Betsky goes ballistic

CCTV tower in Beijing - known as

CCTV tower in Beijing – known as “Big Pants,” it seems intended to crush the people. (nytimes.com)

Let the establishment – in this case the New York Times – allow just a single peep against modern architecture, and its enforcers suffer total meltdown of equanimity. Aaron Betsky, the architecture critic for the journal of the American Institute of Architects, has gone ballistic in his reply, in Architect magazine, to the recent essay on the Times’s oped page by Steven Bingler and Martin Pedersen, headlined “How to Rebuild Architecture,” which merely opines that architects should try listening to the public, the ultimate users of architecture.

It is tempting to go through Betsky’s piece, “The New York Times Versus Architecture,” line by line to rebut all of his ridiculous assertions. But I will limit myself to his objections to what he seems to feel is Bingler and Pedersen’s most objectionable passage, which is this:

For millenniums, architects, artist and craftspeople — a surprisingly sophisticated set of collaborators, none of them conversant with architectural software — created buildings that resonated deeply across a wide spectrum of the population. They drew on myriad styles that had one thing in common: reliance on the physical laws and mathematical principles that undergird the fundamental elegance and practicality of the natural world. These creative resources transcend style. They not only have wide aesthetic appeal, but they’re also profoundly human, tied to our own DNA.

To which Betsky’s rebuttal is:

All I can say is: Wow. I do not know what fantasyland these authors live in that they imagine that for “millenniums” (“millennia?”) architects collaborated on making buildings that “resonated deeply.” In fact, the few pieces of architecture that we still treasure today, from the Pantheon to Palladio’s churches and villas to Chicago’s skyscrapers, were as startling, alien to their environment, and initially unpopular as most new monuments today. …

The rest of the paragraph is rendered largely incoherent by what I must assume is a succession of mental typos. But after that he continues:

The truth is that architecture is not made by or for “a wide spectrum of the population.” It is made for those who have the means to commission it, and reflects their values and priorities. If some architecture looks strange and is engaged in experimentation, it is because the only way architects have to make something that has a chance to escape from that affirmation of the social, economic, and political status quo is to make spaces that open up, forms that question or stretch our expectations, and buildings that build in delights, from amenities to visual pleasures, that the clients do not necessarily need — though they may desire them in the end. Beauty of a deep and satisfying kind is what good architects often have to sneak into commissions.

Bingler and Pedersen’s description of architecture through most of history is perfectly reasonable. Architects and builders collaborated with themselves, craftsmen and artists, and not least their own predecessors, to create a built environment that evolved according to stylistic and technological change, and was based on a vertical aesthetic that reflected human stature, and on proportions that (mathematically or intuitively) reflected an innate sense of the beautiful, a quality that was respected by almost all of mankind.

Betsky then states with consummate absurdity that “the few pieces of architecture that we still treasure today” – wow! – were “startling, alien to their environment, and initially unpopular.”

The few pieces of architecture we still treasure today!? Talk about fantasyland!

I think that assertion about the reaction to great traditional work (the Pantheon, Palladio, Chicago skyscrapers) is merely a lie that he assumes will not be contradicted anywhere his words are read. I doubt that anything on his short list was sufficiently “startling” or “alien” to cause the reactions he asserts. On the contrary, all of his examples suggest precisely how traditional architecture evolves, transcending style by embracing a longstanding set of classical principles that permitted architects and builders (using their genius or their pattern books) to produce work that, however creative, obeyed a sense of propriety that classicism was designed to promote, but which has been purposely jettisoned by the modernists.

In the continuation of Betsky’s response, he argues that architecture is not built for the public but for the clients of architects, and “reflects their values and priorities.” Given the result, as Bingler and Pedersen point out, the public has every reason to object. The more so if what he says about the values of clients is true. It may be argued that modern architecture does not reflect the values of clients but rather the values that architects imposed on clients decades ago. Or maybe modern architecture – sterile, wacky, foreboding, etc. – does reflect the values of clients. In that case it is clear that the values of clients have changed drastically since the ages when major buildings were put up by monarchs, captains of industry, the petit bourgeoisie, guildsmen, and the landlords of the small shopkeeper and the huddled masses living in tenements.

For no place in his crie de coeur does Betsky deny that modern architecture is disliked by much, indeed most, of the public – although he tries to suggest otherwise by focusing on the taste of 88-year-old grandmothers. Is it the oppressive vibes given off by so much modern architecture that offends? Or is it an intuitive suspicion by the public that the values of those who commission modern architecture are inimical to the public? Either way – and both interpretations can be valid, together or separately, in the mind of the individual or the mind of the public – supports Bingler and Pedersen’s contention that modern architecture does society a disservice by ignoring public taste.

Betsky continues, arguing that even if some modern architecture does look “strange” or “experimental,” that’s merely because only by pushing the envelope can architects design buildings that “escape” from the sin of affirming the “status quo.” Truly? And yet modern architecture is the “brand” of the status quo. Modern architecture bought into corporate gigantism back in the 1950s and has never looked back. Modernism is already decades into the program of latter-day colonialism that extends its reach around the world, crushing ancient cultures under the heel of modern architecture, no doubt to the enrichment of corrupt regimes and their toadies and the enragement of their downtrodden publics. Modern architecture is probably the most efficient recruiting poster for global terrorism in history.

Of his final notion that modern architects often must “sneak” beauty into their commissions, its risibility is beneath contempt.

I hope the New York Times understands that in running “How to Rebuild Architecture,” it has taken the first step in addressing an institutional prejudice (including its own) against traditional architecture that it would instinctively oppose were the perpetrators in any other field of human endeavor. Bravo! Let us see more such steps.

(I wrote a post called “Temper of the Times” on the Bingler/Pedersen piece the day after it appeared in the Times. It posited the sophistication of public taste.)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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9 Responses to Betsky goes ballistic

  1. Reblogged this on Architecture Here and There and commented:

    Since I have discovered the “reblog” key, here is a fun reblog:

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  2. Pingback: What do we want? Change! When do we want it? Now! » There are two types of architecture—good architecture, and the other kind

  3. mrouchell says:

    The assertion that all great works of architecture including the Pantheon and Palladio’s churches and villas were startling and alien to their environment, and unpopular then as today’s monuments are today is complete bunk. I would imagine that these buildings were awed and admired from the day they were completed onwards. As the Industrial Revolution came along, and new materials such as iron and steel changed there were probably some structures that seemed out of character, but not nearly so as today’s constructions. Then when the Modernist Movement came along, and all the familiar components of traditional architecture were tossed out in favor of ribbon windows that wrap corners, free plans, and skinny pilotis columns, there was even more shock. Now, that old school modernism is no longer shocking enough; architects now have to design weird blobs, walls that lean and tilt, columns that are all angled out of plumb, and buildings that look like they are in a state of collapse. All this to be more startling. The problem is that architecture today offers nothing else, just a startling form that one eventually gets accustomed to. The idea that architecture has to be startling and shocking is relatively new. it would be great if architects could go back to designing beautiful buildings that can be admired. Perhaps the title of this article is incorrect: “The New York Times vs. Architecture”? No, more like “The New York Times vs. Shockingly Ugly Modern Architecture.”

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  4. Carroll Westfall says:

    The NYT only put its toe in the healthy water of respect for our world and our humanity in this tepid but welcome piece. Note that while the NYT piece uses the word vernacular to refer to the framework for New Orleans’ buildings it does not use the word tradition. That is a bridge too far. Semes is half right: Betsky does exhibit the ignorance of architecture before Corb, but he the other half is Betsky’s insistence that the past can be seen only thorough the scrim of modernist ideology, and the fault for that lies in the profession and its agents in schools and the professional press and societies. The NYT did have the good sense earlier not to get a Muschamp replacement. Now, how do we nudge it farther toward sanity?

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  5. Steven Semes says:

    David, Aaron Betsky’s comments are the direct result of an architectural education system that teaches architectural history beginning with Le Corbusier. Total ignorance of the discipline before modernism and the conditions under which it arose and flourished in those places where it achieved its greatest work is the only explanation for the irrational outbursts that people like Betsky put forward as criticism. Your rebuttal is entirely correct, and you are likely also correct that within the establishment, no one will make any objection to such absurdities. At least we can say that defenders of the status quo like Betsky make it very clear what the problem is, and beautifully exemplify all that Bingler and Pedersen wrote.

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    • Thank you, Steve. I thought it totally strange that Betsky should contest the two authors’ description of how traditional architecture worked. Such a denial is not necessary to put forward an architectural philosophy such as modernism that breaks entirely with trad principles. I also thought it important to deal with an implicit criticism in his rebuttal, to the effect that the trads could build that way only because kings built everything, which you always hear, and which is not true. The degree of wealthy people and not so wealthy people with access to money was probably not very different then than it is now. Yet, when stated as the mods always do, it’s a powerful (albeit false) argument against the possibility of a return to very good traditional work.

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  6. You are our very own “David,” David, taking on the modern Goliaths of the Grotesque. Bravo! Bingler and Pedersen’s intrepid and brave NYT editorial thrilled me to the core. My only regret is that they were not more forthright in defending tradition as the one true path to enlightenment.
    Russell Versaci

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