Architecture and Evolution: VII. The Inevitable Failure of Modernism
Many have been writing about the failures of modern architecture ever since its inception in the early twentieth century amongst communist intellectuals. Not without reason - Modern architecture was and still is widely detested, as polls repeatedly show. One such poll, by the National Civic Art Society Survey, shows that 72% Americans prefer traditional or classical to buildings to modernist ones. Another pollshows that 76% of US favourite buildings are classical or otherwise traditional in style. A study of courthouse architecture in the US concluded that ‘The findings agree with consistent findings that architects likely misjudge public impressions of a design, and that most non-architects dislike “modern” design and have done so for almost a century.’
Breaking with the Past
Given what has been shown in the previous articles, this should not be surprising. After all, modernism rejects exactly that which we are evolved to enjoy.
One of the events that marks the beginning of modernism is the publication of architect Adolph Loos’s essay Ornament and Crime in 1913, in which he claimed that ‘Absence of ornament has brought the other arts to unsuspected heights.’ This resulted in the complete rejection of ornament by the modernists. Later, when modernism and socialism became heavily intertwined, the modernists cam to see ornament as ‘bourgeois’ and saw its destiny in the dustbin of history, together with capitalism.
The modernists sought a complete break with the past, which also lead to the rejection of symmetry. Symmetry was considered as obsolete as ornament. Along with the other evolved values of great architecture, it was be disposed of in the modernist revolt against tradition.
Even though symmetry can still be found in many modern buildings many years after modernism became dominant, it has never become a central value. It has always been a mere concession to the human eye, if such concessions are made at all.
Figure 7.1. A building designed by Frank Gehry, built between 2007 and 2010 at a cost of $100 million. Ironically, it currently houses the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, Nevada.
One of modernism’s most prominent architects, Walter Gropius, known to his disciples as the ‘Silver Prince’ and founder of the Bauhaus school (or cult, more accurately), also sought a complete break with the past. Everything the Bauhaus designed had to be completely novel. Citing Tom Wolfe, critic and historian of modernism and writer of the book From Bauhaus to Our House:
‘The young architects and artists who came to the Bauhaus to live and study and learn from the Silver Prince talked about “starting from zero.” One heard the phrase all the time: “starting from zero.” Gropius gave his backing to any experiment they cared to make, so long as it was in the name of a clean and pure future.’
Much of this resonated with revolutionary socialists, who sought a complete reorganisation of society. In their view, modernism served to recreate man, to reform humanity for the modern era. It has turned out the human species is not easily changed, if such change is possible at all.
Yet modern architects at the time were confident they could achieve this. The architect Adolf Behne confidently claimed in 1918:
‘It is not the crazy caprice of a poet that glass architecture will bring a new culture. It is a fact! New social welfare organizations, hospitals, inventions, or technical innovations and improvements – these will not bring a new culture– but glass architecture will. … Therefore, the European is right when he fears that glass architecture might become uncomfortable. Certainly, it will be so. And that is not its least advantage. For first of all the European must be wrenched out of his cosiness.’
By achieving this, they believed, a new mankind could arise, suitable for the socialist utopia that was to be built. As the proclamation of the Weimar Bauhaus stated:
Let us create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist. Together let us conceive and create the new building of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will rise one day toward heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith.
Proclamation of the Weimar Bauhaus, 1919
The Zeitgeist, or ‘Spirit of the Age’
Another idea popular at the time and still subscribed to today is that architecture expresses and must express the ‘spirit of the age’. This dogma has been difficult to eradicate.
Naturally, one can often infer ideological and cultural aspects from the built environment, since one can infer such things from anything. Ideology and culture play a role in what we eat, how we lead our romantic lives, what career we choose, how much we work and countless other life decisions. One can surely derive a thing or two from the built environment as well. One could, for example infer data about family planning from the number of bedrooms per home. Often, one can also learn about someone’s religious beliefs by looking at his interior.
This does not, however, imply that the asserted spirit of the age plays or should play any active role in the aesthetic design of buildings. This would be a deviation from the evolutionary process that occurs through aesthetic selection. It is thereby more likely than not to result in architecture that fails with respect to aesthetics.
Yet the ‘spirit of the age’ notion has been very popular, especially in modernism’s early days. Mies van der Rohe for instance, one of modernism’s eminent architects, spoke in 1926 of architecture being ‘the will of the epoch translated into space’.
By dictating that new buildings must express the zeitgeist, modern architects create an unsustainable cycle of constantly needing to break new ground, rather than relying on tried-and-true solutions from the past. This stifles purposeful aesthetic evolution and keeps architects from creating beautiful designs, because beautiful designs inevitably conform to any existing universal values for beauty. These have already been put into practice in the past and therefore cannot resemble any specific zeitgeist.
On the other hand, traditionalism can be understood as a dogma that proscribes the mindless copying of older cultural values and behaviours. Traditionalism therefore results in stagnation, but a complete rejection of the old risks disposing of what is still perfectly good for the present.
The ideal is, quite simply, somewhere in the middle. It is purposeful evolution, a process that rejects the bad whilst keeping and adopting the good. It welcomes creativity and change where this leads to aesthetic improvements. Evolution through aesthetic selection.
But this was never the intention of the modernists. Modernism completely broke with the past, thereby throwing out the child with the bathwater.
In faux-intellectual phrases fraught with arcane terms, modernist structures have been hailed as brilliant creations by modernist architects themselves and their ‘critics’. It has apparently been necessary to fool the public into viewing this as progress. The critical thinker easily sees that it is not. Modernism is nonsense, sold and taught at a high price by charlatan ‘starchitects’ to those who know even less about architecture and beauty than they themselves do.
That is not to say that all modern architects are charlatans. Most architects nowadays have merely received a modernist education and have thereby become victims of modernism as much as the general public is. Budding architects leave their academies with little to no knowledge of the science and importance of beauty, nor of architectural traditions that have evolved to create beauty.
A common objection to those who point out the evident aesthetic superiority of traditional architecture is that they would suffer from so-called ‘survivorship bias’. Back when the buildings we enjoy seeing were built, many others arose who have not survived to today because they were insufficiently beautiful. The ugly buildings have supposedly been demolished, leaving only the most brilliant works. First, this theory lacks any empirical basis. There is no evidence that only the most beautiful buildings were left standing. In fact, quite to the contrary, as the now forgotten mansions that used to stand along New York’s Central Park attest to.
Although the theory of survivorship bias seems plausible at first glance, empirical evidence points to the contrary. Besides, the reasoning behind it is flawed. The most beautiful houses were built where land was most expensive, which is where it was most profitable to build highrise modern buildings when this became possible. The more expensive the land, the more intensive its use. So the most beautiful buildings tended to be demolished, such as the mansions along Central Park, whilst the working-class neighbourhoods were left intact.
As explained in articles V and VI, we should not assume that innovation will always remain possible. If possibilities for innovation with respect to architectural proportions and forms such as columns, ceilings and ornaments are finite, virtually all that can be designed must have been designed at some point. As a result, the more innovations are made, the harder it becomes to innovate. Innovation will at some point scarcely be possible at all. Hence, those novelties that are hailed as innovations are likely to worsen, not improve the built environment.
However, there is a strong financial incentive for architects to seem innovative by posing as innovators, geniuses, philosophers or artists. It enables them to sell, at a premium of course, the illusion of buying an artistic specialty or even a masterpiece. But naturally one cannot pose as a genius or an innovator whilst drawing inspiration from other works or, God forbid, copying other architects’ designs.
The inevitable result of their constant ‘innovation’ is then, of course, ugliness. But an architect cannot sell his ‘innovations’ without convincing the buyer that they are nonetheless steps in the right direction. This in turn has lead to an entire class of architects engaging in constant intellectual posturing. Ever seeking to distinguish themselves, they devise new ‘movements’, i.e. new brands of nonsense such as ‘post-structuralism’, ‘deconstructivism’ and ‘parametricism’. To discern themselves from other architects, some architects have concocted the term ‘post-modernism’, which refers to a type of architecture that is not different from regular modernism in any relevant way as it still rejects evolution, symmetry and ornament. As Tom Wolfe put it in From Bauhaus to Our House:
‘And here we have Venturi and, for that matter, Post-Modern architecture, as it is now known, in general. Not for a moment did Venturi dispute the underlying assumptions of modern architecture: namely, that it was to be for the people; that it should be nonbourgeois and have no applied decoration; that there was a historical inevitability to the forms that should be used; and that the architect, from his vantage point inside the compound, would decide what was best for the people and what they inevitably should have.’
Figure 7.2. The post-modernist M2 building in Tokyo, Japan. Completed in 1991 and designed by architect Kengo Kuma.
It is irrelevant whether their ‘philosophies’ make sense or not, since architecture is not a suitable medium for conveying philosophical ideas at all. Conceptual architecture is therefore simply pure posturing. Those who wish to partake in the exchange of ideas should write a book or perhaps a blog post. Architecture is just as suitable as a medium for ideological expression as cooking is.
The architect striving to become a philosopher or artist through his work will become neither of the two. Instead, he will only he remembered, if at all, as a bad architect. One that damaged the aesthetic fabric of society.
The Conceptual versus the Subconscious
Historic architectural periods were defined by aesthetic developments, not ideological movements. The term ‘baroque’, for example, literally meaning 'imperfect', refers to a style of architecture that uses classical elements freely, experiments with and improves on them with the aim to create beauty. It is not related to manifestos and movements. Historical or more accurately ‘evolutionary’ styles, such as the baroque, art nouveau and (neo)classical, resulted from the constant evolution of try-and-test architecture designed to please the eye. They are adaptations to our aesthetic preferences, whereas modernism is by its nature maladaptive.
The adoption of the universal principles set out in chapter VI should therefore not be seen as an ideological movement against modernism. To the contrary, it would be the rejection of all ideology from architecture. Architecture should not be regarded as a medium for expressing one's ideology or for any pseudo-intellectual hot air, but an important public good as it was before the advent of modernism.
Architecture is a medium for beauty, and beauty exists solely in the subconscious part of our minds; it is intrinsically non-conceptual. Architecture is therefore not the right medium for conveying anything conceptual.
Modernism is the rejection of precisely what is necessary for beauty. Thereby it has not only failed at creating beauty in the past - It can never succeed at all. If society aims for beauty in the built environment, modern architecture must cease to be built and make place for evolutionary architecture. That is, maladaptive architecture must make place for adaptive architecture. As was once the norm, architecture must be optimised for the human viewer.
Let us therefore hope that architecture leaves this ideological age behind itself and that modernism is disposed of as soon as possible. May it find its end in the dustbin of history, amongst the other great intellectual, political and economic failures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
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The National Civic Art Society, Americans’ Preferred Architecture for Federal Building. October 2020, retrieved from https://www.civicart.org/americans-preferred-architecture-for-federal-buildings on 26 September 2021.
Nasa, Jack L., What Should Courthouses Look Like? Ohio, United States, 2020.
Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture, Thames & Hudson, 1980.
Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House, Picador, 1981.
U. Conrads and H.G. Sperlich, ‘Adolf Behne’, in The Architecture of Fantasy. Utopian Building and Planning in Modern Times, trans., ed. and expanded by C.C. Collins and G.R. Collins (1962), 133.
Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture, Thames & Hudson, 1980.