very expensive to produce accurately.  A feature that was originally intended to reduce costs (minimalism) can in fact have the opposite effect.

Glass curtain walls.  Even with the most energy-efficient assemblies, the insulation value of these is a fraction of solid assemblies.

Large-scale, deep-plan buildings.  These limit daylight and natural ventilation, sever connections with the outside, and disrupt urban connectivity.

Large-scale sculptural objects.  One key problem is that such structures are difficult to modify and adapt to new uses.   This means that obsolescence is more likely if conditions or fashions change – not a very ideal strategy if one is seeking resilience and sustainability.

Tall buildings.  Not exclusively a modernist type, but certainly embraced by modernism, they have a number of serious drawbacks: high exposure of exteriors to sun and wind, high ratio of exteriors to common interior walls, tendency to promote heat island effects (which increases cooling demands), inefficient floorplates due to egress requirements, excessive shading of adjacent buildings, undesirable wind effects at ground, high embodied energy in construction, and expensive, high-energy maintenance.   Tall residential buildings have also been criticized on social grounds as forming, in effect, “vertical gated communities” – isolated pods that do little to activate the street or energize the larger urban network.  While they can provide helpful density, there are more efficient low-rise forms that can deliver suitable densities too.

Reinforced concrete structures; steel frame structures.  Both concrete and steel have high embodied energy and high associated carbon emissions from manufacture.   The more exotic modernist structures – very tall buildings, very large cantilevers, complex shell structures and the like – have a proportionately high reliance on these high-energy materials.

Limited morphologies of repetition, abstraction, uniformity, and the large scale. Recent cognitive studies have shown that the minimalist form language of modernism, while of interest to other architects and making for dramatic photos in magazines, can be annoying or even stressful to ordinary people going about their daily activities.  More research is needed in this area, but there is enough evidence to warrant a much more precautionary approach.

Steve Mouzon

12/10/08 New Urbanist Listserve

By insisting that buildings be lovable by the citizens as a whole, the “Original Green” concept repudiates most Modernist buildings without ever using the words “tradition,” “revival,” “history,” etc. Rather, it gets to the root of the issue: why is it that most Modernist buildings are not loved by the people who live nearby? And, why would you want to design in a way that your buildings will not be loved?

By insisting that buildings be durable, it repudiates most of what we build today, which is designed only to last the length of the mortgage. This includes entire palettes of materials that have long been favored by Modernists, but which perform poorly over time.

Steve Mouzon

11/25/05 New Urbanist Listserve

A tradition begins as a great idea by a single person, who then builds the idea. If the built idea resonates with enough other people (“I care what the people think”) they repeat it and it becomes a local pattern. Loved enough by the regional culture, the local pattern becomes a part of the regional tradition. That which is traditional is therefore that which is most worthy of love. And that tradition lasts for as long as the conditions that created it remain relatively constant, whether only for years or for as long as millennia. It’s not a yearning for something past… it’s a physical manifestation of something working IN THE LONG RUN. Isn’t that what we’re [new urbanists] all about?

Things that work in the long run? That which is most intensely “of our time” today is BY DEFINITION the most quickly outdated tomorrow.

One of the fatal flaws of the Modernists (big “M”… I’m a modern architect, but not a Modernist architect) is their insistence on all things being new. Because in their view you’ve sold your soul if you create forms ever seen before, they have no honorable way of maintaining a tradition, or even of starting one. They are incapable, to be blunt. And here’s where that gets really cancerous for the big-M Modernists: the “never-seen-before” dictum has a dark underbelly, which is that the easiest way to produce something never seen before is to produce something that you’re certain regular people will hate.

So you find the things that obviously resonate with people (head-shaft-base arrangement of the human body, variable bilateral symmetry of the human body, proportions of the ideal human body, buildings that reflect the law of gravity, the laws of thermodynamics, etc.), and then you design buildings that fly in the face of those principles. Not every Modernist who ever practiced intended that their work spit in the face of the average person, but it’s clearly the quickest, most efficient way to follow the Dictum.

The bottom line is that the SOLE reason that the New Urbanists could go to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and produce the work we did in a week is precisely because we are like-minded concerning traditions we hold in common with each other and that resonate with the public at large.

Ben Brown

4/25/11 New Urbanist Listserve

Look at the shelter mags with the largest circulation (that is, the most popular).

Look at the features on homes, all of which are driven by editors’ understanding of what will evoke the wish-I-could-live-there response from readers (that is, which design approaches are most dependably popular).

Note how many of those features are variations on traditional design and how many are modernist.

David Brussat

4/25/11 New Urbanist Listserve

Although I know of no surveys broadly based enough to be conclusive, several recent narrower surveys are suggestive [on how traditional architecture is much more popular than modernist architecture]. They include the AIA’s survey of America’s favorite buildings, a recent survey by a Paris newspaper of the city’s least beloved buildings (which were all modernist), and several surveys sponsored by newspapers during the blowup over the Chelsea Barracks, in London, a couple of years ago, all of which demonstrated the public’s preference for a design by Quinlan Terry over one by Richard Rogers by margins ranging from two thirds to three quarters, if I recall.

I’m sure there must be more, but I can’t think of them right now. You can imagine why doing a survey of public taste in architecture would be the last thing most architectural organizations would want to do. Most evidence of public taste is anecdotal, but very persuasively so. The only people who like modern architecture more than traditional architecture are design professionals and people who feel that some sort of personal advantage can be had by appearing to be on the cutting edge of taste, however damaging it might be to their comfort.

Robert Craig

PhD, History of Architecture and Urban Development, Cornell University

Modern architecture has often been unpopular with the general public, especially Modern residential design. The public complains that glass walls are impersonal, the steel-frame or concrete construction is not traditional, that modern forms are unfamiliar and visually uncomfortable, and that a stripped-down building made of such elements is certainly not beautiful. Modern domestic buildings say more about high technology than about home values, and clients seeking character and art in architecture reject Modernism’s blank walls as offering no visual interest, cultural reference, spatial enrichment or meaning.

Jonathan Jones

6/16/09. Writes on art for the Guardian in the UK

Yes, modern – or to be accurate, dogmatically modernIST architecture was unpopular in the later 20th century. There was, I believe, quite a reaction against it among architects themselves. They came up with alternatives and invented a wacky proliferation of architectural styles…People hate drab tower blocks.

Prince Charles

May 12, 2009

“For far too long, it seems to me, some planners and architects have consistently ignored the feelings and wishes of the mass of ordinary people in this country,” Prince Charles warned.

Focusing on the plans for the National Gallery, Charles added: “Instead of designing an extension to the elegant facade of the National Gallery which complements it and continues the concept of columns and domes, it looks as if we may be presented with a kind of municipal fire station, complete with the sort of tower that contains the siren.

“I would understand better this type of high-tech approach if you demolished the whole of Trafalgar Square and started again with a single architect responsible for the entire layout, but what is proposed is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.”

Charles also attacked plans to build a huge glass tower in Mansion House Square as “another glass stump better suited on downtown Chicago.”

Gerald Warner

June 26th, 2010

The architectural establishment is renewing its efforts to demonise the Prince of Wales, following the Pyrrhic victory of the Candy brothers in the High Court on the issue of the Prince’s intervention to block the appalling Chelsea Barracks project. The litigants were not awarded the £68.5m damages they sought; but the strident apologists for the excesses of modern architecture are taking the opportunity to denounce the presumptuousness of the heir to the throne – or anyone else on earth – in opposing their divine right to reduce Britain to a lunar landscape.

The architect Lord Rogers had proposed building, on the site of Chelsea Barracks, 640 steel-and-glass flats in 12 tower blocks, more than 118 feet high, blocking the light and requiring the demolition of the 1859 Garrison Church. The Prince was far from being alone in opposing this hideous project. Hundreds of residents lodged written objections and Kit Malthouse, the deputy mayor of London, denounced the project as “urban vandalism.”

“The current proposals by Candy and Candy are nothing short of urban vandalism,” said the deputy mayor last year. “Pavilions of glass and steel, they would not look out of place in Frankfurt or Shanghai, but in the heart of Chelsea, next to a Wren masterpiece, they look monstrous. What is wrong with stone, brick and slate? Why have we abandoned the classicism that served us well for centuries?” The answer to that is: because classicism is beautiful and elegant, which goes completely against the grain of modernist anti-aestheticism.

Modern architects are élitists possessed of gnosis, just like modern artists. To anyone of natural taste and discernment their products are grotesque: that view is sneered down by the cognoscenti as betraying lack of understanding and sophistication. It would be a brave man, at a dinner party in artistic circles, who would frankly proclaim the nakedness of these emperors. Their buildings and art are a reflection of the uninspired, godless fatuity of artistic endeavour over the past century, a period iconically initiated in 1918, on the demise of the cultivated old order in Europe, by the fetishisation of a urinal as a work of art. Tate Modern is a more repellent junkyard than Steptoe’s premises. But one must not say so.

The problem for modern architects is that real human beings are expected to live in the landscapes they have raped and within the ghastly buildings they have constructed. Empiricism has exposed their failure. Lord Rogers has never enjoyed quite the extravagant adulation lavished on Sir Basil Spence in his day: more recently, two of Spence’s tower-block monstrosities have been demolished by controlled explosions – arguably the most constructively artistic event of modern times.

The unforgivable offence committed by the Prince of Wales was to have challenged the right of the modernist architectural establishment to ravage our landscape; its sense of entitlement is comparable to that of climate alarmists – though, unfortunately, HRH is on the wrong side in that controversy. The Prince declared war on the architectural establishment as long ago as 1987, when he said in a speech at the Mansion House: “You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe. When it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble.”

Quite. There could be no more appropriate cause for our future King to embrace than saving at least a few corners of civilised architecture in our otherwise devastated urban environment, ravaged for too long by unopposed Brutalism.

A visual preference survey done in Bentonville AK:

http://www.bentonvillear.com/DocumentCenter/View/339/Downtown-Master-Plan-2007-PDF?bidId=

John Hooker

4/25/11 New Urbanist Listserve

…a survey of one modernist architect: Mies van de Rohe lived in a Victorian-era apartment building in Chicago that had a great view of his Lake Shore apartment buildings completed in 1951.

Adam Architecture Magazine

October 14, 2009

YouGov survey published this week suggests people prefer traditionally designed buildings

In a YouGov survey to determine whether the public prefers traditional or contemporary buildings, 77% of respondents who selected a design, from a choice of 4, chose traditional architecture over contemporary styles. Only 23% chose contemporary buildings. This is thought to be the first time that a survey has been conducted to find out the people’s preference in relation to non-residential buildings.

The YouGov survey asked 1042 respondents to select a preferred building from a choice of four, in answer to the question;

“Please imagine a new building is planned to be built near where you live. Four different designs are proposed. Please look at the designs below. Which one would you most like to be built near you?” The illustrations show new buildings of a similar height, size and orientation to the street.

Two of the buildings shown are highly regarded examples of a very contemporary style and two are traditional in design.

12% declined to make a choice, but of those who did 77% selected buildings numbered 2modernist vs traditional and 3 (see image) with just 23% preferring the contemporary buildings numbered 1 and 4 (see image).

Robert Adam, Director of ADAM Architecture, said of the YouGov result:

“This long overdue research by YouGov shows that individuals do have a strong view on the style of non-residential buildings in their area. This interesting result follows previous surveys which have consistently shown that traditional homes are more popular with the public.”

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