The Duel Over Modernism

Paul Rudolph’s  Orange County Government Center , prior to its partial demolition. Was it yet another victim of profound misunderstandings about architecture and beauty?  Photo by  Daniel Case

Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center, prior to its partial demolition. Was it yet another victim of profound misunderstandings about architecture and beauty?

Photo by Daniel Case

THE DEBATE

SETTING UP THE DUEL

Prospect is a monthly British magazine which covers a variety of topics and issues, from national & international news to the arts—and their authors (and the points-of-views expressed) are from across the spectrum. They recently sponsored a debate about the value and effect of Modern architecture—and Brutalist architecture in particular. The article is titled:

The Duel: Has Modern Architecture Ruined Britain?

And subtitled:

Our two contributors go head-to-head on the brutality—or not—of brutalism

And you can read the full article about the debate here.

The “duelists” are intelligent, well-informed, and articulate—and, at the on-line article’s end, there was even an opportunity for readers to vote on who “won.” We thought it would be good to bring this debate to your attention. It’s not long, and is well worth reading—and we do have a few comments on it (which we’ll address at the end).

THE DUELISTS

Barnabas Calder:

Dr. Calder is an architectural historian at the University of Liverpool School of Architecture. He has written books about the history of architecture and about the work of Modern architect Denys Lasdun, as well as many papers, chapters, and reports on architecture, design, and urbanism. In 2016 he published his Modernist manifesto, “Raw Concrete: A Field Guide to British Brutalism.” In a recent article in Garage magazine, he remarks “People used to laugh out loud when I told them I was studying 1960s concrete buildings. Part of the change is no doubt just passing time. As with haircuts, clothes, and glasses, tastes change and the previous fashion goes violently out of style for a while, then gets gleefully rediscovered by younger people a bit later.” And in an article in Wallpaper, he goes on to says of Brutalism, “It’s  still both misunderstood and wildly underestimated”… “the period produced masterpieces equal to anything else produced in architecture.” 

James Stevens Curl:

Dr. Curl is an architectural historian, architect, and prolific author. He is Professor at Ulster University’s School of Architecture and Design, and Professor Emeritus at de Montfort University, and was a visiting fellow at Peterhouse, Cambridge. He was awarded the President’s Medal of the British Academy, and is a member of the distinguished Art Workers’ Guild. Among his many books are: “English Architecture: An Illustrated Glossary”; “Classical  Architecture: An Introduction to Its Vocabulary and Essentials”; and the “Oxford Dictionary of Architecture”. Most recently, Oxford University Press published his in-depth study of Modernism: “Making Dystopia: “The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism”.

Book cover images: Amazon

POINTS (AND COUNTERPOINTS) FROM THE DEBATE

The debate was frank, and the speakers expressed themselves forcefully. Here are excerpts from some points each made—direct quotations from the two “duelists”:

Points that Modern architecture is ruining Britain

(Quotes from Dr. Curl):

  • Visitors to these islands who have eyes to see will observe that there is hardly a town or city that has not had its streets—and skyline—wrecked by insensitive, crude, post-1945 additions which ignore established geometries, urban grain, scale, materials, and emphases.

  • Such structures were designed by persons indoctrinated in schools of architecture… Harmony with what already exists has never been a consideration for them …  [They have] done everything possible to create buildings incompatible with anything that came before. It seems that the ability to destroy a townscape or a skyline was the only way they have been able to make their marks. Can anyone point to a town in Britain that has been improved aesthetically by modern buildings?

  • How has this catastrophe been allowed to happen? A series of totalitarian doctrinaires reduced the infinitely adaptable languages of real architecture to an impoverished vocabulary of monosyllabic grunts. Those individuals rejected the past so that everyone had to start from scratch, reinventing the wheel and confining their design clichés to a few banalities. Today … modern architecture is dominated by so-called “stars,” and becomes more bizarre, egotistical, unsettling, and expensive, ignoring contexts and proving stratospherically remote from the aspirations and needs of ordinary humanity. 

  • You use the old chestnut that because some new buildings were initially perceived as “shocking,” but accepted later, this applies equally to modernist ones. Studies refute this. Modernist buildings seriously degrade the environment by generating hostile responses in humans and damaging their health. I suggest you peep at Robert Gifford’s “The Consequences of Living in High-Rise Buildings” in Architectural Science Review….

  • Much modernist design denies gravity and sets out to create unease. You love concrete, with its black, weeping stains, its tendency to crack, its ability only to deteriorate and never age gracefully. Your bizarre judgments ignore obvious signs that reinforced concrete is not the answer to everything.

  • You cannot see (or admit) that the harmoniousness of our townscapes has suffered dreadfully since the universal embrace of modernism so there is nothing I can do to help you or other Brutalist enthusiasts. Your myopia explains why you fail to notice that members of the “British Brutalist Appreciation Society” are less numerous than are paying members of the Victorian Society.

  • You employ a cheap debating-point: you assume that anyone who criticizes inhuman non-architecture wants a return to Greco-Roman Classicism, which is untrue. … I argue for environments fit for ordinary human beings, which embrace elements that are an integral part of what remains of our once-rich cultural heritage. I am also fully aware of the massive propaganda and bullying in architectural “schools” that brainwash our young architects to embrace what is inhuman, repellent, and ugly. 

Points that Modern architecture isn’t ruining Britain

(Quotes from Dr. Calder):

  • You make sweeping criticisms against the architecture of recent decades—a lot of styles and ideas have come and gone since 1945. The term “modern” covers a lot of ground. But the truth is that all of your allegations were [once] levelled with equal justice at Victorian buildings.

  • Today’s skyscrapers also change the skyline, as you say. But so did medieval castles and churches, or Victorian town halls and stations. Like the high buildings of earlier centuries, tall office blocks map where the money and power lie. The City of London is aggressively commercial—as it always has been. The developers of the 20th and 21st centuries are no more ruthless than those of the 17th to 19th centuries. The great post-1945 regenerations, by contrast, aimed to improve the housing of ordinary people.

  • Appreciating any style requires an open mind; any language sounds like “grunts” until you listen. Architects trained since 1945 have received better history teaching than any earlier generation; the Barbican is the proud descendant of the great Victorian projects. It recasts London’s Georgian crescents and squares into exhilarating and livable new forms using the unparalleled structural capabilities of concrete. Had Vanbrugh, Soane or Scott worked in the 1960s, they would have been proud to produce anything as heart-liftingly sublime.

  • By what definition has Britain been “ruined” since 1945? The high tide of modernism in post-war Britain coincided with a steep and sustained rise in the population’s health, education and prosperity.

  • However, much though I admire the best buildings of the period, I would not ascribe this improvement to architectural aesthetics. I do not share your peculiar faith in the power of architectural style to ruin lives.

  • Can anyone truly believe that crime and suffering in Britain’s poorest areas is caused by an absence of classical columns, rather than working-class unemployment from de-industrialization? Does anyone really think that if the Barbican had been brick, not concrete, it would not have been caught up in the industrial action of the 1970s? Anyone who finds concrete “black” with dirt should compare it with the coal-black sandstones of Glasgow under Victorian soot.

  • As to whether modernism has the potential to pass into a period of new public appreciation, as Victorian architecture did in the 1960s-70s, its stock has been rising fast for at least the past decade.

  • Your angry dismissal of several decades of world architecture as an evil conspiracy is implausible. Your “overwhelming evidence” of the psychological damage done by the architecture you happen to dislike largely consists of methodologically problematic, politicized writings.

  • Personally, I like architecture best when it’s as sublimely overwhelming as Michelangelo, Hawksmoor or Ernö Goldfinger. However, modernism can also be pretty and harmonious, …. It can be courteously contextual street architecture....

  • Modern architecture can be symmetrically dignified like Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute, or thrillingly asymmetrical like Lasdun’s Royal College of Physicians. Recent architecture can be as curvaceous and hallucinatory as the Italian baroque (Paul Rudolph in Boston, MA, or Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim exterior) or as tightly-controlled and rhythmical as the German classicist Schinkel (anything by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe). Interiors can be cozy like Alvar Aalto’s houses, or grandly formal like Kahn’s Dhaka parliament. Perhaps the thing modernist buildings’ detractors find hardest to see is that they can be beautifully crafted, like the meticulous concrete-work of the National Theatre, carefully poured into hand-made wooden moulds.

  • I urge readers to enjoy what is good about any architecture. Frothing with fury at the sight of newer buildings is an unproductive use of emotional energy and serves only to impoverish the rich experience of our varied cityscapes. 

WHAT’S FAIR IS FAIR

We’ve tried, in the excerpts above, to give representative and approximately equal space to each speaker (as well as their biographies).

And now—offered in that same spirit of fairness—we have some comments:

  • If you’re iffy on the architectural value and long-term worth of concrete/Brutalist architecture, Dr. Calder’s book is “a way in” to understanding and—just as important—appreciating such designs as being true works of architectural merit (and art), as well as places that can nourish the human spirit. In his debate points, he exhorts us to stay open—and his book is the sort of design-meditation which helps us to look for poetry and humanity where we might not think it can be found.

  • On-the-other-hand, Dr. Curl’s recent book is a shocker. If you are on his “side” (and we would do well to remember Alex Comfort’s wisdom about sides: “… the flags are phony anyhow.”) then in Curl’s book will find confirmation of your inclinations, backed by in-depth research about the points he makes above. But even if you are opposed, you will find eye-opening historical information on the origins and sub-texts of Modernism.

  • It does no one any good to deny the faults and problems of Modern architecture—and this is particularly true when it comes to city planning (as distinct from individual buildings). While it can create some marvelous perspective drawings, the more than half-a-century of the “tower in the park” model of Le Corbusier shows how preponderantly unsuccessful it is—and sometimes a disaster. This is usually and especially so when the tenants (the “demographics”) of a project are not of a high-enough income level supply sufficent funds to building management, to allow the staff to maintain & manicure their buildings and districts.

  • But it is really unfair to impugn the motives of Modern designer and planners. Many were utterly sincere—sincerely idealistic!—that new approaches could yield better lives.

  • People today have no idea of the devastatingly inhuman conditions of pre-WWII cities, particularly in the working-class sections (and a reading of Jacob Riis’ book is illuminating on what citizens really had to live in and with.) So consider the case of Ludwig Hilberseimer: a teacher at the Bauhaus (who, after emigrating to the US, ended up working for Mies and teaching at IIT). Visions of rebuilt cities and mass-habitations, like those offered by Hilberseimer, may look weirdly dystopian—But: they were sincerely-offered proposals, trying to give ground-down citizens places that were clean, with light and air; and access to electricity, plumbing, and heating (services which we’d consider “basic” today, but which most city dwellers back then could only dream of). Hilberseimer’s vision, tho’ repugnantly reductive to our eyes today, was part of a sincere program to replace existing urban hells.

One of Ludwig Hilberseimer’s visions for the a reformed, rebuilt, efficient city.  Image: Drawing by Hilberseimer, from 1924.

One of Ludwig Hilberseimer’s visions for the a reformed, rebuilt, efficient city. Image: Drawing by Hilberseimer, from 1924.

  • It’s foolish to deny the beauty of some Modern works. We’re a particular fan of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye:

The Villa Savoye, in Poissy, on he outskirts of Paris. Design work was begun by Le Corbusier in 1928, and the building was completed in 1931. Source: Wikipedia

The Villa Savoye, in Poissy, on he outskirts of Paris. Design work was begun by Le Corbusier in 1928, and the building was completed in 1931. Source: Wikipedia

  • But, admittedly, that iconic house is an “object” in the landscape—and, yes, almost anything can look good in such an isolated sculpture-ish context. It’s much harder to do a successful building in the city, and even harder to create good urban spaces. Rudolph was aware of this, and called for urban vitality and variety, saying: 

“We desperately need to relearn the art of disposing our buildings to create different kinds of space: the quiet, enclosed, isolated, shaded space; the hustling, bustling space, pungent with vitality; the paved, dignified, vast, sumptuous, even awe-inspiring space; the mysterious space; the transition space which defines, separates, and yet joins juxtaposed spaces of contrasting character. We need sequences of space which arouse one’s curiosity, give a sense of anticipation, which beckon and impel us to rush forward to find that releasing space which dominates, which acts as a climax and magnet, and gives direction. Most important of all, we need those outer spaces which encourage social interaction.” 

  • We also have to be honest about acknowledging the problems of concrete construction—particularly exposed concrete. Curl and company are not “seeing things” when they report streaking, grayness, and an overall depressingly dingy look. But that is not true of all concrete construction—as many works of Rudolph and others show over-and-over. Moreover, the techniques to care for and repair concrete buildings are getting better-and-better.

  • The challenge is, when concrete is used, to use it with the mastery of those who make it luminous. There are ways to do that—but it takes knowledge (both in the drafting room and on the construction site), and it’s hard to transcend rock-bottom budgets.

  • When concrete is done well—and Rudolph’s Temple Street Garage in Boston comes to mind as a superb example—it is sculptural, moving, captures the light in wonderful ways, and is even sensuously textured:

Paul Rudolph’s Temple Street Garage, Boston. Photo: NCSU Library – Design Library Image Collection

Paul Rudolph’s Temple Street Garage, Boston. Photo: NCSU Library – Design Library Image Collection

  • Or it can be mindfully serene, as in much of Ando’s work:

Ando’s Benesse House, Japan. Photo: courtesy of Tadao Ando

Ando’s Benesse House, Japan. Photo: courtesy of Tadao Ando

  • Finally, we’ll quote from one of Rudolph’s former students, Robert A. M. Stern. When considering such seeming oppositions (as in this “duel”), he said:

“It is not a matter of Modern Architecture or Classical Architecture—but rather of Good Architecture and Bad Architecture!”

Do we have to condemn a whole architectural style or approach? The world, including its architectural history, is complex, messy, big—and terribly hard to classify or comprehensively judge. Who could? 

Better that we should develop and sharpen our ability to practice and make caring decisions—that’s the way to better architecture.

Paul Rudolph’s Pencils and Pens. Image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Paul Rudolph’s Pencils and Pens. Image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division